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 more youth than pastor).
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, allegorist who thought “conservative” was a synonym for “lobotomy” and thought that the pentateuch was the 5-pointed star associated with Satanism (no joke). Along my journey from biblical idiocy to, well, 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 guys like myself 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 and (b) in their appropriate circles of 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 (as used by the original recipients, not the modern readers) unless they have sufficient reason to seek some other interpretation. This means several things:
1. 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).
2. 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 17:1-5 where the scripture records of the great prostitute who sits on many waters who makes the dwellers of the earth drunk with her sexual immorality, and whose name is “Babylon”. The plain meaning is that there’s a gigantic prostitute, big enough to sit on multiple continents, who’s named after an ancient city. This might possibly be a figure of speech unless one is willing to suggest something bizarre…
B. Appropriate Circles of 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: context of history (historical) and context of words (grammatical). 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 their distinctive time and culture, and drawing out the meaning of words/passages as they were understood in the literature in which they appear.
1. Understanding a verse in its context of history 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 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 “I’m still watching television and I don’t plan on getting up”. To the Jews, a “spiritual” kingdom would have been synonymous with a “non-existent kingdom”.
– Understanding a passage within its 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 its 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.
2. Understanding a verse in its context of words 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 bizarre changes in subject matter…
– Understanding a passage within its setting of genre. One could do this by taking a passage from poetic literature and interpreting it in a non-poetic way, like as is regularly done by Denis 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. An example of this would be when 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 non-poetic texts. All three texts talk about how the heavens are spread out “like a tent”, and yet Lamoureux stretches out the metaphor far beyond its 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 its usage in a sentence. A prime example of this would be the constant suggestion that the word “day” in Genesis 1:5b (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 1:5b”. This argument is simply invalid; the meaning of a word is determined by its 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 three or four 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 in 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 something like “the period when the sun is up”. The reason readers don’t wonder whether “day” means the same thing in Judges 5:6 as it does in 6:27 is because the word is clearly used in a different way in the sentence. In Genesis 1:5b, “day” couldn’t really be used in another way other than a 24 hour period of time because the setting of the word in the sentence dictates the possible meanings of the word.
– 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 and I dare suggest that most people don’t make a nuanced distinction between the promise of the verse and the principle behind the promise.
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 common usage of words understood in their appropriate circles of context. I would go so far to suggest that a majority of misunderstandings of scripture by Christians involve either forcing words to mean something outside their common meanings, or forcing words to mean something outside their meaning in their circles of context.
I could write a whole lot more on this, but that should help you understand what I’m getting at.
I’ve also tossed out enough hotly contested passages that I’m sure the comment thread will cause me anguish and pain!
Until Next Time,
Lyndon “A text without a con-text is a pre-text to a proof-text” Unger