How does one interpret Scripture? How does one arrive at the “true” or “accurate” meaning? I propose that there is not such thing. The very assumption betrays an arrogant mentality, that there is one and only one meaning, and we can know what it is.
Take a story like the Prodigal Son, which I have heard a hundred times since I was a child. In my younger years the story had meaning for me as the oldest child in my family. I identified with the older brother in the story. At times I identified with the errant son, needing to return home. Now I tend to identify with the father. (Some days I identify with the pigs in the story.)
A story is told in its original context, but it is interpreted in the hearers context. It has meaning for the hearer based on the hearer’s reality. we know this because even Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John often employ the same stories with different (and sometimes even opposite) meanings. Once told, a story takes on a life of its own and like all of language it only has meaning within context.
What was Jesus’ original intent when he told the story? What was Luke’s intent when he told the story? As Vítor Westhelle asks, “How are we to translate without betraying intent?” (The Scandalous God, loc. 223.)
Throughout Christian history the solution was to recognize multiple layers of meaning. There was the literal meaning, and there was also an allegorical (or spiritual) meaning. One only needs to note how Paul interprets the Old Testament allegorically to find an example of this. Paul is quite free in his understanding of Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael.
There were three commonly accepted forms of allegory: typological, tropological, and anagogical. Thus was born the quadriga, four layers of interpretation:
The quadriga was most clearly described in Scholastic Theology by Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas understood the literal meaning to be the straightforward historical meaning. This is what Luther refers to as the “plain meaning” of the text. It is always the first was to understand the text.
The typological meaning is when the matter of the Old Law are understood in the context of the New Law of Christ. In this way, one could see events of one’s own time and contexts as types in the Scriptures. One looked for analogies between then and now.
The tropological meaning is the moral meaning of the text. These are messages in the stories of things we should do. The moral of the story.
Finally, for Aquinas, the analogical meaning is the eschatological meaning, that which points to the future hope of the world.
These four interpretations were not competing for prominence. They were viewed as complementary. Westhelle points out the hope was to give the reader/hearer the broadest scope of understanding possible, rather than the narrowest. Origen taught that every Scripture has fourfold meaning. Jerusalem can refer to both the earthly city and the heavenly city in John of Patmos’ vision.
The challenge comes when one exalts one to the exclusion of the other. When the Bible speaks of wealth, are we to understand this literally, as earthly wealth, or spiritual, as heavenly wealth and rewards? One text may be used in both ways in different places. Must one be right and one be wrong?
This does not mean all interpretations are equal. There are, obviously, some interpretations I’m very far-fetched. But being mindful of the quadriga engenders a kind of humility when approaching scriptures, one that doesn’t assume we are somehow the all-knowing owners of the one, true, sine qua non interpretation.
A good example to tie this together is Augustine’s interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The man in the ditch is Adam, who is beaten, robbed, and left for dead on his journey from Jerusalem (paradise) to Jericho (his mortality). The Levite and Samaritan who pass by are the Law and the Prophets. The Good Samaritan is Christ who binds up our wounds with oil (hope) and wine (Spirit). He takes us the inn (the church) and pays for the care with two coins (the two precepts of Love: God and neighbor)…
You get the idea. Some have accepted this is the one and only true interpretation of the script. But do we really believe this is what Jesus meant when he first told the story? Is it with Luke meant when he wrote it down? Or is it what Augustine comes to understand in his own theological context? are we to drum out all the moral meaning of the text? If so, then why does the text end with Jesus telling the lawyer to, “Go and do likewise”?
For me, that’s too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.
Food for thought.