Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The literal meaning of the text

Defending Scripture Literally.

All these years later, I'm learning that understanding the literal meaning of the Bible is a more nuanced adventure than my college friends and I imagined. We'd been blithely unaware that there is more than one genre in the Bible, or that literary context profoundly matters to meaning. We didn't understand that when we read ancient Hebrew prose poems (like Genesis 1), wisdom literature (like Proverbs), or apocalyptic literature (like Revelation) as if they were science textbooks, we were actually obscuring their meaning.

If we say God is our father, does even the most fundy of fundies mean that God literally fathered us? 


B. Prokop said...

To any and all who insist on a woodenly literal reading of scripture, I give you Psalm 57, verse 4:

I lie in the midst of lions
that greedily devour the sons of men;
their teeth are spears and arrows,
their tongues sharp swords.

Now the lions' teeth are obviously not literally spears, arrows, and swords. So now that we have established that parts of The Bible have to be interpreted, we can throw out the idea that everything must be read only in the literal sense.

IlĂ­on said...

no, No, NO!

Simply *everyone* knows that Bronze Age desert nomad sheep-herders were too unsophisticated to employ metaphor and hyperbole and sarcasm and all those other weird terms from English 101 that no one cares about.

B. Prokop said...

The passage I quoted demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that we must take author's intent and literary genre into account when interpreting Scripture. Not everything in The Bible is "history" to be taken at face value. Some of it is poetry, other parts are flat-out fiction (and there is absolutely nothing "wrong" with that term, unless you think nothing of value can be gleaned from, say, The Brothers Karamazov or Hamlet). To the latter category I would place Job, Jonah, and Tobit. (I am aware that you, as a Protestant, couldn't care less about Tobit, despite its canonicity). Others books are indeed straight history, and ought to be read as such. The five books of Moses are composed of more genres than I could easily list in a single blog posting, and require serious interpretation. (It's largely why the Jews have the Talmud.) The Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony and are, I believe, faithful to actual events to a degree that I personally see no grounds to dispute what they have to say.

Bottom line: There is no "One size fits all" when it comes to The Bible.

Alex Dalton said...

Victor - I'm with you on not reading the Bible in an overly literal fashion. I'm pretty liberal there. I'd be careful when it comes to the issue of our sonship though. You might look into some Eastern Orthodox teachings on this matter and also the imago dei. I've found a much richer understanding there of the filial aspects of Christology and the divine sonship of believers. Consider that the scripture speaks of Christ as the unique and pre-eminent Son, but that we are conformed to his image and that he was the first born among many brothers (Rom 8:29); we are subsumed into that sonship, adopted as sons into the divine family, in a corporate body with Christ in an organic sense, to the extent that we have his very same Spirit dwelling and operating within us. We are even considered "one flesh" with Christ, carrying out his mission, recapitulating his pattern of death and resurrection in our lives, and frequently spoken of as "born of God" or "born of the Spirit". Western Christianity has focused so much on forensic aspects of justification, that it seems the corporate aspect of salvation - our actual Union with Christ - has been tremendously overshadowed and neglected. There are more than a few biblical scholars since Schweitzer - indeed some of the greatest living Pauline scholars - who see this as a central aspect of Paul's doctrine. Not only does Christ participate in humanity in the incarnation, but we participate in his death and resurrection, in some sort of corporate and mystical sense, and also participate in his divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), including his reign and rule (Rev. 3:21). Our status and our actual nature as sons is not just dependent on and derivative of Christ's sonship, but it is very much embedded within it organically.

Alex Dalton said...


If there are metaphorical aspects of sonship in the scripture, I would say it is more along the lines of the references to the nation of Israel and Israelite kings, but even there I think there is much more going on. From the very beginning in Eden, it looks like God is setting humanity up in, or for, a relationship of kinship. David Litwa's tremendous work on deification in Paul makes note of this, and see especially Catherine McDowell's argument to this effect in her _The Image of God in the Garden of Eden_. In Luke, Adam is considered to have been "the son of God". It may be that the creation of man as a being in the image and likeness of God, who, in his own role as human father, creates other beings in his image, is recapitulating the divine Fatherhood. Rather than man as potential or actual son of God being a metaphor, it may be that human fatherhood is a shadow of primordial divine Fatherhood. Man was fathered by God from the beginning to be like him, given dominion over the earth as God rules over the cosmos, made to be more than image-bearer, but also one who creates others in his image. In Christ, man is reborn from above, by and of the Spirit, to be indwelt permanently by Christ, who is the fullness of God, until we ourselves are "filled with all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:19). I think theologically these neglected aspects of Christian theological anthropology not only empower and liberate believers, but also make for a much more loving concept of our God. If God is the greatest of all possible beings, surely a supreme act of love, is not just that he share in our nature, but that he wants to share his own.

I think you should keep an eye out for the work of Carl Mosser in this area of what the Greek Orthodox call theosis, what others call deification, union, participation, etc.; Mosser has degrees in both New Testament and Philosophy of Religion, and he is doing tremendous work here, really showing how the history of Christian tradition from Paul, to the Early Fathers, through even the Reformers has held to this view.


Email me if you want me to write up a bibliography on these matters. Do check out some of Mosser's papers on this subject though: https://gs.academia.edu/CarlMosser

unkleE said...

B Prokop, there are many many examples like the ones you give. The NT writers and Jesus often quote the OT non-literally (e.g. John 10:34-36 where Jesus quotes from Psalm 82 to say we are all gods, when the Psalm has a quite different meaning). Revelation is full of non-literal images (e.g. Jesus is a lamb and a lion and a horseman with a sword coming out of his mouth, etc). And so on.

The truth is that all of us can be very selective about which passages we emphasise, which passages we allow to re-interpret others, and which ones we ignore or explain away. Then there's the places where there are contradictions and discrepancies and divergent teachings.

So Victor is surely right, we need to understand context and culture. One factor, I have been told, is that for the Jews, the OT wasn't so much a set of truths as a discussion and contrast between different views and ideas, to be in a sense "mined" for meaning. If we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us into truth, as Jesus said in John 16:13, the Bible becomes a tool rather than a rule in many of these discussions.

The difficulty I have with this idea is that less educated people can't always know the culture and context. I can only think if we were more humble and relied on the Spirit more God could deal with that.

In summary, I think our problem is that we want greater certainty for OUR conclusions than God and the Bible want to give us.

Alex Dalton said...

I see it like this.

When God comes to earth in the form of a man - the supreme act of the revelation of his nature TO man - how does he teach? He uses a ton of hyperbole (non-literal), apocalyptic language (non-literal according to many scholars - see G. B. Caird, N. T. Wright, ), and mainly teaches in aphorisms/proverbs (general truths, often/primarily non-literal), and parables (non-literal stories).

Perhaps this should make us feel more comfortable with non-literal symbolic/mythic genres throughout the Bible.

B. Prokop said...


I don't care for the word "selective" as it so often has a negative, dismissive air about it. Atheists often accuse believers of being "selective" about which passages of The Bible to take literally, when we are in fact being rational (something, ironically, they ought to applaud). I'm beyond amazed at their inability to read something with author's intent in mind.

It's not "selective" to recognize history as history, parable as parable, poetry as poetry, myth as myth, family lore as family lore, eyewitness testimony as eyewitness testimony, letter as letter, law as law, etc, etc.

But this simply goes along with the general atheist tendency to have but one tool in their toolbox. When all you've got is a hammer, you tend to regard everything as a nail.

Alex Dalton said...

Joe Hinman's piece on the Bible and Mythology is definitely worth a read:


Joe Hinman said...

Religious belief is warranted: Answering Stephen Law

Joe Hinman said...

lex Dalton said...
Joe Hinman's piece on the Bible and Mythology is definitely worth a read:


Link, click here

O thank you

Joe Hinman said...

ontopic, the classics, why would God inspire Paul to forget who he baptized in Stephanus' house? Why would God inspire Paul to leave his coat at Troas? Have you prayed for Timothy today:he's still dead but we are commanded to pray for him.

Hal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hal said...

"If we say God is our father, does even the most fundy of fundies mean that God literally fathered us? "

I wouldn't think so.

But what does it mean to say there was a 'literal Adam and Eve'? After all, that was the question that lead to this discussion of how to interpret scripture.