What Does It Mean to Understand or Interpret the Bible Literally?
I’ve written quite a bit about this subject, but it’s interesting how often people get the wrong impression. I lay the blame squarely at the feet of people who have gone out of their way to create disharmony within Christendom, but first, not fully understanding a position, and second, ridiculing that position they fail to understand and the ones who adhere to it.
If I say I take the Bible literally, the oft-heard response is laughter and a snide comment from those who oppose such a position. What they’re unfortunately doing is applying the meaning for literalistically to the word literally and they are really two different words with two different meanings. Now even though you’ll find definitions for the word “literalistically” that include taking something literally, it’s more than that.
Adherence to the explicit sense of a given text or doctrine.
Let me give some examples of what I mean.
If I said, “I am so hungry I could eat a horse,” the average person who is familiar with that idiom would understand exactly what I meant. They would understand my literal meaning and would not take my words literalistically. They would simply understand me to mean that I am very hungry. They would not take me to mean that I wanted to actually eat an entire horse. Of course, people who were simply new to the English language and/or not familiar with that idiom might have a bit of difficulty understanding what was actually meant. This happened to me when I was taking Spanish. There is a Spanish idiom – and I forget exactly how it sounds in Spanish – that means “There, a quarter!” It is said as a throw-away phrase, but when a person who is fluent in Spanish hears someone else say that, they do not immediately begin looking on the ground for a quarter. They understand what is meant by that phrase.
Let’s take the phrase that is often seen on highway signs, “Fine for littering.” Now, most people understand that to say that if a person is caught throwing garbage out of the car window (littering), they will be subject to a fine payable to the court that has jurisdiction over that area.
But look at it another way. The sign also can be interpreted as saying “It’s okay (fine) to litter.” In fact, I’ve written a book on this very subject called, Interpreting the Bible Literally (Is Not as Confusing as It Sounds) and cover this subject because I was talking with a dad whose son was on the Autism Spectrum. The dad was telling me how he laughed when on a trip, they came across just such a sign on the highway. The son’s comment was, “That sign says it’s okay to litter!” The son wasn’t being facetious or sarcastic. That’s the way he understood the sign. The dad had to explain that the word “fine” had several meanings and context is often relied upon to help people understand the meaning that is meant. I would take the way that son understood the sign as literalistically or maybe a better way to say it is hyper-literally.
When we get to the Bible and interpreting it, there are so many ways it seems that people do that. Because Dispensationalists (like myself) are often accused of misunderstanding and mishandling God’s Word because of the alleged template we use to do so (there is no template), it has become the norm to hear how people misunderstand the way I understand the Bible. Essentially, I understand the Bible in its most plain and ordinary sense. I have no difficulty at all because the Bible is not a book of magic with hidden codes. It’s not as Origen believed, with at least three depths of meaning for each section of Scripture. The Bible basically says one thing or it says nothing. It could not sustain itself if there were hidden meanings throughout Scripture or a meaning for one situation using this verse and an opposing meaning for another situation using the same verse.
God is not the Author of confusion so we must ask ourselves why He would bother to write a book at all (using roughly 40 human authors over a period of approximately 1,600 years), if He did not intend for us to be able to gain HIS meaning from its pages? Certainly, there is a great deal that is hidden to unbelievers but that has nothing to do with God purposefully confusing His Word or making it so “layered” that meaning is totally up for grabs. A lost person’s blindness won’t allow them to see His truth so they can search the Scriptures all they want and at least some will be hidden from them but it’s not because the language is code for anything. They are simply blind but in the very reading of it – as has happened to some atheists – God may choose to open their eyes to His truth. When that happens, much of the Bible begins to fall into place for them and they understand because their eyes are now open to it and they can see what they failed to previously understand.
But then you’ve got Christians from varying walks of life and denominations, who have different views on Eschatology (study of the end times), or the Trinity, or something else and you wonder how does that happen? Does that mean they’re not Christians? Not necessarily. It could simply mean that they are taking a completely wrong approach to things. I’m not including people who are involved in cults or extremist fringe groups here. Those folks need to find salvation first.
Learning the Bible is more than just reading it repeatedly. That is an excellent place to start, but to understand how to interpret it, understanding the various methods utilized are important and then determining the best method is tantamount. Once the best way to interpret Scripture is determined, if the correct one (and really folks, there can only be one correct method), is chosen, then a great deal of problems will be avoided.
Let’s look at just one example if we may. The Bible, like most writings, uses a variety of styles as God put His Book together as a gift to humanity. In Scripture, we see poetry, wisdom, history, and within these, we might stumble across idioms, metaphors, figures of speech, and more. It is important to understand this before we get into it. If we don’t, we will encounter problems.
Look! Enemies are gathering in the north like water rising in a river.
They will be like an overflowing stream.
They will overwhelm the whole country and everything in it like a flood.
The above text, from Jeremiah 47:1b-2a, speaks of rising water, an overflowing stream, and a flood. Is the prophet Jeremiah warning people that a flood of actual water is coming and they’d better get to high ground? Is that what he’s doing?
Clearly, Jeremiah is issuing a warning that has to do with Israel’s enemies. He essentially likens the gathering of that enemy against one of Israel’s enemies like water that rises in the river, an overflowing stream, and a flood. Jeremiah is using poetic imagery, metaphors, to paint a picture. He wanted to paint a very vivid picture of what was going to happen so that the people would know. He was not telling them that actual floodwaters were on their way. He was telling them that one of their enemies would be very much like flood waters as they gather together. In this case, Pharaoh was planning to attack Gaza where the Philistines lived and it was the gathering of his armies that is the subject here.
But my point – as I’m sure you see – is that this Egyptian army was likened by the prophet as flood waters, so powerful, so great, and so many were the troops of Pharaoh that Gaza would have little chance, as Pharaoh’s armies would literally overwhelm them as floodwaters would. Notice Jeremiah uses the word “like” to prove that he is not talking about actual floodwaters.
Now turn to Daniel 9:26 where we read the following words:
Now after the sixty-two weeks,
an anointed one will be cut off and have nothing.
As for the city and the sanctuary,
the people of the coming prince will destroy them.
But his end will come speedily like a flood.
Until the end of the war that has been decreed
there will be destruction.
I’ve emphasized the word “flood” in the fifth line down so that you would notice it. What’s happening here? Do you think that the words in Daniel are referring to flood waters or some type of army? If you chose flood waters, you’d be wrong. Notice again the use of the word “like” in the text.
Yet, in spite of this, many individuals who talk about or write commentaries on Daniel refer to this section as an actual flood of water that God will send. No, it’s a metaphor that means something massive is going to get rid of this “coming prince” mentioned in the previous line. When it says “his end will come speedily like a flood,” it’s not talking about Jesus as some interpret. They are mistaken. This has nothing to do with Jesus except for the fact that He will be the One who destroys this “prince” as He returns (2 Thessalonians 2).
What is interesting is that the only area where people place common sense and logic on the shelf is when they get to areas that deal with the prophetic as both the passage in Jeremiah 47 and Daniel 9 connect with. When they’re not dealing with prophecy, most people have no difficulty understanding what Scripture means. They get to prophecy and they seem unable to apply common sense to things, the same common sense they applied to Scripture that wasn’t prophetic in nature.
God uses poetic language in His Word. He also uses idioms – many of them germane to the time in which they were first written. Jesus used idioms at various times in his public sermons. In order to fully grasp their meaning, we have to travel back to the time when they were first used. Instead, people try to understand the Bible by applying today’s meaning to something and these same people would do that with no other work of antiquity.
We need to approach God’s Word determined to gain His meaning from it, not ours. We cannot go to it and read meaning into it based on today’s understanding or culture. The only way to fully understand something written centuries ago is to learn more about the time period during which something was written.
Stay tuned because we’ll offer more insight into what should not be the problem of interpretation.
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