A History of the Interpretation of the Bible and Swedenborg
Covenant 1.3 (1992): 20167.
and Purpose of Exegesis
Methods of Interpretation
History of Exegesis in General
The Early Period
The Medieval Period
The Renaissance and Reformation
The Modern Period
Swedenborg and the History and Function of Exegesis
Exegesis and the History of the New Church
Recently I received an advertisement in the mail for a videotape called "Paradise Lost" (distributed by Films for the Humanities, Inc., of Princeton, NJ). In it were written these words: "What has happened to the Bible in the last few hundred years, when it became Everyman's possession—and lost its sacredness?" Even though this is a ploy to catch the interest of potential buyers, it is an important question which warrants consideration.
The Bible has been studied and interpreted since it was written, and the combination of the Bible and its interpretation has been at times the single foundation of western civilization and at other times one of its foundations. We live in an age when that foundation is strongly touted by some Jews and Christians, questioned and weakened by others, and ignored by most. At the same time it is attacked by those outside Judaism and Christianity, primarily by former Jews and Christians. The role the Bible and its interpretations have played requires attention if we are to appreciate that role, if we are to gain a greater understanding of the force of religion in society, and if we are to foresee the future of that role.
Definition and Purpose of Exegesis top
Exegesis, the more precise term for biblical interpretation, literally means "a leading out" or the act of pulling meaning out of a text that is not readily seen. It is a manner of explanation which follows a discipline or systematic way of interpretation. An interpreter applies this discipline to achieve certain goals. He wants to gain a greater appreciation for the context of the text, including authorship, historical framework, and the social, cultural and economic factors that affected it. He wants to understand what the text meant to the original audience or readership. And he wants to learn what the purpose of the text waswhy the author expressed the message and why he did so in the way he did.1 He uses ". . . a disciplined interrogation of . . . sources to secure a maximal amount of verified information."2
An exegete or interpreter is concerned more about what the text meant in its original setting than what it has meant for any other group of readers including those of his contemporary age. He is also concerned with what the text might mean to his age, but only in its original meaning. He avoids putting an interpretation onto a text (eisegesis) that fits the social, economic, political or doctrinal desires of himself and his time. He wants the text to speak for itself to whomever will listen. He believes that without proper exegesis the text does not communicate to any age because there is a lack of understanding of its message.3
It is essential to recognize the difference between the cultural and historical settings of the Bible and those of the reader's own world. That difference can prevent and has prevented a correct understanding of what the Bible says. It is also important to recognize that every reader takes into his reading of the Bible religious attitudes and thoughts which bias him and which usually lead him to a misunderstanding of a text's message.4 An interpreter's task, therefore, includes pointing out these potential problems to his reader in order to prepare him to understand the Bible for himself better than before.
An exegete must consider the following items with regard to a text: its source; its receivers; its contexts; the type of its communication (purpose and form); and the complexity of its message.5 The number of these considerations, the difficulty in discovering them, and the presence of several common factors (e.g., textual variations and unfamiliar language) make the task of exegesis extremely difficult. Added to these is the matter of sacredness as a special factor, for the understanding of a text is affected by whether the exegete considers the text sacred or not and by whether the reader considers it sacred or not. Both the interpreter and his reader need to recognize each other's opinions on this matter and to allow the other his opinion.
Exegesis is both an art and a science in that it requires imagination and creativity as well as disciplined methods, for without both the questions are not penetrating and the answers less valuable.6 But of the two, the science receives the greater amount of attention.
Methods of Interpretation top
As has every discipline, exegesis has its own tools, methods and findings which not only make it a discipline, but which also distinguish it from every other discipline. Of these three the most important for a reader to know is the methods, for a reader does not need to know what lexicons an interpreter uses, but the more he knows about his methods, the more he can appreciate what is discovered.
An exegete's work usually leads him to more than a single meaning for every text has different aspects, and so he must use one method to concentrate on one aspect at a time.7 He values every method which works and his conclusions are drawn from the collation of the results of each method. First he analyses, or breaks into pieces, the text before him and applies the appropriate methods. Then he synthesizes, or puts back together, the results of his analysis.
As is the case with every worker, an interpreter invents and develops his tools to fit new needs as they arise. The desire to interpret the Bible has always existed, and so interpretation has always existed, but the methods and the manner of interpretation have changed over the centuries.8
Each method is a criticism in that it leads in a controlled manner to some judgment. A criticism is a field of study with defined principles and techniques which leads to valid conclusions.9 There is textual criticism whose task is to establish the text that is to be studied as it was originally composed. Historical criticism determines the period, locale and author of the text, and it includes history, geography and cultural studies. It is concerned with a text's context. Grammatical criticism examines the language of the text and how it is used to convey the message. Literary criticism looks at the composition and the style of a text and does so with a view to its literary whole, trying to see how it fits into that whole. Form criticism determines the literary genre or form of the text, knowing that the message and its form are intertwined. It also searches for the original setting of that text. Tradition criticism tries to discover the stages of the composition of a text from its original form to the form it took in the completed Bible. Redaction criticism also looks at this development, but it focuses on how the text's author and/or editors intended it to function as authority for his or their times.10
Critical scholarship enables and supports exegesis in that it helps an exegete to establish objectivity and it helps to bring the exegete into intimate contact with the text's message.11 It also joins with theology and with other fields to produce interpretations worthy of consideration by all people interested in the Bible and its impact on western society.12
History of Exegesis in General top
The claim has been made that the more a person appreciates how the Bible is studied by others, the more he can understand the Bible itself, and that to gain this appreciation of the study of the Bible he needs to understand the history of that study.13 In my study of the history of exegesis I have been impressed with the desire of every age to understand the Bible and with the efforts of some individuals who made major contributions in exegesis itself and in terms of discoveries. It is my belief that from a study of the history of exegesis one may gain a sight of Divine providenceof God reaching out to the human race in the endeavor of humans to understand His Word. The Heavenly Doctrines state that the Lord Jesus Christ raised up and guided the Masoretes in the sixth to twelfth centuries to protect the text of the Old Testament (Doctrine of the Word 13; Last Judgment 41; and Divine Providence 260:3). They also state that the Lord inspired Luther and provided for the Reformation in order that the Word could be made available to the people (Doctrine of the Word 110; Invitation to the New Church 24; and Apocalypse Explained 1069). Although Swedenborg tells us nothing about the history of exegesis, it is reasonable to believe that the Lord was also guiding the interpreters as He was the textual experts and the theologians.
Exegesis has been employed since the beginning of both Judaism and Christianity in the effort to understand the Scriptures.14 This study has always been critical in the true sense (making biblical criticism ancient and not modern).15 And there has always been major differences of opinion and often controversy. This has been especially true in three periods: the early centuries of Christianity and Judaism; the Reformation; and the last three centuries.16 These three periods are the main periods of exegesis, each with its own particular interests, characteristics and methods.17 What distinguishes the periods has been primarily the different use of history in exegesis, or historical criticism. The early church used history in a very limited way and the exegetes used it only slightly more in the medieval period. In reaction to the growing concern for the literal meaning in the late medieval period exegetes turned strongly to the use of historical criticism begun in the Renaissance. In the modern period historical criticism is the most dominant method and the other criticisms for the most part rely on it.18
The Early Period top
Students of the Bible in the early centuries of Judaism and Christianity were interested in the authorship, the time setting, and the purposes of the biblical books. Both Jews and Christians believed that ultimately God was the author of the books and that He wrote them through human agency. The Bible was Divine revelation with Divine authority, and yet humans played a role in its presentation. In general, the more a community of Jews or Christians accepted the full Divinity of the Bible, the less it scrutinized it, and the more the community accepted human involvement in the production of the Bible, the more it examined the Bible in the hope of understanding it more. The former community decided that God had revealed all that He wanted to, and that to pursue hidden meanings meant blasphemy. (This difference has prevailed in Judaism and Christianity to this day, marking a major distinction between what is called conservative and liberal Judaism and Christianity.) Because the majority of Jewish and Christian communities belonged to the second category, exegesis was strong in them.
Among those who accepted exegesis arose the question of authority. They asked to what extent the interpretations were Divinely ordained and given. The strong conclusion was that no interpretation was valid or beneficial unless God was its source, and since interpretations seemed valid and demonstrated benefit to the communities, exegesis was accepted as a Divinely inspired activity. It was assumed that ". . . the faith and practices of the communities were identical with, a reflection of, or a logical consequence of biblical materials."19
It is apparent to modern scholars, however, that the early period of exegesis was filled with dogmatic criticism.20 Both Jews and Christians viewed the Bible according to their own established doctrines. As one scholar put it, "What the text `said' and `meant' when properly understood was, of course, expected to agree with the orthodox faith. . . ."21 The theological understanding of humans became the standard by which exegetical practices and conclusions were measured.
In general the Scriptures were accepted in one of three ways by the various communities.22 Some communities accepted them as primarily eschatological predictions of the end of the age (e.g., Hebrew eschatology in the Qumran community and Christian eschatology in various smaller communities in the eastern Mediterranean which emphasized the book of Revelation). Other communities accepted the Scriptures as the presentation of Divine laws for the guidance of a pure life (e.g., the Sadducees). Increasingly more and more communities accepted the third position, that the Scriptures were allegorical accounts or texts with hidden meanings. It is in this third category that exegesis sprang up and developed.
Exegesis began with textual criticism for very early in the formation of the Bible problems were seen in various texts (e.g., I Sam. 13:1). Problems were also seen with how certain passages should be understood (as in the same passage), but the students decided to deal with the textual problems first. This was done partly because interpretation is based on an established text and partly because it was a more objective operation and so less likely to produce blasphemy. Criteria as to how problems in the text should be noted were established early, namely contradictions with other passages and contradictions with common sense (the latter being the foundation of the reliance on reason as a major requisite for exegesis in much later times).23
The major textual issue facing Christian students was how the New Testament used Old Testament quotations. For the most part the New Testament does not present an exact quotation, and so the question arises: Which passage is "correct?" That is, does the original Old Testament passage have full Divine authority, or does the New Testament passage? This question was answered differently, but in general Christian students accepted the New Testament form as corrective and therefore correct. But enough doubt persisted that Origen (185245 C.E.) and others felt compelled to offer Bibles with various texts and translations to insure the presence of Divinity in the Biblical text as well as to offer students reliable texts.
The most perplexing issue had to do with the passages which had problems of text or of meaning. The theological position in the early Church was that everything in the Bible was Divine, including the apparent difficulties, such as variant textual readings and contradictions of teachings (e.g., God is angry and is never angry). Should the Christian accept the possibility that God could make a mistake or that He would allow a mistake to be made? Is that Christian allowed to "tamper" with the text and its message to correct the mistake? And if he does change the text or the meaning, is he profaning God's Word and therefore is he doomed to hell? This is why the allegorical position became increasingly popular as the problems increasingly were noted and discussed. Its basis was that God Himself has challenged the faithful to test their faith by searching for what is correct and that God Himself would guide them in their search. The responsibility became God's.
Still, students wanted to avoid profanation, and to give security to exegetes certain methods and rules were established by which legitimate exegesis was to be done. For example, among the Jewish students Hillel established seven rules in the first century of the era common to both Christians and Jews (C.E.) and Ishmael established thirteen in the second century, and these were accepted by Jewish exegetes because of their belief that both men were Divinely inspired in their theology and other activities.24
It is believed that the reason the allegorical position began among Christians was because of Paul's statement in II Corinthians 3:6 where it is stated, ". . . for the letter kills, and the Spirit gives life." Several students, most notably Origen, used the analogy of human life in explaining the presence of a deeper, hidden meaning in the Bible. Just as a person has a body, soul and spirit [their terms], so too does a text have a literal meaning, a moral meaning, and a mystical or allegorical meaning.25
Therefore, all texts could have a deeper meaning, and students searched for this meaning in the light of their own theological positions. This activity produced disagreements among students and communities, for there was no objective and established way of determining correctness. This in turn led to division. Some students even went as far as to say that when a text did not agree with their established doctrine, it had no valid bodily or literal sense at all.26 They then were entitled to ignore it. On the other hand, most students believed that they could not offer a higher meaning which opposed the literal meaning of the text.27
In addition to Paul's statement there were other contributors to the allegorical position among Christians.28 Greek scholarship had for a long time examined and interpreted the Greek myths allegorically. Philo and other Jews, especially in Alexandria, had taken this Greek method and had fruitfully applied it to the Old Testament. Philo (ca. 20 B.C.E. 50 C.E.) had become aware that some contemporary Jews had doubted the historicity of their Bible, and he wanted to keep them and others from rejecting the Bible in the age of Hellenistic humanism.29 Rabbinic exegesis on the way to the formation of the Talmud also contributed, for it too was influenced by the Greeks. Finally, a growing desire to accept Jesus's parables and other figurative passages as literally true spurred on the desire to find allegorical meanings as a more correct way to understand these passages.
Because attention was given to the hidden meanings of the Bible, scholars did not turn to history in any great measure. Some individuals did, however, use history as a part of literary criticism, for this was how scholars of other documents usually used history.30 Origen questioned Paul's authorship of Hebrews because of its style. Dionysius of Alexandria felt that for the same reason the author of Revelation was not the author of the Gospel according to John.31 Geography was an integral part of history in this early period, and it was used by some in their study of the Bible. The most noteworthy of these was Eusebius of Caesarea who tried to locate the places mentioned in the Bible.32
The allegorical position triumphed by the fourth century. It was common for students at this time to offer four levels of meaning, not three. This can be seen in the following interpretation of Jerusalem in Galatians 4 by the Monk John Cassian (360435): 1) a city in Palestine; 2) the church of Christ; 3) the human soul; and 4) the heavenly city of God.33 This position lasted for centuries. But earlier than the Christians, and probably influential to them, was the Jewish acceptance of four levels of meaning. They developed an exegetical procedure which they called PRDS (pardes) in an acronym: peshet = plain meaning; remez = allegorical; derash = homiletical; and sod = mystical or secret.34
In spite of the triumph of the allegorical position there was opposition to it. Most of the opposition arose out of jealousy, especially between two of the greatest Christian centers. Alexandria from the beginning had been the center of allegorical interpretation, having been influenced by both Greek scholars and by Philo there. Antioch had always been its chief rival in Christian scholarship, and so, as Alexandria's exegesis was increasing in influence among most Christians, Antioch attacked the very foundation of exegesis. Antioch increasingly touted literalism, stating that allegorization was human and unreliable, and that for it to have any value it must be solidly based on the literal sense of the text. The literal meaning was the only reliable meaning, where God's presence was assured.35 Outside of Antioch individual opposition also arose, most notably Marcion (flourished early second century). His major thrust was with regard to the Old Testament which he rejected as of any value for Christians, and therefore it should not be allegorized into having meaning for them.36
Jerome (331420) took a position between Alexandria's and Antioch's. He was the greatest Christian scholar in Hebrew in the early Church. He used his knowledge to examine the text, to translate the Old Testament into Latin, and to draw out meaning in his commentaries and treatises. It is clear in these that he felt more comfortable with the literal sense, but at the same time he obviously accepted the presence of deeper meanings.
Augustine (354430) was also affected by both positions. He felt that interpretation was needed in at least certain passages (e.g., the six days of creation). But he also tried to explain why certain difficult passages could be literally true (e.g., he used the presence of very tall women in Rome to support the idea of giants in the Bible).37 Augustine's explanations are no longer accepted, but his methods are.38 He recognized problems and he offered solutions to them by comparing passages, by using textual criticism to establish reliable texts, and by using secular evidence or reason.
It is important to note here that there were scholars inside and outside Christianity who used reason to refute Christian exegesis. Celsus in the second century and Porphyry in the third attacked Christianity by attacking its reliance on the Bible which they attempted to demonstrate was a secular work filled with inconsistencies and errors.39 Apelles and Julius Africanus were Christians in the second century who attacked the established Church for the same reasons, using reason from observation as their weapon.40 Although reason was increasingly used, in the early period of exegesis it was subordinate to faith. But used it was, and it arose in later periods to challenge faith and to greatly affect exegesis.
It was not reason that brought the early period of exegesis to an end, however. Rather it was the increasing suspicion of faith with regard to reason which did, along with other factors.41 Classical Greek education declined after the second century, and with it declined criticism as a pursuit. Also, with its decline the source of training and inspiring exegetes was removed from Christianity. There was a growing suspicion of criticism's negativity with regard to the Bible and religion. The canon of the Bible had been closed, and with it one reason to practice exegesis was lost, namely the determination of which books belonged in the Bible as Divinely authoritative. And finally, the exegetes were going beyond the boundary of sense as they increasingly ignored the literal meaning of texts in favor of their own speculations. This increasingly upset the majority of Christians.
The Medieval Period top
In spite of this opposition and the waning of the allegorical position, for centuries Christian students believed the Bible to have the four levels of meaning: the literal, the doctrinal, the mystical and the ethical.42 Jewish students held onto their same four categories. This was simply the accepted idea, and the standard practice of the Medieval Period for the exegete was to discover those four levels. Its practice can be seen in the following medieval poem:
The letter shows us what God and our fathers did;
The allegory shows us where our faith is hid;
The moral meaning gives us rules of daily life;
The allegory shows us where we end our strife.43
The two main areas in which medieval biblical scholars spent their time and made their greatest contributions were the disciplined study of Hebrew, especially in Spain, and the production of commentaries which used grammatical insights.44 Both of these directly led to modern critical goals and methods. Exegetes occasionally suggested textual emendations and offered critical evaluations of various documents having to do with their authorship or source, and the like.
On the other hand, in spite of the efforts by both Jewish and Christian exegetes to find hidden meanings, their attempts led them more and more to an emphasis on the literal meaning. The attention given to the lowest level of meaning was not an attempt to refute traditional exegesis, but rather to offer material not commonly known at that time.45
Jewish scholars made more active efforts than Christian scholars because of the increasing strength of the Catholic Church and its desire to secure a single doctrinal position. Exegesis was seen as a possible means to upset that goal. There was no corresponding situation within Judaism, and so its students were more free to study as they wished.
The greatest Jewish scholar in just about all areas of Medieval scholarship was Maimonides (11381204). He marked a major change in biblical study. He was a noted philosopher and physician raised in Moorish Spain who spent most of his adult life in Egypt. He was exposed to the scientific and philosophical thought of his day, and he was greatly influenced by Aristotle. He accepted Aristotle's explanation of the world and God's role in it. He argued against the usual method of using the Bible. "Maimonides was impatient with religious apologists, including Christians, who began their speculations not with the world as it actually was, but with propositions derived from their investigation, and framed so as to reconcile reality with religious beliefs."46 He thought that philosophical and scientific explanations were superior to religious doctrine in the interpretation of biblical texts. He did not feel that such explanations opposed the Bible. In short, his greatest contribution to the history of exegesis was his refutation of doctrinal bias in the examination of the Bible. He felt that the Bible could be better understood by a critical examination of it, and that that understanding should be the basis of doctrine, and not the other way around. To Maimonides truth was single, and it should be searched for wherever it may be foundin nature as well as in the Bible, and in the examination of both.47 This truth should always be so valued that in no way should it be tampered with. The pursuit of truth should be honest so that the integrity of truth might not be damaged.
Maimonides tried to explain the literal meaning of the Bible. This had two results. It placed attention on the lowest of the four meanings, and yet at the same time it emphasized a critical study of it and not the simple acceptance of what the text described or stated. In this he opposed the contemporary Christian practice of explaining away problems in the literal meaning which opposed Catholic doctrine or which appeared to be inexplicable. And his opposition led to the Protestant view in the subsequent period that the literal meaning of the Bible could be and should be better understood by the critical study of it.48
Turning now to Christian exegesis in the Medieval Period the following generalizations have been made in addition to the continued acceptance of four levels of meaning.49 Christian scholars continued to accept the moral value of the Old Testament, but they increasingly saw the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, using the latter to interpret the former. It was believed that God as the author of both revelations had the New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament in mind when He inspired it. Consequently, the Old Testament prefigured the New Testament and could be used accordingly. In short, the New Testament was the real meaning of the Old Testament and the Old Testament was about the New Testament, looking toward it.
As the Medieval Period progressed Christian scholars also increasingly strove to expound the literal meaning. This was encouraged by scholastic theology or scholasticism. Like Maimonides, most biblical scholars of the later Medieval Period were influenced by science and philosophy. This influence is what led to scholasticism, and it in turn greatly affected Christianity. "Scholasticism utilized philosophical perspectives and rationalistic approaches in conducting its theological system."50 Reason increasingly became an accepted criterion for the proper examination of the Bible until it became the most important criterion in later exegesis. It also led to natural theology, the strongest form of theology in the latest stage of the Medieval Period and into the next. The value of this development was in the reliance on objectivity. In all of this, the freedom of Jewish scholars like Maimonides appealed to their Christian counterparts, and the result was increasing freedom from dogmatic restrictions.
For illustrations of this we can turn to Paris. Instructors in the Abbey of St. Victor during the twelfth century stressed geography, history and science as means for gaining an understanding of Scripture.51 Hebrew was a necessity for every form of religious scholarship, including Christian theology. And the literal meaning must be heeded whether or not one also searched for other meanings. Nicholas of Lyra (ca. 12701349) wrote a commentary on the Old and New Testaments which was popular and which had a great impact on Martin Luther. He accepted four meanings, but he stressed only two, the literal and the spiritual. He saw these as intimately connected, for as one author wrote: "The outer Scripture is the sensus litteralis, which is more exposed, because its signification comes from an immediate understanding of the words. The inner Scripture, however, is the sensus mysticus, or spiritualis, which is more hidden, because its signification comes from the things signified by the words."52 Nicholas placed a greater emphasis on the literal meaning as the foundation for other meanings. He wrote, "All of them [the meanings or the senses] presuppose the literal sense as the foundation. As a building declining from the foundation is likely to fall, so the mystic exposition, which deviates from the literal sense, must be reckoned unbecoming and unsuitable, or in a way less becoming, other things being equal, and less suitable. Those who wish to make proficiency in the study of Sacred Scripture, must begin with the literal sense. . . ."53 He saw the efforts of previous exegetes as harmful for they covered over the meaning rather than expounded it. He was distrustful of the dogmatic position of the Catholic Church and so relied on the Hebrew text itself and on Jewish exegetes. In this he was influenced by their work with the literal meaning of the Old Testament.54
The Jewish contribution to Christian exegesis in the Medieval Period is clear, especially the strides made with regard to the literal meaning of the Bible in what is called the Jewish Renaissance (late eleventh to early thirteenth centuries), so called to show that it predates what is known as the Renaissance. But, as Christians accepted the methods and the conclusions of Jewish scholars, they tried to separate themselves from their reliance on Jewish leadership.55 The Jewish influence did continue, but it did not increase.
The effort in the late Medieval Period to rely on a more literal interpretation can be seen in the work of Thomas Aquinas and almost all the other scholars of the time. At the same time, and in conjunction with this reliance, their exegesis became increasingly more objective, for objectivity is what they increasingly strove for.56 This objectivity was the real foundation of the modern critical study of the Bible, for by it reason was freed from the restrictions of faith.57 But as a result of the concentration on the literal meaning, exegesis languished. Security in what was clearly demonstrable prevented the development of creative insights which had been a hallmark of the early period of exegesis.
The Renaissance and Reformation top
The Renaissance, born in Italy during the fourteenth century and raised throughout Europe, was not the rebirth of Classical culture, for it was an influence on a new culture rather than the reincarnation of ancient Greek and Roman cultures. The interest in antiquity was monumental in its impact in all aspects of Europe's culture of the day, including exegesis. Scholars from Byzantium arrived in Italy after 1453 bringing with them the Greek language and Greek literature. The language was applied to the New Testament as Hebrew for centuries had been applied to the Old Testament. Symbolism and other characteristics of Greek literature were applied to the New Testament as well. Manuscripts were gathered and compared, and great efforts were made to establish reliable texts on which solid exegesis could be based. Texts became more available as the printing press was invented to feed the frenzy for more texts. All sorts of philological tools were also produced to aid an exegete in his studies, primarily dictionaries and encyclopedias. A militant humanism arose which supported all the pursuits of the Renaissance in opposition to the powerful control of the Catholic Church in the Medieval Period, and this humanism is evident in the exegesis of the time. Scholars used reason and intellectual means to critically judge the tradition they had inherited from the earlier time.58
One of the greatest achievements of the Renaissance was the development of history as a discipline. Prior to the Renaissance every period saw itself as an extension of the past, and so the events of the past were interpreted as if they were in the present. Renaissance scholars saw the past as the past and interpreted its events in their own context.59 This view of history was used in exegesis, for the Bible was seen less as a book for all times equally, but more as a product of the past.
Another achievement was the development of documentary criticism. Almost every major document was subject to objective scrutiny no matter to whom that document was important. For example, the Donation of Constantine, by which popes had claimed temporal power, was examined and proven to be false by the use of linguistic, historical, legal, and other methods. The one major exception to this scrutiny was the Bible, for in the Renaissance the Bible was considered too sacred to be handled by standard scholarship, for its Divine authorship was assumed.60
Humanists at this time emphasized the use of grammatical analysis to understand all ancient texts. Philology, grammar and textual criticism were all more important to them than tradition in their exegesis of the Bible. Erasmus (14671536) felt that the trivial concerns of grammarians were more important for understanding a text than the efforts of the greatest theologians, because the former insisted on the literal meaning while the latter did not.61 Erasmus, Cajetan (14801547) and John Colet (14661519) interpreted both the secular documents of the past and the Bible using the same methods. And since these giants concentrated on the literal meaning of these texts, they gave a great momentum to the development of history and the use of history in understanding the Bible.62 But more than history, and behind history and every other pursuit, was the value of reason. And this was passed on to the scholars of the Reformation.
The Reformation of the sixteenth century was closely connected with the revival of biblical studies of the fifteenth century with its tools, its methods, and its pursuits. Luther, Calvin and many of the great leaders of the Protestant movement had been Catholic scholars whose critical study of the Bible and other texts led them to radically oppose Catholic doctrines, institutions and practices. All of the Protestant exegetes strongly accepted the Divine inspiration of the Bible, but they were not interested in pursing other meanings than what appeared in the plain text. Luther put it strongly when he said, "The Holy Spirit is the plainest writer and speaker in heaven and earth, and therefore His words cannot have more than one, and that the very simplest, sense, which we call the literal, ordinary, natural, sense."63 At the same time, although they stressed the literal meaning of the Bible, these same scholars only partially engaged in historical criticism which was available to them. However, their position made historical criticism possible, if not necessary, for understanding the literal meaning.64
Three operating principles guided the Reformers: 1) a total reliance on the Bible as a foundation for saving faith; 2) a wariness of all traditions, especially Catholic; and 3) a growth of religious freedom.65 The reliance on the Bible enabled scholars to break away from scholastic theology. At the same time exegetes felt more comfortable relying on the literal or plain meaning of the Bible and with the idea that the Bible ought to interpret itself. Even if there were contradictions, the policy was to notice them and to let them stand if they could not be explained by the use of the Bible itself. Luther used this idea to give visible support to his cause as well as to find a secure position against Catholicism. He used this principle as well to determine canon.
With regard to the second principle, the Reformers believed that the Holy Spirit worked in the literal sense rather than in the tradition of the Catholic Church (or in the mystical experiences claimed increasingly by individuals of the time).66 They believed that Catholicism had gone astray and they looked for evidence of this. They wanted to find the origins of true Christianity and to return to them. In their search they applied the discipline of criticism to the traditions of the church, and not to the Bible. But in doing this, they paved the way for the application to the Bible itself.67
The Reformers claimed freedom to pursue truth in defiance of the Catholic Church and made this their third principle. In this pursuit they felt that personal enlightenment was needed and was made available by God.68 The irony is that, whereas these men rejected authority in tradition, they claimed their own authority in their personal interpretations, thus creating new traditions. The claim was that they wanted the texts to speak for themselves, allowing God's message to be heard without hindrance, and to have this claim supported. At the same time, reliance on one man's interpretation over another's increasingly happened and increasingly led to bitter rivalry. While the Protestants had hoped that the Holy Spirit would lead interpreters to the same conclusions producing a uniform interpretation, various interpretations did indeed arise. And just as it had in previous periods, the theological position and the historical situation of the interpreters greatly affected their exegesis.69
Luther (14831546) had been a professor of biblical studies for the Catholic Church, and he devoted the major share of this time to the study of the Old Testament. He particularly wanted to determine what was central to the Old Testament as Paul had once done. In his pursuits Luther used the tools of the humanists in their own search for the literal sense of the classical texts.70 He used Hebrew and Greek philology, Erasmus's Greek Testament, and historical enquiry. He fully accepted the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in revelation, but he was also interested in the human agents or authors of the books in the Bible.71 He determined that Moses could not have been the author of the entire Pentateuch, a conclusion that has since been accepted by biblical criticism.
Luther made two very important and influential decisions in exegesis. To him the test of interpretation must be based on the literal meaning of the Bible, and in this, not reason as Erasmus had argued, but theology (which he equated with the Christ) must be the method of determination. He applied the same criterion to the issue of authority in the texts or canon. And using theology he decided that James, Jude, Hebrews and Revelation were not Scripture, and that John, Romans, Galatians and I Peter were not as authoritative as other books. They did not fit with the rest of the Bible.
Zwingli (14841531) and Calvin (15091564) also emphasized theology as the measure—their own theology. Whereas Luther claimed the Christ as the author of scripture, Calvin said that God in totality was the author and that He wrote the Bible through dictation. For this reason he strongly emphasized the literal meaning and its strict application to life. But for all his emphasis on the literal interpretation and application, Calvin was not as strong in this as the conservative branches of Christianity today. For example, he declared that waters above the heavens were impossible, and so did not exist.72 He relied on reason from observation, but at the same time he spoke with authority, claiming his authority from the Holy Spirit.
Calvin concluded that the Old Testament had been accommodated to the ancient Israelites, and so the Bible could not be expected to be philosophical and scientific.73 He said this in the face of rising opposition, not from Catholics, but from humanists who were increasingly abandoning Christianity in all its forms.
Matthias Flacius Illyricus (mid-sixteenth century) was similar to Calvin in many ways. He wrote extensive commentaries and practiced exegesis in a similar fashion. His Clavis Scripurae Sacrae (The Key to the Sacred Scripture) was the first text that can be called hermeneutic and is considered a landmark in the history of exegesis.74 He emphasized the sense or meaning of the Bible which had been conveyed to the original receivers, and so this meaning must be searched for and propounded. He believed that contradictions could be resolved if a person concentrated on the Bible's purpose and used 'the analogy of faith' as a guide. At the same time he used the historical methods of his day to their fullest, paving the way for a greater reliance on historical criticism.
As Reformers stressed individual enlightenment as valid, the products of individual exegesis were not always accepted. Socinus (15251562) used the Bible to develop a unitarian theology and he championed the use of reason in determining truth in the Bible. For this he was reviled and in other ways persecuted by all other religious leaders. Servetus (15111553) developed conclusions from his own exegesis that led to his persecution not only by Catholics, but by Calvinists as well. Catholics and Protestants alike used dogmatic theology to determine which interpretation was correct, and both used suppression and persecution to support their own interpretations.75
Other developments occurred in the period of the Reformation and often outside the Reformation itself. The humanism of the Renaissance increased at this time and greater reliance was placed on science and philosophy. So strong was this that the Bible was no longer taken as the final authority on many matters by many leading scholars, and many of these distanced themselves from formal religion. This development strengthened the role of reason in all matters until it came into conflict on the one hand with worldliness and on the other hand with systems of thought based on the Bible, revelation and tradition.76 This development has been present in western civilization since this time and increasingly has become extremely powerful in western thought.
The Bible was translated into the languages of Europe by the Reformers, making it available to the people. The issue they faced was which text should be the basis of these translations. Hebrew and Greek were studied with new enthusiasm and textual criticism was developed. New texts were made readily available in the original languages of the Bible, while the Catholic Church continued to allow only Latin translations.
In conclusion, and in general, the Reformers liberated the Bible from dogmatic seclusion and made it an important object of scrutiny. In exegesis the Scriptures themselves and not traditional doctrinal views were to be the criterion of determination and of evaluation.77 In their own exegesis they placed the greatest importance on the interpretation of the literal sense.78 And they raised the issue of the relationship between faith and the historical method, an issue ardently pursued today.
Protestant scholasticism arose as a product of the efforts of the Reformers, and this development has had a profound impact on exegesis. "The scientific revolution which peaked in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has probably been of more consequence to biblical studies, and to theology as a whole, than any other single phenomenon."79 This began with Copernicus (14731543) who more than any other raised the value of the scientific method in human minds. This method emphasizes observation, reason, and the generalization of perceptual experience. He applied it to mechanics and astronomy, and later it was applied to history. Out of this movement arose four important products which had an impact on exegesis.80 1) The right was claimed and exercised to apply reason to all fields of study, including the Bible and tradition. 2) The existence of natural laws was accepted by exegetes, and this was applied to exegesis. 3) Natural causation of natural phenomena in all its forms, including history, was accepted. And 4) the present could be used to interpret the past, especially with regard to such claims as miracles, where the lack of present miracles argues against the existence of past miracles. At the same time, because textual matters were seen as settled, little attention was paid to textual criticism. Meaning of texts became the almost sole focus.
This final stage of the Reformation Period saw the increasing rise of bitter feuds, and exegesis was the weapon of choice, used to defend increasingly rigid systems. "In defending themselves against the Roman Catholic Church, and against each other, the Protestant Churches developed rigid doctrinal positions, in which the Bible played the subordinate role of supplying proof texts in order to justify Lutheran, Calvinistic, or other Protestant positions."81
The fight produced in turn an approach to the Bible that is the foundation of modern conservatism. "Before the Reformation, while no orthodox Christian doubted that the Bible was inspired, it was also agreed that the rule of faith of the Church was the foundation for its interpretation; and...this did not prevent an active critical tradition. In post-Reformation Protestant orthodoxy, while the Bible served to provide proof texts in order to support particular doctrinal positions, it was also believed that this doctrinal position was fully consistent with the Bible, and that ultimately, the Bible alone was sufficient. Scripture provided the basis for the interpretation of Scripture. . . ."82
As militant humanism increased, draining the various churches of many intellectuals and providing a new formidable opponent, the orthodox churches increasingly opposed the methods and conclusions of science as it applied to religion.83 Galileo and Kepler offered views in contrast to that of the Bible, and so were rejected. The claim of these churches was that theology and Scripture were true because they were based on infallible Divine authority, while science and philosophy were delusory since they relied on fallible human reason.
The Modern Period top
In terms of western civilization the modern period is placed in the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, for it was in the end of the seventeenth century that most of our current thoughts and practices were established. With regard to exegesis, this modern period is characterized by the desire to study the Bible as any scholar would study any document, and by the realization that whereas the Bible no longer is considered by the majority of people as sacred as it once had been, still it is revered for the role it has played and continues to play in western civilization. Our culture has a Judeo-Christian foundation, and its foundation is the Bible. But the Bible is seen as a historical document and as literature as well as Scripture, and so it is subject to an examination using literary, historical and religious criticism, with history playing the leading role and religion being the least reliable.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century the Bible was still considered the chief authority for all important matters and in all fields of study. The foundation for change was made in the previous periods, but the change itself to the point that the Bible was no longer the singlemost source of authority was made through this century.84 In this century science, history and philosophy finally and very strongly broke away from religion as a discipline and from religious institutions and leaders. Scientists, historians and philosophers owed no allegiance to the Bible or to any previously accepted authority, such as Aristotle or Ptolemy.85 A new method of achieving knowledge and its resultant excitement gripped the intellectual world. And the irony is that this new method, freed from religion, and to a large extent hostile to it, in turn had a great positive affect on religion, especially in the form of exegesis.
The scientific revolution, considered the most important cause for the rise of the modern period, totally reoriented western society and its activities. This revolution was not purely scientific, for philosophy was intimately conjoined with science at this time, and yet distinct. Bacon (15611626) and Descartes (15961650) especially espoused methodical doubt and skepticism as desirable and necessary ingredients in the honest pursuit of knowledge.86 History was also allied, and historians focused on human and natural causation rather than on supernatural causation in human events.
Religion and science in the broad sense, incorporating philosophy and history, were not enemies at the start of the seventeenth century in spite of their ever-growing separation. Many scholars continued to believe in the Bible and to accept its authority in certain areas of life after they turned to science. And issues could be debated out in the open for the first time. For example, whether or not there had been a universal flood was widely discussed in this century, and science and Scripture were used together in the discussion.87 Each was used to support the other. Learned men of the day were educated in the Bible and in other fields at the same time.
Johannes Kepler is a useful example. He used mathematical proofs to support Copernican views which had been rejected by religion. But he felt the strong personal urge to protect the Bible from attack, and so he proposed a theory which would accommodate both the scientific and the scriptural views.88 But when forced to make a choice, Kepler felt that reason based on the evidence of observation was stronger than the opinion of traditionalists. To him science was meant to be used to understand the Bible. In spite of his personal devotion, his views were seen as threatening to the church authorities and he was oppressed, as had been Copernicus and as was Galileo. Religious opposition increased as religion felt threatened by the other disciplines.
Science worked increasingly independently from religion, and the authority of religion over scientists waned as science gained acceptance and popularity. In the same way, the Bible's authority waned. "A new world view and a new inductive science that concerned itself with this world, not with Aristotle's unseen teleological mover, were born."89
With regard to history specifically, it and religion had the same relationship as did science and religion. The Bible had been authoritative in historical matters (geography, chronology, events, etc.). But working independently from religion, history produced evidence and conclusions which were contrary to the biblical view. It too appealed to reason as its authority.
Philosophy had a less direct impact on exegesis itself. However, its methods and discoveries produced results whose impact on religion increased over the centuries until it of the three oppositional views most challenges religion.90 Descartes's Discourse on Method (1637) elevated the positive role of doubt, and it became a valid principle of thought, eventually used in all four fields under consideration. In this work Descartes made the following conclusions: 1) nothing should be beyond scrutiny; 2) nothing should be called `true' when doubt exists; and 3) "reason is the sole criterion of truth."91 Descartes himself did not apply the new role of reason to matters of faith, which were important to him. In spite of no direct challenge by Descartes, however, he was treated by religious authority as were the scientists and historians for his pending challenge. Dogmatically orthodox churches stated that in order for reason to be valid, it must be subservient to Scripture. If not, then reason was evil. As for Descartes's followers, there were two distinct groups.92
The moderates claimed the existence of two kinds of truth which were separate, but not contradictory. Reason was to be applied to natural matters in the effort to discover truth there. But Scripture was to be its own test. The moderates tried to please both science and religion. The radicals claimed that truth must be single, and that it must be rational, and so subject to reason. If a statement, wherever it may be found, cannot stand up to the challenge of reason, then it cannot be true. And so, the radicals, unlike Descartes, did subject the Bible to scrutiny. And they, not the moderates, were the eventual victors.
Even though exegesis was favorably affected by the progress of the three divergent fields, even to the point of receiving a new impetus and direction from them, traditionalists were upset. Secular studies produced by secular scholars should not, in their eyes, soil a holy pursuit. But their position of power within the discipline of religion diminished, and the modern critical approach to the Bible really developed in the seventeenth century. The following presuppositions were formed and accepted: 1) the Bible is to be studied as any other book is; 2) its material has a history of formation which can be known; 3) internal evidence points to multiple authorship for the Pentateuch; and 4) human authors were involved with the material, and their purposes must be considered since they affected the text and its message.93 This last point did not replace the idea that God was the author of the Bible, but it did elevate the importance of His human agents.
The modern critical study of the Bible with its emphasis on history was cautious, tentative and precursory in the seventeenth century. But all of today's major ingredients of exegesis were present in the effort: freedom of inquiry and the open question of authority; a stress on the literal meaning as a means of understanding the text's content; a reliance on evidence within the text to determine authorship and literary integrity; and concern for the historical and social settings.94 But only a few scholars practiced modern exegesis in the seventeenth century, and then usually only to offer opposition to orthodox Judaism and to orthodox Christianity in either of its major forms.
Hugo Grotus (15831645), a Dutch jurist and theologian, developed three elements of interpretation. A text was anchored in and shaped by its historical setting. The Bible evolved in the same way as did classical texts. And contemporary literature and its study aid the understanding of the Bible.
Thomas Hobbes (15881679), an English philosopher who examined the Bible, argued against Moses's authorship of the Pentateuch, and in doing so he stated that the text must speak for itself and tradition must be ignored.
Isaac de La Payrere (15921676), a French Protestant, in 1655 published a book called Prae-Adamiten (The Preadamites) in which he raised the issue of historicity or historical accuracy in the Bible. World discoveries influenced his views about Noah's ark, the families of Adam and of Noah, and other matters. He too felt that Moses could not have written the first five books of the Bible. In forming his conclusions he tried to use history inside and outside the Bible to understand the Bible. His purpose was to reconcile religion with history. But more important than his purpose was the results of his book. Secular scholars easily pointed out the book's errors with regard to the discipline of history, and so the author's conclusions became suspect. Consequently he failed in his purpose, for the new authority of history and the old authority of the Bible were greater opponents than before.95
Benedict de Spinoza (16321677), a Dutch Jew and famous philosopher, was the most important biblical critic of the seventeenth century. He had a vast knowledge of the history of Jewish learning, of science, of philosophy, of the history of thought and particularly of rationalism. He was skeptical of Moses's authorship in the Pentateuch, but did not deny it. He doubted miracles as well. He consistently used mathematics in explaining biblical texts. He concluded that the Bible had not been produced with the purpose of providing a theology, a philosophy or a history.96 To have meaning, however, it needed to be critically studied, and in this endeavor, reason was supreme. Scripture must be scrutinized by reason, especially in those places where the Bible is difficult to understand, for faith is subject to reason, and not the other way around. His conclusion is stated in this way: "Philosophy, based on nature, therefore works out the common notions and ideas of man to seek truth. Theology, based on history and discourse, works out of revelation to secure obedience and piety. The spheres do not conflict."97 The product of this for Spinoza was the use of reason and the use of the Bible from reason to deny Divine authority in the Bible, to deny the existence of miracles, and to deny the fact of revelation.98 The Bible must be studied untheologically. For all of this, Spinoza is considered the blossoming of rationalism, and so the first real champion of reason over faith.
Richard Simon (16381712), a French Catholic priest and scholar, extensively used the critical method in his exegesis, and so is considered the true founder of the historical-critical position of exegesis. The irony here is that, whereas he was a champion of religious authority and Catholic dogma, he proved to be an embarrassment to the Church, for his brilliant work led to consequences perceived as dire by the Church. His purpose had been to attack the Protestants by focusing on their claim that the Bible alone was sufficient. He showed that the literal sense produced doubt unless it was accompanied by Catholic tradition as a guide.99 He argued that no one could be sure of a text and that authority did not equal authenticity, with the result that no one could know who the authors were.100 He also concluded that Moses could not have written all of the Pentateuch, and that some books were compiled and edited by later men. Even though Simon tried to champion the Catholic Church, the Church felt threatened by his work, and so it tried to suppress it and him. He was expelled from the Oratorian order and his books were banned. But it had been too late. Because he wrote for scholars, they had taken his work and had published it in several translations. It was all over Europe, and its impact was great.
Simon had three major concerns: 1) the transmission of the Hebrew text for the Old Testament; 2) translations of the Bible; and 3) the development of a method of translation with a criticism as to how the Old Testament had been interpreted from the time of Origen. It was in this last area that Simon ran into trouble with the Church. His endeavor to expose the weakness of other interpretations had been welcomed. His endeavor to show the Protestant sole reliance on the Bible as insufficient was fine, but in the process he showed that the Catholic reliance on the Bible, tradition and the Church was better, but incorrect. This and his insistence on the use of a critical method for exegesis were intolerable to the Church.101
In exegesis itself, Simon made two contributions. He concluded that the Pentateuch consisted of four major and different sources or documents which were woven together well after Moses. Secondly, he first established criteria by which individual documents could be distinguished and separated out of the text (e.g., difference in style, presence of repetitions, and inside units). Both of these continue to this day as foundational bricks of modern criticism.102
Jean Leclerc (16541736), a Swiss Calvinist, wrote a critique of Simon's work, and in this he outlined what became known as higher criticismthe disciplined, methodological study of the Bible in the attempt to understand its meaning (as opposed to lower criticism which deals with the establishment of the proper text on which the meaning rests). Even though Simon had meant to attack the Calvinists along with others, Leclerc found his work useful and praiseworthy. He went further and proposed that documents were produced when there was a need for them, and that those documents then reflect the time and the need. They also ought to be studied in such a way that their original purpose might be determined.103
As the modern method gained acceptance, the old systems began to change. The last of the great dogmatic systems in Protestantism were written in the seventeenth century (by Johann Gerhard, Abraham Calov, et al.). They were futile attempts to preserve the old position that faith was supreme and the Word was infallible.104 They were written primarily out of fear of rationalism and what their authors saw as its threat to Christianity. But the failure of the dogmatists to defend traditionalism contributed to its demise, as it brought to the attention of more and more people the weakness of its position. People were not so much embracing rationalism, but abandoning a lost cause. The radical Cartesian position triumphed.
The foundation of rationalism is that only to the extent that a passage is rational or reasonable does it carry authority. But rationalism did not only win over traditionalism, it also went on to attack the Bible itself. Reason concluded that the stories were fictitious and biblical theology was woefully ancient and therefore inapplicable. On the other hand, reason offered thoughts that were extremely applicable.
More and more the orthodox theologians were forced to fight for what was left of their position. But the more they fought, the less they were appreciated until Christian scholarship became an impossibility as long as scholars professed Christianity in its old forms. In reaction many of these scholars chose to use reason in their own studies, but were then denounced for this by the churches.105 The churches, meanwhile, did not even debate the issues, but chose to condemn their enemies and to suppress their adherents who were tempted by the appeal of reason. In short, throughout the seventeenth century the orthodox churches demanded loyalty to traditionalism and to the primacy of the Bible, but their ranks grew steadily smaller among the educated and others.
The choices were reduced to these: 1) supremacy of faith; 2) supremacy of reason; or 3) sometimes one and sometimes the other. It was either faith over reason, or reason over faith. And for those who did not want to make the choice, the idea that there were two independent bodies of truth, one in the Bible and another everywhere else, was a desperate attempt to avoid making that choice. But it was an indefensible position, and the choice still had to be made.
Christianity made a mistake when it failed to bring faith and reason together and to incorporate science and history into its study of the Bible.106 Instead it steadily alienated scholars within Christianity and lost them when they were most needed. At least outside orthodoxy scholars could converse with others who respected their opinions.
In summary the seventeenth century ". . . saw the first rules of criticism (Mabillon), the introduction of methodological doubt (Descartes), the restriction of biblical authority by science and history, and the growing triumph of reason over revelation. The Scriptures were more and more treated like ordinary historical documents. The process of objectification had begun."107
The eighteenth century produced many significant achievements which can be seen as results of what had happened in the seventeenth century. These achievements were in all the major aspects of society and its culture: government, art, economy, and all forms of thought including religion. It was a century of vitality and excitement. And for exegesis it was the century in which a diversity of theological and philosophical systems and positions competed openly for attention and acceptance. But in this competition popular favor still rested with the traditional orthodoxy and the less radical forms of theism, or the general acceptance of God's government of the world.108
On the other hand, reason reigned supreme among the educated throughout the century, particularly in Deism which was growing in respect and numbers. Deism was a philosophical form of religion which began in England and spread to France, Germany and elsewhere. And wherever it went, it had a great impact. In Deism God's existence was affirmed, but His relation with nature and history was up for discussion. It was strongly humanistic. Most importantly, Deism accepted reason as an essential principle.109 One of its tenets was "religion within the bounds of reason." For this reason rationalism was at the heart of the Age of Enlightenment. Rationalism opposed the superstition it saw in the Old Testament, though it never rejected the Old Testament itself. But in effect, it undermined its authority for the Deists.
Deism began at the end of the seventeenth century, particularly with the publication of John Locke's Essay on Human Understanding (1690) and The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures (1695). In these Locke claimed that reason was Divine in origin and was in fact natural revelation from God. According to him God used intellectual abilities and pursuits to conceive ideas and He used observation to validate.110
English Deism gave a new thrust to exegesis for several reasons.111 It challenged the authority and the orthodoxy of established religious institutions. It wanted to remove superstition and mystery from religious claims. It wanted to establish religion on reason, on nature, and on ethical reflection, and so to make it understandable and worthwhile. In particular it questioned the nature of and the possibility of historical revelation by examining specific claims inside and outside the Bible concerning God's revelation in historical events. In this way Deism was very concerned with history as a discipline and with historicity within the Bible.112 English Deism and its very close offshoot, American Deism (as practiced by many of the founders of the United States), wanted a system of natural and reasonable religion, and history was an essential way of obtaining that religion. Deists accepted those parts of Scripture which were reasonable, but they scrutinized those which failed the test of reason.113
Deism flourished in England in the first half of the eighteenth century and it flamed brightly at the end ". . . in David Hume's skepticism about God and providence, in David Gibbon's antisupernaturalism, and in Thomas Paine's crude but understandable popularization in the Age of Reason (1795). . . ."114 In spite of these great achievements, Deism did wane in England. It did so less from the failure of its positions and methods than from the horrors of the French Revolution, for that revolution was closely associated in English minds with the Deist movement in France.115
Although Deism did not survive much beyond the eighteenth century, its arguments weakened the authority of the Bible's literal meaning for subsequent generations until this day.116 And so strong was Deism's appeal in that century that its opponents were forced to use reason in their opposition, with the result that reason prevailed, even to the point of penetrating traditionalism.
In France Deism was accepted by Bayle, Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot in the eighteenth century. They were stronger than the English Deists (except for Paine) in their attack on traditionalism and its view of the Bible with its inconsistencies, absurdities and low morality.117 For example, Bayle spent a considerable amount of time openly and strongly attacking traditional Christianity. This began an open warfare which gave biblical criticism a negative image which it has had ever since. The French Enlightenment was the product of seventeenth century rationalism and of eighteenth century English Deism. And both taught their members that criticism has the right to dwell in all valuable pursuits. For them only reason can settle the issue of truth wherever it be claimed—in Scripture or elsewhere.118
In Germany Deism's influence was less strong, but it was also more directly applied to biblical texts than in any other country. This began the tradition of German scholarship as being the most exacting and precise scholarship in its study of the Bible. The reason for Deism's lack of strength might be because the Renaissance, that very important foundation of rationalism which served as the precursor to Deism, did not flourish in Germany. Also, the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century was not as strong in Germany as it was in France, England or Holland. Thirdly, German scholars were more steeped in the traditions of the Protestant insistence on scriptural authority than the scholars from these other nations. And finally, the university system began in Germany in the eighteenth century as religious institutions, while the other nations had long established systems with much less religious supervision. The result of this was that universities outside of Germany had a much greater input from secular scholars who were outside traditionalism.119
In their examination of specific texts certain German scholars attacked the historicity of the Old Testament. These men have been closely associated with the rationalistic humanism of Deism outside of Germany. They include Reimarus (16941768), Michaelis (17171791), Semler (17251791), and others, mostly in the second half of the eighteenth century, at the same time that Deism was waning in England. Their attacks, however, were not so great against the established churches and their theology, especially when they are compared with the members of the French Enlightenment. The goal of the German Enlightenment was to discover eternal truths hidden in the biblical stories by removing any impurity which impeded their discovery.120 In general the German Enlightenment was traditional with its insistence on the existence of one truth and its presence in established doctrine. But it relied on reason to find and to support this doctrine.
Lessing relied on history to understand the Bible. He concluded that reason can lead to all truth, but that the revelation given by God in the Bible offers a quicker and surer way to the discovery of that truth. He felt that history could be used to find truth in the Bible, and that the role of reason was to confirm what truth taught.
Semler was one of the founders of the modern critical method in Germany. He was raised as a Pietist, one who relies on religious experience for awareness or revelation (compare Methodism in England). Under the influence of Deism, with the knowledge of Richard Simon's work, and with the admiration for Martin Luther, Semler turned his attention to the Bible. He based his views on justification by faith and felt assured that a person could and would be saved by his faith. He felt that this faith was supported by the critical study of the Bible.121 Those passages which spoke directly to this theological position were considered more authoritative. He concluded that the Bible was at least in part a product of human authorship, and as such it was capable of error, as was evident to those who closely studied it. To him Scriptures were not the Word of God in that the former were fallible while the latter could never be. The Word existed within Scriptures and must be searched for.122 So important was Semler that the claim has been made that with Semler modern historical-critical study of the Old Testament began.123
Other German scholars offered major developments in exegesis. Witter (16831715), Astruc (16841766) and Eichhorn (17521827) supported and added to the observations made by Simon in the previous century that different names of God were clues to the distinction of biblical sources. Astruc is considered the father of the now famous Four-source Theory for the Pentateuch. Griesbach developed the Synoptic Problem in which the relationship among the first three gospels is examined and determination is made as to which gospel used the other gospels and to what extent. He also offered the first synopsis of the gospels, a tool which lines up the gospels side by side so that easy comparisons can be made. Gabler applied the study of myths to the New Testament in the attempt to remove mythic elements from the stories and so to reveal the truth within the stories. This gave rise to source criticism as a discipline.124 Finally, Ernesti is acknowledged as the founder of what has been called the scientific interpretation of the Bible for his use of both philology and history in his study of the Bible.125
In general the eighteenth century saw the final victory of reason over faith, and biblical criticism became scientific in that no special appeal could be made to Divine inspiration as an explanation of problems and the like.126 Especially important was the development of modern historiography and its impact on biblical scholarship. The Bible was seen by almost everyone as having at least a major historical element, and this invited the scrutiny of history. And the purpose of historical criticism was not to support an established view, but to simply understand the past. Others could then do as they wished with what history revealed, but within reason. History in this century was not yet freed from its attachment to other fields. It first had served theology, and then it served reason.127 As history became independent in the next century, its service to biblical studies increased even farther.
All of this in turn affected lower or textual criticism which had languished for a while. The orthodox churches at least to some extent accepted historical criticism. And this gave rise within religion to the desire for the reexamination of the textual foundations of the Bible. Several new texts were published, including the first eclectic text made by Griesbach. It was created from the comparison of several texts and textual families. This was in opposition to the generally accepted Received Text as established by orthodoxy after the Reformation.128
The Pentateuch was the major focus of attention in eighteenth century exegesis. Its central task was to discover the Pentateuch's sources, their relationship, and their setting. Whereas the seventeenth century exegetes had noticed differences in the text which led to the hypothesis of different sources, the critical methodology for this determination was formed in the eighteenth century.129 In terms of the New Testament there were two major issues, the Synoptic Problem and the search for the historical Jesus. For example, Reimarus concluded that Jesus had been a deluded visionary and that his so-called miracles should be explained as natural phenomena (such as the disciples stealing the body of the crucified Jesus). His historiography was faulty and his conclusions challenged, but Reimarus raised critical issues which are discussed to this day.130
In the eighteenth century scholars increasingly felt the need to offer their results to a wider readership in the form of introductions to the Bible and its parts and in the form of commentaries on the same. This opened the debates to the public at large, and the public entered the debates inside churches, inside academic institutions, and in many other arenas.
Before leaving the eighteenth century it is interesting to contrast the two halves of that century. As to methods of critical study there was no difference. Scholars in both halves were concerned with textual criticism and biblical languages, with the use of history and its branches, such as geography, with the comparison of passages, and with the role of science and philosophy.131 What was different was the appearance of an open-minded attitude in the second half. Established positions were no longer reason to view the Bible in a certain way, and exegetes could come from religious institutions or outside of it, although almost all critics were devout in the eighteenth century.132 Rather than be used to defend orthodoxy, scholarship was used by devout men to challenge their own orthodoxy. Increasingly they were motivated more by truth for its own sake than by the defense of traditional views.
The nineteenth century was marked by a major intellectual and social revolution which in turn altered all major areas of thought. Industry, urbanization and more universal education radically changed society, its goals and its attitudes. In geology came the awareness of the great ages that have passed since creation began and the human race lived on earth. In biology the theory of evolution gained dominance. In terms of exegesis the debate between theology and science subsided in some areas, such as universities, while it raged on in others, such as many local churches. The greatest change came in the development and the practice of historiography.
Historiography changed in the nineteenth century. Georg Niebuhr critically separated truth from claim and from legend giving attention to the source and the value of evidence. Leopold von Ranke claimed that all history is unified and that unity should be sought. He felt that God did act in history, but His action cannot be proven. Johann Gustav Droysen showed that Hellenistic syncretism (the identification of gods as the same god) was a preparation for the rise of Christianity. These scholars and others formed what is known as the Romantic School of history, and this school was based on the idea that some Divine or otherwise powerful force or idea moved through all history unifying it.133 Hegel spoke of a World Spirit, Humboldt offered the idea of pantheistic truth, von Ranke claimed a governing God, and Droysen based his history on ethical progress. This school waned in the second half of the century when historians increasingly concerned themselves with the facts of what actually happened (e.g., Meyer). They were less concerned with unifying themes of universal interpretations.
As historiography developed it was increasingly accepted by the intellectual world and applied by various fields of study, including exegesis. In the nineteenth century the historical-critical method gained its supreme position in biblical scholarship which it has held ever since. But this method has been adapted as new developments have been made in historiography and as challenges have arisen. It has changed its methodology and its conclusions over the decades, as has every field of study.134
While this was happening, biblical scholarship became a part of universities, especially in certain countries where it was valued. This new environment replaced the church as the principle domain, and the impact was great. Biblical scholarship felt a new sense of freedom and it used the opportunity to search for impartial and objective views, evidence and conclusions. It was different as a lecture is different from a sermon, for it was now used to teach a discipline with its methodology and results, whereas it had been primarily used to form theology. The various church organizations opposed this change and often made the charge of sacrilege, especially since the academic form of biblical scholarship demanded the suspension of faith while the research was being done.
In general, the two most important schools of biblical scholarship were the salvation-history school and the history-of-religion school. The former was more conservative and it was based on the premise that theological interpretations and historical facts must be conjoined. Its major conclusion was that the Bible consisted of individual works whose purpose was to teach their readers and listeners about God and His dealings with a special people, using history as a framework. In short, to this school the Bible was a biased and enforced history. The history-of-religion school was more liberal and it saw the development of religious institutions and practices in ancient Israel as typical when compared to the same development in other cultures, primarily in the ancient world, but elsewhere as well. The two schools entered into a debate which is still present, namely, whether Israel's religion and history were unique or not.
Both schools saw a sharp difference between the Old and the New Testaments as to history and cultural setting. Old Testament scholars studied the ancient Near East and increasingly used archaeology. New Testament scholars studied the Hellenistic world and relied on literary studies. But for both the Bible became an ancient book written for a set time, and not a book for all people in all ages. The strangeness of biblical customs and the like was stressed over what was similar between Israel's culture and the culture of the nineteenth century.
The historical-critical method thrived especially in Germany, built primarily on the work of Semler of the eighteenth century. Most of the scholars' attention was given to the critical examination of the Pentateuch, especially its sources, to the history of ancient Israel, and to the development of its religion. And the studies in any one of these three areas greatly and immediately affected the other two. Of these three the work done in the area of source criticism has been the most lasting in value. By the nineteenth century it had been generally agreed that the Pentateuch had four sources: the P document (Priestly) whose primary concern was the establishment and function of the priesthood; the J document (named after the Divine name of Jehovah) primarily presented in those passages and stories where God is called Jehovah; the E document (named after the Divine name of El or God) primarily presented in those passages and stories where God is called God; and the D document (Deuteronomistic) whose primary aim was to form and promulgate a certain theology. Wellhausen (18441918) firmly established this hypothesis by forming, developing and applying acceptable critical methods. However, although the methods were universally accepted, their applications and their results were not. At issue was the question of how most of the passages in the Pentateuch could be assigned to any one of the sources with a lack of clear evidence. Also at issue was the determination of the order and relationship of the four sources, and the dating of these sources.135
Wellhausen and others who examined the history of Israel and of its religion completely changed the critical view of them. They offered a view that not only was in disagreement with the established view, but that was also in contrast with the biblical description itself. Using biblical passages they showed that Israel's religion was different from the way it is presented.
The German scholars in the past fifteen decades have consistently been the most aggressive and innovative biblical scholars, and consequently they have been the most feared by the remnant of traditionalism in the Catholic Church and of fundamentalism in the Protestant churches. In contrast British scholars, although second in activity, have always been more cautious than their German counterparts in the acceptance and the use of the critical method.136 Deism had waned dramatically by the nineteenth century and Pietism, as seen in Methodism and in parts of the Church of England, notably the Oxford Movement, had taken its place as the most influential religious movement among scholars. Pietism with its emphasis on the experience of religion as based on the Bible opposed the new method, although it did not reject it. Pietism felt threatened by what it believed was an attack on the divinity of Jesus and on the sanctity of the Bible. Pietists did allow, however, that humans were used as agents of the Holy Spirit in the writing of the Bible, and so texts could be vague, misleading, or even in error. This made it possible for individual scholars to use the critical method in their work, as long as they did not attack Pietism. S.R. Driver in the late nineteenth century made critical study fully acceptable, for he proved that a scholar could use it very fruitfully without rejecting the Bible and its religious values.137 He even supported in a critical way the desired theology that ethical monotheism and social justice originated with ancient Israel.
In both England and North America, which had always been primarily influenced by English scholarship, the historical-critical method was not accepted until it could be demonstrated that the method could be used without destruction to cherished religious ideals. When that happened with Driver and others, biblical scholarship was accepted into the universities because it was seen as possessing a discipline of thought and application.138 Critical study and pastoral concerns were joined together in the seminaries as well. Because of this pastoral element, most of Britain's scholarship with regard to the Bible has been done in the secular universities, most of which have refused from the nineteenth century to allow denominational teaching on campus.139 The only theology permitted in the classroom is presented in courses on the history of theological thought, and then only without evaluation. The fear to separate biblical study from religion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had been replaced by the fear to rejoin them.
In the nineteenth century textual criticism greatly developed. In 1831 Karl Lachmann produced the first text of the New Testament which is considered truly critical in that he methodologically chose among variant readings which reading he considered to be more authentic. He later produced a critical apparatus to be used with his text which showed why he made the choices he made, and what other options were available. He was followed by Tischendorf in Germany and by Westcott and Hort in England. Also, Kittel produced the first edition of what is now considered the standard text of the Old Testament.
The nineteenth century saw the rise of monumental commentaries as well. Among these perhaps the greatest were written by Lightfoot, Westcott, Hort, Strauss and Baur. Their conclusions were often forced and not sufficiently supported, but their goals and their methods were admirable and have played a major role in modern commentaries.140
In summarizing exegesis in the nineteenth century it is clear that historical criticism became independent and that it increasingly exerted a strong influence on all exegetical work. Biblical scholarship was in no way responsible to any particular theology or religious institution.141 Scripture became secularized in how it was examined and in how more and more people accepted it. The claim of revelation was not a part of the method. Finally, whereas the Bible had been the criterion by which people had viewed history, history became the criterion by which people understood the Bible.142 Increasingly everyone who wanted to study the Bible, including those who wanted to defend it, needed to rely on the use of history. This is true for liberals who were the first champions of the method, for moderates who accepted it in the nineteenth century, and for conservatives who have learned to accept it in the twentieth century. The difference today is not in the use of the method, but in the relationship between history and theology.143
Critical scholarship did not change much until after World War I. The tragedy of that war ended what had been an optimistic outlook with regard to history.144 And in the following decades biblical scholarship regained its negative image as it seemed to attack what people needed to hold onto, an assurance in the value and power of the Bible.
Karl Barth filled the chasm that was developing when he led a movement to renew the value of theology, but a theology based on a historical foundation, making it unlike the theology of earlier periods. Although he accepted the view that the books of the Bible were written for specific groups in history, he argued that they also spoke to the modern world. Modern issues could be addressed by what he felt was God speaking through the Bible. He felt that the infallibility of truth could be conveyed by human words which were fallible. Truth could be and should be discovered in the Bible. In doing this Barth reopened the issue of the relationship between history and theology, along with the role to be played by science and philosophy. He addressed how reason and faith were to be used.145 He and others said that they could not be separated, while others said that they must be.
While to Barth history served theology, Rudolph Bultmann went farther and argued that history was not needed to form faith in his existential interpretation of the New Testament. Historians have countered that both of these leading scholars undervalued history. Other scholars, especially those in form criticism, have determined that with regard to the Bible, history and faith could not be separated, for the original authors so strongly felt their marriage that divorcing them was impossible. The role of faith once again became a major issue.
The situation was different in the United States which increasingly was becoming independent from British scholarship. On the one hand German scholarship of the nineteenth century gained wide acceptance among secular scholars, while on the other hand most of scholarship's attention was addressed to the ongoing experiment that produced the United States as a radically new society. Sociology and the issues it addresses have increasingly played a dominant role in American biblical scholarship.146 By using a more purely historical approach and sociology, American scholars have looked at ancient Israel's society and religion as a part of that society. This movement began with and has been led by the Chicago School. But this scholarship is not isolated from what has been going on in Europe. The same issues raised there are being addressed in North America.
It is important to note that modern critics must be seen as devout for almost all of them are concerned with the question of to what extent the Bible establishes saving faith.147 Only Christians and Jews study the Bible critically, for only they accept it as a very special work with a great deal to offer. Critics do question the Bible and apply a critical approach to it, but this does not demonstrate unfaithfulness. Critical questions are not wrong, and reason ought to be used in answering those questions.
It is also important to note that in its attempt to be rid of theological biases, it cannot be rid of all biases. On the one hand biblical scholarship has been freed from dogmatic restrictions, while on the other hand the bias in favor of a particular theology has been replaced by the bias in support of history, science and philosophy along with their assumptions.148 Modern scholarship should always be aware of this and subject its own assumptions to critical study and evaluation.
One final important observation with regard to the modern period is the growing acceptance of the critical method. Protestantism had been the seedbed of the modern method, while Catholicism had held back. Protestants had used that method to attack Catholicism and it was seen as contrary to the traditional position of the Roman Catholic Church. In the past decades Catholicism has increasingly accepted the critical method. No longer is Catholicism attacked by an enemy using that method, and Catholics have seen that the method can be used to the benefit of Catholicism. But most importantly, the open-mindedness at the core of the method has permeated modern scholarship in general, including Catholics. In 1943 Pope Pius XII called the historical method a duty and the Pontifical Biblical Commission formed in 1964 confirmed this in detail as part of the movement called Vatican II.149 Catholic institutions of higher learning, including seminaries, openly teach the critical method, and Catholic priests and others teach the method in secular institutions.
The last group to accept the method has been evangelical and fundamentalist Protestantism which had come into existence in opposition to the increasing tendency within Protestantism to rely on the method and to use it to question and even attack the Bible. One by one individual groups have come to accept the value of the historical-critical method at least in most of its parts. Evangelical Christian scholarship has accepted and uses modern exegetical methods. Fundamentalists still are wary of these methods, but very few and only minor groups totally reject critical scholarship today. This change of heart has been due to the realization that conservative Christianity could not spread in major areas of population and of society unless it did so, and that it is not the methods which threaten their position, but rather the conclusions. In fact, they have found that scholarship can be applied beneficially with a different set of assumptions, such as the divinity of the Bible.
Fear and misunderstanding still exist. Scholars are suspicious of religious dogma, and conservative churches are wary of scholarship as it is practiced by people they call secular humanists. (This is an unfortunate designation, because in fact only those who accept the value of the Bible study it, and so all exegetes are indeed devout. The issue is how devout, and fundamentalism charges those who practice and accept modern critical exegesis with a lack of faith and piety.) The best way to address this fear and misunderstanding is for people of all persuasions and positions to demonstrate a responsible methodology which produces an understanding of what the Bible itself states and means, and to do so in the sense of cooperation and appreciation for different positions.
Swedenborg and the History and Function of Exegesis top
Emanuel Swedenborg (16881772), was a remarkable scholar of the eighteenth century who on the one hand was a product of that century and on the other hand was a major contributor to it. He was famous in his own time and greatly read and studied up to the middle of the nineteenth century. Since then he has not been directly known by many, but his influence can still be traced in many areas of modern thought such as various sciences, philosophy and religion. Much of his influence has been studied and appreciated, but Swedenborg's contribution to the history of exegesis has not been studied. This is true because at first glance he does not seem to have played a role, but he did play a role which is unusual, and perhaps unique.
Before we look at that role it is important to note that Swedenborg belonged to the beginning of the modern age and that his work spanned the eighteenth century. This was the century, noted above, which was dominated by rationalism and which showed a greater acceptance of freedom of expression as the century progressed. Most of Swedenborg's religious work was done from the middle of the century when a greater open-mindedness was occurring in England and Holland, where he published most of his religious books. (Although he was a famous Swede, he did not publish in Sweden because Sweden did not have the same level of tolerance toward religious scholarship and any scholarship which challenged the state religion, Lutheranism. And Swedenborg's theology was indeed challenging.)
Swedenborg was primarily interested in theology and he wrote little about exegesis or about those who practiced it in his time. But overall he was interested in the Bible and he was driven through most of his life by the desire to truly understand it. And understanding required some form of exegesis. His exegesis, however, was different from that practiced by others of his day. He showed in his work what his exegesis was and he declared his opinion with regard to the elements of exegesis practiced by others.
His exegesis, first of all, was essentially formed from his firm belief that in his quest for understanding he was granted Divine revelation.150 Consequently he was convinced that what he wrote was not his, but rather was the result of that revelation. At the same time he was aware that what revelation he did receive was affected by what he was studying, how he was studying it, and how he presented it in his religious publications.
Swedenborg's exegesis was also strongly affected by his intellectual pursuits. He was trained in all the sciences of the age and he showed a remarkable ability to understand and to explain all sorts of natural phenomena. This exposure to the sciences and his appreciation for the modern scientific method had a great impact on his exegesis. Especially noteworthy was his acceptance of the importance of observation and the use of reason in the formation of an explanation of what it was he observed.
Later on in life, and without leaving the sciences, Swedenborg pursued philosophy as well in his attempt to observe and explain the human spirit. In this pursuit his keen mind was trained farther in logic and other forms of rational thought.
His final major pursuit was in the field of religion, for he made an extensive study of the Bible, perhaps preparing a major commentary as others were doing in the eighteenth century. Swedenborg had always loved to study the Bible from the time he had been a young child. But it was not until he was fifty-seven that he began a systematic study of it.
It is important to note that from these three pursuits—of the sciences, of philosophy and of religion—Swedenborg was trained in and he excelled in three of the major fields of thought. Generally speaking all explanations are based on any one or on any combination of three forms of argumentation: the argument of experience; the argument of reason; and the argument of faith or authority. The first was and continues to be the bastion of the sciences where nothing is accepted unless it can be observed or reasonably based on what has been observed (producing the strong insistence on experimentation). The second was and is primarily the domain of philosophy where nothing is accepted unless there is a reasonable development of thought from what is granted or agreed upon to the conclusion, the reverse, or according to some other accepted thought process. The third was and is the arena of religion, where nothing is accepted unless it agrees with what is accepted as true from revelation or from some other accepted authority. This, of course, is too simple, for all three fields, and any other field, use all three forms of argumentation. But in the eighteenth century, and to an extent in this century, the three fields stress one form of argumentation over the others.
In the century when reason triumphed over faith, Swedenborg strove to not enter the contest, but rather to form a harmony in which both lived together in peace and in mutual support. Reason, the darling of science and philosophy, and faith, the pillar of religion, were not and should not be exclusive of each other, according to Swedenborg. Religion ought to be reasonable, and science and philosophy ought to be in agreement with revelation. And this arrangement ought not to be forced, for truth does not arise from or can be seen in an argument in which the facts and the ideas do not speak for themselves. Swedenborg assumed that they would agree, and in his constant attempt to test this assumption he developed a religious thought that was indeed reasonable.
In his religious works Swedenborg constantly used all three forms of argumentation. He argued from what he observed, he argued from deduction, and he argued from what the Bible itself stated, accepting the Bible as authoritative. He was a scholar trained in a Lutheran university in Sweden and in the fields dominated by secular scholars outside of Sweden, and he felt comfortable in both secular and religious forms of learning.
Swedenborg accepted the increasingly accepted notion that all phenomena had a natural causation, but at the same time he did not reject the traditional concept of Divine or spiritual causation. To him anything that existed or occurred must have been the product of both forms of causation working together toward a common end. And in the pursuit of this end, science and philosophy could and did support religion. Much of his work was a demonstration of this concept as it applied to the world of his day and as it applied to the world of the Bible, including miracles. According to Swedenborg miracles did occur then because Jehovah needed them in His relationship with the Israelites, and they were the result of the manipulation of nature by means of spiritual forces.151 To understand the miracles a person needed both the explanation of religion and of science. Swedenborg also wrote in 1719 a little treatise on the universal flood based on his observation of fossils from sealife found on the mountains of Sweden. As had been noted, the discussion of the flood account in Genesis had been a major topic of eighteenth century exegesis, and Swedenborg entered the discussion.
Unlike most of the other religious scholars of the eighteenth century, then, Swedenborg did not in desperation attack reason as the tool of the devil. He embraced it. At the same time, however, he did not embrace the way in which many scholars of his day, especially the secular humanists, used reason to attack the Bible and religion. He opposed the rationalism of his day, but not the role and value of reason. Swedenborg felt that, although most scholars of his day claimed a superior rationality or it was claimed for them, what he saw as their abuse of reason made them not masters of reason, but of what he called ratiocination.152 He depicted them as sensuous men who only believed and trusted what their senses told them and who gloried in their own intelligence rather than in the truth. To Swedenborg, they used reason to champion their own causes for their own benefit, and to him it was not reasonable to accept only what the senses grasp.
Swedenborg believed in the free inquiry into any subject or object. And he believed that only those statements which were reasonable were of value. He rejected the orthodox religions which clung to the claim of mystery, paradox, and other weak means of accepting the tough and apparently inexplicable passages of Scripture. He also rejected their dogmatic position because it did not allow the free inquiry into matters of faith and of Scripture. At the same time he rejected the new dogma of science and philosophy which began to ridicule matters of faith because they were accepted when they were not demonstrable to the senses.
In short, Swedenborg belonged in both camps and at the same time to neither camp. He was not a rationalist as others were, nor was he a traditionalist. He developed a new theological system in which he accepted revelatory truth and truth in nature as distinct forms of truth which could be found through the proper study of both.153 They were different but in such an agreement that they formed a unity, having come from the same source, God. He did not deny the natural theology so strong among the majority of scholars of the eighteenth century, but rather their acceptance of it as the sole or primary source of truth. Nor did he agree with what he considered the blind position of the orthodox religions which claimed that only the Bible was true and only their understanding of it was correct.
Although to Swedenborg reason and faith were partners, they were not equal, for the Word of God was a special and authoritative presentation of truth.154 Therefore, its statements were of greater value than the reasonings of humans. To him reason was to serve faith, but not blindly. Reason could and did support faith and gave it a healthy direction, but faith led the way and reason followed. And under no circumstances was one to bully the other into submission. Faith that was not reasonable was not faith, and reason without faith was empty and of little value. Faith was to be the master, but a wise master listens to his most valuable adviser.
In this relationship Swedenborg accepted the Cartesian insistence on the value of skepticism. Like Descartes he felt that doubt was a cause for hesitation in the acceptance of a statement or an observation as true. He felt that this was a healthy role that doubt played, for it was not healthy to accept something as true before its truth was seen, for it might not be true. Doubt also encouraged the mind to consider the matter farther in order to see the truth of a statement, or the lack of truth. But he also felt that doubt could be destructive if its purpose was to deny the truth of faith simply because it could not be seen.155 Swedenborg felt that much of the doubt of rationalism was negative.156
In another way Swedenborg was a traditionalist and yet not a traditionalist. He did accept the sacred and unique quality of the Bible, but he did not interpret it according to a dogmatic position. He had rejected Lutheranism and did not join any other religion. But he was most definitely a devout Christian basing his life and his understanding on the Bible, and attending various forms of Christian worship. And he formed his new theology on his study of the Bible, rather than the other way around.
This study of the Bible was based on the two pillars of eighteenth century exegesis, textual studies and expertise in biblical languages. Swedenborg used one of the standard editions of the Bible in its original languages prepared by Schmidius, and he compared the texts there with other editions, often noting textual differences in the margins. He then formed his own conclusion as to which text was correct and why. In this he was like the other exegetes of that century. And also like them, he used philological or grammatical observations to gain a greater understanding of what passages meant.
With regard to what became known as "higher criticism" Swedenborg used the common practice of comparing passages in the desire of forming a better understanding of what the Bible taught in order to form a more correct theology. He explained contradictions, obscurities, and all the other types of problems faced by exegetes. He used passages not as proof for an already accepted theology, but as support for his forming theology.
Beyond these common methods of criticism, however, Swedenborg did not venture. A particular oddity is that this man of great learning, who had traveled extensively in order to be exposed to the learning of his day, did not seem to be affected by one of the greatest achievements of the eighteenth century, the development of history as a distinct discipline. He certainly did not apply historical criticism to his exegesis, for he accepted the Bible's historicity, except for the first eleven chapters of Genesis and other passages (such as the sun standing still in Joshua 10:12f.) which he declared came from even more ancient documents which used stories to present lessons.157 For this reason Swedenborg cannot be claimed as a founder or as a practitioner of modern criticism. And yet there are some curious agreements between Swedenborg and the exegetes who did rely on history.
Although, unlike most exegetes, Swedenborg did accept the Divine authorship and authority of most of the books of the Bible,158 like them he also accepted the role of human authors in the formation of those books. To him God had to use human agents to reveal Himself, and He had to use them in such a way that their own personalities were reflected in the books attributed to them. They were not writing implements, but people whose understanding was engaged to accept what was told and showed them, and who wrote this material in their own way. If someone other than Jeremiah had written the book Jeremiah, it would have been equally true, but different. (This leads to the concept that it is a valuable task to pursue source and form criticism, although Swedenborg himself did not do so.)
Swedenborg was also very much interested in the customs and the society of the ancient Israelites. He discussed these matters often and at times in great length in the attempt to explain the literal sense or meaning of the Bible. In this he was very much like a historian, although there is no noticeable use of historiography.159
As a final connection with the use of history, Swedenborg was keenly aware of the geography of Canaan and noted the importance of topography and formations of land and water in the life of the ancient Israelites. In the eighteenth century geography was very much a part of historical studies.
Without specific documentation as to Swedenborg's opinion of history and historians, only speculation can be offered as to why this man of learning chose not to use history as it had been developed. Instead he appears to have used the traditional view of history as it had been applied to the Bible and to classical history (e.g., the acceptance of Livy's accounts of Rome's establishment). Perhaps this was the case because, although science and philosophy were foundations of modern exegesis, it was the historical aspect of exegesis which led to the greatest, the most severe, and the most caustic attacks on the Bible itself. Science attacked the belief in miracles, philosophy attacked the value of certain biblical ideals, but history placed the whole concept of the Bible's historicity in grave doubt. The acceptance of the natural sense of the Bible was threatened.
This by no means leads to the conclusion that Swedenborg was a fundamentalist, even though he and they share the desire to place assurance in the historical accuracy of the Bible. There was no fundamentalism in the eighteenth century, at least not to the extreme that exists today. That extreme came into existence as a response to the negative attack on the Bible which began in the eighteenth century, and fundamentalism increased as more and more Christians accepted the modern critical method of exegesis and its results which the fundamentalists rejected.
What separates Swedenborg from the movement that led to fundamentalism is much greater than the similarity just mentioned. For unlike the fundamentalists, Swedenborg believed that the Bible did have deeper, internal or hidden meanings which could be discovered by a new method of exegesis. In this Swedenborg returned to the early period of Christianity when almost all scholars accepted the existence of three or four levels of meaning, the same numbers Swedenborg accepted, although it is unclear whether or not he was aware of the history of exegesis and the opinions of the early scholars. At times Swedenborg wrote about three levels: the natural; the spiritual; and the celestial.160 At other times he wrote about four levels: the natural or literal sense which is the meaning gathered from the words themselves; the internal-historical sense which symbolically is about the history of the spiritual qualities of Israel's religion and of Christianity; the spiritual sense which is about the spiritual states or qualities of a human being; and the celestial sense which is about the Divine states or qualities of God, whom he identified as the Lord Jesus Christ, or simply the Lord.161
For Swedenborg the natural sense or meaning was extremely important, but the higher (or the deeper, or the more interior) the meaning was, the more pure its presentation of truth was, and the more important it was for the development of goodness. Consequently, and probably, the most significant reason he did not involve himself with modern exegesis was that it concentrated in the eighteenth century on the lowest level of meaning, while he wanted to expose the other levels. Swedenborg felt that what he called the science of correspondences led to that exposure, and so it was the basis of his exegetical method. But Swedenborg did not belong to the early period like some form of throwback. He was still a modern scholar using modern scholarship in his study of the Bible. He can be seen in agreement with Semler who had declared in the eighteenth century that the Word of God with its presentation of truth existed within Scripture, that is, the statements of the Bible. It was Swedenborg's goal to find that truth in all its forms and to present it to an increasingly accessible readership in Europe. In doing this he wrote approximately thirty volumes using his own exegetical method.
All of this does not mean that Swedenborg was not interested in the natural sense. On the contrary, he agreed with the scholars before him who believed in multiple levels of meaning that all higher levels rested on and had to rest on the natural level. It served as a solid and eternal foundation for all truth.162 At the same time it was also the presentation of truth in its most powerful, most holy, and fullest form, for it contained within it the other levels of meaning.163
Swedenborg also believed that the natural meaning served as the only healthy origin of doctrine and the only healthy test of that doctrine.164 He was against dogma and so felt that all doctrines should be tested often against the measure of the Divine Word in its natural sense. This was so because that level of meaning presented the fullness, the holiness, and the power of truth and because it was the level that could be understood with assurance. Once again, to Swedenborg theology was to be based on the plain teachings of Scripture and not the other way around.
Swedenborg was skeptical of the ability of human understanding alone to be the measure of all things. His greatest complaint about traditionalism and about rationalism was the tendency of both to rely on human understanding of Scripture, whether supportive or not. For Swedenborg the only reliable measure was the Lord's words in His Word plainly taught in the natural sense. This is why he did indeed study the Bible and why he accepted the argument of faith as superior to both the arguments of reason and of experience.
Swedenborg taught that there were two types of truth in the natural sense, genuine truth and apparent truth.165 Genuine truth exists in those Scriptural statements which reveal not only the natural meaning, but also at the same time an internal meaning or the internal meanings. An example of genuine truth is that there is one God, which is true on all levels. Apparent truth exists in those statements which hide the internal meanings in what can be only understood naturally. The former are rare, and the latter are very common, such as all the stories of biblical characters, including Jesus. In order to arrive at a sight of internal truth within statements of apparent truth the science of correspondences must be applied.
This science, or systematic application of knowledge, was based on the concept of the spiritual world coexisting with the natural world in such a way that the former flows into the latter giving it life, while the latter acts as a necessary foundation for the former, allowing it to live. The two worlds need each other. In the same way internal and external truth need each other to exist, for their relationship is the same. Everything of this world, then, exists from the inflowing of a spiritual force, and the two respond to each other, thus correspondence. If a person were to become aware of what force produced the natural object, event, and the like, he would then know the hidden spiritual or celestial meaning of that thing. And every time he read the term for that thing in the Bible, he would know its meaning. For example, water corresponds to truth in that as water cleanses and gives life to the body, so does truth clean and vitalize the spirit or the mind. Every mention of water in the Bible refers internally to truth in the human mind—or in the church, or in the Lord, depending on the level of meaning.
Swedenborg believed that he had received the mission to reveal this exegetical method to the human race and the results of that method as he applied it to many passages in the Word. He felt that through him the Lord had revealed the hidden meanings of the Word and the means by which other people could find meanings still hidden in passages he did not discuss.166 But to do this a person needed a working knowledge of correspondences and the sight of genuine truth, both of which he could gain from Swedenborg's works. He also needed one more thing, personal enlightenment.167
As the Reformers had declared the need for enlightenment and the Divine will to give it to those who were worthy, so too did Swedenborg declare. But there was a major difference between the two. The Reformers increasingly felt that their enlightened understanding of the Bible was superior to the plain teachings of the Bible, and in this they were like the Catholic traditionalists they were opposing. With both the Reformers and the Catholics it was not just a matter of faith over reason, but also of theology over Scripture. Swedenborg strongly and clearly stated that one's own theology must be tested by the plain teachings of Scripture in its natural sense, for one could be sure that God did indeed speak to him there.
Another difference between Swedenborg and the Reformers was in the manner a person could and would gain enlightenment. For the Reformers it was a matter of Divine grace bestowed on those who already believed. For Swedenborg it was a matter of Divine bestowal on anyone who approached the Word with humility, with sincerity, with the desire to see truth for its own sake, and with the desire to become a good or better person. To such a person the Lord has entrusted and would entrust His truth.
In summarizing, Swedenborg hearkens back to the early period of the Christian Church, a period he strongly admired, in his acceptance of hidden meanings in the Bible. But he did not live in that period. He was a modern scholar who submitted his study of the Bible to reason and to observation from experience as well as to faith. To him it was not a matter of which level of meaning needed attention, for truth in all its forms is needed and desirable. Attention ought to be given to all the levels, for they all make a unity. A student of the Bible ought to examine first the natural sense, and upon this foundation he ought to inquire into the mysteries of faith by searching in a healthy way for the meanings hidden within that natural sense. Then he would see the unity of truth as there is a unity in a person who has a soul, a mind and a body.
According to the Heavenly Doctrines revealed through Swedenborg Christianity began in purity but became increasingly corrupt over the centuries, beginning with the fourth century. In this decline it became increasingly external with greater concern for worldly pursuits such as power and wealth. This externalization is reflected in the history of exegesis. In the first period the greatest attention was given to the internal or hidden meanings of the biblical passages. But with the fourth century came the increasing attention to and concern for the literal meaning of the passages. This tendency developed into both the rationalistic evaluation of the Bible and its opposite, the total acceptance of the literal meaning as absolute truth. These belong to the modern period. Swedenborg in the beginning of this period opposed both views and returned to the idea of internal meanings. In this way he was combating the externalization process.
Exegesis and the New Church top
Although Swedenborg did not begin a new religion, nor did he actively seek to do so, he did begin a new religious movement. Certain members of this movement formed an organized religion first distinct from and then separate from Christianity, so different were the claims and the theology of Swedenborg's works. In the early part of this new religion, called the New Church, there was an active interest in the modern exegetical method as it grew in popularity and use. Two of the first scholars in this church, Samuel Noble in England and Immanuel Tafel in Germany, extensively applied the modern method to aid in their own understanding of the Bible, using Swedenborg as their guide and inspiration. Nobody in the formation of the New Church opposed the use of the critical method in the study of the Bible's natural sense.
Opposition did arise, however, after a few decades when increasingly biblical criticism became negative, first with the French and then with the Germans. This opposition increased in the late nineteenth century for then the New Church was firmly established only in England and North America, and at that time the negative aspects of the modern critical method became acceptable to English and American scholars. As in many parts of western civilization, to the members of the New Church the term biblical criticism carried a very negative connotation for it was seen as a tool of wicked men striving to destroy the Bible's sacredness and importance.
In the last few decades two branches of the New Church, the Conference in Britain and the Convention in North America, have accepted biblical criticism because of its decreasing negative qualities and because of its usefulness in understanding the natural sense of the Word. On the other hand, the other two branches in western civilization, the General Church and the Lord's New Church, both primarily in North America, have maintained their suspicion and hostility toward biblical criticism, presumably because their founding fathers examined it when it was at its height of negativity. Occasionally individuals have pursued the results of modern exegesis and have used them in their own work. These individuals include George deCharms, leader of the General Church for a long time, Hugo Odhner, recognized as one of the best scholars of the General Church, and Ormond Odhner, who taught some exegesis in the General Church's theological school. But still the General Church fears modern exegesis.
This is unfortunate because the attitude is based on ignorance of the methodology employed in current exegesis and in the value of its discoveries. The General Church has accepted much of these discoveries as factual, not knowing their origin, and so it has seen the value of biblical scholarship without recognizing it. The situation is unfortunate for another and greater reason as well. Since it is doctrinally established on the concept of levels of meaning within the Word, the New Church needs biblical scholarship because of its purpose to establish the literal meaning of the Bible, and that level for the New Church is the basis for the others. A full understanding of the deeper meanings depends to some extent on an understanding of the natural sense. And the modern exegetical method with its use of historical and literary analysis is the most dependable way to gain that understanding.
Biblical scholarship has four stages to it, and each stage is important. As in any form of scholarship the scholar begins with assumptions, and these assumptions greatly affect his scholarship. Medieval scholars assumed that the biblical view of the world was correct, and their studies were built on this. The negative scholars of the modern period assumed that miracles were impossible, and their interpretation of the Bible reflected that view. Today the more liberal scholars make the same assumption, while the more conservative scholars assume that miracles did and can occur, and the products of their study reflect these assumptions. The second stage consists of the methods used in biblical scholarship which are listed and defined above (p. 203205). These are the means by which evidence is obtained, evidence of a historical, or literary, or cultural nature. The third stage consists of the thought processes used in the determination of what evidence is significant, how the evidence relates to what is already known, and the like. The fourth stage is the formation of conclusions which are the product of the previous three stages: assumptions, disciplined search and reflection.
The General Church has avoided contemporary biblical scholarship because of its own assumption that that scholarship is all negative and destructive to its faith. It is the case that many assumptions from both liberal and conservative Christians are opposed to the assumptions made by General Church members. But the General Church does not need to accept these assumptions. On the other hand, it would benefit from its acceptance of the methods of inquiry and reflection used by modern exegesis. It could then use them in conjunction with its own assumptions to form its own conclusions, but conclusions which are based on solid scholarship.
At the beginning of this article there was a quote about the modern age's loss of the sight of the Bible's sacredness. This has been the result of many factors, such as increasing materialism and the exposure to many different value systems. One other factor has been the use of modern exegesis to point out the errors and inconsistencies of the Bible, making it more and more seem like a merely human product. But this does not need to be the case. There are other explanations as to why these errors and inconsistencies appear. The traditional denominations of Christianity accept the conclusion that the Bible is just like any other book, and consequently these denominations are waning in those areas where biblical scholarship is practiced, namely in Europe and North America (but growing where it is not). On the other hand, evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity is growing everywhere, largely because of its insistence on the holiness of the Bible and its historicity as presented. The first position denies the Bible's sacredness, while fundamentalists for a large part oppose reason. Swedenborg has presented a view with support that declares both the sacredness of the Bible and the value of reason. He explains the presence of errors and inconsistencies as apparent truths and shows how they are to be understood using the Word itself. He points to the importance of a natural understanding of the Word, and this can be gained by a use of modern exegesis.
1 John H. Hayes, An Introduction
to Old Testament Study (Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1979), p. 85.
2 Edgar Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 6.
3 John H. Hayes and Carl R. Holladay, Biblical Exegesis: A Beginner's Handbook (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), p. 5.
4 John Rogerson, "An Outline of the History of the Old Testament Study" in Beginning Old Testament Study, edited by John Rogerson (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1982), p. 6f.
5 Hayes and Holladay, p. 6f.
6 Ibid., p. 27.
7 Ibid., p. 23.
8 Ibid., p. 18.
9 Ibid., p. 24f.
10 Ibid., p. 25f.
11 Krentz, p. v.
12 Ibid., p. vf.
13 Rogerson, p. 7.
14 Hayes and Holladay, p. 18.
15 Rogerson, p. 7.
16 Krentz, p. 1.
17 Hayes and Holladay, p. 19.
18 Hayes, p. 86.
19 Hayes and Holladay, p. 19.
20 Krentz, p. 6.
21 Hayes, p. 94.
22 Ibid., p. 91f.
23 Rogerson, p. 8. It is interesting to note that these two criteria remain in today's exegesis, and that only one other criterion has joined them as the basis of exegetical work-historical criticism. And this last criterion became available only in the eighteenth century when it was developed for secular study.
24 It is perhaps interesting to note here that Jewish and Christian exegetes were in contact with each other and that they both formed a similar exegetical process following similar methods and accepting exegesis as having one function, to understand the Bible better in order to give greater faith and life to their respective communities. However, they did differ in one important area. Rabbis insisted that the Old Testament laws were still valid while Christians felt the laws were no longer valid. Jews accepted their Bible, the Christian Old Testament, as fully Divine. Christians felt that the Old Testament was replaced by the New Testament. See Hayes, p. 95.
25 Hayes, p. 92. See also Hayes and Holladay, p. 20.
26 Hayes and Holladay, p. 20.
27 Hayes, p. 93.
28 Ibid., p. 92, and Hayes and Holladay, p. 20.
29 Hayes, p. 88f.
30 Hayes, p. 88.
31 Krentz, p. 6.
32 Rogerson, p. 9.
33 Hayes, p. 93.
34 Ibid., p. 95.
35 Ibid., p. 92f., and Hayes and Holladay, p. 21.
36 Hayes, p. 92f.
37 Rogerson, p. 9f.
38 Ibid., p. 10.
39 Hayes, p. 89.
40 Ibid., p. 90f.
41 Ibid., p. 91.
42 Rogerson, p. 13. These same levels are also called: a) straightforward or historical; b) allegorical, spiritual or symbolic; c) tropological, moral or ethical; and d) analogical, eschatological or heavenly (Hayes and Holladay, p. 21).
43 Quoted in Hayes and Holladay, p. 21.
44 Hayes, p. 95f.
45 Ibid., p. 96.
46 Rogerson, p. 11.
47 Ibid., p. 12.
48 Ibid., p. 12f.
49 Hayes, p. 96.
50 Ibid., p. 97.
51 Ibid., p. 97f.
52 Quoted in Hayes, p. 99, from H. Hailperin, Rashi and the Christian Scholars (Pittsburgh, PA: U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1963), p. 256f.
53 Quoted in Hayes, p. 99, from Hailperin, p. 257.
54 Hayes, p. 99f.
55 Ibid., p. 100.
56 Krentz, p. 7.
57 Grant, p. 105f.
58 Krentz, p. 7f., and Hayes, p. 100ff.
59 Hayes, p. 100f.
60 Ibid., p. 101.
61 Ibid., p. 101f.
62 Krentz, p. 8.
63 Quoted in Hayes and Holladay, p. 21f.
64 Hayes, p. 102.
65 Ibid., p. 102f.
66 Krentz, p. 9.
67 Hayes, p. 103.
68 Ibid., p. 103f.
69 Hayes and Holladay, p. 22.
70 Krentz, p. 9.
71 Rogerson, p. 13.
72 Ibid., p. 13f.
73 Ibid., p. 14.
74 Krentz, p. 10.
75 Hayes, p. 104.
76 Hayes and Holladay, p. 22.
77 Krentz, p. 8.
78 Ibid., p. 10.
79 Hayes, p. 104.
80 Ibid., p. 104f.
81 Rogerson, p. 14.
82 Ibid., p. 14.
83 Hayes, p. 105.
84 Krentz, p. 11.
85 Ibid., p. 10f.
86 Hayes, p. 105f.
87 Ibid., p. 106.
88 Krentz, p. 11.
89 Ibid., p. 11.
90 Ibid., p. 13.
91 Ibid., p. 13.
92 Ibid., p. 13f.
93 Hayes, p. 106.
94 Ibid., p. 113.
95 Krentz, p. 12.
96 Hayes, p. 110.
97 Grant, p. 126, and Krentz, p. 14.
98 Krentz, p. 14.
99 Ibid., p. 15.
100 Rogerson, p. 15.
101 Hayes, p. 111.
102 Ibid., p. 112.
103 Ibid., p. 112f.
104 Krentz, p. 15.
105 Ibid., p. 15.
106 Ibid., p. 12.
107 Ibid., p. 16.
108 Hayes, p. 113.
109 Rogerson, p. 15f.
110 Krentz, p. 16.
111 Hayes, p. 113.
112 Ibid., p. 113f.
113 Krentz, p. 16.
114 Ibid., p. 16.
115 Ibid., p. 16f.
116 Ibid., p. 16.
117 Hayes, p. 114.
118 Krentz, p. 17.
119 Hayes, p. 114.
120 Krentz, p. 17.
121 Rogerson, p. 16.
122 Krentz, p. 18f.
123 Rogerson, p. 16.
124 Krentz, p. 21.
125 Ibid., p. 18.
126 Hayes, p. 115.
127 Krentz, p. 22.
128 See Krentz, p. 18.
129 Hayes, p. 115f.
130 Krentz, p. 20.
131 Rogerson, p. 17.
132 Ibid., p. 17.
133 Krentz, p. 24.
134 Ibid., p. 24.
135 Hayes, p. 117.
136 Rogerson, p. 19.
137 Ibid., p. 22.
138 Krentz, p. 29.
139 Rogerson, p. 23.
140 Krentz, p. 25f.
141 Ibid., p. 29.
142 Ibid., p. 30.
143 Ibid., p. 27f.
144 Ibid., p. 30.
145 Ibid., p. 30f.
146 Ibid., p. 31.
147 Rogerson, p. 17.
148 Ibid., p. 19.
149 Krentz, p. 2.
150 True Christian Religion 776.
151 True Christian Religion 91.
152 Arcana Coelestia 301, 2124, 2385, 3833:2, 4214; Heaven and Hell 353:3.
153 Spiritual Diary 5709f.
154 Divine Providence 219:3 and Apocalypse Explained 569.
155 Arcana Coelestia 2568, 2588.
156 This is expressly stated in Swedenborg's opinion of linguistic critics who do not concern themselves with the quest for truth. Spiritual Diary 2040f. [Note: this is the one statement which clearly indicates that Swedenborg was aware of biblical scholarship.]
157 Apocalypse Revealed 53 and True Christian Religion 265.
158 Swedenborg did not apply his exegesis to form a canon, but felt that the canon was revealed to him. He states this canon in Arcana Coelestia 10325.
159 Perhaps Swedenborg was the first to notice that the Israelites were henotheists, or people who believed in the existence of many gods but who were willing to worship only one in the belief that he was supreme. See Arcana Coelestia 7401, 4847, 10566; Apolcalypse Explained 815:9.
160 E.g. Word 6.
161 Arcana Coelestia 4279:3. See also Apocalypse Explained 1066:3.
162 Word 2731.
163 Ibid., 3739.
164 Ibid., 5056.
165 For example, see Word 40, 55.
166 True Christian Religion 780.
167 Word 5760 and True Christian Religion 207f.