Literal or Figurative?

One of the biggest debates among Christians is how to interpret the Bible. Liberals accuse conservatives of taking the Bible too literally. Conservatives accuse liberals of not taking the Bible seriously enough, often by declaring controversial sections to be figurative. That seems to be a handy way to avoid passages that teach what you don’t want to believe.

But even conservative Christians divide over the issue of literal verses figurative. For example, Dispensationalists often accuse the Reformed of spiritualizing certain sections of Scripture, and the Reformed frequently fault Dispensationalists for their “wooden literalism” by awkwardly forcing literal interpretations upon passages that are intended to be figurative.

Dispensationalists charge the Reformed with “Replacement Theology,” which means interpreting Old Testament prophecies made to Israel as fulfilled in the New Testament Church, and the Reformed return the favor by charging Dispensationalists with interpretive myopia; focusing too narrowly upon the immediate context, and failing to see the forest for the trees.

Nobody takes it all literally.

The plain truth is, nobody takes the entire Bible literally. The liberal taunt, that fundamentalists take the whole Bible literally is just not true. Entire sections of Scripture are clearly written in figuratively language, and it is impossible for anyone to take it all literally. It cannot be done, and I don’t know anyone who tries. The big question is not are some parts of the Bible figurative, but rather which parts are figurative and which are literal, and how do we decide?

Hermeneutics

The big word for this issue is “hermeneutics,” which is shorthand for “rules of interpretation.” It would be nice if God had written a Forward to the Bible in which He issued rules of interpretation, but He didn’t. There is no heaven-sent list of interpretational guidelines, which means we have to work them out for ourselves, deriving them from our study of Scripture. Principles of interpretation can be inferred from Scripture, but the Bible nowhere spells them out. Dispensationalists, who favor a more literal approach, usually emphasize a rule that states in essence, “Literal whenever possible.” Accordingly, every passage should be understood in the most literal manner possible. Only when a literal interpretation appears impossible should a figurative interpretation be considered.

At first glance, that sounds reasonable, perhaps even unquestionable. But with additional consideration, it requires some thoughtful development. Who decides what is possible? Isn’t that largely subjective? What seems possible to one may seem impossible to another. The subjective element is why there are a wide variety of interpretations of books such as Revelation, even among Dispensationalists who are all attempting to faithfully apply this rule. Something that clearly looks symbolic to one is often deemed literal by another. There is also the question of how New Testament writers understand Old Testament passages. Sections from the OT that seem literal enough within their immediate context, appear to be understood figuratively by NT writers who do not seem to be employing the literal-whenever-possible rule.

A simple example

What did Paul mean by the word “rod” when he said, “What do you want? Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Corinthians 4:21) Was Paul literally threatening the Corinthians with corporal punishment? Most would say no, but why not? Applying the literal-whenever-possible rule, shouldn’t we conclude that’s what he meant? Is it impossible for him to intend a literal rod? If we read something like that in the Quran, would we assume that “rod” could not be understood literally? Or would we instead probably conclude that this constitutes a genuine threat to beat somebody black and blue?

Context shapes our interpretive conclusions. Most Bible students agree that Paul did not intend to use a literal rod, but again, why not? Is it not because that seems out of character with what we know about Paul? Taking the bigger picture we conclude that the statement is symbolic, that Paul uses “rod” to mean harsh demeanor and verbal chastisement. In many ways, this seems like common sense, but common sense can be quite subjective. In the “rod” text, what we have done is employ another rule of interpretation called “the analogy of Scripture,” which says that you interpret each individual passage in light of the whole. That’s easier said than done, but this is an important principle too. If the Bible is God’s Word, it cannot contradict itself, so every individual statement must harmonize with the entire Bible.

Because of everything we know about Paul, we conclude that he did not mean a literal rod. The text considered in isolation could be understood literally, but the life and words of Paul, taken as a whole, preclude our understanding “rod” literally as a wooden instrument of corporal punishment.

A unifying principle

It would be helpful if competing schools of interpretation would keep the “rod” example in mind. Instead of concluding that our brethren are compromisers who are bending Scripture to fit their theological pigeonholes, perhaps we should consider that their understanding of the analogy of Scripture forces them to take figuratively what others take literally. Yes, that particular statement, considered by itself, looks like it could be interpreted literally. But considered in light of the whole Bible, literal just doesn’t seem possible.

I think it would be accurate to say that nearly every conservative Bible student agrees with the rule, “literal whenever possible.” But another rule, the “analogy of Scripture” limits what is possible in some situations. Literal-whenever-possible is an important rule, and necessary to avoid the kind of allegorical nonsense that turns every Bible verse into an imaginative fancy that bears no resemblance to the intended meaning of the author.

But literal-whenever-possible does not always yield the same result in every situation. The analogy of Scripture means that equally serious and spiritually minded students may draw different conclusions about what is possible. What seems possible to someone who works within a particular framework of information, seems entirely impossible to another who is focusing upon a different field of information. Instead of accusing our brethren of being devious or unfaithful, perhaps it would help to try to understand why someone does not believe a particular passage should be understood in its most literal sense. We may never agree completely, but a charitable respect for one another would surely manifest Christian love.

(Written originally ten years ago. Revised and submitted to Sharper Iron, December, 2019)

Greg Barkman 2018 bio


G. N. Barkman received his BA and MA from BJU and later founded Beacon Baptist Church in Burlington, NC where has pastored since 1973. In addition, Pastor Barkman airs the Beacon Broadcast on twenty radio stations. He and his wife, Marti, have been blessed with four daughters and nine grandchildren.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

There's definitely some talking past each other in the debate on this topic. I don't know if this helps, but here goes...

I wouldn't personally claim "literal whenever possible." The term I normally use is "literal as the starting point" or "literal as default." Even that has limitations because, as Greg has pointed out, we often take things figuratively when we're reading, without consciously deciding to. Reading is mostly intuitive. Interpretation seeks (or should seek) to more intentionally question our reading--to discern what the reasons are for how we're reading something.

The "literal as starting point" or "literal as default" is closer to what some dispensationalists have described as "normal" or "natural" or "regular" interpretation, preferring these terms over "literal." What we're trying to say is that the Bible is written to be understood and, at least as far as language and reading are concerned, it should be interpreted like we normally interpret any written document. We take it to mean what it says unless there is sufficient reason to take it some other way.

That's not "literal whenever possible," because lots of passages can be read literally but the literal reading is improbable. If we really did "literal whenever possible," we'd end up like Amelia Bedelia (which is pretty close to some interpretations I've actually heard from pulpits or read in one place or another!).

So, we're really talking about a range of probability with "very likely figurative" at one end and "very likely literal" at the other end. And it's really not possible to read sensibly unless "very likely literal" is the starting point/default. Figurative interpretations need to be justified. Sometimes the justification is easy and obvious. Sometimes only a prior commitment to a theological system that requires it can make a figurative interp. of a passage plausible.

I'm not against theological systems. We all have them and bring them to the Book when we interpret it. The question is whether we'll have an orderly system or a chaotic one (which is the sort of system the anti-system folks actually have). And then, if it's orderly and intentional, the question becomes is it correct, is it sound? The Christian faith itself is a belief system about the world, about how we got here, about what matters, about right and wrong, etc. Christians aren't usually shy about that. We shouldn't be shy about theological interpretive systems either. A system is only bad to the degree it's incorrect or misused.

On the debate about covenant theology vs. dispensationalism...  The debate isn't about the small stuff. It has to do with major questions—the degree to which promises can be understood by us today to mean what they certainly were understood to mean when given, maybe with additional insight in the NT, but not with reinvention.

The term "replacement theology" may be rejected by many CT proponents, but it's hair splitting. When you take something physical promised to a group of people with an obvious ethnic identity and declare it to be entirely converted into a spiritual promise to a completely different group of people (the church), you have done some replacing. I'm willing to call it other things sometimes in the interest of peace, I suppose, but it is what it is.

For further reading on "literal interp" in general, I recommend Snoeberger's series on literal hermeneutics.

Paul Henebury's series on the biblical covenants argues very strongly as well, not for classical dispensationalism, but against spiritualizing promises and predictions that were certainly not meant to be only spiritual at the time. Readers who haven't been following that series should start at the beginning (which I'm not sure we've actually got here at SI, but this is pretty close.)

OK, long post already, and probably nobody will read it all, but one more thing: Much of what is often termed "figurative reading" or "spiritualizing" in the NT is adding depth and insight to the literal, not rejecting the literal. The difference is important.

TylerR's picture

Editor

My favorite Amelia story from when I was a kid:

  • Amelia goes to work in an office
  • Boss tells her to "file these," gesturing to huge stack of paper
  • Amelia gets to work
  • Boss returns to find Amelia with a nail file, slowly turning paper into pile of trash

She did what he said, though!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

G. N. Barkman's picture

Aaron, thanks for posting, and thanks as well for your lengthy analysis and comments.  I heartily agree with your characterization of the literal hermeneutic as using literal as the starting point.  That's actually one of the things I was trying to say in my article, but you said it better.

It's clear to me that both DT's and non-DT's, who are conservative, begin with a literal starting point.  That's the only possible way to begin.  It's also clear that both DT's and non-DT's interpret many things figuratively.  It is impossible to do otherwise.  The debate centers around that portion of Scripture that DT's take in the most literal sense, and non-DT's interpret figuratively.  The problem is that there are no divinely given rules to determine how much literal interpretation and how much figurative interpretation is correct.  Those decisions are far more subjective than many are willing to admit.  That's why both DT's and non-DT's can be exceedingly dogmatic about their respective approaches, each believing that their conclusions are clear and mandated by a proper reading of the text.  In the end, we will each have to wrestle with our interpretations according to the light we have been given.  Debates are helpful to challenge assumptions and help us examine and re-examine our conclusions.  Hopefully, we will be able to be charitable and respectful toward those with whom we disagree.

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

One thing that strikes me is that a "literal when possible" hermeneutic ignores the fact that entire genre are not literalistic in how they work--a huge portion of poetry works this way, as well as a lot of Jesus' parables.  They are "truthy" but not literally true, and yes, there's a big Amelia Bedelia risk there.  Narrative, on the flip side, is generally safe to assume it's most likely literal in its intent.

So I wonder whether, in our efforts to get "essentially literal", we are sometimes messing ourselves up and impeding our attempts to understand Scripture in its literary meaning.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Bert, you have raised another important aspect of this question.  But, there are some who are so committed to a literal whenever possible hermeneutic, that they deny that differences in literary genre should be allowed to alter the most literal approach to a passage.  Such thinking seems extreme to me, but is a good illustration of how dogmatic some become with the literal hermeneutic.

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

Editor

I preached Isaiah 40:1-11 this past Sunday, as a Christmas-time sermon. How should one take that passage?

  • as referring to the return from Babylon?
  • as referring to Israel's eschatological victory through the Messiah?
  • as a message of hope for any of God's people, in any time?

When Isaiah wrote Isa 40, Babylon was just a regional power. It could be a prophesy of future deliverance from exile, but the way Mark (and the other synoptics) quote the passage and apply it to John the Baptist seems to suggest at least #2, and likely #3 (above). If you only make it #2, you cut off the curch from the comfort this passage brings. But, to make it #3 you'd have to endorse sensus plenior, which some hermeneutics guys would cringe at (e.g. Robert Thomas).

So, what do you do? I took option #3, which I know some people would really disagree with. But, Robert Thomas and his hermeneutics text isn't inspired!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

....per Isaiah 40:1-11, is that it's entirely possible that a passage could have multiple meanings, or that a prophecy might have multiple fulfillments.   A pastor/preacher is free to choose one of the three alternatives Tyler proposes in a sermon, for sure, but overall, we can do ourselves huge harm by "shoehorning" a passage into "one main message".   Personally, do I have to choose one of Tyler's alternatives?  Exegetically, I don't think so.

Plus, a beautiful oratorio by Handel, of course.  Hopefully, Tyler got someone to sing that before the sermon.  :^)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

That's the point - does a text have a "fuller meaning" that wasn't apparent to the original author and/or that seems to go beyond the immediate context of the writing? This impacts what you do with Joel 2, Isaiah 40 and Jer 31.

The default is to say "no," and stick to the original context for the original audience. Generally, this seems right. But, the author of Hebrews didn't apply Heb 8 to Israel. He applied it to the church, and used the present-tense over and over. Mark used Isaiah 40. One can try to make the quotation analagous, and say it wasn't a direct citation but more like "this is LIKE what the OT says here." This is what DTs do with Joel 2/Acts 2. At a certain point this approach can seem desperate.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I remember the sensus plenior debate from seminary... but not the details.

If I'm not mistaken, few, if any disagree that the NT can give a "fuller sense" to an OT passage. This is different from our supplying a fuller sense from our imagination or from what we think are parallel themes, or from looking at NT revelation and reading it back into OT passages that aren't referred to at all in the NT. The latter gets into a bit of a gray area, I think. There can be no question that God had the entire plan in mind before He said "let there be light," so the themes of the NT were part of the OT context, in a way, before they were actually written. But it can get very speculative... and it's way out on a limb to use that kind of retroactive freighting to give OT texts a fundamentally different sense than the original audience was clearly intended to get from it.

... which happens all the time in some of the commentaries, and sermons, etc.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Aaron, before we worry about reading back into the OT ideas that are not referred to in the NT, let's be willing to carefully examine all the OT texts that are cited in the NT. 

G. N. Barkman

Paul Henebury's picture

I agree that we all have work to do to determine biblical interpretation.  I have focussed much attention on God's oaths and His views on those who don't keep their oaths.  To me this provides an interpretive framework to which we can attach more disputed passages.  

Of course, those I disagree with simply spiritualize God's oaths, claiming the NT gives them warrant to do it.  They also turn many NT passages into symbolic representations of Christ and the Church, especially those which have an uncanny connection with OT covenant promises.  

It is ironic that this interesting and useful post from Brother Barkman comes after one by yours truly where I show that Ezekiel's Temple (Ezek. 40ff.) is not to be transformed into a symbol

Finally, although I am not imputing anything but good motives to him, Greg's comment above to Aaron seems to assume that those who don't interpret the NT like he does are not "willing to carefully examine all the OT texts that are cited in the NT."  I have already mentioned (twice) to him that many non-DT interpreters do not, for example, interpret Joel's prophecy in Acts 2 in the way he insists it must be understood.  We're not going to get very far under such conditions. 

  

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Paul, I don't dispute your claim about non-DT interpreters.  I don't think I have "insisted" it must be explained according to my understanding anymore than Larry "insists" it must be understood according to his understanding.  I am simply suggesting a different understanding than Larry's, and giving my reasons for why I understand it that way. 

As far as my response above to Aaron, I am simply appealing for caution.  It seems to me that Aaron is "jumping the gun" by inserting his disapproval of the way some handle OT texts that are not mentioned in the NT.  As far as I can tell, no one has said anything about such texts.  Aaron addressed something similar in his first response to my article, objecting to redirecting to the NT Church promises made to Israel.  But there was nothing in my article about that subject.  It seems to me that Aaron is raising objections that no one has mentioned.  Forgive me if I'm being a bit sensitive, but I thought a short word of caution was warranted in this situation.  I agree.  We're not likely to get very far under such conditions.

G. N. Barkman

Paul Henebury's picture

I accept that the article doesn't indulge in textual analysis.  But it doesn't stand in isolation from things you have said recently in other threads.  I did not say that you insisted upon anything re. the interpretation of the NT, just that your comment "seems to assume that those who don't interpret the NT like he does are not 'willing to carefully examine all the OT texts that are cited in the NT.'"

So although your article does not refer to "redirecting to the NT Church promises made to Israel" we all know that to be a major interpretive point of disagreement between us.  

   

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Paul, you are far better read than I, but you keep making a point of "even some non-DT's don't agree with you on the meaning of Acts 2," and again, the same thing regarding Galatians 6:16.  I'm not sure I find that as significant as you do, since you can find lots of commentators with differing interpretations of many texts.

But just our of curiosity, are there any DT's who believe Ezekiel's Temple is symbolic?  (I haven't had time to search this out.)  If the answer is Yes, does that fact negate your literal interpretation?  (And if not, why is that so important in regard to Acts 2 and Galatians 6?  I know I'm sticking my neck out here, since the answer may be No, but I suspect there may be some.)

G. N. Barkman

Paul Henebury's picture

Actually Greg are a few.  Harry Ironside, J. Sidlow Baxter and G.N.H Peters (if the last two can be considered DT), 

But these men are being inconsistent with their stated hermeneutic, whereas you are being consistent with yours in Acts 2 and Gal. 6 (at least).  

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Bert Perry's picture

DT refers to "dispensational theologian", not "delirium tremens", right?  A fair number of people at my church work at "Teen Challenge", a local alcohol/drug rehab center, so I'd hear the latter a bit more than the former.

On a more serious note, it strikes me that the extremely rectangular regions drawn out in Ezekiel for the various parties taking part in the Temple might be seen as suggesting either (a) some great bulldozer work by the Lord in the end times or (b) a metaphorical interpretation might be warrantable even under ordinary dispensational exegetical assumptions.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Thanks, Paul, for being honest with this interesting piece of information.  So what you are saying is that if DT's believe the Ezekiel Temple is symbolic, it has no relevance to your position because they are being inconsistent.   (In your viewpoint.)  But apparently, if some non-DT's take a different position than mine on Acts 2 and Galatians 6, that weakens my position?  Forgive me for saying so, but that sounds a bit "fishy" to me.

G. N. Barkman

Paul Henebury's picture

Greg, I'm not saying it weakens your position, just that your position there (which was stated quite dogmatically) needs more than assertion to back it up.  

DT's who spiritualize Ezekiel's temple are being inconsistent because they are ignoring many OT texts (e.g. Isa. 2; Ezek. 37; Zech. 14) which speak of it.  I think Ironside's reasons are poor.  

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Paul Henebury's picture

I agree with the two options and go for 'A' for several reasons, which have been given elsewhere.  Texts like Isa. 2:2 and Zech. 14:4f. indicate that there will be great transformations of the land in Israel at Christ's return.  The metaphorical view actually exacerbates the problem because of passages like Num. 25; Jer. 33; Ezek. 37 and Mal. 3, which then have themselves to be morphed into metaphors.  There is also the problem of one of the most over-extended "metaphors" in all of literature if Ezek. 40 - 48 is indeed metaphorical.  What, e.g. does the dividing of the Zadokites from the other Levites signify?      

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

dgszweda's picture

Most of those that I associate with are covenant theologians.  I sympathize with their approach, but I struggle with Israel and the church being the same.  On the other hand I am not a hard core dispensationalist.  I often hold onto the fact that in Revelations 21, which is of things to come, that there is a distinction between the church and Israel (Gates vs. foundation of the new jerusalem).  Why would there be a distinction if they are the same.  This is the part that I struggle with.  If there is just one passage that shows distinction, then they cannot be the same.

Kevin Miller's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:

 There is also the problem of one of the most over-extended "metaphors" in all of literature if Ezek. 40 - 48 is indeed metaphorical.  What, e.g. does the dividing of the Zadokites from the other Levites signify?      

I don't have an answer to the specific question you asked about the Zadokites, but I was just reading the chapter about them. The chapter mentioned that the Zadokites would be offering sin offerings, and I was curious if those sin offerings would have the same meaning in the future as what an OT reader would understand the meaning to be as they would read the passage. Has Christ's once-for-all-time death changed the way a future sin offering needs to be understood in a way that an OT reader would not have realized?

G. N. Barkman's picture

Does Revelation 21 show a distinction between Israel and the Church, or does it indicate a merger?  Both are represented as present and equally a part of the same bride of Christ.

G. N. Barkman

G. N. Barkman's picture

Paul, your characterization of my strong assertion must apply to Acts 2.  I didn't even bring up Galatians 6.  You did, and then added the "even some non-DT's don't equate Israel with the church" here.  It's a bit frustrating to have you put a supposed assertion in my mouth and then shoot it down by the non-DT argument.  You seem to be making a lot of assumptions, and attacking positions you presume I hold which have not been mentioned.

As to the Acts 2 passage, please forgive me if my statement sounded like a strong assertion without evidence.  My intention was simply to say that this is the way the passage sounds to me.  I am not relying upon this or that commentator for support.  My understanding has not been influenced by others, at least not that I am aware.  It has grown out of my personal wrestling with this and similar passages.

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

Editor

A few years ago after teaching through Revelation I came to the decision that the "two peoples" of God (church and Israel) will be merged in eternity. There will be people from Israel and from the church,  of course, but the distinctions won't have any real significance. Its analagous to me being from Tacoma, WA and another guy being from Berlin. Yes, we come from different places but it really doesn't matter if you're in God's family.

Never spent much time figuring out if that put me outside the pale of DT orthodoxy. It might.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Paul Henebury's picture

Kevin,

The answer to your first question about how those in the future will take the language of sin offerings is "Yes."  This is evident in the Hebrew tense (Piel) used in the atonement language in Ezek. 40ff.

So your second question naturally asks about any conflict with the book of Hebrews.  You ask, "Has Christ's once-for-all-time death changed the way a future sin offering needs to be understood in a way that an OT reader would not have realized?"  My answer to you is "No."  How can this be?  Well, for a start, Hebrews is often not read with enough care.  There main foci in the latter half of the book are 1. the replacement of the old (Mosaic) covenant with the New covenant (Heb. 6:20; 7:12-16). 2. the change in the office of the High Priest (Heb. 7:26-28; 8:1-4; 10:19-22). 3. The High Priest's offering at the Day of Atonement (Heb. 9:7, 11-12, 23-28; 10:3-4).  Daily sacrifices were necessary because the Day of Atonement sacrifice did not suffice (Heb. 10:11). 

One of the interesting things about Ezekiel's new temple is that there is no mention of a High Priest and there is no Day of Atonement.  Therefore, if the main emphasis on the role of Christ in Hebrews is on His once-for-all atonement within "the most Holy Place" in Heaven, it mirrors the Day of Atonement and does not NECESSARILY impact the daily offering.  

In the majority Dispensational position (and in my own view) Christ's sacrifice abrogates the Day of Atonement offering, but in the coming Kingdom sin is still present (e.g. Isa. 65:20; Rev. 20:7-9), which means that sin offerings - at least for some people - are still necessary.  This gels with what we find in Ezekiel.

I do not pretend to have all the answers, but I do not believe Ezek. 40-48 contradicts the book of Hebrews.  

Finally, on the Zadokites; Zadok was from the line of Phinehas (1 Chron. 6:4-8), and God made a covenant with Phinehas in Numbers 25.  Therefore, it is interesting that the line of Phinehas through Zadok is preserved to approach to God in the new temple, whereas the Non-Zadokites cannot.  

  

  

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Paul Henebury's picture

Greg,

I respect you and you don't have to apologize for making a strong assertion.  You said, "It's a bit frustrating to have you put a supposed assertion in my mouth and then shoot it down by the non-DT argument.  You seem to be making a lot of assumptions, and attacking positions you presume I hold which have not been mentioned."

Sure, and I am not trying to be unfair.  But we have had many interactions, and you do believe that "true spiritual Israel is the church." and " The church is the fulfillment of promises made to Israel.  Israel has not been replaced, but promises God made to Israel have been fulfilled in spiritual Israel."  But I haven't seen you use Gal. 6:16 so I AM making an assumption that you believe that the Church is "the Israel of God."  

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Paul, thanks for the response and clarification.  As I indicated earlier, I'm a bit ambivalent about the importance of Galatians 6:16.  I don't see the text as a home run for either position.  It's not that clear and can be shaded either direction.  If you believe, as I do, that the church is spiritual Israel, you understand Galatians 6:16 in that light.  If you don't, you think it indicates a distinction between Israel and the Church.  One's prior understanding colors the way this text is understood.  I don't think it is a major text for non-Dt's.  The support for the non-DT position is scattered throughout the Gospels and Epistles with or without Galatians 6:16.

Which is why I found your addressing my supposed position puzzling.  You seemed to assume I considered it an important text, and tried to weaken it's significant with your "even some non-Dt's don't believe Galatians 6:16 supports a spiritual Israel."  So?  I didn't say it did.  You've chided me and others at times for raising new issues while failing to answer what you specifically said.  I have probably been guilty of that at times.  I believe you are guilty of the same in this instance. 

G. N. Barkman

Paul Henebury's picture

Yes, I think I am guilty of that.  I am sorry for it, though it's not deliberate. 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Thank you, Paul.  I hope you have a wonderful Christmas season!

G. N. Barkman

Larry's picture

Moderator

But, there are some who are so committed to a literal whenever possible hermeneutic, that they deny that differences in literary genre should be allowed to alter the most literal approach to a passage.

Who does this? I don't recall any mainstream voice who does this.

Here are a few quotes on the subject, mostly older to show that this isn't new. I think we throw around terms like "literal" without a common dictionary. For some people, "literal" means "literalistic," i.e., a denial of metaphor or imagery. But few who argue for "literal interpretation" mean that. A literal interpretation is an interpretation of the words in their historical and literary context to determine what the author intended to communicate. It doesn't ignore genre. It is based on genre. Here's a quote from 1958:

"This recognition of a metaphorical style is not to be thought of as a return to allegorization, nor is it a “spiritualizing” of the passage. When a writer employs metaphor he is to be understood metaphorically and his metaphorical meaning is his literal meaning: that is to say, it is the truth he wishes to convey. The term “literal” stands strictly as the opposite of “figurative,” but in modern speech it often means “real,” and it is used this way by those who want to be sure that they know what the writer really and originally meant. In this sense a metaphorical saying is “literally” true. … Thus a metaphorical statement is “literally” true but cannot be “literalistically” true. The “literal” meaning, then, is what the particular writer intended, and although he used metaphor, no one familiar with the language in which he expressed himself could reasonably misunderstand him "(Kevan, “The Principle of Interpretation,” in Revelation and the Bible, ed Henry, p. 294).

Of course Ryrie addressed this:

"Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation. This means interpretation that gives to every word the same meaning it would have in normal usage, whether employed in writing, speaking, or thinking. It is sometimes called grammatical-historical interpretation since the meaning of each word is determined by grammatical and historical considerations. The principle might also be called normal interpretation since the literal meaning of the words is the normal approach to their understanding in all languages. … Symbols, figures of speech, and types are all interpreted plainly in this method, and they are in no way contrary to literal interpretation. After all, the very existence of any meaning for a figure of speech depends on the reality of the literal meaning of the terms involved. Figures often make the meaning plainer, but it is the literal, normal, or plain meaning that they convey to the reader” (Ryrie, Dispensationalism, p. 80).

And Ryrie cites Lange,

The literalist (so called) is not one who denies that figurative language, that symbols, are used in prophecy, nor does he deny that great spiritual truths are set forth therein; his position is, simply, that the prophecies are to be normally interpreted (i.e., according to the received laws of language) as any other utterances are interpretation—that which is manifestly figurative being so regarded (Lange, Revelation, cited in Ryrie, p. 81).

To me, the question is whether or not we can know anything by language. Of course we all agree that we can,  but I would suggest that many have no reason to believe that, based on their hermeneutic. 

If I were to praise this incredible article that Greg wrote here about the why Major League Baseball should abandon the designated hitter, everyone here would object, especially Greg. And the reason is because you grant my hermeneutic--that words have meaning in a context and that meaning is determined by an author.

And no one here would accept it if I said, "Well, there's a deeper meaning that Greg didn't know about."

So why do we do that with Scripture?

 

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