What does it mean to take the Bible literally?

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…

B.  Context

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

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11 thoughts on “What does it mean to take the Bible literally?

  1. > [Rev 3:20] is not an invitation to unbelievers to become
    > believers; it’s a call to lazy believers to wake up and get
    > going.

    Speaking of context, does the thrust of Johannine teaching actually lead us to make this this distinction? Doesn’t it rather encourage *all* people to respond to God’s grace in obedience; doing our part to make space for the divine life to inhabit/overtake us? Doesn’t this apply equally to those who self-identify as Christians and those who do not? I think we spend too much energy on “us and them” thinking.

    • “does the thrust of Johannine teaching actually lead us to make this this distinction?”

      Well, the “thrust” of Johannine teaching (whatever you think that means or does not mean) doesn’t drive the meaning of any single verse of scripture. The meaning of words, including relative pronouns (like the “anyone” in 3:20), is derived by their usage in the context in which they’re found, not their usage in the “context” of Johannine teaching.

      • When I read or hear someone say stuff, my level of “getting them” varies depending on how well I know that person — otherwise a few sentences can easily be taken “out of context.”

        So based on how we “get to know” John through reading and considering his words, I think we can reasonably ask whether his scope of intended meaning in *this particular* case (based on our understanding of his overall way of using words to build ideas — that’s what I mean by “thrust”) might in fact be broad enough to include the “evangelistic” meaning that this verse is so commonly quoted to convey.

        So back to the topic of your post, would my tendency to place a high value on a particular author’s way of building ideas with words be at odds with the hermeneutical ideals you’re advocating here?

      • Okay. I think I would agree that when it comes to a person, you “get them” as you know them better…but that begs the question of how well you can really know a person from a different period of time, in a different part of the world, who spoke a foreign language and had a foreign worldview to yours (not saying that you’re not a Christian or anything, but the world of ideas in which John was born and raised is so distant and foreign that I’d dare be cautious to ever think I really “get it”)…and solely from selective examples of their writing that has been translated (by a committee in most cases) into a different language (unless you’re talking about reading Johannine literature in the original languages).

        What I do have from John, much like what you have on this blog, is simply the words from the author (and the spectrum of “tone” that I am accused of in my writing is amazingly broad). The words are what you have to study, and you basically have no guarantee that the person you think you uncover in reading John is the person of John (as opposed to, say, your own idea of what John was like).

        I would be highly skeptical of over-ruling the words of the authors of scripture (the Holy Spirit and whoever the human author was) with some sort of subjective and speculative construct/theme/personal knowledge/etc. that you think you may have of the author.

        You may (rightly) argue that there’s some sort of universal principle behind Revelation 3:20 and attempt to draw from that, but I would have a hard time saying “John say (x) but likely also meant (y)” on the basis of theological trajectory/theme/Johannine “flavor”/etc. History is absolutely bursting with examples of how horribly that kind of speculation can turn out.

        • Ya I find that reading literature in general is an exercise in developing a sort of metaphysical relationship with its author (most often a sort of friendship, if I appreciate the work).

          Yes, this could be called a subjective approach, yet I find that most everything in life that’s deep or exciting or motivating or interesting ends up vulnerable to the accusation of “subjectivity.”

          I might even go so far as to suggest that this is what the gospel writers (John and James in particular) are getting at with their insistence that one’s faith be applied to be of any value: that passion and “life” happens when we get subjective and emotional with the words — when they “penetrate” us and become a real, living part of our inner life (at which point *only* can they become an effective transformative influence on our outer life). Paul’s way of talking about this same inner dynamic is nuanced a bit differently, with his death-letter vs. life-spirit metaphor, but in the end I hear them all saying a version of the same thing: that the words and story of Jesus have got to get into us and come alive inside of us, shaking us out of our self-obsession. All too often we listen to them on the surface — and use them to build up a new, religiously polished veneer of the same old self-oriented garbage (i.e. sin).

          I’ve certainly spent many a year of my past lambasting the Four Spiritual Laws and I do think that the whole “receive Jesus” language, particularly with its weak scriptural support, isn’t something we need to emphasize. But when I read Rev 3:14-22 today — I don’t so much mind the verse being used in evangelism — because in that passage I feel Jesus’ reminder of why he came — I hear him calling me and my fellow humans to repentance for our self-assured outlook through active dependence on his provision for us in the minutiae of existence. Does Jesus really say anything different to someone like me, who grew up as a Western Canadian C&MA/MB, than he does to someone who grew up as a Western Consumerist, or any other metaphysical orientation?

          The way I see it, unless we get really subjective with scripture, and continually apply our best efforts at staying really humble, simple, organic and uncomplicated, I think we’re still stuck in the blindness of Rev 3:18, which recalls Jesus’ metaphor and teaching re: spiritual blindness after his healing the man born blind (John 9). I see God’s word to humanity through the scriptures as a repeated and differently nuanced treatment of same theme introduced at the start of Genesis: depend on me and live by my (self-sacrificing) way of life, not on your natural instincts of self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. This is as I see it the most basic unifying hermeneutical key to scripture — I don’t know if it’s so much keeping things “literal” as keeping them simple and pragmatic.

          Sorry, I rambled a bit there, I guess this is supposed to be your blog, not mine. So is my hermeneutical approach more Anabaptist and less Reformed, or just stupid and naive? Will coming back to the “interpretive key” expressed above — seeking heartfelt application over objectivity and universalized meaning necessarily turn out badly? Don’t many of the historical disasters result from people *losing* that plot (i.e. forgetting to make sure their so-called applications are modelling divine sacrifice)? I guess it’s a question of how we evaluate what “getting it right” means — is it some mental construct that we got right, or is it the intended life-change behind the words spoken that we got right?

  2. was able to get through to Luke 17:21 before eyes and dizziness….anyway:
    the first interpretation i had was by stating “The Kingdom of God is in your midst” is: HE was there physically within their midst. Without their recognition in cognizant manner whatsoever. Does that make any sense whatsoever to you?
    Please pray. Finally called dr. saw in ’09 asked him to explain right ear flat-lining it is very rare and cause is almost unknown they suposedly know of no cures. Pray whatever the Holy Spirit leads you to pray. I am praying for healing and also for the right physician to be led directly into my path by the Great Physician, He’s my Primary Doctor, you know. Would like to know how you’re doing. Take Care it’s back to bed for me for now +++ marie
    P.S. really enjoyed this posting I will finish it you will see. I was going to ask a ”small” favour (tee-hee) of you—a study on illness. Personally, I believe illness is most often caused my mankind to mankind and not 99.9 percent of the time sent by God. Wondering what you would have to say if you ever have time to do such an intricate study. Either way, Thanks for your great postings and Scripture lessons you would make a great Bible teacher. Thanks again.

  3. oh i had to come back tell you fast Bill O’Reilly has decided the Bible is ”entirely allegorical” and is involved with the History channel new programme on the “The Bible” …. imo he is only reflecting the beliefs he was taught. It was the religion I was raised in and have mentioned. my caretaker used to avidly believe in O’Reilly. Even the caretaker is losing alot of the ”everything Bill says is right” theme. Just found it interesting you would do this post when last night I had to hear this statement as if it were wrritten in stone stated by O’Reilly. So very glad and happy your posting came in to the e-mail today, right after having to hear THAT and knowing people who actually believe The History channel on everything ”they say”… it’s a shame.

    • Bill O-Reilly? I’m Canadian and don’t really know him, but it sounds like he’s not much of a theologian. Then again, most people on TV have worse theology than your average faith-healer.

      I heard about the History Channel movie. Looking at the advisory board (TD Jakes, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, Miroslav Volf, Richard Mouw, etc.), it’s destined to be a cacophony of insanity.

  4. I am Phil Jackson Jr. That’s not my real name but I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t use his mouth (or keyboard) for much beyond insulting people and repeating myself ad naseum, so it’s best that people don’t know who I am. Also, I don’t know how to positively discuss things that I disagree with, so I get angry and then do irrational things (like spamming a blog with repeated comments that don’t actually say anything). The comment I’ve previously written has been edited to this one by the blog administrator and, if I decide to actually interact or comment on the topic of a post, I’ll be welcome to come back on here and say whatever I want (including aggressive disagreement). I didn’t think the admin was serious when they warned me about my spamming, but now I’ve learned that they were.

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