We read the Scriptures not just to find their literal meaning, but to discover the full meaning which God has placed in the text and intends for us to discover.
“ All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Scriptures are profitable for many things not just teaching historical facts or literal truth. They have a moral dimension to them as well as a spiritual dimension. They correct, inspire, reprove, and train, helping a person to attain righteousness and thus salvation. Robert Hill who has spent years translating the Antiochian Patristic writers into English, notes that the Fathers use a number of different terms in their own interpretative methods of reading Scripture. The Patristic writers looked to the Scriptures to give them truth far beyond the mere “literal” meaning of the text. The Fathers understood the “literal” meaning of the text to be the meaning God intended for us to find in the text, which includes:
skopos (or purpose) of the author in composing his biblical work, its hypothesis (theme, or narrative setting), dianoia (its thrust, or overall meaning), ermeneia (its interpretation), lexis (the biblical text), to istorikon (the factual element), and theoria (discernment by the reader of a further level of meaning). These are the terms and categories of traditional education, paideia, in the rhetorical schools, and … we shall see the Antiochenes adopting them in their commentaries.” (Robert Hill, READING THE OLD TESTAMENT IN ANTIOCH, p 9)
The Fathers adapted the methods they had learned in their own rhetorical education for how to read texts to the reading of the Scriptures. They understood the methodology they had learned as to be the way to unveil the meaning which the ancient authors had put into their texts. The Scriptures, whose author they thought of as ultimately being God, were read with the same methods, intending to discover the meaning and the message God had put into the words of the text which the inspired authors of the Bible recorded. These same methods were used for centuries by Christian theologians as the means by which to read the Scriptures.
After the Protestant Reformation however there was a distrust by Protestants of traditional methods of interpreting the Scriptures. Many Protestants felt they could simply take the texts of Scriptures and free themselves from any established, traditional interpretation and in so doing would come to the true meaning of the text. This was the main intention of reading “Scripture alone.”
“But the principle of sola scriptura suggests that the truth of the Christian religion is contained in Scriptures, and that the work of the theologian and exegete is to extract this truth by rightly interpreting Scripture. …. The presupposition that lies behind all this … is the principle of sola scriptura, understood as meaning that Scripture is a quarry from which we can extract the truth of God’s revelation: that allied to the more recent notion that the tool to use in extracting meaning from literary texts is the method of historical criticism. We have an alliance between the Reformation and the Enlightenment… Scripture is being understood as an arsenal and not a treasury. … The heart of Christianity is the mystery of Christ, and the Scriptures are important as they unfold to us that mystery, and not in and for themselves.” (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY, pp 99-102)
Thus the modern Fundamentalist reading of the Scriptures only “literally” was the result of embracing a “scientific” view of Scriptures and accepting a very narrow definition of truth as having always to deal with the material or empirical universe alone. Limiting the reading of Scripture to its “literal” sense was related to the historical criticism embraced by the Enlightenment. It ripped the Scriptures away from their faith context – the community which had preserved and proclaimed them – and made them a literary document that should be read alone and apart from the faith community which had composed and adopted them. Scripture alone stripped the text of the Bible from the context of the people of God (the Church) and really came to mean that only whatever meaning each person puts into the Scriptures is what they mean. “Scripture alone” worked well with the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the individual. Each individual was to rid himself or herself of any tutelage by tradition and thus each individual alone gave the Bible its meaning. Simultaneously it denied that the Scriptures have a meaning inherent in them – a revelation from God.
Orthodoxy following the Patristic writers continued to read the Scriptures within the community of the faithful and with the methods of Tradition. The Old Testament was to be read Christologically. This required moving beyond a mere literal reading of the text to seek out its deeper meanings. This doesn’t deny the importance of the literal roots of the text.
“Typology, however, is always historical; it is a kind of prophecy—when the events themselves prophesy. One can also say that prophecy is also a symbol—a sign which points to the future – but it is always an historical symbol which directs attention to future events. “ (Georges Florovsky, CREATION AND REDEMPTION, p 25)
So the events of the Old Testament are based in history, but they point to Christ and to the fulfillment of God’s plan for the world.