Code exegesis

There are people who exegete Scripture as if it is code. I call it code exegesis and it is over three years since I intended to explain it more fully.

As Scripture clearly has Old Testament types of Christ and symbols of various spiritual matters, this has developed into a form of allegorising that sees codes in Scripture, to such an extent that there are books suggesting the Bible is one prolonged secret code with hidden meanings. This is wrong, but there are milder forms of it that go undetected by many.

Allegories and types are not mysteries to be uncoded but illustrations to instruct. The mysteries about which the Scripture speaks are altogether different from allegories and types.

Allegorizing was a common form of biblical interpretation in earlier times and continues till the present time, but there is no generic principle of biblical interpretation for such allegorising.

The Bible is the Word of God so let us begin with words themselves before moving on to wider matters.

Words

Some people interpret Scripture and individual words with a predetermined template. For example, whenever they read about repentance in Scripture, some people interpret it as evangelical repentance. But repentance is simply a word with the meaning ‘to change one’s mind’. One can change one’s mind for the worse – from bad to worse – as well as for the better.

On the other hand, evangelical repentance is “towards God”. The word ‘repentance’ needs an adjective or object to determine the meaning at any given place. Words need to be interpreted in their context.

Leaven

Another common error is to interpret leaven as if it has only one use and meaning in Scripture. It has not. Some interpret leaven as sin and this is used to explain other passages of Scripture. Thus ‘leaven’ is ‘code for sin’. This is wrong and I have already dealt with this ‘code exegesis’ in an earlier post. Leaven is a metaphor used in different ways, determined by the context.

However, these differences illustrate the necessity of determining the sense in which a metaphor is being used. It may be used in one sense in one context, and used in another sense in another context. Fire may be used to illustrate destruction or it may be used to illustrate purification.

Typology

The same is true of typology, which I define as “the study of biblical metaphors concerning the scheme of salvation”. It is a branch of exegesis. Just as there is good and bad exegesis, so there is good and bad typology yielding different identifications of ‘types’ in the Old Testament.

A type illustrates the antitype only partially, in particular respects but not in all respects. Thus Adam was ‘a type of Christ’ Rom 5:14 in the sense that he was the head of the Covenant of Works, comparable to Lord Jesus Christ as the head of the Covenant of Grace and of Redemption; compare 1Cor 15:22 and 2Cor 5:14. However, Adam sinned and fell in the garden of Eden whereas Jesus stood against the devil’s temptations in the wilderness and in the garden of Gethsemane. Adam was a type only in some respects but not in all respects. Similarly with all types in Old Testament Scripture.

The God of numbers

‘He counts the number of the stars, He names them – every one.

Great is our Lord, and of great power. His wisdom search can none.’

Scottish metrical psalms – Ps 147:4

The whole of creation is based upon numbers and mathematics. There is no doubt that our Creator is the Supreme Mathematician. To help the non-mathematical person grasp this, consider how analogue television and magnetic tape changed to digital technology on computer screens, so the vista of a whole landscape and the intricacies of music can be ‘reduced’ to electronic digital code – numbers. Our body is made of particles and so on. Even consciousness can be described in mathematical patterns.

However, not everyone understands numbers, statistics, probabilities and equations. So although science uses these things, God does not speak to us by numbers but in words – the Word of God.

Thoughts and words

We reveal our thoughts as words and God reveals His thoughts to us in words, and not in numbers. Jesus is the Personal Word of God and the Bible is the written Word. It is not difficult for His Holy Spirit to inspire the written Scriptures. However, there are some who think that a mathematical code behind the Bible ‘reveals’ the true message to us. This is ‘code exegesis’ gone wild, this time with numbers instead of words.

Numbers

Just as words can be misinterpreted, so can numbers. Some numbers in Scripture are used in a significant manner, not least the number of witnesses to establish facts. Examples are numerous, but similar exegetical errors can occur here. There is a temptation to impose significant numbers on exegesis. Thus the Trinity is wrongly inserted where the number three seems significant. Seven seems to be the biblical number of perfection and eight even more so as the number of ‘new beginnings’ in the context of circumcision and the Sabbath. While there is a suggestion of David being ‘a new beginning’ as the eighth son after his seven half-brothers, yet there is nothing ‘perfect’ about David’s seven half-brothers, although these numbers can be used as a mnemonic instead of forcing or imposing an unwarranted allegory upon them.

However, some people turn the Word of God into numbers. One example is using the numbers of the chapters in the book of Psalms to interpret events in the 20th and 21st centuries from 1901 to 2050. One simple way to show the problem with this is that the numbering of the psalms in the Hebrew and LXX Bibles is different from the King James Version which is used in this code exegesis. Prophetic errors are manifest but if such prophets ‘hit it right’ it has the danger of authenticating their exegesis. World events may be useful as mnemonics for the number and content of some Psalms, but this is not Bible exegesis.

Illustrations, mnemonics and memory

Such study is not lost, however, as these allusions could be used profitably as mnemonics for the sake of memory. We need as many helps as possible to remember Scripture and a sermon with three or four alterations of the letter D may serve for a short while during and after the sermon – until the next sermon knocks them out of one’s memory. How much better for a preacher to give the people a simple mnemonic by which to remember biblical facts.

Metaphors and similes

In Old Testament times ordinary people did not have personal copies of Scripture. So the Old Testament is full of metaphors and similes, not only to explain biblical truth but also to help memory by illustrations. Would that preachers understood this and used effective biblical memory aids such as metaphors, similes and illustrations just as Scripture and the Lord Jesus Christ did, to ‘fasten them’ in the memory.

“The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth. The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies.”

Ecc 12:10

Indeed, Hebrew itself is a concrete language using visual symbolism for the Old Testament church when it was “under tutors and governors” Gal 4:2, whereas the Greek of the New Testament is a more conceptual language conveying the philosophical concepts and nuances of Christian theology. Jesus told His apostles that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth Jn 16:13, and He inspired them to record it in the Greek language.

Biblical metaphors and similes can be grouped into frequent and infrequent ones. It is amazing to study the variety of infrequent metaphors, many occurring only once. These have a value in themselves, but I have often thought that they reflect particular usages at the time of their use, and just as vocabulary can be use to locate dialects to particular geographical areas I suspect that greater study of the rare biblical metaphors could be used as dating tools to locate and date the penmen of the biblical manuscripts. I have no time for such a study but, meanwhile, I gather them together during my Bible study.

Allegories in preaching and the practice of typology

There is no need for more books disputing each person’s opinions on types and allegories in the Old Testament for there are no biblical principles to establish what are essentially personal opinions. This is how ‘code exegesis’ has developed and run amok both in the past and in the present. What is necessary is an exegetical theology demonstrating proper biblical principles of exegesis and how to apply them in scriptural exegesis.

There is no biblical definition of typology because it is an invented term for ‘the study of biblical metaphors concerning the scheme of salvation’, just as ‘sacrament’ is an invented term to describe a particular biblical feature.

Typology is branch of exegesis and there is good and bad exegesis yielding good and bad typology identifying different ‘types’ in Scripture.

There is no biblical definition of ‘a type’ because ‘a type’ is simply a metaphor illustrating something in the antitype. Good exegesis of Scripture will yield types that “commend themselves to every man’s conscience” 2Cor 4:2.

In practice, there is no need for a preacher to say that such and such a person, symbol, metaphor or event is ‘a type of Christ’ or ‘of redemption’ or ‘of the church’, if he is not sure about it. All he needs to assert is that he is using it is an illustration of or a mnenomic for some aspect of the Saviour and His work. This keeps within the bounds of legitimate application if not of exegesis, and this is, indeed, the biblical usage of the word ‘type’ in Rom 5:14. The Greek word tupos is used 16 times in the New Testament, as well as in various cognate Greek words, and it translated most frequently as ‘an example’. Tupos ‘a type’ refers basically to the concept of ‘being illustrative of’ rather than being the ill-defined dogmatic technical term that it has become.

Illustrations

Like the word ‘sacrament’, typology is a manmade term for a biblical concept arising from ‘a type of Christ’ Rom 5:14. It is no wonder that definitions for typology vary and opinions vary about identifying ‘types’. There is no reason why there should not be other ‘types’ beside ‘types of Christ’ and not only do they exist but Scripture asserts so. The tabernacle in the wilderness was based upon a type or pattern showed to Moses in mount Sinai Heb 8:5.

The Exodus, wilderness journey and crossing the Jordan have been frequently allegorized or at least utilised to illustrate the journey of the visible church collectively on the one hand and individually on the other hand for the spiritual experience of the godly person. The biblical basis for doing so is in Heb 3:15–Heb 4:9 and Paul does so in 1Cor 10:2-4. The epistle to the Hebrews teaches us that there are many things still to be properly understood from Old Testament Scripture Heb 5:11-14, and Paul demonstrates that Moses, the mediator of the Old Testament, was illustrative or ‘a type’ of Christ, the Mediator of the New Testament. He shows how Melchisedek was illustrative of Christ and His work, showing similarities with Melchisedek and dissimilarities from the order of Aaron, although Aaron was in other respects a type of Christ.

Whether any given matter is a type, a symbol, an allegory or not, almost all of them can be profitably used as illustrative even if not actually or truly symbolical of spiritual truths, and they can act as mnemonics. However, they cannot establish doctrine that is not clearly taught in Scripture.

Anti-intellectualism
Fanciful allegorisation and code exegesis may impress some people, but most people will tolerate nonsense only so long. The history of anti-intellectualism is full of lessons.

The Dark Ages of biblical ignorance lasted a long time, being mirrored now in the 21st century. After the 16th-century European Reformation recovered the Gospel, anti-intellectual Germany pietism left the field clear for German rationalism and higher criticism to destroy faith in the Bible – “overthrowing the faith of some” 2Tim 2:8.

Fanciful allegorical interpretation of the Bible gave credibility and a foothold to 18th-century rationalism. The anti-intellectual interaction with science in the 19th century opened the pathway to evolutionary pseudo-science. To hold their ground anti-intellectual religious experience was engineered during 19th-century revivalism, against which Dr John Kennedy in the Highlands of Scotland and Robert Lewis Dabney in the American south issued clarion calls. This anti-intellectual emotionalism gave way to superficial Christianity throughout the 20th century, overrun by the secularism and World Wars of the 20th century. Rampant secularism with its inevitable greed and corruption has exposed 21st-century society to the counter-scientific movement, anti-intellectual mysticism, New Ageism, the gaia hypothesis and the new Green religion with its climate hysteria, teenage anxieties and civil unrest.

It is time to return to biblical preaching:

“Because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge.”

Ecc 12:9

A summary of exegetical mistakes can be viewed here.

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