Hermeneutical Method, Part 1

The second century saw several, very live issues about hermeneutical method, such as the necessity to actualize scripture (i.e., to interpret scripture in a manner consistent with its supreme importance), the necessity to actualize according to rules (e.g., the rule of faith), and the reality that the actualizations are largely determined by community contexts. Therefore, within this context, what shape did the early Christian community’s hermeneutics take? Ireneas fully affirmed scripture’s divinity (as did the rest of the orthodox Christian tradition) and, because of its divinity, its perfection. In the ancient world, however, one assumption and test of divine literature was that it could be allegorized. Hence, when Celsus argued that the Old Testament was not divine because it could not be allegorized, Origen responded by seeking to defend the divinity of the Old Testament by proving that it would yield allegorical meanings [Origen, Against Celsus 1.20 (ANF 4:404)]. Similarly, in polemicizing with pagans, Athenagoras applied the Old Testament directly to his own situation. Moreover, even some heretical, Gnostic groups (e.g., the Valentinians) had a hermeneutic that allowed for the Old Testament’s divine origin, but Marcion and his followers completely rejected idea that the Old Testament originated with the father of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, however, contrary to the willingness of orthodox Christians to allegorize the Old Testament, Marcion generally argued for a literal approach to interpretation.

During this period, orthodox Christians treated some portions of the New Testament as authoritative, and orthodox writers were clearly aware of the New Testament literature. They used it as authoritative, but rarely cited it explicitly as scripture. When the orthodox authors from this period cited the gospels, they cited them as the teachings of Jesus. Paul was cited variously, sometimes by the mention of a book, but most frequently, by an quotation formula like “the apostle [says].” There are a couple references in this period’s literature that cite Paul with “it is written,” but these references involve Paul’s use of the Old Testament.

In contrast with the comparative hesitancy of orthodox Christians to use the New Testament as scripture, heretical groups fully embraced the New Testament very early in order to exploit it for their own purposes and arguments. Heretics were among the first to write commentaries on the New Testament and cite it with “as scripture says.” The heretics also first allegorized the New Testament (and Paul in particular). These developments were possible for some heretical groups because they rejected the Old Testament; therefore, they did not have to wrestle, as did orthodox Christians, with the problem of the old and new aspects of the canon because these heretical groups had only the new. For example, Marcion compiled his own canon in which he omitted the whole Old Testament in addition to Matthew, Mark, and John, instead including edited versions of Luke and Paul.

In this post:

Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Cox
Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Cox

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