Posted tagged ‘literal interpretation’

Meaning in the Metaphor in the Bible

October 13, 2018


Imagine hearing these words in the First Century:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.  Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.  This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in youWhoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.  As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
(John 6:47‭, ‬49‭-‬54‭, ‬56‭-‬58 ESV) (emphasis added)

The crowd asked, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”… and they were probably thinking, “Why would we want to it? That’s disgusting!”

They took him literally, but we understand that he was speaking figuratively. In fact, Jesus spoke figuratively all the time. In fact, Mark says that Jesus spoke in parables everywhere. (Mark 4:34).

To Jesus, the physical world was like one big figure of speech. He spoke about bread, and light, and salt, and a lamp, and a vine, and a mustard seed, and on and on and on. In this way, Jesus was continually challenging the people listening to him to think beyond the physical world they knew to consider spiritual truths that transcend it.

Many, like the Jews who asked how Jesus could give them his flesh to eat, had a hard time with the way Jesus spoke. Even the disciples, themselves, found these words the comparison of Jesus as living bread for people to eat hard to swallow (pun intended). (John 6:66)

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Metaphor for Heaven’s Sake (Literally)

October 2, 2018


I have been writing and thinking about the odd similarity in the way atheists and fundamentalists interpret the Bible, which is the subject of Digging Deeper to Mine the Meaning from Scripture. At the same time, have been going through the New Testament in my daily reading. As I went through Matthew, I had been thinking about the ancient tendency to use figures of speech, like metaphor and hyperbole. Perhaps, that is why I began to notice how often Jesus used figures of speech when Jesus spoke.

We are well-acquainted with the frequent use of parables throughout the Gospels. At one point Matthew observed, “All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable.” (Matt. 13:34) He also used other figures of speech. A figure of speech is defined as “a word or phrase used in a non-literal sense for rhetorical or vivid effect”. Some of the more common figures of speech are hyperbole, symbol, simile, personification and metaphor.

For people who insist on reading Scripture literally, Jesus must be maddening. His words are full of figures of speech, and he interpreted the Old Testament by extrapolating on the figures of speech in the Old Testament.

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Digging Deeper to Mine the Meaning from Scripture

October 2, 2018


I have written on the subject of the similarity in the interpretation style of atheists and fundamentalists, or more specifically, perhaps, young earth creationists. Probably several times or more in fact. But, I am not the only who has noticed the similarity.

Among others who have made this observation is Michael G. Strauss, professor at University of Oklahoma. Strauss has been a research physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and more recently at CERN. Strauss has studied the interaction between quarks and gluons and the theory of Quantum Chromodynamics, and, most recently, the properties of the Higgs Boson and “the top quark”. Dr. Strauss is a pretty smart guy, and he is a Christian.

He writes in a blog article dated September 16, 2018, about A Shared Characteristic Between Atheists and Young Earth Creationists, observing that they interpret the Bible the same way. Both camps insist on a literal interpretation of the Bible, particularly the creation narrative in Genesis. It’s kind of like the person listening to the announcer giving the play-by-play of a baseball game on the radio when he says, “The runner is hugging the base at third.” Should we imagine that the runner is literally embracing third base in his arms?

Of course not, because we know from the context of our modern culture and language what the announcer is saying. While his words may convey a certain literal meaning, his actual meaning is different. We all know exactly what he means. He means that the runner is holding close to the base. We call this a “figure of speech” among other things.*

We don’t have to struggle to know when to take someone “literally” and when to grasp the nuance of metaphorical meaning. We don’t have to think very hard about it, usually, because we are immersed in the culture and intimately familiar with language usage that gives us clues from in the context of the statements.

We have to use that same approach with the Bible. The only difference is that we are not so immersed in the culture and familiar with ancient Hebrew that we can make those same “common sense” connections with the Bible without a little help. But, it’s not that difficult either.

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Back to an Early Church View of Genesis

September 7, 2018


I have much enjoyed reading Joel Edmund Anderson’s blog, resurrecting orthodoxy. So much that I am reblogging his latest post which is part of a walk through Genesis: Making Sense of Genesis 3 (Part 1): The Big Picture, Nakedness, and Two Trees. Knowing history allows us to avoid the mistakes of those who came before us, but not knowing history makes it likely that we will repeat those mistakes.

So it seems that some have made the mistake in this modern day and age of reading Genesis too literally. Just saying that triggers a slight shudder as I can imagine someone taking umbrage with the suggestion that we shouldn’t take the Bible literally. I maintain that we should take the Bible seriously, which means that we should let the Bible inform us when we should read it literally, when we should read it figuratively, and when it has both literal and figurative meanings. (Should we take the Bible Literally? Or Seriously?)

Anderson reminds us that this is how some of the most influential early church fathers viewed Scripture. For authority, he cites all the way back to Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp who was a direct disciple of John – John, the disciple of Jesus and writer of the Gospel of John, the epistles of John and Revelations. He is just two spiritual generations removed from John, who sat at the feet of Jesus and learned from Him face to face.

I realize that this isn’t the simple formula for Bible interpretation that a person might want. But, there is nothing simple about the universe we live in, reality or (most of all) God. His ways are higher than our ways. We shouldn’t lean on our own understanding. Jesus left the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth, and Jesus said we must learn to worship God in spirit and truth.

This is no New Age spiritualism or secret Gnostic knowledge. We are talking about the Living God who spoke to Abraham and David and took on human form in the body of Jesus, lived obediently to His own purpose as a man to the point of dying on a cross for our sins and rising from the dead in that same body to give us hope. This is the uncreated Word of God who was with God in the beginning, and was God, and through whom all that was created was made – the seen from the unseen.

Anderson says in his latest article:

“Genesis 3 was not claiming that God had created a ‘perfect’ world, because God alone is perfect. In fact, Irenaeus called the teaching that Adam and Eve were originally ‘perfect’ a gnostic heresy. Irenaeus was emphatic: God didn’t create Adam and Eve as ‘perfect’ beings.”

God called the world He made “good” (not perfect). It was good for His intended purpose, and it still is. He knew humanity would fall and fail. That was inevitable because we are not perfect; we are not God. God knew we would fail because He can see the end from the beginning, and everything in between. When He hit the “start” button on the creation, He saw how His purpose would unfold before the foundations of the earth. And, He saw that it was good.

Through our experience we learn good and evil, and the value of embracing good and rejecting evil. In this way, our experience is intended to lead us to God who alone is perfect. Through our experience, we learn to rely not on ourselves, but on God. Through our experience we learn to embrace God and His purpose. As we yield ourselves to Him, God works in us what we could never do in ourselves – perfecting us in Him.

We make a critical mistake when we think that Adam and Eve and Eden were perfect. Only God is perfect.

I’ve heard people say that there was no pain or death before the fall. Why, then, does God tell Eve that her pain in childbirth will increase (multiply)? (“To the woman He said: “I will sharply increase your pain in childbirth; in pain you will bring forth children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16)(Berean Study Bible))

We need to be careful not to let the agendas and theological constructs of others inform us rather than the Word, itself. The Word of God is living and active, sharper than a double edged sword, and able to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12-13) We need to let God’s Word inform us through the guidance of His Holy Spirit. It isn’t a theology or a secret formula. It’s the Word of the Living God, the Bread of Life. It is God-breathed and “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

The idea that Genesis should be taken absolutely literally and historically is more of a modern construct than a biblical one. (See Is Young-Earth Creationism Another Gospel?) That doesn’t mean Scripture isn’t God-breathed and we shouldn’t take it seriously. From the beginning the followers of Jesus read Scripture as the word of God. They took it so seriously they were willing to die for it – not for it alone, but for the God it revealed. And though they clung to the Scripture, for in it was revealed the Messiah, Jesus, who they followed, they didn’t read Genesis as literal, historical record.

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Postscript:

Irenaeus was born in 130 AD, just a generation after the John the apostle died, in Smyrna (now Turkey) to a Christian family. He stood against heresy, being one of the first theologians to use apostolic succession to protect the integrity of the Gospel. His close connection to Jesus, Himself, through Polycarp who was mentored by John the apostle, was his authority. “Irenaeus’ point when refuting the Gnostics was that all of the Apostolic churches had preserved the same traditions and teachings in many independent streams. It was the unanimous agreement between these many independent streams of transmission that proved the orthodox Faith, current in those churches, to be true.” Irenaeus is credited with arguing that all four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John), and only those four Gospels, were Scriptural. (See Wikipedia)

He preached the rule of faith, one of the earliest church creeds, as a standard for orthodoxy:

…this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all the things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who made known through the prophets the plan of salvation, and the coming, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future appearing from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise anew all flesh of the whole human race…

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Taking the Bible Literally? Or Seriously?

August 28, 2018


Some people urge Christians to take the Bible literally. I don’t think taking the Bible literally is taking the Bible seriously enough. I think it’s a far more important matter to take the Bible seriously.

Consider John 1:1-3

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

John Lennox, the brilliant Oxford mathematician, relates a conversation he had with Peter Atkins, the prolific atheist scholar. When Lennox referred Atkins to John, Chapter 1, Atkins called Lennox naïve to believe that God has lungs, a voice box and a voice. Of course, that isn’t how Lennox (or anyone who takes the Bible seriously) understands those words at all.

I find it interesting that both atheists and fundamentalists tend to adhere to a literal reading of the Bible. The only difference between them is that one believes all of it, and the other believes none of it.

A literal reading of John 1:1-3 clearly misses the point. No one believes that God has lungs, a voice box and a voice. The devise John uses in Chapter 1 is a metaphor that is intended to convey a deeper and richer meaning than anything that could be conveyed literally. In some sense, Lennox notes, understanding the metaphor is reading the Bible literally. The metaphor is the literal meaning that is intended.

We have to take the Bible very seriously in order to understand this and to see the actual meaning that is there. When we read everything “literally”, we are not taking the Bible seriously enough!

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Should the Bible Be Taken Literally?

September 16, 2017

ChristianPics.co

Whether the Bible should be read and interpreted literally seems to be an open question in the 21st Century. Some Christians, and many people who criticize Christians, seem to think the Bible must be read in a literal, wooden fashion, and it must stand or fall based on what people say is “the literal interpretation” – the Bible is either literally true or literally false, and there is no third position.

So, let me put this out there – do we approach other literature that way?

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