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.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Thus Far, No Further

I recently heard Speaker of the House John Boehner as he talked about the circumstances in our country, and the fact that we are mortgaging the future on the backs of our children. It was a pretty scary message. It was the first message that John Boehner gave outside of Washington since taking over his new post. I also recently participated in a celebration of the King James Version of the Bible. It’s been 400 years now.
I think all too often we take for granted the Bible. We take for granted men like John Wycliffe, who was willing to translate the Bible into the English tongue against opposition to the contrary. Some of you may recall that forty-four years after he had died, his bones were exhumed, his bones burned, and the ashes unceremoniously scattered to the wind.

No doubt some of those ashes made their way to a man named William Tyndale, who likewise began translating the Bible into the English language. He believed the boy who drives the plow should be as familiar with the Bible as was the pope. So he too suffered from the wrath of the Church. October 6, 1536, he was burned alive. While he was dying in flames, he cried out, “Oh God, open the eyes of England’s King!”

Tyndale’s prayers were answered, ironically, by King Henry the VIII, who had Bibles of largest volume chained to pulpits throughout the land. People would come and listen to the immortal words of Scripture.

Then in 1604 King James I commissioned the King James Version of the Bible, which was completed in 1611. There were three versions. I spent some time with a man who actually owns three original copies that were produced between the 1611 version and the 1769 version. What an incredible passion he had for the Word of God as he was collecting old Bibles and recognizing what people went through so that we could have the Bibles we have in every color, size, and shape—every kind of study Bible you can imagine. Yet the apathy in the Christian world towards the Bible is criminal, quiet frankly.

Now you have people who are trying to undermine the Bible in very sophisticated fashion. You have people like Bart Ehrman, Chair of the Religious Studies Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has written a book titled Forged: Writing in the Name of God--Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. Not only does he believe that the copyists who copied the manuscripts were animated by anti-Semitic motives, but he thinks that the very manuscripts that we hold dear were forged. I predict that his book will be another blockbuster bestseller and people will buy uncritically into his nonsense. All the more reason that people who genuinely love the Word of God must become equipped to communicate that nothing could be further from the truth. If you get into Ehrman’s arguments, even though they sound sophisticated, they’re really quite dumb. I point this out in my new book, Has God Spoken?, which is with the publisher and will be released in the autumn. It will be a good corrective to these kinds of attacks on the Bible.

Do you really love the Word of God enough, or do you just say you love the Word of God? Do you genuinely love the Word of God, or do you give mere lip service to it?

The secularists are saying that “we don’t even read the Bible we pretend to defend.” Maybe they have a point there. We are becoming a biblically illiterate church, and its time to stem the tide. Just as Boehner was talking about it being time for us to reign in our debt in the U.S., it’s time for us Christians to say, “Thus far, no further.” We live in the shadow of the Bible, but we can get back to the Bible, and that’s what we’re called to do.

Just a few people can make a difference. Hopefully you’re one of them. That’s one of the reasons we ask you to stand with this ministry, because we’re willing to stand for truth no matter what the cost. If you examine what goes under the rubric of religious studies today, you might well think, “It’s a circus.” But we can make a difference. We can stem the tide. Just a few people willing to stand for truth no matter what the cost eventually became a catalyst for the Bible to be available to us today. Like those who lit the way many years ago, we can light the way today. It’s just a matter of whether we are willing to do for the truth what so many others are willing to do for a lie.