Where do you imagine the church fathers got their understanding of the nature of the Bible and how to interpret it? From the apostles, right? Where do you imagine the apostles got their understanding of the nature of the Bible and how to interpret it? From Jesus, right? Jesus taught them that the Scriptures (OT) are God’s Word, and that they pointed to him (Luke 24:27, 45; John 5:39). However, modern ‘enlightened’ scholarship demonises the way the apostles and fathers interpreted the Bible. It is branded ‘allegorical’ and written off. I prefer to call it apostolic, referring to the way Jesus, the apostles, and the fathers read the OT. Modern western scholarship has sold us three misconceptions about apostolic interpretation. It is time to expose them using the acronym A-R-E—arbitrary, reader-response, and eisegesis.

Misconception 1: Arbitrary Interpretation

The first misconception is that apostolic interpretation was uncontrolled and arbitrary, allowing anyone to read anything at all into the text. If you look for them, you can find examples of fanciful interpretations, but you can also find those today in Bible-believing seminaries and churches.

The apostles did not believe Scriptures had a plethora of meanings at the whim of the interpreter. They believed God had inspired two layers of meaning—the literal meaning (the plain sense) and the spiritual meaning (the christological sense). The basic meaning of the text is its plain sense, but God sometimes imbued the words with a sense that pointed beyond what the human author realised to be fulfilled in Christ.

The key point, however, is that they believed the Scriptures only mean what God intended to say through them. They used the rule of faith and an emphasis on Scripture interpreting Scripture as controls and safeguards. The apostles and fathers did not practise arbitrary interpretation.

Misconception 2: Reader-Response Interpretation

The second misconception is that apostolic interpretation is like modern reader-response interpretation. Reader-response methods deny that the text has a right interpretation. They see meaning as coming from the reader, who is free to read their ideas into the passage. Put differently, meaning results from an interaction between reader, text, and context, so there are as many readings as readers.

The apostles and fathers would curse this idea. They never wanted to read their thoughts or context into the text, but to extract a second layer of Author-intended meaning from the text. They believed that God had imbued the plain sense of some texts with a surplus of meaning that pointed to Christ. Whereas reader-response methods deny that the text has authoritative meaning, the apostles treasured God’s voice in the text, holding it to be the only true meaning. The apostles and fathers did not practise reader-response interpretation.

Misconception 3: Eisegesis

The third misconception is that apostolic interpretation reads Christ into OT texts that do not speak about him. The apostles learned from Jesus himself that “[t]hese are the very Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39). If they were reading Jesus into passages that don’t speak about him, our faith is on shaky ground.

Why do modern sceptics find their methods objectionable while it seems ancient sceptics didn’t? We live after the Enlightenment—a worldview that arose in 1600s and viewed human reason as the supreme source of truth. Enlightenment thinkers established the belief that the Bible is just a human book that should be interpreted like any other book. It denied inspiration and excluded prophecy. Therefore, the meaning became limited to what the human author intended. When reading the apostles and fathers with these assumptions, they seem to be reading Christ into OT texts since the human author did not seem to be speaking about Christ.

However, the apostles and fathers had a different view of the Bible. They knew it as God’s Word, a unity centred on Jesus Christ. God inspired the human writers in such a way that their words became his own words. In any Scripture, God could speak about and as Christ—sometimes in ways that went beyond what the prophet realised. When Christians read those passages after Jesus, they could see what was imperceptible before. They were not reading Jesus into the OT, but discerning God’s messages about him in it, under the guidance of the Spirit.


Apostolic exegesis has received an unjustly bad rap from modern scholars. The apostles and fathers would cringe at the idea that they practised arbitrary, reader-response interpretation, reading Christ into OT passages that make no reference to him. They held that the Scriptures were God’s Word, which he spoke to point the world to Christ. He sometimes spoke as or about Christ in passages that may not seem to be about him on the surface. God embedded a christological (spiritual) sense that could only be seen when one looked back after Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. Why does this matter? If Jesus and the apostles launched Christianity by reading Christ into texts that do not speak about him, then our faith is built on a flimsy foundation. Who knows the true meaning of the Bible better—the Saviour or the scholars?


Short Bio: Kevin, who is the Principal of SATS, obtained his first doctorate from Stellenbosch University and his Ph.D. from SATS. He has a deeply insightful approach to theology and has already made a significant contribution in his relatively short career.