Literal Interpretation

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 12

Read the series.

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 12: Never confuse application with hermeneutics and exegesis. It is always “explanation before application.” Making application a part of one’s interpretation is a subtle instance of putting an unrestrained ‘theological’ cart before an ‘exegetical’ horse.

Many modern hermeneutics writers tell us that we cannot omit application of a biblical text when we interpret it. I find that to be confusing. In fact, the more I think about it the more confusing it seems. Take the sentence “The NT is composed of 27 Books.” I know what it means, but am I applying it at the same time? When Jesus tells us to pray “Thy Kingdom come” how does He expect us to apply it? Mustn’t we first understand what “kingdom” means here? Again, when we are told to love our enemies, isn’t there a big difference between interpreting what that means and actually doing it?

Asking such questions alerts us to the meaming of application. It boils down to two things: the belief that “this text applies to me,” and the belief that “I need to act on this.” Since acting on something depends upon whether one believes a passage is directed at them the first belief is primary. That is to say, when we believe that a text of Scripture is aimed directly at us we are applying it to ourselves. So if we look again at the three sample sentences above it should be possible to show when application is happening.

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The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 11

Read the series.

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 11: While interpreting Scripture with Scripture is valid, it is only to be employed as a check upon interpretation. Using the Analogy of Faith as part of one’s hermeneutics introduces it prematurely and may smuggle ones assumptions into the interpretation.

All evangelical Christians believe that Scripture should be used to interpret Scripture. We all can recite at least some words from 1 Corinthians 2:13:

These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.

But of course, 1 Corinthians 2:13 does not say we compare Scripture with Scripture; that is just assumed. And it’s a decent assumption, since we know that one part of the Bible (say Text B) may be used to throw light upon the part one is trying to understand (i.e. Text A). Scholars refer to this as “the Analogy of Faith” rule, and it is a good rule. The real problem is when Text A has not been sufficiently studied in its context before Text B is brought in to clear things up. Or to put it differently, trouble can ensue when Text B is called upon before Text A has been exegeted to smooth over “issues” foreseen in Text A. The Analogy of Faith is being misused by being introduced too early in the interpretive process. Let me provide an example.

In Ephesians 2 we meet with a verse whose interpretation has caused some controversy:

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The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 10

Read the series. 

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 10: Never interpret the Bible via assumptions based on extra-biblical data (e.g. “science”, philosophy, history). These can help but they should never preempt Scripture.

This “parameter” is of course just a reiteration of the principle of the Sufficiency of Scripture, although the emphasis is upon the whole of Scripture’s content, not just that pertaining to the doctrines of our salvation.

The Bible is made up of all kinds of literature, some of it clearly defined, some of it less so. We are often told that each of these “genres” demand their own forms of hermeneutics, which is bolstered by studies in many non-biblical disciplines. I am not here talking about the work of men like Richard Burridge (What Are The Gospels?) and Craig Keener (Christobiography) on the Gospels as a special type of biography, but about ideas like the latest attempts to interpret the Bible through a Cosmic Temple motif, John Walton’s views on the ANE background of the Genesis creation story, the views of all and sundry about apocalyptic, and likewise those who interpret Bible books (esp. Revelation) in terms of intertestamental apocalyptic writings, or the philosophical hermeneutics which have caused so much confusion in the definition of the discipline in recent years.

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The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 9

I was wondering what I ought to write about when I stumbled upon my old unfinished series on The Parameters of Meaning. I think these parameters are quite helpful guides for interpreters, but I clean forgot about them. Well, I’m going to try to put things right! Here’s “Rule 9” with a link to the previous eight:

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 9: If a literal interpretation leads you into wholesale spiritualizing or allegorizing, or causes head-on conflicts with other clear texts, which then have to be creatively reinterpreted, it is an illegitimate use of “literal.” There will always be another literal meaning available that preserves the plain-sense of the rest of the passage in its context.

Reminding ourselves that by “literal” interpretation I am just talking about a prima facie or plain-sense reading of the text in its right setting, taking special care to examine the surrounding context before employing a text theologically. Strange as it may seem, more than one literal reading of a text is possible (hence, these “parameters”). It is possible to take a literal view of one text which will skew the rest of the passage, or a whole theology. A few examples will show what I mean:

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Ties of Fundamentalism and Premillennialism

Thomas Ice

Republished from Voice, Jan/Feb 2020.

While all fundamentalists have not been premillennial, the overwhelming majority have been. Premillennialism has been a historic staple of fundamentalism. It is often the case that when one abandons the fundamentals of the faith, they also abandon the premillennial hope. Why has that been the case in the past and why should it continue into the future, especially within the IFCA?

Post-Civil War Rise of Fundamentalism

Postmillennialism in America arose as the dominant eschatology in the 1720s as a result of the influence of theologians like Jonathan Edwards and dominated evangelicalism until a decade or two after the Civil War. Higher critical liberal scholarship began to cross the Atlantic and make progress in America by the 1880s, which lead to the rise of fundamentalism as a response by conservative evangelicals. “Dispensationalism, or dispensational premillennialism, was the fruit of renewed interest in the detail of biblical prophecy which developed after the Civil War,” observes George Marsden. “Rejecting the prevailing postmillennialism… dispensational premillennialists said that the churches and culture were declining and that Christians would see Christ’s kingdom only after he personally returned to rule in Jerusalem.”1

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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.

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Memo to Gallup: No Christian Has Ever Taken the Entire Bible Literally

"The problem is that the question Gallup asked its respondents has no bearing on the alleged finding of the survey. The question does not ask whether the Bible is literally the word of God, but whether the Bible is the word of God and should always be interpreted literally." The Federalist

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