Louis Berkhof was a Reformed theologian best known for his Systematic Theology (1932). He taught for almost four decades at Calvin Theological Seminary and served as its president from 1931-1944. In his work on systematic theology Berkhof followed in the line of John Calvin and embraced the development of Reformed theology by the Dutch theologians Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck.
Definition of Historical Interpretation
Historical Interpretation is ‘the study of Scripture in the light of those historical circumstances that put their stamp on the different books of the Bible’. Berkhof rightly remakrs that Grammital-Historical interpretation is not to be confused with the ‘present day historical-critical method of interpretation, which is based on the philosophy of evolution as applied to history’.
Berkhof goes on to explain that everything contained in the Bible ‘originated in an historical way’, meaning that the Bible records events as they occurred in history. Some things contained in Scripture are supernatural, of course, but in the main, everything is historical. Therefore, it is impossible to understand an author, unless we interpret him in light of his historical context.
NOTE: Berkhof doesn’t address it, but we understand that the ultimate and final author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit, who is timeless and not subject to the characteristics of time, and yet we understand that the Holy Spirit used men in their own times and within their own historical context to address other men living within a certain time and under certain historical circumstances.
Demands on the Exegete
a) Seek to know the author whose work is being studied – his character and life circumstances
In order to know Paul, you should be very familiar with all his writings as well as his life story – Acts 7:58; 8:1-4; 91,2,22,26; 13:46-48; Rom 9:1-3; 1 Cor 15:9; 2 Cor 11; 12:1-11; Gal 1:13-15; 2:11-16; Phil 1:7-8, 12-18; 3:5-14; 1 Tim 1:13-16. Paul was a product of the diaspora, of the rabbinical school of Gamaliel, versed in Hebrew scriptures and culture, very zealous for his traditions, then later a penitent convert and loyal servant of Jesus Christ anxious to give his life in service to Jesus Christ who yearned for the salvation of his kinsmen, etc. To understand Paul, background study on these items should be carried out.
b) Seek to know the environment in which the particular work was written – understand the original recipients and circumstances for the writing.
1) Geographical circumstances – character of scenery (mountains, deserts, landscape, vegetation, climate, etc) adds clarity to Bible study, especially to parables.
Examples: dew of Hermon, glory of Lebanon, excellency of Carmel, rose of Sharon, etc.
NOTE: Berkhof recommends the following works for geography: Robinson’s Biblical Researches, Thomson’s The Land and the Book, Stanley’s Sinai and Palestine, and Smith’s Historical Geography, all dated, but freely available at Google Books.
2) Political Circumstances – a literature of a people is effected by its politics, note especially the varied and complex nature of politics in Israel under wanderings, conquest, judges, and various administrations of kings and the influences of surrounding nations.
1) Original Hearers and Readers – this is most important with occasional writings such as those by the prophets or the epistles. This accounts for the content and tone of each writing.
2) Original Purpose of the Author – the author naturally had some central purpose for his writing, this must be foremost in our mind as we try to interpret what he meant by what he wrote.
NOTE: It is important to study the historical circumstances for a particular piece of writing, but as Berkhof wisely notes, ‘the interpreter should gratefully apply whatever historical knowledge he has at his command, in the interpretation of the Bible, he must be careful not to let his imagination run riot in the exposition of Scripture.’ Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology audio series, while commenting on using tools to help understand the context of a passage wisely counseled the student of Scripture to use as much time and he has available for studying the passage, but no more. In other words, these things are helpful, in so far as you have the time and resources to study them.
Helps For the Exegete
The principle resources for the historical interpretation of Scripture are found in the Bible itself. …it contains the absolute truth, and therefore its information deserves to be preferred to that gleaned from other sources. … The believing conscientious expositor will ask first of all: What does the Bible say?
1) Inscriptions on archeological finds
2) Other historical writings – Josephus, Herodotus, Talmud, etc.
It is possible that the expositor, in studying these sources, will occasionally find that they apparently conflict with the Bible. In such cases, he should not hastily conclude thaht Scripture is mistaken, but must always bear in mind that …the Bible is the infallible Word of God.
REFERENCES: Davidson, Sacred Hermeneutics, pp. 320-333; Milton Terry, Hermeneutical Manual, pp 129-140;
Berkhof, Louis, Principles of Biblical Interpretation, pp 113-132. Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1952.