History and Sources

How do Christians interpret the scriptures they consider uniquely theirs?

Christians believe the sacred texts collectively called the New Testament are divinely inspired, but composed by the human authors to whom tradition attributes them. Some take that a step further, insisting that divine inspiration consisted of a literal transmission from God through the author who communicated the message unaltered. Early Christian exegesis of the Hebrew scriptures had already moved beyond merely literal interpretation.

Though the literal meaning of the sacred text naturally remained the bedrock of exegesis, typological understandings of Jewish tradition soon developed into more specific varieties of figurative exegesis to be applied to the Greek as well as the Hebrew scriptures. Within a few generations of the death of the last people who actually lived during the time of Jesus, Christian literature gives evidence of what would eventually develop into the “literal” and the “spiritual” senses, the latter then branching into three types. Taken together, the four senses are the literal meaning (historia); the symbolic or figurative meaning (allegoria); the moral or ethical implication (tropologia); and the eschatological parallels—that is, what the text suggests about the goal of human life (anagogia). A simple but useful rhyme helps keep the four levels of meaning straight: what our forebears did (history), where our faith is hid (allegory), rules for daily life (tropology), where we end our strife (anagogy).

A good example of how major early Christian interpreters applied the four senses might be the four rivers of Paradise mentioned in Genesis 2:10-14. Their literal meaning is simply that of historical identity—the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers. On the figurative level, the rivers might symbolize the four Gospels, the divine revelation fanning out to all the world’s four directions. In addition, one might understand these four streams as the four cardinal virtues, prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. And finally, the earthly rivers have their heavenly counterparts in the Paradise awaiting true believers.


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