Spinoza on “the interpretation of Scripture”

Spinoza applied the scientific method (which was developed in order to conquer nature) to the reading of Scripture, and this became what is now known as the “historical-critical method.” His view was that religious conflict in Europe was a result of differing interpretation on key biblical passages. He developed this method of reading Scripture in order to bring about universal agreement on its meaning. The method is exceedingly powerful (like the scientific method) and it was for a long time, and mostly still is, the only method of Bible study taught in seminaries and colleges. It is often taught and used without any reference to its philosophical roots. Like the scientific method applied to nature, it does not allow for a spiritual or supernatural component in reading the Bible (or any other book). Being merely natural, a devotional aspect has to be attached to it, rather artificially and as an afterthought. So, like the relation of modern science to nature, there is the conflict in Biblical circles about the difference between “conquering” scripture and “understanding” scripture. Modern biblical scholarship is reluctant to throw out the method because of fears regarding “free for all” interpretation of scripture, but some quarters have also acknowledged the inherent danger of this disecting and critiquing method upon any devotional relationship to it. Various alternative methods have been developed (ie, “historical-narrative” method and neo-patristic reading) in order to try and keep the desired scholarly objectivity while allowing room for devotion.

“If we would separate ourselves from the crowd and escape from theological prejudices, instead of rashly accepting human commentaries for Divine documents, we must consider the true method of interpreting Scripture and dwell upon it at some length: for if we remain in ignorance of this we cannot know, certainly, what the Bible and the Holy Spirit wish to teach.

I may sum up the matter by saying that the method of interpreting Scripture does not widely differ from the method of interpreting nature — in fact, it is almost the same. For as the interpretation of nature consists in the examination of the history of nature, and therefrom deducing definitions of natural phenomena on certain fixed axioms, so Scriptural interpretation proceeds by the examination of Scripture, and inferring the intention of its authors as a legitimate conclusion from its fundamental principles. By working in this manner everyone will always advance without danger of error — that is, if they admit no principles for interpreting Scripture, and discussing its contents save such as they find in Scripture itself — and will be able with equal security to discuss what surpasses our understanding, and what is known by the natural light of reason.

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