The Reformation: A Matter of Interpretation

Part One

The date was October 31, 1517.  A young Augustinian monk nailed a list of ninety-five points of disagreement with the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.  His name, of course, was Martin Luther.  Most people in the sphere of Christendom know his name.  However, the numbers are fewer of those who know exactly what he did, and why he did it.  Today, in honor of what God did through Martin Luther and the other reformers we are going to take a brief look at what is known as the Protestant Reformation.  To do that we will need to briefly examine the history of the Church up to Luther’s time.

Most people have the mistaken view that Luther was trying to cause a schism, or damage the Roman Catholic Church.  However, Luther’s main purpose was simply to start a discussion within the leadership of the Church to cause the hierarchy to return to the truth, and ultimate authority of Scripture.  By the time Luther arrived on the scene of Church history the Church, in particular the Roman Catholic Church had fallen into a state of disrepute among the common folk as the clergy displayed shamefully immoral lifestyles, abusive practices sanctioned by the Pope that were designed to defraud the common folk out of their money under the guise of such lofty ideas as saving dead relatives from purgatory, as well as other damning practices.  However, as one writer has pointed out, and Luther’s own words confirm, it was the doctrine of the Church itself to which Luther objected so vehemently.  In that writer’s estimation, Luther did not attack “the abuses of medieval Catholicism, but Catholicism itself as an abuse of the Gospel was the object of [Luther’s] onslaught.” (Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, 24)

The doctrines against which Luther argued were the result of the Church’s view of ultimate authority, which, in turn, was the result of the Church’s interpretation of Scripture.  The history of the development of their interpretive practice plays a key role in understanding what led Luther to response as he did.

A Brief History of Biblical Interpretation

It is obvious to us that the early Church understood Scripture in a normal manner.  In other words, they took Scripture at face value allowing the writer’s intended meaning to dictate how the reader understood what was written.  In doing so, the writers of the Greek Scriptures understood the prophetic passages concerning the kingdom as something yet future, and that it would be a kingdom on earth, in Israel, with the Messiah reigning on the throne of David.

Jesus presents the primary example of this.  For instance, in Matthew 19:28 Jesus, responding to Peter’s statement that the disciples had left all to follow Him, made the following proclamation:

And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (NASB95)

There is no mistaking that Jesus saw the kingdom as coming at a future time, and in a physical manner.  Jesus’ understanding of the OT prophecies is clearly a normal, literal rendering of what was written.  His reference to the “glorious throne” is a clear reference to the Davidic throne as described in 2 Samuel 7, which, by the way, is meant to be understood as the physical throne in Jerusalem.  The disciples clearly shared this type of normal, literal understanding of Scripture.  Paul carried this type of interpretation through his teaching as seen in Romans 11:25-27.  Likewise, John understood the kingdom to be a literal, physical kingdom in which believers will be “kingdom of priests,” who will “reign upon the earth” (Rev. 5:10).  It can be surmised, then, that this type of hermeneutic was what Jesus passed to His disciples, and in turn, they passed to the early Church.

As the Church progressed, two major schools arose during the early years.  Antioch holds a special place in the history of the church.  In Acts 11:22-26 we read about the founding of the church there.  Apparently, the gospel message had such an impact on the city that the news about the new converts had spread prompting the apostles in Jerusalem to send Barnabas to investigate.  In turn, he went to Tarsus, found Saul and brought him back to minister in Antioch.  It was there that the followers of “the way” were first called Christians.  It was also Paul’s launching pad for each of his missionary journeys.

Antioch picked up the torch of interpretation from the Apostles.  It was a church that had received the very best instruction, and learned how to interpret the Bible normally, in a literal manner.  Andy Woods has summed up well the importance of Antioch’s form of biblical interpretation:

… they stood for a literal interpretation of the Bible, including Bible prophecy.  And from the School of Antioch comes a theological system that we embrace here called pre-millennialism.  The word “millennium” is not found in the Scripture.  Where do we get this word “millennium” from?  It comes from Revelation 20:1-10 and what you have to understand is a lot of the terms we use today, like Trinity, millennium, they don’t come directly from the Bible; the concept is there but the term is not used in the Bible because it’s in church history Latin became the lingua franca of the day and so theologians began to develop these terms in Latin.  So mille in Latin means a thousand, and annum means years.  So the term millennium itself is Latin, it means a thousand years.

The importance of the Antiochan view of Scripture, those pertaining to the coming kingdom, has been clearly stated by one of their most prominent products, Justin Martyr.  Justin believed in the literal understanding of prophecy, and most vociferously defended its importance.  Justin said,

But I and whoever are at all points right-minded Christians know that there will be a resurrection of the dead a thousand years in Jerusalem which will then be built, adorned, enlarged as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and the others declare. And further, a certain man among us by the name of John predicted by revelation that was made to him that those who believe in our Christ would spend a thousand years in Jerusalem and thereafter the general of us. . . the eternal resurrection and judgement of all men would likewise take place. (emphasis added)

Clearly, we share the same understanding of the Scriptures that the school of Antioch had.  We take Scripture at face value without spiritualizing, or allegorizing.  However, Antioch was not the only school of thought where the interpretation of Scripture is concerned.

Alexandria, Egypt birthed the most influential school of biblical interpretation, which held sway until the time of the Reformation.  Alexandrian interpretation was developed after the pattern set by earlier Greek allegorical practices, which in turn had been passed down to Jewish interpreters the most influential of which was Philo.  Allegorical interpretation in Greece developed because their “philosophical and historical tradition could not accept much of the religious tradition as it lay in the written documents.” (Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd ed. Rev, 25) They developed allegorical interpretation to find meaning beyond the escapades of their mythical gods, whose behavior mirrored the immorality of the mortals over which they ruled.  The Jews of Alexandria, led by Philo, believed they too needed to allegorize their Hebrew Scriptures to relieve the tension between their Scriptures and Greek philosophical tradition, and readily accepted the practice as presented by the Greeks.  (Ibid., 26)

What is allegorical interpretation?  As stated previously, it is the attempt to find a hidden meaning beyond the literal.  By way of example, Philo, the Jewish allegorist, interprets the days of creation in a very interesting way.  For instance, Philo comments on Genesis 2:1, “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts.”

[Moses] says that neither the indivisible mind nor the particular sensations received perfection, but only ideas, one the idea of the mind, the other of sensation. And, speaking symbolically, he calls the mind heaven, since the natures which can only be comprehended by the intellect are in heaven. And sensation he calls earth, because it is sensation which has obtained a corporeal and some what earthy constitution. The ornaments of the mind are all the incorporeal things, which are perceptible only by the intellect. Those of sensation are the corporeal things, and everything in short which is perceptible by the external senses. (

Clearly, allegorical interpretation makes a mess of Scripture.  Bernard Ramm describes the main problem with allegorical interpretation:

The curse of the allegorical method is that it obscures the true meaning of the Word of God … The Bible treated allegorically becomes putty in the hand of the exegete. … The allegorical method puts a premium on the subjective and the doleful result is the obscuration of the Word of God. (Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd ed. rev., 30-31)

When the first Alexandrian church was born, the Christian community eventually accepted the same approach to biblical interpretation.  As Ramm asserts, “The allegorical method was [the Church’s] primary means of making the Old Testament a Christian document.” (Ibid., 29) Many famous names are associated with the development of allegorizing within the Church, but the most well-known, and influential is Augustine.

Augustine had begun as a chiliast, the name originally given to those who would be identified today as premillennialists.  However, because of his attraction to Neoplatonic philosophy, and what has been described as Gnostic dualism, Augustine believed the physical world to be evil, and the spiritual world to be inherently good.  This dualism is presented in his book, City of God, and formed the foundation for much of Catholic dogma.

To reconcile Scripture with such beliefs Augustine, in much the same manner as Greek philosophers and Philo, adopted the allegorical interpretation so prevalent in Alexandria.  The results have been far reaching, lasting, and somewhat devastating to the Church.  Renald Showers describes Augustine’s move from chiliast to spiritualizing the kingdom of God:

“The…factor in his change of view was the influence of Greek philosophy upon his thinking. Before his conversion Augustine was deeply immersed in the study of this philosophy, much of which asserted the inherent evil of the physical or material and the inherent goodness of the totally spiritual. This philosophy continued to leave it’s mark up on him even after his conversion. It prompted him to reject as carnal the pre-millennial idea of an earthly, political Kingdom of God with great material blessings. He believed that, in order for the Kingdom of God to be good, it must be spiritual in nature.” (John Ankerberg and Renald Showers, The Most Asked Prophecy Questions (Chattanooga, TN: ATRI, 2000), 326, quoted by Dr. Andy Woods in his sermon series “Protestant Reformation 001,” )

It should be stated again that Augustine’s influence in biblical interpretation, which resulted in his theological influence, had far reaching, lasting, and devastating results in the life of the Church.  In fact, a glaring result of his influence is seen in that period that has become known as the dark age, as well as the Middle Ages, Medieval Period.  Dr. Woods identifies the circumstances as the “Alexandrian eclipse,” meaning that Alexandrian allegorical interpretation held sway during these years.

Part Two

The Dark Age and the Medieval Period (c. 300-1517 AD)

Although literal, normal interpretation did exist during this period, the prevailing form of interpretation was that of allegorical, which was strictly employed by the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman church’s interpretive method is described well in the following:

…‘The literal sense is that which the author intends, but God being the Author, we may expect to find in Scripture a wealth of meaning.’ An example of how the fourfold sense was worked out during the Middle Ages is Gen. Gen. 1:3, ‘Let there be light.’ Medieval churchmen interpreted that sentence to mean (1) Historically and literally—An act of creation; (2) Morally—May we be mentally illumined by Christ; (3) Allegorically—Let Christ be love; and (4) Anagogically—May we be led by Christ to glory.13 (

Historian Earle Cairns identified Augustine’s importance to the Roman Catholic church in that “in his discussion of how man is saved, Augustine so emphasized the church as a visible institution with the true creed, sacraments, and ministry that the Roman church considers him the father of Roman ecclesiasticism.” (Christianity Through the Centuries, 142). The theology of the Roman church grew from their mishandling of Scripture, and Augustine’s theological writings.

Renald Showers has written about Augustine’s influence.

“Augustinian’s allegorical amillennialism became the official doctrine of the church.  Premillennialism, or chiliasm as it was taught for the first two centuries in Antioch, went underground.  Some aspects of premillennialism were even branded as heretical. The Roman Catholic Church strongly advocated and maintained Augustine’s amillennial view throughout the Middle Ages.” (Quoted by Dr. Woods,

In turn, this led to the adoption of what can only be called Replacement Theology, and the abandonment of Israel. Various other doctrinal errors grew from their mishandling of Scripture such as the superior position of the Pope, and the authority of the church itself. The Roman church basically became an oppressive institution that held the masses in the grip of fear while the clergy, even up to the Pope, lived morally depraved and lavish lifestyles. When Luther took his vow of poverty he shunned such a life, but seeing the abuses compared to his position helped to drive Luther’s desire to see the church reformed.

Luther, the Reformer

The purpose for Luther’s posting of his theses was not to cause a split in the Roman church, but to call the church to reform, and become more biblical. Amid his studies, Luther came to understand that Scripture must be understood in its literal sense. He wrote, “[The Scriptures] are to be retained in their simplest meaning whenever possible, and to be understood in their grammatical and literal sense unless the context plainly forbids.”  [Quoted by Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth (Colorado Springs, CO: Victor, 1991), 45.]

Elsewhere, Luther wrote a similar statement, “‘Each passage has one clear, definite, and true sense of its own.  All others are but doubtful and uncertain opinions.’” [quoted in Frederic W. Farrar, History of Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1961; reprint, 1886), 327.] Furthermore, Luther attempted to live by his own words. Luther stated, “I have grounded my preaching upon the literal word; he that pleases may follow me, he that will not may stay.’”  [Quoted in George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, 3 vols. (New York: Funk & Wagnall’s, 1884; reprint, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1952), 1:47]

Luther put his faith in Scripture to the point that when he was brought before the Council, the famous Diet of Worms, he refused to recant, making his most famous statement, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” (

For Luther, the necessity of not only providing the word of God to the common folk but also teaching them to interpret it led him to formulate rules for interpreting it. Another great Reformer, John Calvin, has been called the “founder of the grammatico-historical exegesis,” and was convinced that “[t]he Word of God is inexhaustible and applicable to all times, but there is a difference between explanation and application, and application must be consistent with explanation.” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, II:12)

Their adherence to a literal hermeneutic led to the conclusions to which Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Knox arrived. Their conclusions are known as the “five solas,” which is a term used to designate five great foundational rallying cries of the Protestant reformers. They are as follows: “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone); “Sola Gratia” (Grace Alone); “Sola Fide” (Faith Alone); “Solus Christus” (Christ Alone); and Soli Deo Gloria” (To God Alone Be Glory).” (

The website explains the “five solas” very well. [They] “were developed in response to specific perversions of the truth that were taught by the corrupt Roman Catholic Church.” The Catholic Church taught that tradition, the declarations of the Pope, and the official doctrines of the Church formed the foundation for faith. The Reformers declared sola scriptura, Scripture alone. Sola gratia, grace alone, was the answer of the Reformers to the Catholic Church’s assertion that salvation was grace plus our merit, and the merits of the saints before us. The Reformers argued that faith alone saves in opposition to the Catholic Church’s teaching that salvation is by faith and works. Catholicism taught that we are saved by Christ’s merits as well as those of the saints, but the Reformers insisted that we are saved by the merits of Christ alone. Finally, the Reformers refused to allow anyone other than God alone to receive the glory through Jesus Christ. His glory will not be shared with Mary, the saints, or anyone else.

These are the great treasures recovered by the Reformers. And all of them stem from the recovery of the literal interpretation stemming back to the disciples, Apostles, and the school of Antioch. However, the story doesn’t end there because the Reformers did not consistently apply literal interpretation to the prophetic Scripture.

Dispensationalism is the product of the consistent application of the interpretive method reasserted by the Reformers.

Part Three

Dispensationalism: Product of Consistent Application of Reformation Hermeneutic

One important thing that the Reformers lacked was the consistent application of their own hermeneutic principles.  When this is said, it must be noted that it is a blanket statement with many exceptions.  However, the negative influence of Augustinian theology was felt in several ways one of the most obvious in their overwhelming adoption of Augustine’s amillennialism; the thought behind an already not yet view of a spiritual kingdom.  It is an example of how many of the Reformers didn’t abandon allegorical interpretation completely, but applied it to prophetic Scriptures.  For instance, in discussing Israel’s restoration following exile in Babylon, Francis Turretin (1623-1687) wrote, “…the expressions are not to be pressed literally because they are symbolical, not proper; typical, not literal; to be explained spiritually and not carnally.  Israel is to be restored, not according to the flesh and letter, but according to the promise and spirit (Rom. 9); the holy city, not Jerusalem, but the church.”  (Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 2:163, quoted in Barry Horner, Future Israel, 159)

Yet, there was a very positive aspect of the whole period in that there arose after the Reformers several men who more consistently applied their literal hermeneutic.  These men helped to develop the theological system that we know as Dispensationalism.

The weight of the preceding statements needs to be understood.  Dispensationalism didn’t start as a system, but developed out of an examination of Scripture employing the literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic that John Calvin was known for, and on which Luther so heavily relied.  As discussed previously Premillennialism existed from the earliest days of the infant Church beginning with the Apostles’ teaching and up to the eclipse of the Alexandrian school.

Dr. William Watson has completed extensive research detailing how seventeenth and eighteenth-century apocalypticism reflected the literal interpretation that arose from the Reformation.  His research resulted in a book detailing numerous expressions of premillennial views of the churchmen and theologians of the sixteen and seventeen-hundreds.  Such great men as John Gill (1697-1771), Increase Mather (1639-1723), and his son Cotton Mather (1663-1728), as well as many others, were premillennialists took at face value the prophetic passages dealing with Israel and the end times.  Later, great names like J.C. Ryle (1816-1900), and James Hall Brookes (1837-1897) reached the same conclusions.

The most well-known names associated with Dispensationalism, of course, are J.N. Darby (1800-1882), Sir Robert Anderson (1841-1918), C.I. Scofield (1843-1921), and Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952).  Though Darby came on the scene some three hundred years after the Reformation, the seeds of Dispensationalism preceded him by hundreds of years, a fact well borne out in Watson’s book, Dispensationalism Before Darby.

It cannot be overemphasized that Dispensationalism is the product of the consistent use of the interpretive method rediscovered during the Reformation.  As the aforementioned men, and others exercised the correct hermeneutic eventually the essentials of Dispensationalism were realized.  First, based on the literal grammatical hermeneutic, the eternal distinction between Israel and the Church was reintroduced to the Church.  Secondly, it was discovered, or rediscovered, that the ultimate purpose of God is to bring glory to Himself.  The second point is understood by a simple study of verses like Ephesians 1:6, 12, and 14.

Ephesians 1:5-6

He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

Ephesians 1:11–12

[A]lso we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory.

Ephesians 1:13–14

In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s ownpossession, to the praise of His glory.


We praise God for His providential guidance in leading men like Wycliffe, Luther, and Calvin.  The Reformation that was brewing under the surface, and was launched in earnest by Luther’s 95 Theses rescued the Church from its Babylonian captivity, as Luther called it.

Although we hold Luther in high regard, as well as Calvin, Zwingli, Knox and others, the praise ultimately goes to our Heavenly Father.  Jesus Christ said that upon the testimony of the gospel message He would build His Church.  What we can see in studying the Reformation is how Jesus Christ protected His Church from the false doctrine of Roman Catholicism.

The Lord reintroduced the proper interpretation of His word so that His people could understand His message to us.  All praise, honor, and glory belong to Him.

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