The Use and Abuse of the Bible: A Brief History of Biblical Interpretation


This, as the author explains, is not a systematic history of biblical application but a series of probes which would, for example, have been very different if it had been written, say, by a Spaniard. The treatment of the evangelists' use of the Old Testament and chapters on the Church up to the Reformation - Melito of Sardis, Irenaeus, Origen, Jerome, Bede, Bernard of Clairveaux and Aquinas - are reasonably representative but then there comes an excursus on Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe and after Luther and the unfortunate near exclusion of Calvin the book veers towards England with chapters on the bible in the 17th Century, John and Charles Wesley and Newman. The book concludes with a perceptive survey of the use of the Bible in the justification of the state of Israel and a rather sketchy description of the Lectio divina.

Wansbrough's customary generosity of spirit is demonstrated in two ways: first, although the title is intriguing, he spends very little time on abuse; and, related to this, he almost always gives those who might be accused of abuse the benefit of the doubt. His judgment on Luther, from a Roman Catholic perspective, for example, is markedly generous although this does not prevent him from destroying Luther's central tenet that the meaning of Scripture for each individual must necessarily coincide with his own interpretation. Wansbrough could and should have explored this dilemma by providing at least one chapter on Biblical literalism after the Enlightenment. He might also have considered at least one chapter on German Biblical studies in the 19th Century.

This is neither a book for beginners nor for academics but sits rather untidily between the two, informative, chatty but not focused on a market, more for a dip than for a sustained read.


  1. The Interpretation of the Old Testament in The New: Philo 65 pages Pentateuch, 5 rest; NT Pentateuch 30%, Psalms 12.5%, Isaiah 15%. Midrash Halakhah (verb: walk) imperative; Midrash Haggadah (verb: narrate) indicative. Qumran and Apostolic Christianity deeply eschatological. NT: Jesus; Paul; apocalyptic' and actualised. Jesus argues rabbinically and Rabbis, not involved in Jesus' arrest, only treated with hostility towards end 1st Century (Matthew). Hillel (c.110BCE-10CE) established rules for use of Scripture, the seven Middoth. Jesus and Paul use methods codified by Hillel. Apocalyptic first Book of Henoch; Isaiah, and Daniel 7.27 behind synoptic apocalyptics: Mark 13; Matthew 24; Luke 21; cf Mark 14.62. Actualisation: cf Elisha 2 Kings 4.42-44 and Mark 6.37-44: command; scepticism; command; feed; eat; surplus. Jesus as fulfilment; Qumran parallels.
  2. The Second Century: Melito of Sardis, the Peri Pascha, a quartodecciman, Johannine, after Quintilian: propositio; narratio; probatio; peroratio; doxology. The paradox of reliance on and hostility to Judaism. John sees Jesus perfect the old; Melito characterises the old as a mould broken by the perfect Christ. Irenaeus and the birth of orthodoxy: scripture must be interpreted within church tradition; one God, the divinity of Jesus and his redeeming work derived from OT and NT; the recapitulation in Christ.
  3. Origen: Origen's Hexapla; scripture must be read prayerfully as a way to the knowledge of God. A spiritualist after Philo and Clement of Alexandria. The spiritual more important than the literal but this leads him to a form of neo Platonism that sees somatikos as inferior to pneumatikos; mystery and hidden meaning, the primacy of allegory. Made heretic in 553 for neoplatonism, speculating where there was no established tradition.
  4. Jerome: Jerome, Latin from Hebrew instead of Greek; read Scripture against Jewish background; firmer material knowledge reduced allegorical excess. Later scholars found LXX sometimes used more developed Hebrew texts than those available to Jerome. Principles: the literal sense must be the foundation of the spiritual sense; the OT is a Christological prequel. Caught between accuracy and the LXX. Augustine said the Vulgate would divide the church; another unforeseen consequence was the Protestant detachment of what became the Apocrypha.
  5. Bede: The Pandect of Cassiodorus. Bede last of the Fathers and major contributor to Glossa Ordinaria; Bede building on Augustine's fourfold principle: history; allegory; moral; anagogical.
  6. The High Middle Ages: Aquinas precedes the mystical with the literal. "There is nothing in scripture that does not relate to Christ or his Church" Applies philosophy to doctrine.
  7. Two Norfolk Ladies: Julian of Norwich uses Scripture as a springboard for imaginative word painting. A Margery Kempe excursus.
  8. Martin Luther: Luther's insertion of "alone" into Romans 3.28. Luther was an ebullient and even intemperate but also a careful exegete; Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520): that the Pope has no authority to interpret Scripture whose meaning must be clear to all; that there are only three sacraments, Baptism, Eucharist and Penance; withholding the cup from the laity is unscriptural; against transubstantiation but later, defining the real presence, says it's simply irrelevant; Scripture validates the church, not vice versa. What he does not recognise (James) cannot be scripture. His exegesis is wholly Christological. Luther says that he can contest the Church's scriptural interpretation on his own account. Sacraments must have a sign and a promise, ruling out marriage and confirmation and, later penance. the Mass is a promise of forgiveness, not a sacrifice; nothing we do can change what we are and grace is not earned. cf Romans 4, we can only have faith in God's promises: "Faith is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew in God". Based on Romans, Luther's theology is entirely biblical.

    Against the nominalism of Ockham &c (Romans 1.18) but Paul was not writing in Romans 1-3 about secondary causality. Paul is actually saying that all humanity is sunk in sin and therefore needs Christ but Luther read this anthropologically to his own detriment.
  9. The Bible in the Politics of Early Seventeenth Century England: The Av to counteract Geneva Bible; the Fast Sermons; culmination in Milton, Dryden and Bunyan.
  10. John and Charles Wesley: The Bible and popular devotion; and revival. Charles believed in 'real presence' and universal salvation. Hymn features: profoundly Biblical; word painting; application; enthusiasm. John: Scripture and experience. Both had personal "conversions" which led them to want to convert England.
  11. Newman: Newman's re-unification of scripture and tradition, based on his theory of organic development, culminated in Dei Verbum; and his handling of science and culture also culminated in Vatican II. Developing Vincent of Lerins, Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ad omnibus creditur, developed tests for theological evolution: preservation of idea; continuity of principles; power of assimilation; early anticipation; logical sequence; preservative additions; lasting vigour. He emphasises the development within Scripture; and its mystical sense, closer to the Alexandrian than the Antiochene which helped him to face the Darwin hypothesis. Always worried about inerrancy and historical inaccuracy, settled by Dei Verbum 12 on authorial intention.
  12. The Bible and the State of Israel: First Zionist conference 1897 "A country without a people for a people without a country"; Balfour Declaration 1917; offered Uganda but Chakim Weizmann dismissed this as unbiblical; British protection of Suez and the Biblical warrant worked together; League of Nations cited Biblical rationale. Problem with borders; Aharoni on David and Solomon, 1 Kings 8.65, confirmed Ezekiel 47.16,20 but this might be post Exilic fiction. Problems of occupancy and conquest. Brandeis promised and Ben Gurion faced the Palestinian problem exacerbated by Hitler. The Declaration of the State of Israel (1948) tendentious: Eretz-Israel only once in OT 1 Samuel 13.19 referring merely to a spine of hills. Three myths:
    • The lightning campaign in Joshua; the herem also fictional;
    • Empty territory a) virtually no inhabitants of Canaan or Palestine; b) cultural inferiority of occupants as Jews made "deserts bloom";
    • Continuity and the denial of exile.
    • The Davidic Empire doubtful his significance is in his humanity, Solomon's in his wisdom; what is important is being chosen, not land occupation. The Jewish state is a falling away from the suffering servant.
  13. Lectio Divina: Dei Verbum: reading publicly and privately is not exclusive to hierarchy; laity involved in transmission; Scripture must be taken as a whole, contra fundamentalism and liberation theology; Trinitarian with the Father the source of revelation, the Son supplying vigour and the Spirit with us.
  14. Guigo II of Grande Chartreuse Scala Claustralium: lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio.