Dangers of literal interpretation of Scripture — Part One
I’ve been reading through the Psalms and enjoying it greatly. What a great, rich diversity of thoughts and expressions! Yesterday I came to Psalm 91, which is a great Psalm and one that I shared with the entire family in the aftermath of our home invasion which has resulted in some difficulties sleeping a general increase of “fear-ish-ness” in our home. Psalm 91 also points out some of the difficulties and dangers of an absolute literal interpretation of the Bible.
He will cover you with his feathers. He will shelter you with his wings. His faithful promises are your armor and protection.
Literal reader: This means that God has feathers and wings.
Me: Let’s be careful to make such quick assumptions. Other parts of Scripture tell us that no one has seen God and that God is spirit.
Literal reader: So the Scriptures cannot be trusted? Are they contradictory?
Me: No, not at all. Language is a beautiful and complex things. Meaning doesn’t come through only through the literal and mechanical combination of word formulas. Deep and rich meanings also come through poetic language, allegory, word pictures, metaphors and more. Particularly in the Psalms (though not only in the Psalms) words are painted as if on a canvas and are intended to help us understand and picture God, who is unseen and quite mysterious in many ways.
Literal reader: So maybe God is not a great big chicken?
Me: Yeah, maybe not.
Literal reader: Yeah, but if this part of Scripture it not true then how can I accept any of the other parts? How can I trust the authority of Scripture if the Bible doesn’t really say what it means? Besides, I’m not a Bible scholar, how can I be expected to know which parts are literal, which are figurative, which are metaphors and which are not? It’s much easier for me to just read it and believe it.
Me: Those are all very important questions. There are lot of things that could be said here, but I think there are two important things to consider first. First, the Scriptures are not intended to be a science, history, anthropology or literature textbook. It’s purpose is not to teach you the history of Israel or the scientific origins of the universe. It is intended to tell you the story of God (as one of my former professors, Dr. Michael Lodahl wrote about). Our Scripture was never intended to teach a scientific theory of the specific process by which the universe was created, for example. It was intended to teach of who God is, what He has done in our world, what He is doing and what He will do. More importantly, the Scriptures carry in them the story of how God provided a solution our sin problem. The Scriptures tell us everything we need to know about the solution for sin in our lives.
Literal reader: Okay, I can appreciate that but I still have a huge problem accepting that our Scripture could possibly have information that is not true. If there are parts that are not true then how can I accept the parts that you say are important?
Me: I understand. I think here we need to make a very clear distinction between the Christian view of Scripture and those of other religious groups. Muslims, for example, believe that their Holy Book was dictated to Muhammad word-for-word from God. There is a belief then, that the Koran as it exists in Arabic right now is an EXACT replica of the same book that God has in heaven with him right now. In a case like this your arguments stands–if there is any error found in the Koran then the entire book must be thrown out, or at least their understanding of the origins of their Scripture.
The Christian understanding of Scripture is not at all like this, although some within Christianity have tried to move in this direction. The problem is that the text of Christian Scripture was never intended to be used in this way. We believe that God INSPIRED the Biblical writers but did NOT dictate to them. The words they wrote were what God was teaching and revealing to them expressed in their own words, from their own perspective and based on the culture, insights and knowledge that was available to them. There is no expectation that the writers knew everything that there was to know.
I’m not sure God really cares all that much if we understand fully the origins of the universe, but there are some things he does want us to know. Let’s begin again at Psalm 91:4 and continue from there:
He will cover you with his feathers. He will shelter you with his wings. His faithful promises are your armor and protection. We can find rest and protection in the promises that God has made.
Do not be afraid of the terrors of the night, nor the arrow that flies in the day. Do not dread the disease that stalks in darkness, nor the disaster that strikes at midday. We don’t need to be afraid at night or during the day, of things seen and unseen.
If you make the Lord your refuge, if you make the Most High your shelter, no evil will conquer you; no plague will come near your home. As in the verse above this is not teaching us that nothing bad will ever happen to us, that we’ll never get sick or that every possible negative will bypass us as if we are invisible. Nowhere in Scripture do we see God’s people living such lives. However, we need not be entrapped and enslaved by the evil around us–we can live different kinds lives.
For he will order his angels to protect you wherever you go. They will hold you up with their hands so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone. I stubbed my toe yesterday. Does that make this Scripture untrue? No. However, I can be sure that God is watching over me and the heavenly angels, too. I am safe in his company. Even though my body is weak my soul is untouched. I need not worry about anything, big or small. Compared to flying arrows a stubbed toe is a small thing. Yet, I need not worry about the little things that also trip up so many people. God is watching over me. And even when I am walking through a very rocky place in my life, God is watching my steps, leading me through.
The lord says, “I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name.
15When they call on me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue and honor them.
16I will reward them with a long life and give them my salvation.”
~Do Everything In Love
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