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The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation

From the Early Church to Modern Practice

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For the better part of fifteen centuries, Christians read Scripture on two complementary levels--the literal and the spiritual--and their interpretation was regulated by the common doctrine passed down in the rule of faith. In the modern period, a gradual but significant shift occurred in Bible reading. The spiritual sense became marginalized in favor of the literal sense, which came to be equated with human authorial intent. Doctrinal traditions were barred from consideration, and the Bible came to be read and interpreted like any other book.

This brief, accessible introduction to the history of biblical interpretation examines key turning points and figures and explains the principles behind the often confusing biblical interpretations of the early church. The author, an expert on biblical interpretation and church history, examines the assumptions behind premodern exegesis that were obscured in the modern era, arguing for a recovery of the premodern spiritual habits of reading Scripture. This work will be useful as a supplementary textbook for courses in interpretation and church history.


1. Introduction to the History of Biblical Interpretation
Part 1: Historical Survey
2. Earliest Christian Exegesis
3. Later Patristic Exegesis
4. Medieval Exegesis
5. Early Modern Exegesis
6. The Rise of Historical-Critical Exegesis
Part 2: Letter and Spirit
7. (Ir)Reconcilable Differences?
8. A Way Forward


"This helpful introductory overview of the history of biblical interpretation--pre-modern and modern--is a real achievement, punctuated as it is with significant insights, robust critique, and sympathetic assessment. The climax is a brave attempt to be like the scribe who brings out of his treasure things both old and new. Readers should be enticed into further exploration and experiment."

Frances Young, emeritus professor, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom

"Stanglin's history of biblical interpretation is a gem! Accessible, well informed, and balanced, it provides a remarkable bird's-eye view while at the same time zooming in on specific exegetical examples. Stanglin's analysis of the move from premodern to modern exegesis is retrieval theology at its best."

Hans Boersma, Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Chair in Ascetical Theology, Nashotah House

"This book does three things well: It provides a compelling overview of how the tradition has been aware of the necessity of a more than (although not less than) literal reading of the Bible; it offers insight into what was at stake in the decades just prior to the rise of the critical methods applied to the Bible; it speaks up for the unfashionable vocation of the exegete-theologian. Heartily recommended."

Mark W. Elliott, University of St. Andrews

"Critical biblical scholars have long scoffed at the proliferating excesses of premodern allegorists. Theological interpreters have recently returned the favor, scoffing at the constrictive reductionism of critical readers. Stanglin's history of Christian interpretation cuts through the polemics. He not only demonstrates the superiority of premodern interpretation but also shows the real gains (and losses) of modern scholarship. This is an outstanding contribution and a welcome addition to any course on biblical hermeneutics."

Peter Leithart, president, Theopolis Institute

"Interest in pre-modern ways of reading the Bible has grown so quickly that we now require direction through the territory. Stanglin's The Letter and Spirit is a clear, sure-footed, and responsible guide that should become preeminent in the genre. More than a handbook that deftly covers the historical ground, Stanglin's lucid overview gets at the deeper motives and methods that have shaped traditional ways of reading Scripture. His sensitive detailing of how these attitudes shifted over time provides nuance to his judgments, which aim to present interpretive approaches that can take seriously and humbly Scripture's inherent power to challenge and change us, as well as elicit our love. This is a superb book for students, pastors, and all thoughtful Christians."

Ephraim Radner, professor of historical theology, Wycliffe College, University of Toronto

"In this lively and accessible introduction, Keith Stanglin makes a strong case for the exegetical value of the history of interpretation. Readers will learn a great deal from his skillful and sure-footed review of ancient, medieval, and modern interpreters, and they will be challenged by his call for a more balanced--and more profound--engagement with the Christian Bible."

Michael Legaspi, associate professor of Old Testament, St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary

The Author

  1. Keith D. Stanglin
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    Keith D. Stanglin

    Keith D. Stanglin (PhD, Calvin Theological Seminary) is executive director of the Center for Christian Studies in Austin, Texas. He previously taught at Heritage Christian University, Austin Graduate School of Theology, and Harding University. Stanglin is the...

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