Okay. Hot topic coming up…but not this one. HA! Safe to live another day!
(This one necessarily precedes the coming hot topic.)
When I was in high school, I took a class called “Western Civilization” from a teacher who was a Bahhai. He was one of the smartest folks I had ever met up unto that point and was an aggressive skeptic of Christianity…well, he was more of an enemy of Christianity. The class was called “Western Civilization” but was really an “Intro to ‘why Christianity is for idiots’ class”. That class was brutal hard for me, as my teacher waged an assault against Christianity that had me in a flurry to find answers; answers to questions about everything from creation to eschatology. That class is what got me into serious thinking about the scriptures and looking for answers beyond my youth pastor (who was all youth and no pastor) and Mennonite theologians (well, the ones that write about apologetic issues; which is none of them. Why do all the smart conservative MB’s leave the MB conference? Like this one…or this one…or this one…or this one…or this one…).
Anyway, that flurry of study started me asking questions and finding answers, and I never stopped asking questions or finding answers. Almost 2 decades later, I’ve learned a whole lot and changed my position on almost every point of theological understanding. This may come as a shock to some of my readers, but I was once a tongues-speaking, egalitarian, panmillennial, liberal allegorist who thought “conservative” was a synonym for “lobotomy” and thought that the pentateuch was the 5-pointed start associated with Satanism (no joke). Along my journey from biblical idiocy to, uh, less idiocy, I’ve developed a fairly firm set of beliefs about the nature of the Bible and hermeneutics, and I’ve become fairly aggressive about the importance of understanding scripture literally.
Now people love slamming fundies like me who talk about taking the Bible “literally”, but it’s mostly because they simply misunderstand what is meant by “literal”. Taking scripture literally means, in a nutshell, understanding the words of scripture (a) in their common usage (b)and in their appropriate context.
A. Common Usage
In order to understand the scripture, a literal interpretation of scripture will attempt to understand words according to their common usage in speech unless they have sufficient reason to seek some other interpretation. This means several things:
- It means that the literal interpreter will recognize and seek to properly understand figures of speech, poetic devices, etc. The simple way of recognizing a figure of speech is given in the general rule – “If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense”.
- An example of this is when Jesus says “I am the gate for the sheep” in John 10:7. One instinctively recognizes that Jesus is using a metaphor here since it nonsense to think that Jesus is describing himself as a board with hinges.
- Another example of this is when the Pharisees say “Look how the whole world has gone after him!” in John 12:19. One instinctively recognizes that the Pharisees are using hyperbole here since it is nonsense to think that they’re saying that every human being on planet earth, including them, is following Jesus.
- Another example of this is in Exodus 15:2 when the scripture records “Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water.” Here, the plain sense makes perfect sense and there’s no obvious or apparent need to understand words like “day” or “desert” or “water” as part of some spiritual metaphor (or anything else like that).
- It means that the literal interpreter will also assume that numbers, place names, proper names, etc. carry their common and straightforward meaning unless the context gives sufficient reason to search for an alternate meaning.
- An example of this would be in 1 Kings 20:29 where the scripture records “For seven days they camped opposite each other, and on the seventh day the battle was joined. The Israelites inflicted a hundred thousand casualties on the Aramean foot soldiers in one day.” Here, the he plain sense makes perfect sense and there’s no obvious or apparent need to understand the numbers “seven” or “hundred thousand” as part of some spiritual metaphor (or anything else like that). It’s a simple recount of a battle.
- Another example of this would be in Jeremiah 20:6 where Jeremiah says “And you, Pashhur, and all who live in your house will go into exile to Babylon.” Here, the he plain sense makes perfect sense and there’s no obvious or apparent need to understand “Babylon” as part of some spiritual metaphor (or anything else like that). It’s a simple recount of a person being told they’re going into captivity.
- Another example of this would be in Revelation 17:5 where the scripture records of the great prostitute who sits on many waters “The name written on her forehead was a mystery: BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES, AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.” One instinctively recognizes that something is up here, since the plain sense seems to make no sense whatsoever. The plain meaning is that there’s a colossal prostitute, big enough to sit on multiple continents, who’s named after an ancient city that no longer exists. This might possibly be a figure of speech of some sort…
Secondly, in order to understand the scripture, a literal interpretation of scripture will attempt to understand words according to their usage in their context. “Context” is another word for “setting’ and generally speaking, the context can be summed up in 2 broad categories: historical and grammatical context. When bible scholars talk about the actual act of interpretation, they often may refer to the process as doing “historical-grammatical exegesis”; drawing out the meaning of words/passages as they were understood in distinctive time and culture, and drawing out the meaning of words/passages as they were understood in their book, paragraph, and sentence.
- Understanding a verse in its historical context will include things like:
- Understanding a passage within the theological context of the intended recipients. An example of this would be where in Luke 17:21 , when Jesus says “the kingdom of God is in your midst”, people often take that to mean “The kingdom of God is within your heart” (or something along those lines). Though this is a remotely possible interpretation of the passage, it’s a highly improbable interpretation for many reasons. One of those reasons is that the Jews had no concept of a non-physical kingdom of God; the whole concept of a “spiritual” kingdom (where Jesus “reigns in your heart” but doesn’t have a physical throne, lands, or anything else that is tangible) would have been equivalent to the kingdom being imaginary. One of my favorite examples of this is comes from a friend who makes a parallel the following way; when his wife asks him to do the dishes and he says “I’m spiritually washing the dishes”, his wife understands “spiritually washing the dishes” to be synonymous with “not washing the dishes”. To the Jews, a “spiritual” kingdom would have been synonymous with a “non-existent kingdom”.
- Understanding a passage within it’s distinct political and historical context. An example of this would be Daniel 1:7, where Daniel and his friends receive new names. If one doesn’t understand that a conquering king re-named his prize captives to show their change in ownership and allegiance (not to the king per say, but to the nations’ pantheon of gods which often included the king), one would likely miss some of what’s going on in Daniel chapter 1.
- Understanding a passage within it’s canonical context. A prime example of forcing a passage outside its canonical context is in the book The Prayer of Jabez. In that book, Jabez’s prayer of “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” (1 Chron. 4:10) is taken as a prayer for enlarged gospel influence (among other things). Bruce Wilkinson not only takes the term “territory” to mean something other than what it would have meant to Jabez (“land”), but he also forgets that 1 Chronicles takes place under the Old Covenant, where material blessings were part of the covenant promises. Jabez actually prays for “more land”, because that’s one of the ways that the surrounding people would tangibly see God’s hand of blessing upon him.
- Understanding a verse in its grammatical context will include things like:
- Understanding a passage within the setting of the surrounding subject matter. An example of this would be Revelation 3:20, which records Christ saying to the church of Laodicea “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” This verse is often used as an evangelistic passage with a line like “Jesus is knocking on the door of you heart, friend…won’t you let him in?” The problem with that is that the surrounding subject matter is that of a letter of rebuke to a Christian church that was disobedient and sinful due to excessive material blessing. It is not an invitation to unbelievers to become believers; it’s a call to lazy believers to wake up and get going. One needs to be skeptical of an interpretation that involves the author making random and irrational changes in subject; the biblical authors didn’t have ADD, tourettes, or some other problem with their speech/attention span.
- Understanding a passage within it’s setting of genre. An example of this would be taking a passage from poetic literature and interpreting it in a non-poetic way, like as is regularly done by Dennis Lamoureux (of Biologos and the University of Alberta). One can read here how he builds his highly-stereotyped version of the cosmology of the Ancient Near East, notably using mostly poetic texts as if they were non-poetic. Regarding the Ancient Jewish views of the earth, Lamoureux writes:
“The earth is flat. The word “earth” appears over 2500 times in the Old Testament (Hebrew: ‘eres) and 250 times in the New Testament (Greek: ge). Never once is this word referred to as spherical or round. Instead, the universe in the Scripture is compared to a tent with the earth as its floor (Ps 19:4, Ps 104:2, Is 40:22)”
It’s worth noting that all 3 texts Lamoureux cites are poetic texts, yet he treats them as highly non-poetic texts; he treats them essentially as legal or epistolary texts. All three texts talk about how the heavens are spread out “like a tent”, and yet Lamoureux stretches out the metaphor far beyond it’s intention by making the connection that since tents have flat floors, the Ancient Jews must have thought that the earth was flat too… If one understands that poetic figures of speech are only used to only transmit a single idea in a simple word picture (like the idea of spreading out the heavens in the way that a tent is spread out when it is put up), one could never extrapolate a Jewish belief in a flat earth from any of those passages.
- Understanding the meaning of a word as discovered by it’s usage in a sentence. A prime example of this would be the constant suggestion that the word “day” in Genesis 1:4 (or 1:8, 13, 19, 23, or 31) could mean something other than a 24 hour period of time. The usual argument goes something along the lines of “the word ‘day’ can mean a variety of things in the Old Testament, and ‘day’ carries different usages in Genesis 1 & 2, so one cannot be dogmatic about the meaning of ‘day’ in Genesis 1:4″. This argument is simply factually incorrect; the meaning of a word is determined by it’s context, not range of possible meanings. Sure, the word “day” has a wide variety of meanings in the Old Testament, but every time the word appears there aren’t 4 or 5 equally possible meanings. In Judges 5:6, when the scripture records “In the days of Shamgar son of Anath”, there’s no real question as to what “day” means. “Day” is clearly a synonym for “era”. Yet, just 1 chapter over Judges 6:27 Gideon tore down the altar of Ba’al “at night rather than in the day” and again, there’s no real question as to what “day” means. “Day” clearly is shorthand for saying “the time when the sun is up”.
- Understanding the pronouns in a passage to isolate the audience of a passage. An example of this would be one of the most often mis-quoted and mis-applied verses in the scripture; Jeremiah 29:11. Jeremiah 29:11 (in the oft-cited NIV) says “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” People like to claim this passage as a promise to themselves, but when you trace the pronoun “you” back through the passage, the initial referent is in 29:4 when Jeremiah speaks the word of the Lord “to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon”. If you’re not currently in exile in Babylon, this passage isn’t written to you. Jeremiah 29 has universal truths that are applicable to all believers (i.e. God has plans for all people, therefore God has plans for you), but we’re not the original audience nor the “you” of 29:11.
So the literal meaning of a passage of scripture, the single meaning that the author intended to convey to the original audience, is found in the normative usage of words understood in their proper context. I would go so far to suggest that a majority of misunderstandings of scripture by Christians involve either forcing words outside of the normative meanings, forcing words to mean something outside their meaning in context, or forcing a passage into a foreign context.
I could write a whole lot more on this, but this is a blog, not a book. You get what you pay for!
Until Next Time,
Lyndon “A Text Without a Context is a pretext to a prooftext” Unger