Научная статья на тему 'Principles for Interpreting Jesus, Parables and the Way They are Understood by Evangelical Christians in Russia'

Principles for Interpreting Jesus, Parables and the Way They are Understood by Evangelical Christians in Russia Текст научной статьи по специальности «Языкознание и литературоведение»

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Аннотация научной статьи по языкознанию и литературоведению, автор научной работы — Victoria Antonenko

This article studies the special features of the parables. As a theoretical foundation, the first part presents the main hermeneutical principles with an emphasis on literary analysis guided by the works of well known experts in the field. A brief excursus on the history of interpretation is also given. Several parables are reviewed as examples, taking into account the features of genre and their relation to the theme of the Kingdom of God. Since the parables elicit many different interpretations, in the second part of the article the author examines the most common misinterpretations and clarifies the reason for them. In the conclusion the significance of the Holy Spirit’s influence on the interpreter is noted, and also several tendencies that exist in contemporary church tradition. In this way the principles of parable interpretation are compared with the position of contemporary Russian Christianity on this issue, inviting the reader to reevaluate his or her own opinion and take a new look at Scripture. The article is intended for readers who are well acquainted with the biblical texts and deeply concerned with theological issues.

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Текст научной работы на тему «Principles for Interpreting Jesus, Parables and the Way They are Understood by Evangelical Christians in Russia»

Principles for Interpreting Jesus' Parables and the Way They are Understood by Evangelical Christians in Russia

© v. Antonenko, 2004 Victoria ANTONENKO, Krasnodar, Russia

Victoria Antonenko

graduated from Krasnodar Christian University in 1996. Currently she is in her third year of Master's degree studies at St. Petersburg Christian University (SPCU). She has been a member of a Baptist church since 1991. For many years she has taught Bible studies and worked with youth in the church. She has a Christian website that explores themes of music and literature, and writes theological articles and fiction. In addition, she studies issues of Christian counseling.


The books of Holy Scripture are unique in many ways, including the variety of literary genres they contain. This article will discuss the parables Christ used in the gospels. Arguments have raged for many centuries among theologians and scholars concerning the principles and methods for interpreting the parables, as well as their role in the teaching of Jesus Christ, and the ways of implementing them in different cultures in the modern world. Such theologians as Jeremias, Crossan, Wilder, Funk, and Via have made outstanding contributions to the history of parable interpretation. Although their research is not without drawbacks, they are considered the leading researchers today. Therefore, the first part of this article will not only consider the main features of the parable genre, but will review the above mentioned research, as well. The second part of the article makes use of data based on these materials and examples.

Besides literary analysis, textual and historical criticism will be discussed, with the latter assuming a connection with the cultural context of the Jews and their religious expectations during that period. The understanding of the Kingdom of God plays a significant role, and, because we are dealing with the symbols employed in this literary form, we may understand the Kingdom of God as a symbol with a certain direction and influence. The concept of the Kingdom as a symbol will enable us to grasp the key to realizing the sense of the parables and their common idea. This, in turn, will aid us in understanding the reaction of the original audience to the parables.

However, exposing and analyzing the theoretical basis is not the ultimate goal. It is essential to cause the text to speak to the reader, that is, to make it relevant. This is the ultimate task for the interpreter, and demands not only knowledge of Scripture with its historical conditions and textual peculiarities, but devotion to God and trust in the direction of the Holy Spirit, which will be discussed in the final section. To avoid empty phrases it is essential to relate the conclusions to the true situation in the evangelical Christian environment in our culture, and to examine the core of the problem: What is lacking in Russian theology and how should it develop in the sphere of interpreting Scriptural texts? The third part, therefore, presents examples of the peculiarities of understanding the parables in the evangelical churches.

The author's aim is not to convince the reader of some "correct" method of interpreting-no method is absolutely objective anyway-but to form a sense of the text's possibilities and guard against the errors that are most often made in "free" interpretation by surveying the main principles and the difficulties connected with interpretation.

1. The basis of teaching

1.1. The definition of a parable.

The term "parable" is rcapaPo^n in Greek (mashal in Hebrew) and may be presented as an ironical saying or jest (Ps 43:11); a riddle (Ps 48:4); figurative speech (Mk 7:14-17); an extended comparison (Mt 13:33); a narrative (Mt 25:1-13); a pictorial example (Mt 18:23-25); or even an alle-

gory (Mk 4:3-9.13-20).! For comparison, one may use the word a^eyopero which means "to speak figuratively" or in an allegorical way (Gal 4:24, for example). The references to the Old Testament are not coincidental. This is an essential factor for understanding this genre during that period and it relates to the way these parables were used by Christ. Along with certain differences between these literary devices there is a connecting thread expressed by the element of comparison. That which is obvious or known is compared with what is unknown or little understood in order to explain the key idea.2

1.2. Classifications of the parables. The New Testament includes from 45 to 60 parables, depending on the method of classification used. In general, the parables in the gospels can be classified in the following way: simile ("the Kingdom of God is like..." Mt 13); parabolic sayings (Lk 4:23; 5:33); and parables presented in the form of a story (narrative).3 V.A. Popov subdivides parables into ordinary and narrative. In the first case, "The parable resembles a small etude... a story familiar to everyone, with its action taking place in the present tense... that tells about the life experience of ordinary people (Mt

1 G. Herrick and R. H. Stein, The Interpretation of Parables: Exploring «Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads," www/bible.org/docs/ nt/topics/parables/para21.htm. (Biblical Studies Foundation, 1994), 137.

2 K. Barnwell, P. Dancy , and T. Pope, Kli-uchevie poniatiia Biblii (Key biblical terms iin the New Testament) (St. Petersburg: Bibliia dlia vsekh, 1995), 290-296.

3 H. Keathley, The Parables, www/bible org/docs/ nt/topics/parables/para24.htm, 1998 (9 July 2003).

13:44-45, about a treasure hidden in a field; Lk 15:3-7, about a lost sheep)..." In the second case, "...the parables were built on a particular incident that took place in the past. In them the rudiments of the characters of the main figures are marked out... the law of repetition is used to accent the basic idea," that is, obviously, "the development of a complex dramatic scene (Lk 15:11-32, the Prodigal Son; Lk 16:1-8, the Unfaithful Steward; Mk 12:1-9, the Evil Tenants)."4 However, according to Bratcher and Nida, the term "parable" also signifies a special Christian term.5

C. H. Dodd, as well as many other theologians, considers the coming of the Kingdom the key idea of the parables. H subdivides them into those referring to the expectation of the Second Coming, the so-called "parables of crisis" (the Faithful and Unfaithful Servants, Mk 13:34; the Watchful Servants, Lk 12:35; the Ten Virgins, Mt 25:1), and the "parables of growth" (the Sower, the Weeds, the Mustard Seed).

1.3. The purpose of parables. The

purpose and reason for Jesus Christ's use of parables is outlined in Mt 13:10-15 and Mk 4:9-13. Parables serve as a means of perceiving something significant and, at the same time, concealing it. Perceiving and concealing what, exactly? The mysteries of the Kingdom. "Mystery (^io-xepiov) in the biblical context means knowledge that is not given to people generally, but is revealed to certain ones..." that is, "it is not an obscure fact being communicated in a special way... but a communication of

that which has been hidden...In this way, these are the mysteries of God's reign."6 Yet those whose hearts are hardened and eyes are blinded cannot perceive spiritual things. This is the reason they fail to understand. But, "unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of God." Finally, in relation to doctrine, parables "were not used for explanation [of doctrine]; on the contrary, doctrine uses parables as an illustration of itself."7

1.4. A brief history of interpretation. Beginning with New Testament times, the parables have been interpreted as allegories, i.e. as completely mystical stories, every detail of which has an independent meaning. Since that time there have been several important periods in the history of the development of text in-terpretation.8 The historical-gram-matical method, which has provided the framework for much research by both philosophers and theologians has played an extremely important role, especially in the period of post-rationalism. Although the allegorical method was subjected to criticism long before their time, the scholars whose works are under discussion made much progress in working out

4 V. A. Popov, Issleduyte Pisaniia! (Study the Scriptures!) (St. Petersburg: 1999), 29.

5 R. G. Bratcher and E. A. Nida, Kommentariy k Evangeliiu ot Marka ( A handbook on the Gospel of Mark), Help for Translators: UBS Handbook Series, trans. from English edited by A. L. Khosroeva (St. Petersburg: Russian Bible Society, 2001), 155.

6 Ibid., 155.

7 H. Virkler, Germenevtika: Printsipy i prot-sess tolkovaniia Biblii (The principles and the process of interpreting the Bible) (Schaumburg, 1ll.: Gospel Literature Services, 1995), 109.

8 Ibid., 29-45.

certain methods and principles for the interpretation of parables.

Of primary significance are the works of Joachim Jeremias and his predecessors, C. H. Dodd and Adolph J~licher. The latter took the first steps in understanding the parable as a literary form, although he ignored the use of the parable in Judaism. He considered parables from the vantage point of classical antiquity (thereby shifting the person of Christ to the background) and came to the conclusion that the point of the gospel parables is moral instruction. Dodd makes two important points from the position of literary criticism. He interprets parables as metaphor or simile; in the process he underlines their realism, meaning their direct connection with the vital experience of people. Jeremias contributed to the area of textual criticism by tracing the parables back to their original form, the way they were taught by Christ. Jeremias also acknowledges that in the early Christian communities the parables were interpreted anew, in part when they were transmitted from oral to written form. He understood the parables within the framework of their use by the rabbis in Judaism and concludes on this basis that the purpose of Jesus' parables was to illustrate, explain, and defend His teaching (because the rabbis used this method in addressing the Law). However, the value of the historical approach in Jeremias' position is not confined to contextual-ization; that is, he maintains that the texts are addressed directly to the audience-listeners and readers-no matter who they are or where they live.9

Still other Bible interpreters10 achieved no small result in the implementation of new ideas and principles for the understanding of parables at the level of literary (especially Via and Crossan) and historical criticism, as well as textual criticism. Wilder, for instance, distinguishing between simile and metaphor, presents the parable as an image that reveals something. He shows the importance of all literary means in the proclamation of God's Kingdom, including in the parables themselves, calling the former (simile) the image, and the lat-ter-the metaphor. Via presents the parable as an aesthetic object, focusing on the detailed analysis of the story development in the text, the presentation of the main character, and the place of action. However, he pays little attention to the dialogue between the text and the interpreter.

Finally, Crossan understands parables as poetical metaphors and extended narratives, considering them (as does J~licher) in contrast to allegory. Also from the position of textual criticism, Crossan's scholarship has received the most acknowledgement, after Jeremias. As to historical criticism, Crossan's implementation of "paradigm-parables" played an important role here, and their subdivisions into "advent," "reversal," and "action."

Thus, new achievements in parable hermeneutics may be expressed as the following: Parables are not allegories (J~licher); they are placed

9 Norman Perrin, Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom, www.religion-online.org, July 12, 2003.

10 For example, Dan Otto Via, Dominic Crossan, Amos Wilder.



in an eschatological context (Dodd); they must be received in the light of their original cultural and historical context (Jeremias); they are to be regarded as aesthetic objects (Via); they are able to function as poetical metaphors.11 As we shall see, every such implementation reveals new depth in the parables and compels the reader to perceive their value and rethink his or her own approach and understanding.

2. Principles of interpretation

2.1. Textual criticism. The first step in the process of interpretation (not only of parables, but of texts in general) is working with the text itself. Here we deal with structure and the meaning of words, as well as the author's topic development with reference to the context. And because the texts of the gospels existed first of all in oral form and later were written down and circulated in Christian communities, they underwent certain alternations in understanding. In the context of Jewish wisdom, the parables were interpreted first as moral instruction and later began to be interpreted as allegories. Now the task of the interpreter is the restoration of the original meaning of the text. The texts of the parables, in turn, located in the verbal context, are expressed by means of certain symbols. They carry associative meaning and are passed on from one context to another, but are not created anew.12

11 Perrin, Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom.

12 Ibid.

13 Bratcher and Nida, Kommentariy, 148.159. 80

2.2. Literary criticism: the link between the parables and the Kingdom of God. Literary analysis is significant in the process of analyzing genre and form, and, of course, in determining their specific qualities in the process of interpretation. This approach also helps to draw out the primary meaning in its actual historical context. If we speak of a parable as a literary object, then exactly what kind of object is it? The language symbol, its meaning and function in its context are all to be thoroughly considered. The main fact is that the parables are not allegories. An allegory is a narrative in which various elements carry different meanings. In a parable one point becomes clear by means of comparison with another. Christ "taught them in parables...in teaching..." (Mk 4:12) that is "in the process of teaching." In the parable of the Sower it is said that the seed is the Word. It is Christian teaching that is implied by the expression "the Word."13 What is its significance? Modern biblical interpreters are of the opinion that the main idea of the parables is the Kingdom of God. This link becomes obvious because the teaching of Christ focuses on the Kingdom, while the parables constitute the main source of information concerning it. Dodd maintains that the parables contain the culminating moment, and the coming of the Kingdom plays a direct or indirect role. The Hidden Treasure and the Pearl (Mt 13:44-46)-possession of the most valuable thing-is true reality. The builder of the tower and the king who set off into a far country are presented as people taking a risk. The parable of the Wine and Wineskins speaks

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of the impossibility of adapting this teaching to traditional Judaism. And the main sign of the coming Kingdom is concern for the lost. The coming of the Kingdom is spoken of directly in the parable of the Ten Virgins, the Faithful and Unfaithful Servants, the parable of the Thief in the Night.14

According to Perrin, the Kingdom of God is not a concept, but a symbol incorporating a series of concepts; still, if we speak of the concept of the Kingdom in the teaching of Christ, then it is expressed, one way or another, in the nature and form of God's actions through the mediation of language symbols or images. According to Riqueur, "A symbol is a sign which indicates something at a deeper lev-el."15 Actually, is it merely a sign or something larger? Christ's use of the language and symbolism of ancient Jewish apocalyptic literature is linked with the existence of "myth"16 (see Ps 135), and eschatological expectations were defined by that time as a formed tradition. Moreover, it is God's completion of salvation history, from the creation of the world to the election of God's people. The confirmation of this is found in Pss 47, 93, 99,101, which repeat the expression, "The Lord reigns," which, in fact, means "The Lord has become King," and Israel was taught to accept Him as such. In the Pentateuch the acts of God as the King of Israel are narrated (for example, in Ex 15, the Song of Moses): He is on His people's side,

14 Perrin after Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (1961), 139-156.

15 Perrin after P. Riqueur, The Symbolism of Evil (1969), 15.

16 "Myth" here refers to a complex of stories which human beings regard as an expression of the inner meaning of the universe.

protecting, helping, granting mercy, and promising deliverance from the pagan yoke. Thus, Israel's concept of the Kingdom of God and everything connected with it could be expressed as the following: The Kingdom of God is a symbol expressed in the people's belonging to God; it is located in the context of myth, where God acts in history on His people's behalf. This, in turn, led to the formation of es-chatological expectations toward the time of Christ's coming to earth.

Furthermore, in the words of Jesus Christ, the theme of the Kingdom is touched on in the context of the Lord's Prayer (see Lk 11:20); Christ appeals to personal experience: "The Kingdom of God is in the midst of you" (Lk 17:21), which makes the return to "myth" apparent. In this way, the listeners are drawn to a renewal of their awareness of this reality through personal experience. The parables therefore, representing the Kingdom of God, are a symbol that has a direct relationship to this "myth," thus carrying far more meaning than a mere sign; they functioned as a means for the proclamation of God's intentions.

A parable (as distinct from an allegory) has one central idea. However, since a parable may be transferred to different situations, the number of key ideas may change in proportion to the number of situations. Thus, in its historical setting it had not only a single original meaning, but also a series of subsequent ones. Still, the interpreter at this point ought to be careful of new meanings. The translation of the idea of a parable into an eschatological, moral, or Christologi-cal aspect is false, because in that case



the sense of the metaphor, which should brook no alteration at all, would change.17

Semantic research shows that a metaphor includes both a theme and an image, whereas a figure of speech containing an image can be "alive" or "frozen" and "a thematic image or symbol... For example, in the parable of the Sower, the Word is the theme of the metaphor, while what is sown is the image."18 Once the figure is frozen, it is the topic and not the image that carries significance (in this case the image may change or be omitted), but when it is alive, the image is preserved likewise. It is important to find the point of likeness here. The parables of the Net, the Weeds, and the Wine and Wineskins may serve as examples of living figures of speech. However, "if an image has several meanings, then the listener may incorrectly understand the metaphor (for instance, if the subject is light, salt, or baptism)..." That is to say, "there must be solid ground for the comparison."19

Besides, the parable, by its nature, may be presented as a poetic metaphor. The latter exists in two forms: preceding the action, as an illustration in a teacher's lesson, and the opposite, when participation precedes the information, whose aim is to engage in action. The metaphor comes alive whenever, by means of it, we penetrate a new dimension of reality, that is, into the world of God. In this way the parables, whose author is Jesus,

also become the key to understanding His personality. Besides this, Cros-san, as was already mentioned, presents the three key parables that contain the "parable melody": the Pearl, the Treasure, and the Fish (Gospel of Thomas). In the parables of the Treasure and the Pearl the verbs appear in the order, "finds-sells-buys." In the parable of the Fish they are: "found-cast-drawn." Here we see a man who encounters a certain event or circumstance, and because of it decides to alter his past life, which, in turn, urges him to action.20 This is its meaning, because the central idea of the parables is the Kingdom of God, and the parables themselves are directly related to conversion and contain an appeal to action. Moreover, using literary-critical categories, the parables can be divided into two types of plot: comic and tragic. The parables of the Unfaithful Steward and the Prodigal Son may serve as example of the first plot, while examples of the second are the parables of the Talents, the Ten Virgins, the Wedding Banquet, and the Unmerciful Servant. In this case to understand the parable it is necessary to analyze the plot development of the story, taking into account the characters, and the place of action and its function. In addition, one must take into consideration that at the base of the plot lies a confrontation or conflict between two characters, and then its consequences are revealed.21 We may conclude that in the opinion of most Bible interpreters, the

17 Perrin after R. Funk, Iazyk, germenevtika i Slovo Bozhie (Language, hermeneutics and the word of God) (1966), 151-152.

18 John Beekman and John Callow, Ne iskazhaia

slova Bozhiia: Printsipy perevoda i seman-

ticheskogo analiza (Interpreting the word of God,

1981) (St. Petersburg: Noah Books, 1994), 160-161.

19 Ibid., 154.

20 Perrin after Crossan, Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (1973), 96-120.

21 Perrin after Dan O. Via, The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Dimension (1967), 96-97.

parables contain a certain conflict and have a "provocative character" that compels one to see reality in a new way, which, in turn, challenges the listener not only to become a participant in that reality, but also to reconsider his or her point of view and make an appropriate decision.

2.3. Historical criticism. Here the analysis lies in the area of linguistics, in the environment of the author and the original audience, including the cultural peculiarities and circumstances that contributed to the creation of the text, as well as the author's purpose and the different details related to that place and time.

As was already mentioned, Joachim Jeremias made a great contribution to the research of the parables from the position of textual, as well as historical criticism, having attentively studied historical peculiarities and the specific situation of the context of Jesus' ministry, using ancient Hebrew sources, especially early rabbinic literature. However there are both positive and negative elements in this approach. On the one hand, in examining the teaching of the historical Jesus, Jeremias pursues one goal: to enable the contemporary reader to hear and comprehend the message Christ handed down as it was understood by the original audience. On the other hand, there is the problem of interaction between the text and the interpreter, the very interaction that must be overcome in the hermeneutical process. The text itself, for Jeremias, is merely a means to reconstruct the message of Christ.

Whereas Jeremias taught concerning the value of the historical approach, Via stressed four critical notes in this regard. They are the following:

1. It is impossible to impose elements of Christ's teaching and service on the parables. In other words, it is necessary to pay attention first of all to the text itself, taking into the account the historical peculiarities, of course, but only as much as is required by the text.

2. An overly strict historical approach ignores the human factor. This means that the parables are not folk tales and cannot be regarded as an appeal either to the nation or to national ideas, but to particular groups (for example, the parable of the Good Samaritan is addressed to those who live in dangerous areas; the parable of the Lost Sheep is directed to cattle breeders, etc.)

3. The historical approach speaks only to the past, but has nothing to say about present situations.

4. The historical approach ignores both the parables' aesthetic function and their nature.

Keeping these remarks in mind, we conclude that interpretation must start from the text itself, not from its historical references, and the text should be understood as a totality of various elements that comprise one whole, which Via calls an "aesthetic object." This, in turn, brings a new understanding of existence into our consciousness and reveals the substance of belief and unbelief.22

22 Ibid., 88.93-95.



2.4. Examples of interpretation. In

this section we will examine examples of how the above mentioned principles may be used. First, the parable of the Good Samaritan will be analyzed (Lk 10:25-37) according to Crossan's interpretation. The traditional understanding of this story lies in the example of how one should conduct oneself toward a neighbor (the metaphorical point) and gives an example to be followed (literary aspect). However, Crossan contradicts this opinion, claiming that literary and metaphorical aspects function at different levels. The first level forces the listener to draw an impossible conclusion, thereby overturning his or her whole outlook, while at the second level the Kingdom of God intrudes into human consciousness, urging persons towards a reassessment of values. According to the classification of parables suggested by Crossan, this one belongs to the second type (reversal). Further, the structure of the text may be outlined in three parts: the question of eternal life (vv. 25-28); the question of one's neighbor (v. 29); the concluding dialog (vv. 36-37).

The passive use of the word "neighbor" should be noted, meaning the one to whom help is offered. Verse 29 forms a link between the two parts. Between the reactions of the characters of the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan, a particular link is observed which is expressed in the first climax point where the representatives of the priesthood are compared with a Samaritan. The next culminating point is in the rhetorical question in v. 36. As the scenario continues to develop, the robbers retreat to

the background, then the priests, and finally only one man is left for the listener to deal with. This prompts the listener to judge the Samaritan's action: How did he behave? He acted correctly. From a literary point of view, the listener is offered, or actually challenged, to put together impossible combinations: "Samaritan" and "neighbor (v. 33)," and then "Samaritan" and "good" (v. 36). In this way, the idea of a "reversal," (i.e. the change of consciousness) becomes obvious. The positive characters (the priests) become negative, while the negative item becomes positive (the Samaritan). Thus, Crossan focuses his attention mainly on the narrative structure and the idea of reversal.

The hierarchical structure of Jewish society must be taken into account here, according to which the Samaritans were considered to be between the Gentiles and the tax collectors. For the Jews these people were outcasts. In asking his question about a neighbor, the lawyer was asking how far he had to go along this hierarchical scale. The next step in interpretation is to track the development of the plot, which is defined by the main characters. Some details at this point become significant to the extent that they relate to the key idea. First, it was most likely a Jew who became the victim of the attack because the story was intended for the Jews. Secondly, the Greek word katebainen means that the priest, as well as the Levite, were going "down" the highway "from" Jerusalem and not in the other direction. For this reason they could not justify themselves by assuming that the man lying by the road was

dead, and that if they touched him they would be ritually unclean and unable to serve in the temple; it was already needless for them to perform their ministry in the temple! In this way their hypocrisy is clearly exposed. Serving God in the temple, they neglected a man who needed help. Finally the main point of the parable is that the way people love one another shows their true attitude to God. According to Blomberg, the parable may contain as many key points as there are personages involved in it. Thus, we see the following picture:

1. Even our enemies are our neighbors.

2. No ethnic or social status takes priority before God.

3. The act of the Samaritan demonstrates an example of true love.

Now it is necessary to see how the parable links with the theme of the Kingdom. The inheritance of eternal life means entry into the Kingdom. Having been asked what one must do, Christ replies in an unexpected way, showing what kind of person one needs to be to enter the Kingdom. The last is a principle to be applied. Above all, when we love our neighbor, we show our love to God. Love is not hypocritical; that is, it has no preference of persons. A person's participation in ministry or church membership is no substitute for direct expression of love to God and one's neighbor. One must go forward to meet people's needs, although that is not always easy.23

Another example is the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Mt 20:1-16) in Via's interpretation. This parable relates to the genre of "tragedy." From the point of view of historical literary criticism, the context reflects real events for the listener. Possibly the parable was told in response to opponents who were disgusted by Christ's fellowship with publicans and sinners, as well as to show the uselessness of a legalistic approach. Besides that, the image of a vineyard in the Old Testament was associated with Israel (see Isa 5). The discontented workers who toiled all day are the main characters. They help reveal the idea of the parable. It is regarded as tragic because these characters are finally excluded from the fellowship of the owner. The story reaches its climax in an episode (20:12) where the workers insist that a just repayment be made to them; that is, in their opinion, their pay must be in accordance with what they deserve. Insisting on their rights, they must meet the challenge of the owner, because they considered him unjust rather than merciful. In this way this parable teaches us that because of their legalistic mentality, the workers found themselves locked out from the source of grace. The main principle of interpretation lies in the fact that God's measurements penetrate into our everyday life in order to cause important reconsideration in the midst of ordinary circumstances.24

Having considered different positions on parable interpretation, we

23 H. Keathley, The Parables, www/bible org/

docs/nt/topics/parables/para24.htm, 1998 (July 9, 2003).

24 Perrin after Via, Pritchi: Ikh literaturnoe i ekzistentsionalnoe izmerenie (The parables: Their literary and existential dimension) (1967), 147-155.



come to the conclusion that they complement each other and together give the opportunity to see parables at various levels, which is a good way to avoid subjectivity, although many questions are left unsolved. The parables have a direct link to the Kingdom of God, which itself is a symbol that appears as a myth on the surface. Besides this, they function as metaphors. Yet, since the main goal of hermeneutics is the dialogue between the text and the interpreter, one must also understand how to apply a text to the contemporary world, taking into account the fact that a myth loses its meaning and relevance, and that a metaphor may be a "dead" or "frozen" one. Moreover, its effectiveness in the social and cultural sphere nowadays is different from its influence in Palestine during the time of Christ.

3. How parables are understood by evangelicals in Russia

3.1. Reasons for difficulties and variations in interpretation. Now

let us examine the particular features of the way parables are understood by evangelical Christians in accordance with the above mentioned principles, as well as the difficulties and contradictions connected with the process. The interpretations of some parables or certain excerpts from them are given here as examples.

The first cause of difficulty, in our view, is the use of the so-called "reader's response method." In this case, the "scientific approach" is ignored and "spiritual understanding" is underlined, which incorporates the

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search for a subtext in the words, the application of the text directly to oneself, bypassing the process of interpretation. This kind of interpretation is also often called "personal Bible study with the help of revelation from above." Another argument maintains that "spiritual truths cannot be confined to a theological framework" (although a majority of Bible interpreters agree that the parables have a link with the Kingdom theme, together with the necessity of explaining one or another of the various historical peculiarities of the images used by Christ). It is claimed by the adherents of this method that the Bible is universal and that there one can find answers to all questions; the main thing is to read and pray and the Spirit of God will give enlightenment.25 As a result of the search for revelations and answers to questions, the imposition of a new sense on the text takes place, which conceals a not insignificant danger. If the idea of the text is altered (or varies) in the process of interpretation, then the application drawn from it will not only be distinguished by its difference, but will actually be contradictory. However, if we approach the Scripture as the inspired Word of God containing the truth, how can the truth possess so many meanings? On the one hand, a greater or lesser degree of subjectivity is common to everyone, but on the other hand to insist that one has arrived at the only true conclusion is irrational.

The second reason is closely connected to the first and is embodied

25 For a more detailed explanation of the work of the Holy Spirit, see section 3.3.

in the understanding of the text apart from its original context (the proof-text method), although sometimes there is a description of the historical circumstances applicable to Christ's audience. Still, this is of little help because of the third reason, the main point of which is allegorization, that is, adding meaning to the details and interpreting them in a self-determined manner. This can be characterized as an inclination to interpret spiritual things in a mystical way. This takes place by means of the same personal revelation or the citing of other passages of the Scripture, that is, linking parallel Scripture passages, again without accounting for their original context. In this case, priority is given to words that contain a certain symbol, for instance, oil is the Holy Spirit, a lamp is the Word of God, etc. The foundation for these statements can be seen in the examples presented below.

Let us first take the interpretation of the parable of the Unfaithful Steward (Lk 18:1-8) by V. Ia. Kana-tush in his book Pritchi Iisusa Khrista (The parables of Jesus Christ):

The widow of this parable here symbolizes all the poor and helpless. And who is poorer and more helpless, more wounded than the Christians, the true children of God?" As for the judge and the adversary: "Who does Christ have in mind? We already encountered them in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:25), where the Lord calls us to be reconciled with our adversary... to be reconciled means

26 V. Ia. Kanatush, Pritchi Iisusa Khrsta (Parables of Jesus Christ), www.caw.dem.ru/ books.htm, July 6, 2003.

'to be freed from him'...in a word, the rival is our enemy... the enemy (adversary) in the parable symbolizes the devil, the greatest enemy of believers...If Satan is hindering you, free yourself from him through prayer...Our task is to embrace the main idea of the parable-the necessity of being persistent in prayer.26

It is clear from this narrative that the interpreter not only presents details with different meanings, apparently based more on church teaching than on principles of textual research, but also composes a sermon based on every image used, completely ignoring the thought in the text. Besides that, the phrase, "though He bears long with them" [Lk 18:7b NKJB] is associated by the interpreter with an excerpt from 2Pe 3:9: "The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise ...He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish." If one compares its context with that of the previous text, it becomes clear that it is not applicable to the parable. The latter excerpt is an argument used against the words of an adversary that the Lord's judgment will not tarry, that the interval of time shows the mercy of God to people in giving them time to repent.

The teaching of local evangelical Christian churches, especially that of the older generation, has had a very strong impact on the way believers understand Bible texts, including the parables. Sermons proclaimed from the pulpit by pastors who have great influence in the church are considered oracles from God and are accepted by the great mass of church-goers as faultless and not to be doubted. Any new interpretation, however, is



considered an insult to the church and foreign to God. Thus, on the one hand there is a orientation toward personal revelation, which ignores the process of interpretation. On the other hand, this orientation is limited by the framework of church tradition.

The following two examples illustrate this.

Explaining the parable of the Pearl of Great Price, V. Kulikov first identifies the pearl with Christ because "He is the precious cornerstone" (1Pe 2:6) for us... the most excellent of men... (Ps 45:3)... in Him the fullness of perfection has been set." Further on, the idea of searching for Christ is explained: "Seek 'things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God' (Col 3:1) and 'you will seek me and find me if you seek me with all your heart' (Jer 29:13), that is, the Lord may be found everywhere." However, for this it is necessary to pay the price: "many things must be denied... deny oneself... put away sin and all kind of ungodliness..." Finally, the last item refers to where the pearl is found: "The pearl is formed in the depths of the sea: there it acquires its remarkable features. Our Lord was like that... abiding in the heart of the earth three days and three nights... (Mt 12:40).27

Another example is the interpretation of the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard by P. K. Shatrov. In this parable he immediately presents seven important principles for Christians. For the purposes of this discussion, we will examine the fourth

and seventh principles. A conclusion is drawn concerning "the compassion of God to the unemployed workers in the marketplace," and also that "when a Christian enters the family of God, he also becomes a worker in the vineyard and carries out the ministry entrusted to him."28

In the light of the above, it is interesting to compare the interpretation of the same parable by another author, V. Ia. Kanatush in his book Pritchi Iisusa Khrista. First he "decodes" the images of the main characters of the parable. The master is Christ, sovereign and just. The vineyard refers to "God's house"-Israel under the Old Testament dispensation (Isa 5:1-5), but in the New Testament it is the church of Christ. In the church the Lord placed five categories of ministers: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Eph 4:1-13). According to the parable, all these are His servants hired to work in the vineyard, but it is very important for the workers to be faithful (Lk 16:1-12). Going on to explain the main idea of the parable, Kanatush determines the question asked by Peter to be its basis (Mt 29:27) and concludes that "the spiritual worker who is seeking profit from two worlds is not suitable for the Kingdom of God." Therefore, "in eternity He will value [them] not according to the quantity of the work produced, but by the quality thereof." In summary, the words of Christ that "the first will be last, and the last first" are interpreted in the following way: "We

27 V. Kulikov, "Dragotsennaia zhemchuzhina"

(The pearl of great price), Bratskiy vestnik 4 (1981): 19-21.

28 P. K. Shatrov, Posobie dlia izuchaiushchikh Sviashchennoe Pisanie (A manual for studying Scriptures) (St. Petersburg: Biblia dlya vsekh, 2000), 419.

may call the 'first' also those who were called in their youth, and the 'last'-those who were called in old age...The Lord warned both of them not to take pride in their preemi-nence..."29

One may note one more principle from these examples used by evangelical Christians in the process of interpretation: mixing interpretation and application. Thus, O. A. Tyark lists the following rules to keep in mind. First, one must "understand the contents of the parables"; second, one must "know the customs of that time." Third, one must reason out which thought is the central one. Fourth, the parables for which we are unable to establish background events, "must be explained from the point of view of the general teachings of Christ." Fifth, one must "understand which part refers only to the contents of the parable, and which to the interpretation." Sixth, one must take into consideration the fact that "the Holy Spirit is the best interpreter."30 We may say that these principles are quite substantial, at least theoretically, even on a primary level. They require further clarification and development, because in order to apply them one must know how to do that and possess the necessary additional information to do so.

3.2. The meaning of details. The

last widely held principle, which is worth examining separately, is an argument used by interpreters who favor allegorizing all the details of the

29 Kanatush, Pritchi.

30 O. A. Tyark, Pritchi Iisusa Khrista (The par-

ables of Jesus Christ) (Moscow, 1999), 122.

parables. The idea is that Christ Himself used this method in the parables of the Sower, the Net, and the Weeds, thus giving us an example to do likewise. Interpreters constantly introduce new details even into these parables, thus altering their original meaning, or unlocking new principles for their application. Let us look at an example of interpreting the parable of the Barren Fig Tree.

The fig tree had good care... The Lord does the same for us, His children. The soil...is fertilized. This happens through the reading of the Holy Scripture and its explanation, through the songs of the church choir...He cuts off the branches that do not bear fruit (Jn 15:2-3) and this cutting off, again, is carried out by means of the Word of God (Jas 1:21-24) or through conversations with experienced church leaders and members; that is what we read about in Gal 6:1...Although the workers continue to intercede before God... 'to leave it one more year'...there comes a day when God's hedge shall be taken away (Isa 5:5-6) and the barren fig tree is to be cut down. In the same way, Christ is interceding before the Father on our behalf.31

In accordance with Christ's own interpretation, the various details have meaning that corresponds directly to the main idea of the parable. In addition, the accent put on certain details allows us not only to fix our attention on the most important, but also strengthens the influence of the parable itself on the listener. Tyark, for example, explains the parable of the

31 N. A. Kolesnikov, "Besplodnaia smokovnit-sa" (The barren fig tree) Bratskiy vestnik 6 (1986): 21-23.



Lost Sheep in which, in his opinion, the main point is the joy of acquisition. In doing so, he underlines the following points. The first is that "the lost person may always be found again." The second is that "Christ has the power to bring him back." The third is that "every person is worthy of being found."32

These principles are not indisputable in regard to the main idea of the parable; however, they do not contradict it on the basis of individual words or images in the text. It is important to remember the structure of the text, as well as to take into consideration the specifics of the original language. In addition, the details are important not because of their direct sense, but in the process of studying the passage. For instance, in the parable of the Unfaithful Steward (Lk 16:1-13), in verse 9 a Semitic passive (ina... 8e^rovxai -"so that they might welcome") is used. Because of this borrowed Hebrew construction, the word "friends" cannot be used as the subject. God is the one doing the welcoming. In addition, the word "praised" in v. 8 (^povi^o^), which is not understandable from a moral-ethical point of view, especially in an exposition by Christ Himself, in fact, "does not refer to the moral aspect of the servant's action. More likely it assumes that the steward knew for certain how to act in the face of an inevitable crisis. The idea of the parable lies mainly in this."33

32 Tyark, Pritchi, 219-220.

33 J. Reiling and J. L. Swellengrebel, Kommen-

tariy k Evangeliiu ot Luki (A handbook on the Gospel of Luke), Help for Translators: UBS

In the parable of the Prodigal Son there is also an interesting detail that illustrates the attitude of the eldest son to the father. In the phrase, "I have been slaving for you all these years... " (Lk 15:29) the verb "to serve" (8ou^ero) in connection with the phrase "so many years" (xooauxa exn), a continuous form in the accusative case means "to serve as a servant or a slave." In verse 30 the phrase "has squandered your property" (Pio^) "...is used in the hyperbolic sense, since the youngest son could spend only his own share of the father's property... while the phrase 'this son of yours' is full of contempt." And finally, in verse 32, the verbs "to celebrate" and "be glad" refer to outward and inward joy respectively.34 Yet another important detail in parables is the use of rhetorical questions, that is, questions that either expect no answer or to which the answer is already clear. As has already been said, the parables contain a hidden conflict in themselves, surprising and stumping the listener, and calling him or her to think again. Rhetorical questions also serve this purpose. For instance, in the parable of the Tower (Lk 14:28) we read: "Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost?" Likewise in the parable of the Lost Coin (Lk 15:8) or in the parable of the Tenants (Lk 20:15). "This question breaks into the narrative of the parable because it is directed straight at the listeners...

Handbook Series. Trans. from English ed. by A.L. Khosroeva (St. Petersburg: Russian Bible Society, 2001), 663-664. 34 Ibid., 655-656.

and is used to enliven the parable and draw attention to the main thing in it. The question is asked in the future tense, as though Jesus and his listeners were the direct eyewitnesses of the events depicted."35

In fact, all the reasons and obstacles to more objective interpretation here described can be seen from one perspective and represent two sides of the problem of understanding. This is excessive generalization on the one hand, and excessive detailing on the other, when the interpreter, digging deep, seeks meaning where there is none. Possibly, this is partly a problem of the older generation, tempered by persecutions and trials, whose desire to preserve the purity of teaching is totally justified. A new understanding of the text is for them a sign of false teaching. On the other hand, it is impossible to ignore the particulars of Russian culture and mentality that compel Russian Protestant Christians (representing a combination of both Eastern and Western cultures) to seek the mystical (spiritual) sense. Representatives of other Christian confessions seek it in rituals, miracles, or supernatural experiences. In one way or another, if one does not know the particulars of ancient languages or literary conventions typical of the time, it is easy to lose one's way and take the truth for falsehood, and the other way around.

What is it that plays the most significant role: extremes, differences in opinion framed by culture, age, or social status? In any case, the main thing is that people already have cer-

35 Ibid., 754.

tain presuppositions for interpretation and no desire to admit that they are not completely knowledgeable (But who can claim to have achieved complete knowledge of anything?), thus having to reevaluate their own position and strive to learn more.

3.3. The role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation. As noted already in the third section, many Christians say that praying is all that is needed and the Holy Spirit will reveal Scripture to them (thus, the text speaks directly to the interpreter). Another extreme lies in excessive rationalism, although this is more typical for theologians. In this way, the process of interpretation is accomplished, or, more accurately, confined by the direct application of the text to life circumstances, or the study takes place mainly in the sphere of the intellect without putting theory into practice and thus changing the person.

In the first case, evangelical Christians use 1Cor 2:12-14 and 1Jn 2:20. In the first excerpt, the verb 8e%£xai, from 8e%o^ai, is used (as distinct from ^a^Pavro, the meaning of which refers more to experience) which means "to receive with joy," or "wholeheartedly." This word relates to the expression of human will.

The other verb, yvrovai, from yi-vookw, "to know," refers to rational acceptance. Note that the structure of contrast is used between the sentences. In this way, the person who is not born of the Spirit (in contrast to the spiritual person, born anew) does not know, does not want to know, and therefore cannot understand spiritual things; he or she merely lives ac-



cording to the sinful nature, and this conceals the truth. Yes, the unbeliever is partly able to understand the idea of the text, but cannot reach its depths because that level is accessible only to God, who is the only one who illumines it. The idea of the other excerpt also has to do with contrast, but this time with a heretical teaching claiming quite the opposite to what the apostle says, that Christ did, in fact, come in the flesh and will return again. Because the letter is addressed to those who are children of God, they must know it and be able to discern it by means of the Spirit God gave them. In this way, the understanding of "the inward testimony of the Spirit" is impossible to interpret outside the context of the epistle, attaching universal meaning to it.36 This is true of the first excerpt as well.

According to the principles analyzed above, it is obvious that the Holy Spirit does not substitute for the process of interpretation, but works in our hearts, giving confidence and understanding of important principles regarding our salvation and relationship with God. At this point one must take into account the fact that there are less important questions that have no direct answer in Scripture, for example, what party we should vote for in an election, or whether dispensational theory is correct. This, in turn, does not mean that we cannot find a clear answer. But in these and similar cases God lets us

do our own research and come to our own conclusions. This is the first aspect.

The second is that our convictions or prejudices affect our perception, particularly when speaking of "church conservatism" in a general sense. In this case we ourselves restrict the influence of the Holy Spirit and do not allow God to change us in the way He desires.

The third aspect is that the Holy Spirit does not introduce revelation into the text, as the latter is self-sufficient, but rather helps us to comprehend it. Moreover, the Spirit affects our inner convictions rather than only our intellectual knowledge.

In the fourth place, disagreement or disobedience to the truth stated in the Scripture (not excluding its authority in human eyes) also lowers ones ability to interpret the text without distortion (see 2Pe 2:15-16).

Fifth, whoever is open to accepting the truth and accepts the text as written by God's people, has more chance of success. Doubtless, the believing person is such a one.

"The witness of the Spirit contains in itself the immediate, non-discursive, supra-rational revelation of the truth in relation to the central tenets of the faith. The Spirit convicts us not through exegetics, but at a higher level. The final goal, however, remains the same: to accept Him, to apply His revelation that changes life."37


A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New 37 D. B. Wallace "The Holy Spirit and Hereme-Testament (NashvUle: Broadman press, I863- neutics," www.bible.org, July 9, 2003. 1934), Vol. IV, 216; Vol. VI, 87-89.


The gospel parables are many-sided and present a large sphere for study. Their classification varies significantly and gives the right of choice to the interpreter. Parables may be viewed as similes, metaphors, parabolic sayings, or extended narratives, whereas each form can be transformed and subdivided into yet others. Besides genre varieties, parables also may be grouped according to theme.

The purpose for using parables was explained by Christ Himself, and most scholarly opinion agrees that they reveal or, on the contrary, hide "the mysteries of the Kingdom" from those who disregarded the truth and were unable to understand it. The symbol of the Kingdom of God is rooted in the eschatological expectations of the Jews but was announced by Christ from a new perspective.

We have considered the conclusions of the leading American and German scholars from the viewpoint of historical, literary, and textual criticism. Each of them contributed to the comprehension of the parables from different points of view, displaying the differences between the parable and allegory (Jdicher), between simile and metaphor (Wilder), poetic metaphor and extended narrative (Crossan). Along with this, we recognize that every approach is imperfect and lacks something, especially regarding the application of parables in the contemporary world and building a bridge between the text and the interpreter (reader). Thus, theologians have drawn moral lessons from the parables,

preached sermons (Jdicher, and representatives of the "new hermeneu-tics" approach), or related the original meaning directly to the modern reader (Jeremias, Via).

Regarding the contemporary theological positions of evangelical Christians, particularly in the area of interpreting the parables and comparing them with the research examined above, one can bring to light certain problems and contradictions. On the basis of the examples of interpretation and taking into account the peculiarities of the teaching in evangelical churches the following tendencies may be noted:

First, the process of interpretation as such, is absent, or at least only some of its points are taken into consideration, such as the context of the parable and the description of an historically formed situation.

Second, a number of obstacles exist that do not allow the interpreter to see and take into account the principles studied. These obstacles or reasons may be expressed as the following:

1) the search for a hidden sense in the text and its direct application to one's personal situation;

2) the study of a text out of context;

3) the allegorization of words and characters;

4) the authority of church teaching, and as a result, the formation of conservatism and prejudice against everything new;

5) mixing up interpretation and application.



As to the question of what the Holy Spirit provides to interpretation, an issue with which every believer is concerned, we may reply both from the position of a theologian and that of an ordinary evangelical. These arguments, based on Scripture, may be refuted by researching these excerpts and drawing out their original idea and value. In doing this, the following factors must be taken into account:

1. The Bible gives basic principles and the answers to the most important questions related to salvation and our life in Christ, but no more than that. Therefore, to look in it for the answers to questions concerning the "correct" denomination to join, or the relative harm or profit of watching TV is an illegitimate use of Scripture.

2. The Holy Spirit influences our inner convictions and not our knowledge.

3. The Holy Spirit does not introduce revelation into the text, nor does

He substitute for the process of interpretation. Rather, He acts by means of and above that process.

4. Our prejudices hinder us from experiencing His activity in us, and, correspondingly, from spiritual growth and changes in our lives as believers.

5. Obedience and openness to the acceptance of truth positively influences the process and result of interpretation and therefore of application.

Thus, the problems of the interpretation of parables are not exhausted either at the theological level nor in the practice of evangelicals. The study of the results of research and the application of the main principles of interpretation provide the opportunity not only to view the text more objectively but also to reevaluate one's own position by being open to the Holy Spirit for understanding important spiritual truths.


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