What is literal interpretation and why does it matter?
Interpretation (noun) the act of explaining the meaning of something.
So Bible interpretation is explaining the meaning of the Bible.
“In the history of biblical interpretation, four major types of hermeneutics have emerged: the literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical.
Literal interpretation asserts that a biblical text is to be interpreted according to the “plain meaning” conveyed by its grammatical construction and historical context. The literal meaning is held to correspond to the intention of the authors.” (fromBritannica)
“When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.” – Dr. David L. Cooper (from bibletruths.org)
We need a consistent, logical approach to how we interpret scripture. Without a consistent approach, we can make the Bible say anything we want it to.
But God had specific things He wanted to convey to us by scripture. To find out what that is, we need to approach scripture literally, accepting that the words mean exactly what they say in their historical and grammatical context.
Context, context, context. This is vitally important to how we approach scripture.
Another vital element is understanding the dispensations of time so that we’re not claiming promises or trying to obey commands that were meant for a different people group.
If you’re taking scripture literally, then when Isaiah writes that the Israelites will receive blessings for turning from idols and returning to God, you interpret that to mean this was a message to Israel. Not that it was a message to us today which is a common but inaccurate interpretation.
If we can claim any command or promise, then we could claim commands to the Israelites to go kill unbelievers in their land. If every command and promise is to all people, then the extreme would have to be true, too. If you take this method to its logical conclusion, you can claim anything you want even if it’s contrary to the New Testament.
This is why Bible rules for interpretation are so important.
We can’t make the Bible say whatever we want. The bible isn’t saying what we feel like it’s saying.
The bible passages have meanings that God intended to communicate to us. It is our job to pay attention to the words (grammar and history) and the context.
These are the rules for interpretation as I understand them. These are the questions I ask myself when trying to interpret a passage.
When was this written? Old Testament or New Testament? Very few parts of the Old Testament apply today and none of the Mosaic Law –not even the 10 Commandments are commands for today (Many of the 10 Commandments were replaced by New Testament equivalents but not all). Most of the New Testament applies to today except for parts of the Gospels when Jesus was teaching about the Kingdom to come when He returns to earth and parts of Revelation are talking about a different dispensation in the end times.
To whom was it written? Jews? Gentiles? Both? Verses written to and about Jews do not apply to us gentiles.
Is there any indication in this passage that it was a general statement for all people? You’d have to read more than one or two verses to be able to tell the context. Some Old Testament verses do apply to all people, like the command to be fruitful and multiply which was given to all of Adam’s descendants. Most Old Testament verses do not.
Is there any indication that this verse is metaphorical? Or allegorical? Assume it’s means exactly what it says unless there’s a evidence in the passage that it is not to be taken literally. An example would be Daniel’s dream about a statue. It’s a dream, and it’s rather fanciful. So, it’s safe to assume that Daniel wasn’t prophesying that someday a literal statue would be destroyed by a rock. In that case, it makes sense that it’s not literal.
But unless the passage indicates it’s not literal, assume that it is. The majority of the time, literal interpretation makes the most sense.
Literal Interpretation requires us to engage our minds in an effort to understand. This is in stark contrast to the many teachers out there who believe in individual interpretation or that the Bible means what you feel like it means or that you can make every passage I the Old Testament into an allegory for today.
If we want confidence in the hard times as we discussed in yesterday’s post, we need a solid, biblical understanding of God, His nature, and His promises.
We need to step away from emotional-based faith, away from living-word style interpretation, away from ignoring the literal sense when we don’t like what it says, of trying to be creative and clever with our interpretation instead of simply reasonable and rational.
When properly understood, the scripture can give us great comfort, but when we misinterpret it we leave ourselves open to all kinds of problems like claiming promises that aren’t ours and then beyond angry that God didn’t keep those promises which weren’t ours to begin with.
A proper approach to scripture is vital to a healthy walk with Christ.
More on this topic tomorrow.