Literal Interpretations and Reading the Bible for all Its Worth

Dave Lose, author of Making Sense of Scripture, and Director of the Center for Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, recently contributed to the Huffington Post an article entitled “4 Good Reasons Not to Read the Bible Literally.” I took an interest in reading the article, as the biblical writers utilized figures of speech (e.g. hyperbole; metonymy; synecdoche), and that there are instances when “Literal Interpretations Don’t Hold Water.”

A positive point made by Lose is that the Bible does not idealize humanity, but includes all of our warts and wrinkles. Abraham passed on of his wife twice, Moses murdered, David committed adultery, and Peter denied the Lord. “Whatever their accomplishments,” writes Lose, “most of the ‘heroes of the faith’ are complicated persons with feet of clay. And that’s the point: the God of the Bible regularly uses ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things.” Problems also abound with Lose’ article, as the bulk of it is a disappointing criticism Bible inerrancy.

According to Lose, “There is no hint that the authors of the Bible imagined that what they were writing was somehow supernaturally guaranteed to be factually accurate.” Elsewhere in the article he asserts, “Earlier Christians—along with almost everyone else who lived prior to the advent of modernity—simply didn’t imagine that for something to be true it had to be factually accurate, a concern only advanced after the Enlightenment.” Yet, this makes no sense. If God has spoken to us through Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament and Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament, then it can be deduced that the information communicated would be without error. Common to each of the Gospel is teaching on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; yet, if this teaching is not factually accurate, then the theology is also good for nothing but to be trampled underfoot. Paul gets it when in stating: “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Inerrancy does matter!

What are the so-called “errors” of Lose? One is Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, which the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, and Luke record towards the end of Christ’s ministry in contrast to John who places it at the beginning of Christ’s ministry. It is true that the wooden literalist, whether liberal or conservative, stumbles when coming to grips with the chronology of the Gospel writers, the issue is not the four Gospels contain factual errors; rather, the Bible student is to be sensitive to the literary structures inherent within the biblical text noting the unique ways the Gospel writers under the inspiration of the Spirit constructed their account. There is no contradiction with “Christ’s Cleansing of the Temple.” Lose also makes a fuss about the crucifixion occurring on the Passover in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but on “the Day of Preparation” in John. This is simply making a mountain out of a molehill, and John’s “Day of Preparation” is simply a reference to the Passover week. D. A. Carson writes, “ ‘Passover’ can refer to the Passover meal, the day of the Passover meal, or (as in this case) the entire Passover week (i.e. Passover day plus the immediately ensuing Feast of Unleavened Bread” [1].

Lose’s assertion that “Most Christians across history have not read the Bible literally” is correct in so far as it means the wooden literalist interpretation of fundamentalist on the left and on the right only came about in the last hundred and fifty years; however, the allegorical interpretation associated with Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine and other early church fathers can likewise be considered problematic. It is really through the historical grammatical interpretive method that we can come to grips with the intended message communicated through the text.

God has spoken and, while fallible human agents were used to compose the message, these prophets and apostles wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that what was produced was the infallible Word of God. The task of the Bible student is to read God’s Word and using sound principles of hermeneutics, which is the art and science of biblical interpretation, draw out its intended message. For further study on this subject, Has God Spoken by Hank Hanegraaff is highly recommended.

— Warren Nozaki

Notes:

1. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 604.

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