“Biblical” Interpretation - More Than One Meaning?
Have you ever read the New Testament’s use of Old Testament Scripture and became puzzled that the authors didn’t employ historical-grammatical exegesis on the text, but rather employed what looked like a metaphorical interpretation, mistranslation or an odd application of the Old Testament that disregarded the Old Testament context? (Or is that just me?)
Here are some examples of the issues I am referring to:
- How did Peter turn Psalm 16, a Psalm, when read contextually, about David’s relationship with God, into a Psalm about the resurrection of Christ?
- How did Paul come to the conclusion that Christ was “the Rock” in 1 Cor. 10:4 (referring to Exodus 17:6 and Numbers 20:11)?
- Why do Paul and the Author of Hebrews prooftext a certain part of Psalm 8(v4-6) in 1 Cor. 15:27 and Hebrews 2:6-8 to make a certain Messianic point when the grammatical-historical point of the Psalm is about human domain over the natural world (Psalm 8:7-8)?
- In Matthew 2:14-15, the author quotes a part of Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I called My Son”) making the text out to be a future/prophetic text. However, the text in its original context is recounting the history of Israel as a reprimand of their disobedience (Hosea 11:1-11).
In my previous post, I looked at two weaknesses of historical-grammatical exegesis. In this post, I want to show how our interpretation methods aren’t always “biblical”.
Our Interpretive History 
Though hermeneutics is a word coined in the modern era, the practice stretches back to ancient philosophy. The idea of interpretation was very important to Jews and Christians and their relations to their religious texts (Philo, Origin, Augustine, Aquinas). With Martin Luther and the idea of Sola Scriptura, the questioning of the traditional interpretations of the dominant Catholic Church at the time started to take hold in Europe. With Bibles being translated into native tongues and literacy becoming more common, the general public began to read and interpret Scripture on an individual level.
Within the movement of early modern hermeneutics, Benedict de Spinoza contended that the historical background and the author behind a given holy text needed to be taken into account when doing interpretation. Spinoza, along with the influential Luther, Calvin and Giambattisto Vico, set the tone for modern religious hermeneutics. These four set the foundation for what is known as grammatical-historical hermeneutics.
Our Modern Hermeneutics
Due to space, I won’t be able to elaborate on critical/liberation/feminist hermeneutics in this post, but it is worth noting that there are many different forms, methodologies and pre-suppositions in different hermeneutical methods. However, the most common one you’ll find in Christianity today is grammatical-historical hermeneutics. Stemming from this school of thought is Kevin Vanhoozer’s thesis of hermeneutics of communicative action:
My thesis is twofold: that texts have determinate natures, and that authors determine what these are… The author is not only the cause of the text, but also the agent who determines what the text counts as. In other words, the author is responsible both for the existence of the text (that it is) and for its speciﬁc nature (what it is). Nevertheless, the text remains what it is even in the absence of the author. A “last will and testament,” for example, comes into its own especially in the author’s absence. When an author pens a last will and testament, he or she puts a legal as well as a linguistic system into motion and lays an obligation on the reader not to ignore his or her intentions. How much more obliged are readers of the New Testament when, in the closing lines, the reader is enjoined neither to add to nor to take away any words (Rev. 22: 18–19). 
While this is a great summary of modern exegesis, if we were to apply these principles to The Gospels, Paul’s Epistles and Hebrews whenever they interpreted the Old Testament, more often than not, they would fail the test. I will use Paul’s use of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians 4:21-31 from the narrative found in Genesis 21:1-21. 
Paul, Figurative Interpretation vs Historical Interpretation
To be fair, Paul does make known that he is about to take the story of Hagar and Sarah as figurative (v24). However, this does throw up a flag for us. Why does Paul feel the need to interpret figuratively? Why can’t he pick a passage that has a plain meaning that will lead to his conclusion? Even still, does Paul’s figurative interpretation line up with the original author’s interpretation?
Reading the Abraham/Hagar/Sarah narrative as part of the Pentateuch, the narrative function of Sarah and her descendants (of promise) is that they are to become the nation of Israel. That is, they are the children who will receive the covenant at Sinai and establish and live in the physical city/nation of God. Hagar and her children are not natives to the promises of Israel - they are outsiders and slaves. They are to become a separate nation (Genesis 21:13).
However, Paul’s figurative interpretation re-arranges these roles. Israel and the physical Jerusalem are now represented by Hagar and the slave children (v 24,25) and the Christians (“you, brothers and sisters” - v28) are now the children of promise. In Paul’s interpretation, the former outsiders become the children of promise and the children of promise now become the outsiders and slaves. Then Paul makes the powerful citation of Genesis 21:10: “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.”
In the context of Galatians, this meant the exclusion of the Judaizers/false teachers in the church. This interpretation also has strong, and largely debated, implications of the future of an ethnic Israel and what the Christian relationship to the Law is.
But back to the topic at hand: Paul’s interpretation stands in contention with modern hermeneutics, Genesis’ authorial intention and the historical understanding of the Sarah/Hagar narrative. But Paul, credited as an inspired writer of the New Testament, has the upper hand in interpretation here and he gets the pin of being “biblical”. Is Paul opening the door of different interpretation methods? The Early Church fathers shared some of these same flexible methods.
I believe there is meaning in a text. But is there more than one meaning in a text? Is there more than one “biblical” interpretation? I will continue to explore this issue.
 See my post, “The Gospel in Acts: Peter’s Gospel in Acts 2” (http://thepoorinspirit.tumblr.com/post/24541309463/the-gospel-in-acts-peters-gospel-in-acts-2)
 For further reading on the history of hermeneutics: Ramberg, Bjørn and Gjesdal, Kristin, “Hermeneutics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), (http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2009/entries/hermeneutics/)
 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), pp. 228–229, Emphasis mine. Martinus Wisse also comments on this exact passage in Scripture Between Identity and Creativity in a footnote (pg. 168): “Notice that the reference to Revelation does precisely what Vanhoozer rejects: It adds something beyond the author’s intention. The text from Revelation certainly did not originally point to the whole of the New Testament canon!”
 For further reading and insight: Dale B. Martin, Lecture 16: Paul as Jewish Theologian (http://oyc.yale.edu/transcript/884/rlst-152)