Thoughts on literal interpretation

The other day, I received a question from a friend about literal Bible interpretation.
Hey Chuck, I am uncertain why you affirmed the need to use the grammatical historical method of biblical interpretation when that is not consistently the method used by the New Testament authors to interpret the Old Testament. Could you elucidate your reasoning on this point?
Here are a few thoughts about my reasoning.

(1) The NT quotes the OT hundreds of times, and alludes to it thousands. I can only think of one passage that uses a non-literal approach to the OT text—Galatians 4:24, referring allegorically to Sarah and Hagar. Paul is using that passage not to establish an argument, but to further illustrate an argument that he has already made in chapters 1-4—an argument already founded on a literal interpretation of God’s Covenant with Abraham and the Law.

(2) The Apostles and Mark and Luke were writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So what they have to say is Scripture in its own right, not simply based on their interpretation of OT texts. If they use the OT in a non-literal fashion (as in Galatians), I have to assume that God has specifically revealed to them the meaning of the symbolism they are using. I cannot assume that I also have the right to allegorize, spiritualize, or moralize any further beyond what the biblical writers have already done. They’re inspired, we're not.

(3) I’m using the word literal here, to refer to grammatical-historical exegesis—in opposition to any form of interpretation that relativizes the text. My intent is to affirm the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, article 18:
We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture. We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship.
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics clarifies in article 15,
We affirm the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text. We deny the legitimacy of any approach to Scripture that attributes to it meaning which the literal sense does not support.
(4) My argument is directly connected to the inspiration and authority of the text. Bishops and councils can commit errors. Well-meaning theologians and teachers can drift from orthodoxy to unorthodoxy, and ordination cannot prevent that. What does prevent the drift into error, is holding the text of Scripture, read plainly, as one’s chief authority. I don’t mean that this will make everyone an Evangelical or a Baptist, just that it will hold people to the right priorities. I believe in the value of Scripture and tradition, reason, and experience, but I believe we must hold Scripture as an authority over all of those. In my experience, when Christians prioritize the Bible, then many denominations have much more in common than what divides them. However when interpretation of Scripture is left to any other standard, then many of those commonalities evaporate. As far as I know the only way to prioritize the Bible over one’s own tradition, reason, and experience, is to make every effort to read it in its plain, literal, grammatical, historical sense.

1 comment:

JohnMark said...

Thank you for composing an entire post to answer my question, Chuck. I have composed replies to your points. My replies are not intended to persuade you (or anyone else), but rather to be a clear presentation of how I view the matter of Biblical interpretation.

1. I would add to Galatians 4 and Paul's allegory there a few other passages in which the New Testament authors interpret the Old Testament in a non-literal fashion or at least with a serious disregard for the historical meaning of the text: Matthew 1:23 and 2:18, 1st Corinthians 14:21, Hebrew 7:1-3 (these were just ones off the top of my head).

2. I agree that the human authors of Scripture were inspired. Where I differ with you is that I view the inspired interpretation given in the Bible as the model to follow and not something to avoid.

3. I assumed that you were using a definition such as the Chicago Statement for your definition of historical-grammatical interpretive method. Thank you for clearly defining it.

4. I agree that bishops and councils can commit errors. That is why there have only been seven councils recognized by the Church to be ecumenical and binding. Where we diverge even more though is the idea that the literal interpretation of Scripture is a safeguard against heresy. Fundamentally, this is because I do not set Scripture against Tradition, but view Scripture as the Written strand of Tradition, which is only rightly interpreted within Tradition. Tradition is the safeguard against heresy. Arius made very compelling exegetical arguments for why Jesus was a created being, but these did not comport with Tradition (theological, exegetical, and liturgical).

As I see it, the point at which we practically disagree is which tradition we are using to interpret the Bible. I look to the practice of the Biblical Authors, the Church Fathers, the Ecumenical Councils, and the worship of the Church as trustworthy guides to understanding Scripture. You operate from a tradition that view the literal meaning (as you helpfully defined) as the guiding tradition for biblical interpretation. Honestly, it is not that I have no place for the literal meaning of the text. I view a careful reading of the literal meaning as foundational for understanding the spiritual senses of a text.

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