Friday, May 19, 2017

Reformation’s Return to Premillennialism II

     The year was 405 and the brilliant language scholar Jerome had just completed his Latin translation of the entire Bible. It took him twenty-three years to complete, but by the end, the old Latin Bible was replaced with an unsurpassed original language translation from the Greek and Hebrew.  Jerome had been commissioned by Pope Damasus of Rome to make an improved Latin translation. Jerome learned Greek from the famous grammarian Aelius Domatus in Rome, and later Hebrew from an unknown Jewish convert and perfected his Hebrew as he traveled to Syria and the Holy land.

    Romanism was a dying religious and political identity, Constantine had made Christianity his empire’s state religion, and theological debate had grown to the point of councils who had to settle the differences and heresies that were moving throughout Christendom. In August of 410, the Germanic invasion of the city of Rome brought the mighty city down. For 800 years Rome ruled, but on the night of August 24, 410, Rome lost its dominance, and Jerome wrote from his monastery at Bethlehem, “The city which has taken the whole world is itself taken!”

    The completion of the Latin Vulgate (“Common”) introduced Western Christendom to the new standard Bible, the only authorized authoritative Bible by decree in 1546 at the council of Trent. Though the original Jerome edition had been edited by later generations, the basis of the original work is the natural understanding of the reformation – one must start a translation from the source, the original Greek and Hebrew .

    Jerome believed in the literal interpretation method of his day, that is, the method that was passed down to him was based on the threefold method of Origen: historical, symbolic, spiritual.  Indeed, Rome moved to a more allegorical than literal method, but Jerome moved away from Rome to Syria and the Antiochian school which emphasized the historical and literal. By the middle ages, Rome again became the center of Western Christianity and an emphasis upon the allegorical method dominated that Church. Though the threefold method was standard, an expansion of the spiritual was subdivided into three divisions: (i) the allegorical “or what passes as a combination of typology and allegorism,” (ii) tropological or moral interpretation, and (iii) anagogical or how the church now anticipates the church glorified, the eschatological sense (Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, p. 38).

     As you can tell by item (iii) above, the prophetic had moved to allegory, and the simple meaning of Scripture moved to what the official church wanted it to say, not simply what it said! One now must have an official church interpreter in order to understand the Scriptures. Dr. Ramm writes:

 “A passage may have an allegorical meaning. This refers to its future or prophetic meaning and includes allegorical and typological interpretation…. A passage may have an anagogical (eschatological) meaning. It may ‘lead up’ to the Church Triumphant. Thus the Church militant has features about it which anticipates the Church in glory. (iii) a passage may have a tropological meaning, i.e., teach a tropos, a way of life. This is the moral significance of the passage.”  

     What is the problem with this method? The problem has led to gross abuses as they tended to read back into the OT sacramental and clerical system eisegesis (reading into) things that were never intended. On top of this allegorical (mystical) method was place the authority of the church and especially the inerrancy of the Pope, that led to the inquisitions of the later middle ages. The Catholic theologians believe the doctrines of the New Testament are seeds which grow and develop so that the modern Catholic cathedral was contained in seed form in the apostolic Church and justifies the continuance of the apostolic succession from Peter to the Popes of all ages. And tradition becomes equal with Scripture as the authority. Indeed, in Luther’s case, tradition had become more authoritative than Scripture.  

    It is important in this story to move back to the Jewish literal school for it is because of Jewish literalism that Christian literalism endured through the Syrian school of Antioch. As Ramm notes,

“The Christian community was influenced by the Jewish community and the result was a hermeneutical theory which avoided the letterism of the Jews and the allegorism of the Alexandrians.”  

     Just as the Jews influenced the ancient church towards the literal (normal) method of interpretation, it was the Jews that influenced the European church. It was within the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris during the medieval period that the men like Hugo of St. Victor, Richard of St. Victor, and Andrew of St. Victor interacted with Jewish scholars to move to what was called the Victorines – a group of Augustinian theologians that insisted that the mystical or spiritual sense could not be truly known until the Bible had been literally interpreted – true interpretation of the Bible involved syntax, grammar, and exegesis (reading out of), not eisegesis (reading into).

    The most important figure of reformation interpretation came through William of Occam who separated revelation from human reason. Human reason had as its base nature, philosophy, and science. Revelation which was received through faith had it base in salvation and theology. This was contrary to the established teaching of Thomas Aquinas who insisted reason was the mediating link between philosophy and revelation.  Luther expresses Occam’s philosophy well as he writes, “We ought not to criticize, or judge the Scriptures by our mere reason, but diligently, with prayer, meditate thereon, and seek their meaning” (Luther, On God’s Word, IV).

    It is through this new philosophy of Occam that the scientific method used on Scripture and the idea of Scripture alone comes to the front of the Reformation. The gross misunderstanding, manipulation, and misuse of Scripture that came out of the official Catholic Church was one thing, but to go so far as to deny the plain truth of Scripture explained and defended by a learned doctor of theology moved the Western Church to the point of reformation and it was only a matter of time before the corrupt system would be challenged and changed to its core. That challenge came in 1517 as the Augustinian theologian Martin Luther called for a discussion on the facts. He proposed to use the Scriptures to defend his points, but he was going against those who did not agree with his first and only line of defense, the use of the Scriptures as the basis and source of revelatory knowledge.

In the next article we will look at Luther's literalism, its impact upon the church, and Luther's  personal limitations.