Brief survey of the history of hermeneutics – 11. Renaissance and Reformation

by | May 27, 2011 | Hermeneutics, Historical Theology

The Renaissance: The Renaissance was a very complex humanist movement within Europe during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Two of the most important contributions it gave to the Reformation were a return to critical scholarship and philology. What the Renaissance gave to the Reformation, then, was an academic climate of questioning the status quo and seeking to arrive at conclusions based on primary documents. Pelikan comments:

The insistence of humanistic scholars on an understanding of the biblical text based on a fresh reading of the Hebrew and Greek originals …acted as a catalyst in the reconsideration of the doctrine of authority during the age of the Reformation.[1]

This insistence led to the study of Hebrew and Greek grammar, the study of Augustine, and most importantly, the study of Paul and the Bible.

The Reformation: The Reformation was both a break with the negative elements of the past (especially the late medieval doctrine of ecclesiastical authority and the system of human merit theology) and a continuation of the discussion that had been taking place from the beginning. The Bible took center stage at the Reformation due, in part, to the influence of the Renaissance. With this came a renewed interest in Bible interpretation and historical theology, both from primary sources. The maxim ad fontes[2] produced intensified study in the original sources of the Christian tradition – the Bible first and foremost and, secondarily, the Apostolic Fathers, Patristics, and Augustine.

Neither Luther nor Calvin invented or discovered doctrines that had never been discussed before.[3] Luther’s discovery of the gospel of justification sola fide was, first and foremost, a biblical doctrine and a doctrine that all true Christians had believed from the beginning. It had been eclipsed by a system of human merit theology and sacerdotalism, but this does not mean that it never existed prior to Luther.

Calvin was no innovator himself. He built his system of theology on his understanding of Christian Scripture controlled by “the rule of faith.” He produced commentaries that are still influential in our day. The Reformers saw themselves as part of a long line of Christian interpreters, utilizing what they could from previous generations and repudiating, sometimes viciously, what they could not. Though Calvin sought to be a corrector of what he viewed as wrong with elements of the past, on the main, he assumed into his interpretive method the method handed down to him by his university professors – the scholastic method, in distinction from scholastic theology (more on this below).

Mention has been made of how some view the history of Christian interpretation in a mostly negative light. This assessment is, primarily, a post-Enlightenment phenomenon. David Steinmetz, in his book Calvin in Context, discusses Calvin’s interpretation of Isaiah 6:1ff. in the light of the history of interpretation prior to Calvin.[4] Prior to his discussion of the history of interpretation and Isaiah’s text, he notes this about F. W. Farrar.

In 1885 Frederic W. Farrar, chaplain to Queen Victoria and later Dean of Canterbury, delivered the Bampton Lecutres at Oxford on the subject of the history of interpretation. The book is a triumph of what the late Sir Herbert Butterfield of Cambridge called “Whig” historiography. Farrar admired about the past precisely those elements in it most like the present and regarded the present, indeed, as the inevitable culmination of all that was best in the past. The history of exegesis became for Farrar the history of “more or less untenable” conceptions of the Bible, “a history of false suppositions slowly and progressively corrected.” Not surprisingly, Farrar admired Antioch over Alexandria, Luther over Thomas Aquinas, Calvin over Luther, and the moderns [Enlightenment/post-Enlightenment interpreters] over all. Farrar catalogued with obvious delight every strained allegory, every factual inaccuracy, every philological howler committed by precritical exegetes in the name of biblical interpretation. While he admitted that ancient commentaries are full of practical instruction aimed at moral and spiritual edification and that much of this instruction is “of the highest intrinsic value,” he nevertheless warned that frequently such material “has but a slender connexion with the text on which it is founded.”[5]

Steinmetz goes on to show that Calvin’s exegesis of the Isaiah pericope is very similar to the history of interpretation on this text and even goes so far as to say, “While the precritical exegesis of Isaiah 6 is not an exegesis we can simply adopt, it is still not accurate to regard it as arbitrary and strained, of value only for its homiletical asides.”[6] Steinmetz interacts with Farrar after his discussion of Calvin on Isaiah 6 and the history of precritical interpretation on this text:

It is difficult to recognize the exegesis of Isaiah 6 we have just examined in the general description of the history of exegesis which Farrar offered. To be sure, it is true that the older consensus on the historical-critical setting of Isaiah 6 would find few supporters among modern commentators, but the older discussion of these questions does not seem arbitrary or strained, even by modern standards. The judgment of Christian commentators that Isaiah saw the glory of Christ was an exegetical conclusion forced on the commentators by the New Testament itself, though there was a tendency on the part of some commentators–including Calvin–to soften the hard edges of that exegesis.[7]

Farrar assumed critical, Enlightenment categories while interpreting the history of interpretation. This gave his history a slant or bias in a certain direction and explains his overly negative assessment of most of what took place prior to the modern era. Steinmetz concludes:

It is no answer to Farrar to point out that there is a good deal in ancient commentaries which is surprisingly modern even from a historical-critical or philological viewpoint, or to argue that the modern reader can find insight into the “literal” sense of the text in precritical commentaries. That is to admit his principle that precritical exegesis is good in the proportion that it anticipates or agrees with modern exegesis. Nor is it an answer to reply with a tu quoque [Latin, “thou also”] and to list the exegetical atrocities which have been committed from time to time in the name of the historical-critical method, though such a list is disquietingly easy to compile.

The principal value of precritical exegesis is that it is not modern exegesis; it is alien, strange, sometimes even, from our perspective, comic and fantastical. Precisely because it is strange, it provides a constant stimulus to interpreters, offering exegetical suggestions they would never think of or find in any modern book, forcing them again and again to a rereading and reevaluation of the text. But if they immerse themselves not only in the text but also in these alien approaches to the text, they may learn in time to see with eyes not their own sights they could scarcely have imagined and may learn to hear with ears not their own voices too soft for their own ears to detect.[8]

Not only has this modern, Enlightenment mindset infected Farrar it has infected others who look down upon, not only the Reformers, but the post-Reformation Reformed orthodox, as we shall see next.


[1] Jaroslav Pelikan, Reformation of Church and Dogma (Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1985), 8.

[2] Latin for to the sources.

[3] Cf. David C. Steinmetz, Luther in Context (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995) and David C. Steinmetz, Calvin in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

[4] Steinmetz, Calvin in Context, 95-109.

[5] Steinmetz, Calvin in Context, 95. Steinmetz is quoting from Fredric W. Farrar, History of Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979).

[6] Steinmetz, Calvin in Context, 107.

[7] Steinmetz, Calvin in Context, 107.

[8] Steinmetz, Calvin in Context, 107.

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