Brevard Childs on Biblical Interpretation in the Reformation

A few days ago, I cited Brevard Childs’ book The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture in reference to what was going on in the debate between Antioch and Alexandria. I promised to add another quote where Childs’ weighs in on the Reformation as it relates to the historical and spiritual senses of scripture. Here it is:

Among the Reformers, both Luther and Calvin directed much criticism against the traditional fourfold form of multiple meanings within scripture. Their attacks focused on the theological dangers that they perceived in the allegorical method. Luther argued with much force against the threat of blunting the power and clarity of God’s Word by offering endless spiritual options. Calvin objected to seeing the literal and the spiritual senses pulled apart rather than in a single, straightforward meaning. Yet in actual practice, both Luther and Calvin were able to extend their interpretation of the literal/historical sense to apply existentially to the needs of contemporary congregations.

The great strength of the Reformers’ interpretation was in recovering the living voice of God in the written Word that called forth a response from a people fully anchored in time and space. Particularly Calvin’s understanding of the “plains sense” of the text allowed him to balance the restraints of the Bible’s literal/historical sense with the theological contours of the Christian faith. Luther’s appeal to a dialectical reading of the book of Isaiah moved between the letter and the spirit in a dynamic fashion and allowed him to hold in a fruitful theological tension the literal and spiritual dimension of the text. Both Reformers continued in different ways the earlier patristic concern that the interpreter strive to maintain the prophetic vision according to its proper skopus. In the debates between Luther and Erasmus regarding the interpretation of scripture, one can see an early adumbration of many of the hermeneutical issues that would explode in the Enlightenment’s claim for the interpreter’s rational autonomy in developing an allegedly objective reading independent of Christian tradition.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to the church was not the discovery that a myriad of other secular interpretive options were available for reading the Bible. Rather, it was the growing loss of confidence within the church itself as to whether it actually possessed in the Bible a sacred scripture given as a gracious gift of divine revelation to guide and instruct in the way of salvation.

The Struggle, pgs. 303-304.

Again, understanding and relating the various “senses” of scripture has been the “struggle” of the Christian church almost from the beginning! Gaining skill in the interpretive activity takes time and hard work, but it also take reliance upon the help of the Holy Spirit. Learning from the example of the Reformers – and others in Church history – is indeed a worthy exercise.

We do indeed have a sacred text whose words strike the unbelieving world as folly – at least when those words are used theologically in any kind of normative or prescriptive way. We need to have believing lenses in place when reading this text as God’s word to us!

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Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church
Anaheim, CA