Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Using the Literal Principle to Understand the Literature of the Bible

You are called to interpret the Word of God just as you interpret other forms of communication in the most obvious, the most natural sense. As it has been well said, to interpret the Bible literally is to interpret the Bible as literature. Thus, when a biblical author uses a symbol or an allegory, we do violence to his intentions if we interpret him literally.  

Consider, for example, the Lord’s words in John 2:19: “Destroy this temple,” said Jesus, “and I will raise it again in three days.” The Jews understood Jesus in a wooden, literal fashion. They thought He was saying that the temple, which had taken forty-six years to build, could be destroyed in three days, and rebuilt again in that period of time. Jesus, however, spoke figuratively, as John explained the temple He had spoken of was the temple of His body. Likewise, when the apostle John describes Satan as a dragon, or variously as an ancient serpent (Rev. 20:2), we’d be seriously mistaken to suppose that he intends to communicate that Satan is literally a smoke-spouting snake!  

My point is simply this: a literalistic method of interpretation does as much violence to the text as does a spiritualized interpretation that empties the text of objective meaning. So to avoid either extreme, you as a believer need to adeptly employ the literal principle of biblical interpretation. You need to pay careful attention to what is called form, or genre, figurative language, and even the kind of fantasy imagery that the apostle John uses in the Book of Revelation. Now when we talk about Satan being a dragon, dragons are obviously the stuff of mythology, not the stuff of theology.  

So you need to exercise your mind to grasp what the author is driving at. Metaphors, when we use them, even in common parlance, are used in ways that have significant meaning. They have sharp teeth. It doesn’t mean that when you use metaphorical language that you’re not pointing to something concrete, or something substantive; it means that you have to use your mind to get what the author is driving at. This is certainly true with biblical forms or figures of speech. As a believer you need to learn to read the Bible for all its worth.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Hanegraaff:

I have two initial questions, if I may ask:

1. What do you believe happens to those who commit evil acts (such as, who break one or several of God's Commandments) and do not repent before their earthly demise?

2. What do you believe happens to nonbelievers? Folks who do not lie, steal, or cheat, who give to the poor, etc., but who do not believe in Jesus, and probably not in God, either?

Anonymous said...

I say Amen. Consider the following:

Whenever Paul comes to a deep spiritual matter, many times he uses a metaphor or analogy. Think about it. However, the Body of Christ that he speaks of is not an example, but a reality. Also, John's Revelation is a book of signs, as Revelation 1:1 in faithful representation of the Greek text points out.

Thanks for the faithful speaking Hank!


Timothy Favelle said...

I'm sure that you will not approve this comment, but if you will edit out what parts you see fit, please get in contact with me and I will likely heartily approve of the changes.

This is a wonderful article on how to interpret scripture. As an evolutionary creationist I read much of the first part of Genesis as a mythology, and I find such a reading of it to be confirmed by contemporary genesis myths of Mesopotamia, Egypt and the region, as well as Mamionides and others who have treated Genesis as a myth as well. Often when people hear me call it a myth, they think that I mean that it is untrue. In the time that Genesis was written though, truth was almost universally passed on through the means of mythologies, as language hadn't developed enough to write these stories as historical narratives. I have never meant to suggest that Genesis is untrue or false, but that it is written in the timeless genre of mythology up until about the 12th chapter.

Reading Genesis in this way does not take away from the truth therein. It seems to me that it adds whole new meaning to what must be a dry retelling of a historical story. In the myth, there is a Creator who purposefully created the cosmos and all things that fill it so that a place is prepared for the crown of His creation, man and woman. It tells the truth of how God created plants and animals to reproduce after their own kind. It tells the truth of Adam being formed from the dust of the ground (which I personally take metaphorically as God forming Adam out of his humility) and breathing into him the breath of life. It conveys the truth of how a man needs a wife, for support; not from a bone in his foot so that he walks all over her or from a bone in his head so that she can rule over him, but from his side to be his equal, from his chest to be close to his heart. It conveys the truth that even when walking with God is a daily occurrence and there is only one rule, we are so easily swayed that we will break that rule when the opportunity comes. It tells a story where the first man who was given the breath of life brought spiritual death to the world, and with it we realize the depravity of man and our utter need of a savior. I do hold Genesis in high esteem, it's one of my favorite 66 books, and with this article you posted, I can show people who tell me that I hate the Bible that I love so much how to read the Bible.

People need to read your article. There are lots of people out there who put an unnecessary block in the road to salvation because of misinterpreting scriptures. As if God's grace doesn't extend to people who read everything literally or the flipside. It is dangerous when people hang salvation on anything but Christ crucified and that only comes from misinterpretation of the Bible. said...

Hello Mr Hanegraaff,
I come from a very conservative Romanian Baptist background, where asking questions and researching the Bible in other than literal forms is not encouraged. I found your post refreshing and encouraging.
Thank you & G-d bless you & your family!!
debby pernes

John Gibson said...

Like the parable of the fig tree. I don't understand how anyone could come to conclusion that it refers to the rebirth Israel and Christ's second coming. Jesus used it as an allegory to illustrate our perception of changing times.

Great blog Hank!

Johnny Summerfield said...

As a poet, I get this. I love CS Lewis's works due to his imagination, which God gave to him. I am saddened that there aren't many Christian poets out there or many places to send my works. It is as though all that is acceptable in the area of imagination is a false fiction like LaHaye's and so many people copy that same vein or reasoning, meaning they do not reason and mine the Word for what it's worth. It seems to only be about the mighty dollar.

Flavio Silva said...

Good observation.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate what you say in this blog, and I agree with it. I am interested in learning to understand the Bible prefectly.

I was just reading an article on your website (ID: DB050) about baptism. It seemed lacking in biblical citation. They mentioned that baptism by sprinklinig and pouring were unknown in the Bible, but that because some in the "early church" seemed to use sprinkling and pouring under certain circumstances that we can assume that such practice is justified. This doesn't make sene to me because the meaning of the greek word is immersion. How can one claim that pouring and sprinkling is justified by the practice of uninspired persons?

It further said that baptism is not necessary for salvation because in many texts only repentance and faith are mentioned. They did not discuss the passages that teach that faith alone cannot save (James 2) and that only those who do the will of the Father can be saved (Matthew 7:21).

It seems that the Bible teaches that more than faith only (faith without obedience) is necessary and that when the Bible talks about saving faith that it is referring to a faith perfected by obedience (James 2:14-26; Numbers 20:7-12) and that only those who obey the Father will enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 7: 21; Acts 5: 32). Christ commanded baptism (Matthew 28:18-20) He said that those who believe AND are baptized shall be saved (Mark 16: 15-16). This is an AND statement. Both of these requirements must be true for the result to occur. Moreover, only those who love Jesus will receive the Spirit of God to indwell them (John 14:23), and all things will work together for good (ie. Salvation) only to those who love God (Romans 8:28).

Only those who do His will love Him (John 14: 23-24) and are His disciples indeed (John 8: 31-32). Loving God in deed and in truth is necessary. We cannot love in word and tongue only lest we be like those of whom Isaiah prophesied saying that they draw nigh unto God with their lips, but their hearts are far from Him (Isaiah 29: 13; Matthew 15:18).

It seems that to conclude that faith only saves us we must believe that the men who believed in Christ but would not confess Him because they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God are also saved (John 12:42). But, Jesus said that if we are not willing to forsake all others, even our own lives, for His sake then we cannot be his disciples (Luke 14:26), and that if we do not confess Him then He will not confess us. Remember, we must be His disciples indeed in order to be made free (John 8:31-32).

Finally, it seems that many men invent a purpose for baptism. They say it is an outward sign to men of our inward faith in God. However, the Bible never says this. Peter plainly says that baptism now save us by being an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:21). Paul says that we receive the circumcision made without hands in Christ when we are buried with Christ in baptism through the faith in the work of God (Colossians 2:11-12), and that those who are baptized faithfully are united with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection and that their old man of sin has been crucified with him IF they have been baptized. IF the things said in Romans 6 are true of them, which is only true of those who have been baptized, THEN they will also be raised with Him (Romans 6:3-11).

Much more could be said, but I have to go!

I look forward to hearing from you.

Jerry Humphrey said...

Mr. Hanegraaff. I have longed desired to speak with you. I thank you for your stand for biblical truth. Listening to you really inspires me to really get into the Word of God so the Word of God can get into me. I love this blog (recognizing it from your book, "Apocalypse Code: What the Bible really says about the end times) you posted because the lack of applying proper interpretation to the Word of God leads us into error. Like you always say, "Ideas have consequences." It is one of my desires to create a type of Bible without chapters and verses, just so readers will be much more inclined to "read the Bible for all it's worth." The Word of God will be much more likely to be read in in CONTEXT.