Sitting in Dr. Akin’s 8am Hermeneutics class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS), I encountered his fervent call to follow the grammatical-historical hermeneutic. This position, I came to learn, was the orthodoxy in hermeneutics for many faculty. I didn’t like it. There was no complexity, no poetry, to this hermeneutical method. In college, I had studied an older, allegorical method to biblical interpretation that seemed more attractive. But by the end of my time at SEBTS, I grew to appreciate the clarity and consistency found through a grammatical-historical approach to reading the Bible.
Attracted to Allegory
I first encountered an allegorical hermeneutic through Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine as part of Harold Siegel’s Ancient Christianity course. Augustine establishes a figurative hermeneutic by distinguishing between “signs,” which exist to point to other things, and “things” which exist only to focus on themselves. This approach let him apply an allegorical method to any passage of Scripture that proved tricky in interpretation or application. Such an approach appeals to my literary side; it considers Scripture to be far less literal than figurative, and it can lead to wild leaps of interpretative logic.
That same school year, I read Dante’s “fourfold method,” which further develops Augustine’s “signs and things” approach to argue that every passage of Scripture has “four senses.” Each text should be read literally (as it reads on the surface), allegorically (where each part of the text stands for something else), morally (for what the text teaches about how to attack sin) and anagogically (every text is pointing to heaven). Sometimes called the sensus plenior, this less literal approach to hermeneutics seemed fascinating. If one reading did not make sense, I could just try another.
As a SEBTS student, I continued to explore questions of biblical interpretation. My professors argued that we ought to employ the grammatical-historical hermeneutic; the openness of allegory and the lack of consensus on what was symbolic and what was literal were clear indications that Scripture should be read according to the grammatical meaning with historical context shedding light whenever possible. Meaning, they argued, was found in the literal words and not in some artful leap of poetic theological intuition.
I continued to feel some attraction to the allegorical method; why could there not a “deeper meaning” hidden behind the text, which diligent meditation would reveal? Paralleling my college and seminary years was a continual return to Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoeia” and his idea of a true myth, which complements a question posed in B.H. Fairchild’s poem “Body and Soul”– “Those are the facts, and the facts are true, but the facts are not the truth.” When considering the opening 11 chapters of Genesis, I wondered if the factual, historical reality of the passages even mattered; what if they were true in some mythological sense?
For two years, I tried to maintain a “true myth” approach to Genesis. The stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the flood and the Tower are true, I thought, whether they are true historically or not. The myths are true, because they, as signs, point to Christ. I thought this view could solve the many debates about Genesis. Yet as my seminary studies continued, I came to realize why I was wrong.
In Romans, Paul presents Christ as the “second Adam.” Because of the Adamic parallel, Christ can redeem sin; as the old line goes, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” If the first Adam is mythical in some way, then the argument falls apart. An historical Christ who died at a definitive point in history, and rose again three literal days later, could not undo the work of a mythical figure. I realized that if I wanted to hold to the Jesus presented in the gospels, then I had to also accept the historical Adam and Eve presented in Genesis.
Such a discovery landed me right back where Dr. Akin wanted me to be, searching the Scripture for the grammatical meaning of the text with contextual information from the historical period unveiling the mysteries conveyed through the syntax. I soon realized that adopting a grammatical-historical reading provides a lens through which to behold God literally working through sinful human beings; such a reading does not condemn an artful understanding, but instead trades leaps of imagination for the certainty of a coherent biblical theology.
Adopting a grammatical-historical reading provides a lens through which to behold God literally working through sinful human beings.Click to tweet
Admiring Without Emulating
Several years later, my studies have brought me back to Augustine’s On Christian Teaching, and I find much to admire. Augustine has a fervent love for Scripture, and contends that the Christian has a duty to study it. At the same time, I come now to Augustine mixing acceptance with criticism. Augustine was a man of his era; he read Scripture allegorically because that was the method of his day. The simpletons took the Greek myths at face value; the educated found hidden meaning within them.
Augustine’s signs method is helpful when Scripture interprets the sign for us. Scripture tells us the “bronze serpent” in Numbers is a sign pointing to Christ, and that Jonah being in the belly of a great fish for “three days and nights” was a sign pointing to the crucifixion and resurrection. But when Scripture does not tell us a thing is a sign, we are wrong to assume something is a sign and allegorize it. Our God is a deity of clarity and order, and he has revealed to us his hidden workings. We need not add to the confusion through the multiplication of allegorical readings.