Brief survey of the history of hermeneutics – 5. Justin to Hippolytus

by | Apr 13, 2011 | Hermeneutics, Historical Theology

1. Intro.

2. Patristics

3. Patristics


5. Justin to Hippolytus

Justin Martyr (circa A.D. 100-165): Justin’s hermeneutic is illustrated in his Dialogue with Trypho. Dockery says, “Through the use of typological exegesis, Justin attempted to persuade Trypho, probably an imaginary dialogue partner, that Judaism was solely a preparation for Christianity and that the latter is certainly superior.”[1] Thiselton’s discussion of Justin agrees with the essence of Dockery’s assessment. He closes it by saying that, in Justin’s writings, “individual passages [of Scripture] often prefigure God’s deed in Christ.”[2] 

Irenaeus (circa A.D. 130-200): Irenaeus is best known for his anti-Gnostic Against Heresies. The governing principle of his hermeneutic was the doctrine of recapitulation, according to Bray.[3] Inscripturated revelation was intended to take us back to what Adam had in the Garden. He viewed Christ as the new or last Adam who started the human race on a path of salvation that culminates in perfection. Though he viewed scriptural revelation as progressive, he denied any progressive or evolutionary view of mankind.[4] Irenaeus say the various epochs of redemptive history structured around four covenants – Adam, Noah, Moses, and the Gospel.[5] 

Irenaeus also wrote On the Apostolic Preaching. According to John Behr, this is the first extant “summary of Christian teaching.”[6] Irenaeus claims to have known Polycarp of Smyrna, who had known the apostles, which makes his work especially important. Behr says that

Irenaeus follows the example of the great speeches in Acts, recounting all the various deeds of God culminating in the exaltation of His crucified Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the bestowal of His Holy Spirit and the gift of a new heart of flesh.[7]

What is striking is that Irenaeus utilizes the Old Testament for “the foundation of his presentation.”[8] He viewed “Christ and Christianity as the fulfillment of the Old Testament by means of a christological-typological reading of the text.”[9] He also saw biblical revelation as salvation history “structured according to the various covenants of God with man.”[10]

 Clement of Alexandria (circa A.D. 150-215): With Clement of Alexandria we come into contact with the Christian allegorical method. He believed that truth was conveyed “in enigmas and symbols, in allegories and metaphor, and in similar figures.”[11] As Thiselton notes, “Hidden meanings abound everywhere. He alludes to Sarah in Genesis as wisdom, and to Hagar as the wisdom of the world. In the Garden of Eden the tree of life meant “divine thought.””[12] Thiselton concludes: 


Clement’s interpretation of Scripture conveys a great contrast to Justin and especially Irenaues. He prepares the way for Origen, his successor. But it is also different from most writers of the New Testament. Already we see a wide range of Christian interpretation, and its response to some key issues.[13]


Notice how the examples of Clement have no correspondence with how Scripture interprets Sarah, Hagar, and the Garden of Eden.

 Tertullian (circa A.D. 160-220): Tertullian is known as probably the second greatest “Western theologian of the patristic period”[14] – second to Augustine. He was a busy apologist of the Christian faith and probably the first to utilize the term Trinity to describe God as one in substance and three in person.[15] Thiselton has some interesting comments about Tertullian’s Against Marcion which introduce us to Tertullian’s hermeneutical methodology. Thiselton says:


Tertullian writes, “The heretic of Pontus [i.e., Marcion] introduces two gods.” Tertullian argues for the unity of God. Why, he asks, should revelation begin only with Paul? Indeed, Jesus reveals the Creator, and he is foretold by the prophets. Many of the laws revealed in the Old Testament are good, including the command to keep the Sabbath. God made promises in the Old Testament, and Moses was his true servant who “prefigured” Christ as a type of Christ.[16]


It is evident that Tertullian, in the midst of apologetic argumentation, sought to utilize the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.

An interesting side-note about Tertullian is that later in life he became a Montanist. Montanism was

[a] second-century prophetic movement that emphasized the *imminent return of Christ and imposed a strict morality on the faithful as they waited and prepared for the end of the world. The designation Montanism arises from the leader of the movement, Montanus, who together with several women served as prophet to the group. Although its leaders did not intend their prophesies to undermine scriptural authority, the movement was nonetheless considered heretical by the emerging church authority.[17]

Hippolytus (circa A.D. 170-236): Hippolytus was a bishop in Rome. Some view him as the most important theologian of the church at Rome in the early church.[18] J. A. Cerrato goes so far as to say, “…few other ancient Christian writers can claim to have influenced the course of biblical interpretation more than did this pastor and preacher.”[19] Hippolytus produced biblical commentaries. Some think he influenced Origen to do the same. Though some of Hippolytus’ commentaries are extant, most are not in good condition or complete, though good enough and complete enough to get a taste of his hermeneutical method. Cerrato says:


The partial nature of the corpus militates against a comprehensive understanding of Hippolytus’s biblical interpretation. We can, however, discern from the extant texts principles and methods he employed as an exegete.[20]

Hippolytus appears to have utilized both allegory and typology in his approach to the Old Testament. His general approach to the Old Testament was “christological.”[21] According to Cerrato, “Like Irenaeus, he begins with a salvation-history outline (the divine economy) of what the ancient Scriptures can be expected to say in light of the advent of Jesus the messiah.”[22] This, as we shall see below, is the approach the New Testament itself utilizes while interpreting the Old. He called it “the “mystical” approach to biblical interpretation”[23] which soon branched into two hermeneutical schools – Alexandria (allegory) and Antioch (typology). Describing Hippolytus’ method of interpretation, Cerrato says:

Thus, for Hippolytus the commentator, special scriptural words and phrases bear a trajectory of analogical meaning whose unfolding is discoverable in the much later experiences of the historic Christian community. Particular narrative events and images in the biblical records of dreams, visions and even erotic experience (Song) are to be interpreted as having become historically realized in the first advent of Christ, as well as in the church, or as projected to become historically realized in his second advent.[24]

His work on biblical prophecy, Daniel and Revelation, has some resemblance to nineteenth- and twentieth century Dispensationalism, according to Cerrato.[25]

Hippolytus is important for several reasons: 1) he continued the salvation-history approach of Irenaeus (This approach shows up again later in our survey.); 2) he viewed the Old Testament christologically, as did others in his day and after; 3) he filtered his interpretation of the Old Testament through the implications of the first advent of Christ, something the New Testament does often); and 4) his “mystical” approach set the stage for the further development of allegory (Alexandria) and typology (Antioch), to which we will now give our attention.

[1] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation, 63. Cf. pp. 64-66 for Dockery’s discussion of Justin’s hermeneutical approach.

[2] Thiselton, Hermeneutics, 97.

[3] Bray, Biblical Interpretation, 81.

[4] Bray, Biblical Interpretation, 81.

[5] St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Translation and Introduction by John Behr, On the Apostolic Preaching (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 8, n. 1.

[6] Behr in On the Apostolic Preaching, 7.

[7] Behr in On the Apostolic Preaching, 7.

[8] Behr in On the Apostolic Preaching, 7.

[9] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation, 67. For an example of Irenaeus’ allegorizing tendency see Johnson, Him We Proclaim, 103.

[10] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation, 67. See p. 69 for a summary of Irenaeus’ hermeneutical practice.

[11] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 5.4.1-2; cf. 5.5-8, as referenced in Thiselton, Hermeneutics, 99, n. 93.

[12] Thiselton, Hermeneutics, 99. Thiselton is referencing Clement, Stromata, 5.12.80 and 5.11.72.

[13] Thiselton, Hermeneutics, 99.

[14] Patzia & Petrotta, PDBS, 112.

[15] Patzia & Petrotta, PDBS, 112.

[16] Thiselton, Hermeneutics, 94-95. Thiselton provides bibliographic information for Tertullian. All references to Tertullian come from Against Marcion, 1.2, 3, 8, 19, 20, 2.18, 21, 26.

[17] PDTT, 81.

[18] Thiselton, Hermeneutics, 100. The regional context of Hippolytus is doubted by some. Cf. the discussion by J. A. Cerrato noted below.

[19] J. A. Cerrato, “Hippolytus” in Donald K. McKim, Editor, Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 524, referenced as DMBI here on out.

[20] Cerrato, “Hippolytus,” 526.

[21] Cerrato, “Hippolytus,” 526.

[22] Cerrato, “Hippolytus,” 526.

[23] Cerrato, “Hippolytus,” 526.

[24] Cerrato, “Hippolytus,” 527.

[25] Cerrato, “Hippolytus,” 527.

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