When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 1 Co 13:11
One of the earmarks of how children learn their language is they go through a stage where they are unable to grasp figurative speech. They have learned the basic meaning of words and how to communicate in sentences. But they insist on taking everything you say literally. Only after much more growth and maturity are they able to understand and communicate with adults and their use of colloquialisms, cliches, and comparisons. Strict literal understanding is one of the childish things that one leaves behind as they mature. In the coming days, the Body of Christ is going to have to mature in like manner.
In my earlier days as a Christian, I once took a series of classes on Bible Study that introduced the 10 commandments of Bible interpretation. This was all well and good providing a lot of helpful information and insight.
Quite some time later I came across a textbook on the laws of Bible Interpretation in a book store. The laws they listed were different! Our church at that time was charismatic, and this was a Baptist bookstore. They had different rules of interpretation than we did!
At my next opportunity I asked our bible teacher where he had gotten his 10 commandments of bible study. As it turns out, they were taught to him by another charismatic pastor, but their ultimate origin was not clear.
I began to see that there was something odd and perhaps self serving about these 10 laws. Each group espoused rules of interpretation that just happened to support the lines of reasoning that produced their pet doctrines. While all of these pastors were very careful about having scriptural justification for their doctrine, there was little or no attempt to provide scriptural support for the rules of interpretation. In other words, these rules were man made. And the game was rigged!
We're not going into a study of all these laws or attempt to rewrite them. I just want to look at one I find especially troublesome. And which by the way is adhered to both by charismatic types and more conservative fundamentalists.
It is the Law of Literal Interpretation. This says "Always interpret scripture literally wherever possible, and only if this fails are you to seek another way of interpretation."
The justification that is usually given for this law is you will avoid lots of errors that people have made in the past, or that you lose touch with reality. One writer heaps scorn on those who abandon literal interpretation, saying "they wander off into allegorical la-la land".
However no scripture is offered to back up this law. So we'd like to take this opportunity to present some scripture that speaks contrary to the law of literal interpretation.
Now how about some basics. What is literal interpretation? Our dictionary tells us this:.
lit-er-al (lit1er-el) adjective
1. Being in accordance with, conforming to, or upholding the exact or primary meaning of a word or words.
2. Word for word; verbatim: a literal translation.
3. Avoiding exaggeration, metaphor, or embellishment; factual; prosaic: a literal description; a literal mind.
My summary of this is "sticking to the exact meaning and avoiding exaggeration, metaphor or embellishment".
So the law of literal interpretation then says "Always interpret scripture sticking to the exact meaning and avoiding exaggeration, metaphor or embellishment wherever possible, and only if this fails are you to seek another way of interpretation." Note: this is not denying that there are other ways of interpreting scripture, nor does it deny that the bible uses exaggeration, metaphor and embellishment. All it does is tell us to avoid these things.
Okay now what is Metaphor?
1. Abbr. met., metaph.. A figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison, as in "a sea of troubles" or "All the world's a stage" (Shakespeare).
2. One thing conceived as representing another; a symbol: "The high-rise garbage repository is a metaphor for both accomplishment and failure" (Richard Sever).
Synonyms for metaphor are: allusion, allegory, colloquialism, comparison, emphasis, euphemism, exaggeration, figurativeness, figure, figure of speech, flourish, hyperbole, imagery, irony, likeness, manner of speech, mystical interpretation, parable, paradox, personification, rhetorical figure, sarcasm, satire, simile, similitude, symbolism, word-play, [also types and shadows which are images and footprints.]
Here are a couple other definitions that will serve us in this discussion.
A figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect, as in I could sleep for a year or This book weighs a ton.
1. Similarity; resemblance. See synonyms at LIKENESS.
2. a. One closely resembling another; a counterpart. b. A perceptible likeness.
3. Archaic. A simile, an allegory, or a parable.
All definitions are from the American Heritage Dictionary as distributed with Microsoft Bookshelf 95. Now what does the Bible say?
In Hosea 12, God outlines his methods of speaking to man.
I have also spoken by the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and used similitudes, by the ministry of the prophets. Hosea 12:10
Let me point out here that the ministry of the prophets includes those who like Moses, Isaiah, Luke, John, etc. were the actual writers of the bible. So their writings are not just historical records i. e. literal, but God's way of speaking by similitude i. e. non-literal. To put it another way, God is telling us that the bible is primarily non-literal.
Now even the historical parts are primarily non-literal. Look what Paul says here.
Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come. 1 Corinthians 10:11
To rephrase this, Paul is saying that the things that happened in the bible are recorded as examples for our learning. So the primary use of them is not to record what happened [literal] but to impart a lesson [spiritual].
Here he is discussing another 'historical' event, showing the non-literal interpretation.
But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.
Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. Galatians 4:23-24
He is making a case or at least a very strong hint that the histories recorded in the bible are meant as allegories.
Here is another case where Paul shows the literal view to be insignificant in comparison to the spiritual.
For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen?
Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: 1 Corinthians
There are many cases where God presents a parable and then shows us how to interpret it.
In the parable of the vineyard in Isaiah for example, God stops to explain his figurative language
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: Isaiah 5:7
Here God's people are depicted as plantings. Elsewhere they are described as sheep.
Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Ps 100:3
In another place, he speaks of clay in the hand of the potter.
But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand. Isa 64:8
In some places He mixes the metaphor so as to make the literal rendering ridiculous.
Many pastors have destroyed my vineyard, they have trodden my portion under foot, they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness. Jer 12:10
Is God complaining that someone let the sheep graze in the vineyard and ruin the plants?
Look at Jesus explaining the parable of the sower.
And he taught them many things by parables, and said unto them in his doctrine, Mark 4:2
And he said unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables? The sower soweth the word.
And these are they by the way side, where the word is sown; but when they have heard, Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts.
And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground; who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness;
And have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word's sake, immediately they are offended.
And these are they which are sown among thorns; such as hear the word, ... Mark 4:13-18
Here Jesus explains each element of the parable and shows their relationships. But he is also giving them a lesson in bible interpretation. Note that he says And he said unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables? This is to say, the way that you interpret this parable is the way to interpret parables in general.
Here in Luke 1 we find an example of hyperbole or exaggeration.
Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us,
Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;
It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,
That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed. Lu 1:14
Are we to believe that Luke has had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, or are we to see that this is an exaggeration pointing to [describing] the real author of Luke's writings, namely the Holy Spirit?
The bible is full of religious laws and rituals, all strictly literal, right? Well looking in Collosians and Hebrews we see there that these things are shadows. They are images and pictures pointing to something greater.
Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:
Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ. Col 2:16-17
For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. Heb 10:1
One problem with this law of literal interpretation is that it leads people to think that all they need to understand the bible is a good set of dictionaries. In other words, you can understand most all of the bible without the help of the Holy Spirit.
The bible comes right out and tells us that this will not work!
But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. 1Co 2:14
Let's rephrase this verse.
But the natural man [who interprets literally] receiveth not [cannot understand] the things of the Spirit of God: [the things written by the Spirit of God in the scriptures] for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. [because they are only understood spiritually.] 1 Co 2:14
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