In his book Edwards the Exegete (see my review here), Doug Sweeney gives the following brief but illuminating description of the shift that took place with the rise of “grammatical-historical exegesis,” which holds sway in liberal-theological and many evangelical circles today:

As a host of theologians have bemoaned in recent years, Christians lost something crucial in the triumph of grammatical-historical exegesis and its rather new conception of the literal sense of Scripture. They lost their old conviction that the Bible hangs together by the power of the Spirit. Thus they lost their old facility for interpreting the scope and larger meanings of the canon. . . . Ancient history, not the knowledge and love of God has now become the holy grail of exegesis.[1]

In contrast, Sweeney suggests that Edwards, who was interpreting Scripture “on the edge of the Enlightenment,” can offer something that responds to this shift: “a learned and creative model of biblical exposition that is critical and edifying, historical and spiritual.”[2] Edwards is certainly not the only exegete to offer something. One could look to several biblical interpreters in church history and find examples of exegesis aimed at both the knowledge and the love of God. Edwards, however, is a particularly interesting example because he lived during a transition into more critical methods of reading the Bible, and yet while he found the new learning fascinating, he still read Scripture in ways that resonated with exegesis for centuries preceding him.

What should not be missed, though, is Sweeney’s incisive assessment of exegesis in our day. Not only has historical criticism reshaped the contours of biblical interpretation, but also more seemingly benign approaches in evangelical circles have reinterpreted the meaning of “the literal sense” in ways that have moved us away from historic methods of interpretation. (For more on how the Protestant watchword sola Scriptura relates to these changes historically and theologically, see my review of Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word and Allen and Swain’s Reformed Catholicity).

Ingrained within those methods was a God-centered approach to Scripture that freed interpreters from being constrained by only what historical and archaeological studies confirmed. Instead, recognizing that the whole of Scripture was inspired by the Holy Spirit as its divine author (as the Spirit worked in conjunction with human authors), Edwards and others sought out interpretations of the biblical text both that were consistent with the entire canon of Scripture and that allowed them to focus on knowing and loving God. 

In this vein, one thinks back to Augustine, whose influence was felt in Christian exegesis throughout the Middle Ages and into the Reformation era. In his classic work on interpreting the Bible, De Doctrina Christiana (see a cheaper edition of the book here), he certainly called for a robust engagement with Scripture:

The wisdom of what a person says is in direct proportion to his progress in learning the holy scriptures—and I am not speaking of intensive reading or memorization, but real understanding and careful investigation of their meaning. Some people read them but neglect them; by their reading they profit in knowledge, by their neglect they forfeit understanding. Those who remember the words less closely but penetrate to the heart of scripture with the eyes of their own heart are much to be preferred, but better than either is the person who not only quotes scripture when he chooses but also understands it as he should.[3]

Augustine clearly commended the “intensive” study and “penetrat[ion]” of Scripture. Yet he also unequivocally called for reading the Bible with spiritual sensitivity and thus concluded, reflecting on 1 Corinthians 13:13 and 1 Timothy 1:5, that exegetes should relate “faith, hope, and love” to “every interpretation of the holy scriptures.”[4] Or to borrow Sweeney’s phrase, he held to a model that was both “historical and spiritual,” though in a much different context than Edwards—and though Edwards was even more attuned to issues of criticism, living in the Age of Lights as he did. But regardless of the context, and notwithstanding their genuine exegetical differences, both Augustine and Edwards represent a tradition that stands as a potentially helpful corrective to methods that either outright reject or significantly sideline canonical, spiritual approaches in favor of strictly grammatical-historical exegesis—a tradition that seeks to embrace both approaches to pursue a more faithful understanding of Scripture and to promote greater love and knowledge of God.

[1] Doug Sweeney, Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 49.

[2] Sweeney, Edwards the Exegete, 223.

[3] Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, trans. and ed. R. P. H. Green (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 203–5.

[4] Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, 53.