Methodological Considerations


Today conservative Protestant exegetes typically use an analytical method of determining the meaning of Scripture by grammatical and linguistic methods and a comparison of Scriptures. Scripture interprets Scripture, and clear Scripture interprets unclear Scripture.

Two problems arise. One is that in reading the Early Church Fathers, the first method is never used by them. It cannot then be said that in any way this method is of value in recovering a so-called “lost” early Christianity, as the method is, I think, post- Enlightenment without any historical basis. The insistence upon the part of some that this is the right method to determine or recover correct theology is contradictory to its historical absence: how could God have expected the early Church to use a method of Scriptural interpretation that did not arrive for over a thousand years?

The second is that in order for clear Scripture to interpret unclear Scripture, one must find clear Scripture, that is, without ambiguous meaning. The problem there is that one must be selective, as I have seen different people insist certain Scriptures are clearly proving one thing while others insist those Scriptures are unclear, and those others present other Scriptures as clear, which the first group then rejects as clear.

So I think if someone is going to be insistent on recovering early Christianity, he must insist on using approaches employed by the early church, including typological and allegorical approaches which are prevalent in the ECF, in contrast to the modern linguistic analysis some are fond of.

Foundational differences in Scriptural interpretation techniques seem to lie at the bottom of our ability to reconcile Catholic and Protestant theological differences. While this is not the only problem, it is a significant one.

Just a thought.


More than that. It is never used by the New Testament writers in interpreting the Old Testament. This is a cause of serious embarrassment to conservative Protestant Biblical scholars who adhere to this method. They cannot, like liberals, simply say that the New Testament writers interpreted Scripture badly. So they have to say that the NT writers did so by special divine inspiration but should not be imitated. This is, in my opinion, an extremely bad argument, given that they were clearly interpreting Scripture in a manner that was normal in that culture, not in some special manner available only to people who are divinely inspired.



Thats a good point:thumbsup:

care to expand on what you mean by typographical and allegorical method?


I’ll probably do a poor job, but here goes. The typographical method consists of identifying something in the Old Testament and its fulfillment in the New. David, the righteous king is a type of Christ. Sacrifice in the OT is a type of Calvary. The tabernacle is a type of the Temple. The book of Hebrews uses typpgraphical interpretation extensively to explain OT concepts in the NT.

The allegorical method, now generally discounted, applies a meaning to the passage that requires a great deal of interpretation. Augustine was very fond of it. In the story of the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22) the ram is identified as Christ rather than being a type of Christ. Isaac is one for whom the ram is substituted rather than being a type. But allegorical interpretation goes much further than that, often inserting a meaning that is significantly different from any intent of the author. Augustine, in commenting on Psalm 13:6, for example, states that silver purified 7 times relates to the 7 beatitudes, and draws conclusions on the meaning of the psalm on this basis. I think Origen was fond of allegory and it is encountered in other ECFs.
Paul uses it in Galatians 4:24 in contrasting Sarah and Hagar and states that it is allegory.

Today Catholics defend Mary as the New Ark of the Covenant on the basis of a typological interpretation of Scripture which is roundly rejected by many Protestants - if they encounter it outside the confines of the New Testament. How inconsistent. On this thread I want to stay away from that issue but focus on the methodology.


Thanks for these insights, TS. They are very interesting.


First of all: Hi, Truthstalker. Good to hear from you.

Regarding this quote: This seems quite true to me; in fact, I am almost positive I have used this line of argument myself when discussing (for example) Matthew’s use of O.T. prophecies, which seem so wrenched out of context for his own purposes.

However, I’m stuck here. In other words, they STILL seem so wrenched out of context as to be almost embarrassing at times.

So I’m open to this discussion, if for no other reason than to help myself out. Clarifying exegetical methodology might not seem like much of a self-help program, but let’s see. :slight_smile:


I tend to agree with Henri de Lubac that the distinction between typology and allegory doesn’t hold up very well. Certainly some allegories/typologies are more fanciful than others! But the Fathers themselves used the terms more or less interchangeably.



One of the most intriguing explanations I’ve come across, from the Protestant Reformer Martin Bucer, is that there was an oral Messianic tradition taught by the scribes on the Sabbath. Bucer seems to think that by Jesus’ time this tradition was in competition with a rival rabbinic tradition which eventually turned into post-Christian “Judaism.” Bucer saw this “false tradition” of rabbinic Judaism as parallel to medieval Catholic tradition. But he thought that the NT use of Scripture was only explicable on the hypothesis that first-century Jews were aware of an oral tradition giving the true sense of the OT.



I can see this as a possibility. It is still difficult for me to see some of the NT use of Scripture as the “true sense.”

It reminds me of a story from the 1800s; some women in a local area had been wearing a hair style known as the “top-knot” style, and a local minister didn’t like it. So he preached on “Let him who is on the housetop not come down,” pulling out of this verse, “Top-knot, come down.” Matthew’s Gospel is not quite so egregious, BUT: comes close at times?


for at the present day, now that the whole world has embraced the faith, the Jews argue that when Isaiah says, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,” the Hebrew word denotes a young woman, not a virgin, that is to say, the word is Almah, not Bethulah, a position which, farther on, we shall dispute more in detail.

  1. Isaiah tells of the mystery of our faith and hope: Isaiah 7:14 “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.”** I know that the Jews are accustomed to meet us with the objection that in Hebrew the word Almah does not mean a virgin, but a young woman. And, to speak truth, a virgin is properly called Bethulah, but a young woman, **or a girl, is not Almah, but Naarah!What then is the meaning of Almah? A hidden virgin, that is, not merely virgin, but a virgin and something more, because not every virgin is hidden, shut off from the occasional sight of men. Then again, Rebecca, on account of her extreme purity, and because she was a type of the Church which she represented in her own virginity, is described in Genesis as Almah, not Bethulah, as may clearly be proved from the words of Abraham’s servant, spoken by him in Mesopotamia:“And he said, O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now thou do prosper my way which I go: behold I stand by the fountain of water; and let it come to pass, that the maiden which comes forth to draw, to whom I shall say, Give me, I pray you, a little water of this pitcher to drink; and she shall say to me, Both drink thou, and I will also draw for your camels: let the same be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.” Where he speaks of the maiden coming forth to draw water, the Hebrew word is Almah, that is, a virgin secluded, and guarded by her parents with extreme care. Or, if this be not so, let them at least show me where the word is applied to married women as well, and I will confess my ignorance. “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” If virginity be not preferred to marriage, why did not the Holy Spirit choose a married woman, or a widow? For at that time Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser, was alive, distinguished for purity, and always free to devote herself to prayers and fasting in the temple of God. If the life, and good works, and fasting without virginity can merit the advent of the Holy Spirit, she might well have been the mother of our Lord. Let us hasten to the rest: Isaiah 37:22 “The virgin daughter of Zion has despised you and laughed you to scorn.” To her whom he called daughter the prophet also gave the title virgin, for fear that if he spoke only of a daughter, it might be supposed that she was married. This is the virgin daughter whom elsewhere he thus addresses: Isaiah 54:1 “Sing, O barren, you that dost not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, you that did not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate, than the children of the married wife, says the Lord.” This is she of whom God by the mouth of Jeremiah speaks, saying: “Can a maid forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire.” Concerning her we read of a great miracle in the same prophecy —that a woman should compass a man, and that the Father of all things should be contained in a virgin’s womb.

So, we have Jerome employing “Protestant exegesis” – the “analytical method of determining the meaning of Scripture by grammatical and linguistic methods and a comparison of Scriptures. Scripture interprets Scripture, and clear Scripture interprets unclear Scripture.”



I don’t know if I would say that I feel typological methods of interpretation ever feel wrenched out of context. They may seem that way, but I’ve always viewed typology as a kind of divine foreshadowing. When something is foreshadowed in a good work of fiction, it doesn’t jump out at you that foreshadowing IS going on until you get to the end, and until you delve into the book, reading it through again. Such foreshadowing may seem odd to someone who’s only read the book once, but genius to someone to whom the book is an old favorite. Matthew in particular, writing to the Jews, who would have suffused with Old Testament passages, prophecy, and, as suggested, a living rabbinical tradition, might not have deemed it so strange to use the passages he did in the method he did.

As to the passages Daniel mentioned, I doubt that TS meant to suggest that such methods were invalid, unhelpful, or unknown to the Church Fathers. (Though in using the words “never used”, I’m sure TS was just making a generalization, perhaps almost never would be more appropriate.) I don’t find it strange or inconsistent for Jerome of all people to use such methods…considering his genius for translation, I would find it unusual if he did not fall back onto linguistic analysis to prove his point. And I always got the impression from his writings that he was what we would today call a “debate junkie”, who wants to use every method possible to prove his point. Still, I think it’s an interesting topic in general, as the Church Fathers do seem to rely most heavily on allegory and typology.


True. I will consider this some more. Thanks.


It was a generalization. I was unaware of Jerome’s passage, for example. I tend to think of the ECFs as earlier than Jerome (changing the definition to support my argument is a logical foul :o ) and now I’m tempted to look at the first two generations to see what they used. But I do think that overall the methodology of interpretation used by the apostles in writing Scripture (and the successive generation) would probably get you flunked out of seminary today. Where that leaves us, I wonder.


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