I am currently reading “On the Cosmic Mystery of Christ” by Maximus the Confessor (580-662). It is a collection of his writings translated into English and published by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Maximus is important because he helped defend and shape the dyothelite view of Christ (that he had two wills, both human and divine) against the monothelite view promoted by Phyrrus. The dyothelite view was eventually accepted by the Church at the Sixth Ecumenical Council in 681. It is upheld by the Reformed Confessions (see Westminster 8.2) either explicitly or by implication.
I noticed something succinctly written in the introduction to that work regarding a particular approach to exegesis in the early church. The writer states:
Maximus reveals his debt to the Alexandrian hermeneutical tradition, including the principle that the Holy Spirit has inserted “obstacles” in Scripture to prompt us to explore its deeper mysteries. Maximus demonstrates as well his keen ability to develop spiritual doctrine from the multiple senses of the scriptural text. (p.23)
This may seem a passing comment on Maximus’s approach to biblical interpretation. However, it prompted me to think about the Reformed approach to Scripture, where it converges, and where it diverges from this understanding.
Speaking generally, there were two schools of interpretation in the ancient church: Alexandrian and Antiochian. The Alexandrian school tended to focus more on allegorical interpretation as described above: the Scripture’s literal meaning points to a deeper meaning that is not perceived on the surface of the text. Clement of Alexandria, Didymus the Blind, Origen, and Maximus are representative of this school.
The Antiochian school, on the other hand, tended to focus more on the literal meaning of the text. Perhaps the most prominent figure of the Antiochian school is John Chrysostom, the great preacher of the East.
As the church developed its understanding of how to interpret Scripture, eventually the “four-fold” senses of Scripture emerged: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogic (all but the literal being understood as different modes of the “spiritual sense” of Scripture).
A good explanation at a lay level can be found in this document published by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops:
Aquinas, in his Summa, affirmed the four-fold sense of Scripture but privileged the literal sense over the spiritual sense. Thus, over time the classical approaches of both Alexandria and Antioch became part of the church’s approach to Scripture.
The Reformed, in approaching the text of Scripture, took these senses and modified them. They began by asserting their understanding of man – namely, as totally depraved apart from Christ, and – as one in Christ – led by the Spirit while also warring against the flesh.
Thus, as readers, men come to the text of Scripture either outside of Christ or in Christ. To those outside of Christ, what Scripture teaches about salvation is shown forth to them. However, apart from the illumination of the Holy Spirit, men will never come to a saving understanding of the truth. Those in Christ, when they come to the text, find that not everything in Scripture is clearly laid down (indeed, Peter acknowledged this about the writings of Paul). (See Westminster 1.6)
However (and this is the beautiful thing!), by attending to the ordinary means of grace (by prayer, disciplined Scripture reading, attending to the sacraments, and fellowship with the church), one can find that all that is sufficient to be known is made plain to those united to Christ. We call this the “perspecuity” of Scripture. (See Westminster 1.7).
From there, the Reformed also make a claim about how hermeneutics – the interpretation of Scripture – should be done.
The Reformed recognize only one sense of Scripture: the literal. However, this literal sense yields multiple consequential truths (which we call good and necessary consequences) which may be ascertained from the text. This is rooted in the Reformed understanding of God’s sovereignty: if God inspired the text, then He also knows all of the consequences of the text. Thus, as we’ve explored before, if a reading is “good” (e.g it tends toward holiness, righteousness, and the glory of God) and necessary (it can be derived by proximity to the literal sense of Scripture), then it is valid.
Thus, the Reformed see a literal sense of Scripture and derivative consequential truths which allow for application to the life of the believer and the building up of the Church.
In conclusion, this means that the Reformed may agree with certain “spiritual sense” applications of the text, with qualifications. If those senses can be closely derived from the text and do not disagree with what Scripture says elsewhere, then they can be received as valid readings. (See Westminster 1.9).
The underlying point to all of this is that Scripture is God’s revelation to man for his good and for building him up in Christ. God does not place obstacles in the way to that end. It is clear and does not act as a stumbling block to the believer.
He does require the use of those means He has given to his children so that they may more deeply understanding His revealed will. When we use those means, He is faithful to guide and instruct us in His Word.