A method of exposition, which owes its distinction to the celebrated J. S. Semler, the father of the destructive school of German Rationalism, is known as the Accommodation Theory. According to this theory the Scripture teachings respect-ing miracles, vicarious and expiatory sacrifice, the resurrection, eternal judgment, and the existence of angels and demons, are to be regarded as an accommodation to the superstitious notions, prejudices, and ignorance of the times. The supernatural was thus set aside. Semler became possessed with the idea that we must distinguish between religion and theology, and between personal piety and the public teaching of the Church. He rejected the doctrine of the Divine inspiration of the Scriptures, and argued that, as the Old Testament was written for the Jews, whose religious notions were narrow and faulty, we cannot accept its teachings as a general rule of faith. Matthew's Gospel, he held, was intended for Jews outside of Palestine, and John's Gospel for Christians who had more or less of Grecian culture. Paul at first adapted himself to Jewish modes of thought with the hope of winning over many of his countrymen to Christianity, but failing in this, he turned to the Gentiles, and became pre-eminent in holding up Christianity as the religion for all men. The different books of Scripture were, accordingly, designed to serve only a temporary purpose, and many of their statements may be summarily set aside as untrue.
The fatal objection to this method of interpretation is that it necessarily impugns the veracity and honor of the sacred writers, and of the Son of God himself. It represents them as conniving at the errors and ignorance of men, and confirming them and the readers of the Scriptures in such ignorance and error. If such a principle be admitted into our expositions of the Bible, we at once lose our moorings, and drift out upon an open sea of conjecture and uncertainty.
Moral Interpretation of Kant
A passing notice should also be taken of what is commonly called the Moral Interpretation, and which owes its origin to the celebrated philosopher of Konivsberg, Immanuel, Kant. The prominence given to the pare reason, and the idealism maintained in his metaphysical system, naturally led to the practice of making the Scriptures bend to the preconceived demands of reason. For, although the whole Scripture be given by inspiration of God, it has for its, practical value and purpose the moral improvement of man. Hence, if the literal and historical sense of a given passage yield no profitable moral lesson, such as. commends itself to the practical reason, we are at liberty to set it aside, and attach to the words such a meaning as is compatible with the religion of reason. It is maintained that such expositions are not to be charged with insincerity, inasmuch as they are not to be set forth as the meaning strictly intended by the sacred writers, bat only as a meaning which the writers may possibly have intended.(8) The only real value of the Scriptures is to illustrate and confirm the religion of reason.
It is easy to see that such a system of interpretation, which professedly ignores the grammatical and historical sense of the Bible, can have no reliable or self-consistent rules. Like the mystical and allegorical methods, it leaves every thing subject to the peculiar faith or fancy of the interpreter.
So open to criticism and objection are all the above-mentioned methods of interpretation, that we need not be surprised to find them offset by other extremes.
Of all rationalistic theories the Naturalistic is the most violent and radical. A rigid application of this theory is exhibited in Paulus' Commentary on the New Testament,(9) in which it is maintained that the biblical critic should always distinguish between what is fact and what is mere opinion. He accepts the historical truth of the Gospel narratives, but holds that the mode of accounting for them is a matter of opinion. He rejects all supernatural agency in human affairs, and explains the miracles of Jesus either as acts of kindness, or exhibitions of medical skill, or illustrations of personal sagacity and tact, recorded in a manner peculiar to the age and opinions of the different writers. Jesus' walking on the sea was really a walking on the shore; but the boat was all the time so near the shore, that when Peter jumped into the sea Jesus could reach and rescue him from the shore. The excitement was so great, and the impression on the disciples so deep, that it seemed to them as if Jesus had miraculously walked on the sea, and come to their help. The apparent miracle of making five loaves feed five thousand people was done simply by the example, which Jesus bade his disciples set, of distributing of their own little store to those immediately about them. This example was promptly followed by other companies, and it was found that there was more than sufficient food for all. Lazarus did not really die, but fell into a swoon, and was supposed to be dead. But Jesus suspected the real state of the case, and coming to the tomb at the opportune moment, happily found that his suspicions were correct; and his wisdom and power in the case made a profound and lasting impression.
This style of exposition, however, was soon seen to set at naught the rational laws of human speech, and to undermine the credibility of all ancient history. It exposed the sacred books to all manner of ridicule and satire, and only for a little time awakened any considerable interest.
The Mythical Theory
The Naturalistic method of interpretation was followed by the Mythical. Its most distinguished representative was David Friedrich Strauss, whose Life of Jesus (Das Leben Jesu), first published in 1835, created a profound sensation in the Christian world. The Mythical theory, as developed and rigidly carried out by Strauss, was a logical and self-consistent application to biblical exposition of the Hegelian (pantheistic) doctrine that the idea of God and of the absolute is neither shot forth miraculously, nor revealed in the individual, but developed in the consciousness of humanity. According to Strauss, the Messianic idea was gradu-ally developed in the expectations and yearnings of the Jewish nation, and at the time Jesus appeared it was ripening into full maturity. The Christ was to spring from the line of David, be born at Bethlehem, be a prophet like Moses, and speak words of infallible wisdom. His age should be full of signs and wonders. The eyes of the blind should be opened, the ears of the deaf should be unstopped, and the tongue of the dumb should sing. Amid these hopes and expectations Jesus arose, an Israelite of remarkable beauty and force of character, who, by his personal excellence and wise discourse, made an overwhelming impression upon his immediate friends and followers. After his decease, his disciples not only yielded to the conviction that he must have risen from the dead, but began at once to associate with him all their Messianic ideals. Their argument was: "Such and such things must have pertained to the Christ; Jesus was the Christ; therefore such and such things happened to him."(10) The visit of the wise men from the East was suggested by Balaam's prophecy of the "star out of Jacob" (Num. 24:17). The flight of the holy family into Egypt was worked up out of Moses' flight into Midian; and the slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem out of Pharaoh's order to destroy every male among the infant Israelites of Egypt. The miraculous feeding of the five thousand with a few loaves of bread was appro-priated from the Old Testament story of the manna. The trans--figuration in the high mountain apart was drawn from the accounts of Moses and Elijah in the mount of God. In short, Christ did not institute the Christian Church, and send forth his gospel, as narrated in the New Testament; rather, the Christ of the Gospels was the mythical creation of the early Church. Adoring enthusiasts clothed the memory of the man Jesus with all that could enhance his name and character as the Messiah of the world. But what is fact and what is fiction must be determined by critical analysis. Sometimes it may be impossible to draw the dividing line.