Knowing Scripture: Chapter 3 (cont)

Continued from the last post on hermeneutics:

The problem of metaphor

In John 10:9, Jesus says, “I am the door…” It is clear that He doesn’t have hinges instead of arms. But what about, “This is my body…” (Luke 22:19). Did the bread represent His body in a metaphorical way, or did it become His body in a real and literal way?

The medieval quadriga

The quadriga was the fourfold method of interpreting Scripture that had its roots very early in church history. This method examined the text for four meanings: literal, moral, allegorical and anagogical.

  • Literal sense: the plain and evident meaning
  • Moral sense: that which instructs men how to live
  • Allegorical sense: that which reveals the content of the faith
  • Anagogical sense: that which expresses future hope.

Sproul explains how a passage which mentioned Jerusalem was capable of 4 different meanings:

“The literal sense referred to the capital of Judea and the central sanctuary of the nation. The moral sense of Jerusalem is the soul of man (the ‘central sanctuary’ of man). The allegorical meaning of Jerusalem is the church (the centre of Christian community). The anagogical meaning is heaven (the final hope of future residence for the people of God)… If the Bible mentioned that someone went up to Jerusalem, it meant that they went to a real earthly city, or that their souls “went up” to a place of moral excellence, or that we should go to church or that we will someday go up to heaven.”

Luther protested against this method which had a tendency to produce fanciful interpretations. Scripture has a unified meaning, but its application can be rich and varied.

The grammatico-historical method

This method focuses not only on the literary form, but also upon the grammatical constructions and historical contexts out of which the Scriptures were written. Grammatical structure determines whether words are to be taken as questions, commands or declarations. For example, when Jesus says, “You shall be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8), is He making a prediction or issuing a command? The English form is unclear, but the Greek clearly eliminates the prediction option.

Paul says in Romans 1:1  that he is an apostle called to communicate “the gospel of God”. Does that mean the gospel about God, or the gospel from God that belongs to Him? The Greek structure points to the latter.

Historical analysis involves understanding the setting and situation in which the books of the Bible were written. Knowing who wrote a book, to whom, under what circumstances and at what period of history greatly reduces our difficulty in understanding it.

Source criticism

The gospel of Mark was the first to be written, and Matthew and Luke probably used it as a reference as they wrote. Further, both Luke and Matthew include certain information not contained in Mark. Further examination reveals that Luke has some material unique to his gospel, as does Matthew. By this we can discern the authors’ priorities and concerns in writing.

For example, Matthew has many more references to the OT than the other gospels because he was writing for a Jewish audience who had legal questions of Jesus’ claim to Messiahship.

Authorship and dating

Since language changes from one generation to the next and from one locality to another, it is important to precisely fix the place and date of a book. If we know who wrote a book and when they lived, we have a general time period in which the book could have been written.

Grammatical errors

The book of Revelation was written in coarse Greek and contains numerous ‘grammatical errors’. This has led some to attack the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture.

For Protestants, ‘inspiration’ never meant that the Holy Spirit dictated the words and writing style to be used. Inerrancy does not preclude grammatical errors either, but is used to indicate that the Scriptures never err with respect to the truth of what they’re proclaiming.


The three primary principles of interpretation serve as guidelines:

  • Analogy of faith keeps the whole Bible in view
  • The literal sense keeps our imagination from becoming too fanciful
  • The grammatico-historical method focuses our attention on the original meaning of the text.