How Are We to Interpret the Bible Literally or Figuratively?

How Are We to Interpret the Bible Literally or Figuratively?

The simple answer to this question is that you should read it the way the author intended it to be understood by the original readers.  This approach should be based on a number of things such as the immediate context, the overall context of the Bible, the historical context and the basic rules of language.  However, one big problem occurs when we read the Bible in a literal fashion, without realizing that we are reading a figure of speech or figurative language.  There are over 200 figures of speech in the Bible[1] and these forms of language should be interpreted accordingly to rules of language and common sense.  Failure to do this could lead to gross errors of interpretation.

In general, “A FIGURE is simply, a word or a sentence thrown into a peculiar form, different from its original or simplest meaning or use.  These forms are constantly used by every speaker and writer.  It is impossible to hold the simplest conversation or to write a few sentences without, it may be unconsciously, making use of figures.  We may say, ‘the ground needs rain’ that is a plain, cold, matter-of-fact statement; but if we say the “ground is thirsty” we immediately use a figure.  It is not true to fact, and therefore it must be a figure.  But how true to feeling it is!  How full of warmth and life!  Hence, we say, “the crops suffer”; we speak of “a hard heart,” “a rough man,” “an iron will.”  In all these cases we take a word which has a certain, definite meaning and applies the name, or the quality, or the act, to something other with which it is associated with, by time or place, cause or effect, relation or resemblance.” [2]

“It may be asked, how are we to know, then, when words are to be taken in their simple, original form ( i.e. literally), and when they are to be taken in some other and peculiar form ( i.e., as a Figure)? The answer is that, whenever and wherever it is possible, the words of Scripture are to be understood literally, but when a statement appears to be contrary to our experience, or to known fact, or revealed truth; or seems to be at variance with the general teaching of the Scriptures, then we may reasonably expect that some figure is employed. And as it is employed only to call our attention to some specially designed emphasis, we are at once bound to diligently examine the figure for the purpose of discovering and learning the truth that is thus emphasized. From non-attention to these Figures, translators have made blunders as serious as they are foolish. Sometimes they have translated the figure literally, totally ignoring its existence; sometimes they have taken it fully into account, and have translated, not according to the letter, but according to the spirit; sometimes they have taken literal words and translated them figuratively. Commentators and interpreters, from inattention to the figures, have been led astray from the real meaning of many important passages of God’s Word; while ignorance of them has been the fruitful parent of error and false doctrine. It may be truly said that most of the gigantic errors of Rome, as well as the erroneous and conflicting to call our attention to some specially designed emphasis, we are at once bound to diligently examine the figure for the purpose of discovering and learning the truth that is thus emphasized”.[3]

One of the most common forms of figurative speech is the metonymy and yet it is misunderstood or ignored by the majority of people.

A metonymy is a figure of speech in which an attribute of a thing or something closely related to it is substituted for the thing itself.  Thus, ‘sweat’ can mean ‘hard labor’, and ‘Capitol Hill’ can represent the U.S. Congress.  Another common use of metonymy is when substitution of the name of an attribute, or adjunct for that of the ‘thing’ meant is employed such as; Suit for a business executive or the Track for horse racing or Washington for the government.

One of the clearest biblical examples is found in the writings of Luke. Luke, both in his gospel and in the book of Acts, uses metonymy in regard to the spirit and the gifts of the spirit. When understood this clears up a number of difficult passages and concepts of Scripture.

In Luke 11:13 Jesus said, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  If you were to take this passage literally you could gather that the Holy Spirit is given through the media of prayer.  However, there is no example of this in Scripture and it contradicts other passages of Scripture.  This should cause a person to look for a different explanation other than the literal one.  Of course, the interpretation that makes the passage fit the context of the overall Bible is the best and it is metonymy.  Therefore,  in the text, the word spirit is used to denote the good gifts of the spirit and not the Spirit itself.  This interpretation is confirmed by comparing the parallel passage in the Gospel of Matthew 7:11 which reads “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

This example of Luke’s use of metonymy is crucial in the understanding of Luke’s usage of metonymy in regard to the Holy Spirit and its gifts in the book of Acts.  It becomes extremely important in our understanding of Acts 2, 10, 11 and 19 which is a historical record of the birth of the church and the first conversion of the Gentiles into Christ and later on in Acts 19, to our understanding of the re-baptism of the disciples in Ephesus where the gifts of tongues are referred to as the spirit (metonymy).

The foundation of the new creation was created when Jesus gave his Apostles the Holy Spirit, laying the foundation, it was completed when the fellowship was immersed in the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost in Acts 1-2.  The gifts of the Spirit were given as a witness and evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence and confirmation of God’s will and word.  “ God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (Heb 2:4). In this passage, the Holy Spirit is metonymy and is used for the gifts of the Spirit.  Note that the plural is used in regard to gifts indicating that the author is not talking about the Spirit but rather the gifts of the Spirit.[4]

All of this is especially important when it comes to the conversion of the Gentiles and the acceptance of the disciples that were rebaptized in Acts 19.  The tongues were a gift of the Spirit to confirm their conversion.  There were actually two confirmations of their conversion, the speaking in tongues and the laying on of the Apostle’s hands which demonstrated the acceptance of the Apostles.  So, we have the witness of the Apostles and the witness of the Spirit.  The Apostles bore witness by laying their hands on the disciples.  The Spirit bore witness by giving these men the gift of tongues.  All this is in keeping with the promise that Jesus made to his disciples that what they bind on earth will be bound in heaven.

What about the meaning of the expression, ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit?’  First of all, we must get rid of the liquid theology that images the Holy Spirit as fluid or liquid.  When the Spirit is imaged as a liquid it is done figuratively to emphasize the activity of the Spirit and it is not to be taken literally.  Similar figures of speech that can be used in regard to God such are metonymy’s or similes, like breath, wind or force, but He is literally not any of those things.  The same is true when we refer to light as a particle or as a wave.  Light is literally not a particle or a wave it simply behaves like them in some fashion.  We literally don’t know what light is.

Secondly, we must understand that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is not the same as the indwelling of the Spirit.  We see the baptism of the Holy Spirit taking place in Acts 2; however, Christ gives the Spirit to dwell in his disciples in John 20:21-23  “Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you!  As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”  And with that, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit[5].  If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”  In this, Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom of heaven to the Apostles[6].  Later he promises them that when the Spirit would come into the new creation, they would receive the power of the Spirit.  The Spirit coming on the New Creation in power is the baptism of the Spirit which is a historical event and not a personal experience.  Making it a corporate immersion into the Spirit of God such as in note Matthew 3:11 “…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  The Baptism of the Spirit is the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh or people, that is Jews and Gentiles (Acts 2:17).  In this, the new creation is filled with the Holy Spirit and the power of the Spirit.  The word ‘fill’ is a figure and is used to denote the degree of power the Spirit has over the community.  It’s like Paul’s usage when he commands people to be filled with the Spirit[7] as a person is filled with new wine denoting the degree of control that it has over the community.

The expression baptism (immerse) is used as a metonymy to explain the degree of influence that the Holy Spirit would have in the new creation, in contrast to that of the old creation.  In the Old Testament, there were a few archetypal figures that possessed the Holy Spirit, like David and the prophets.  However, in contrast under the new covenant, or in the new creation, everyone would possess the Spirit and be empowered by it.  That is, they would be immersed or overwhelmed by the Spirit as a person is overwhelmed by the water when immersed in water[8].  A similar metonymy is used by the apostle Paul.  In the book of Ephesians when he talks about being filled with the Spirit and compares that experience with being intoxicated or controlled by wine, someone that is drunk with wine could be said to be metaphorically controlled by it, so it is with the person who is filled with God’s spirit  They are overwhelmed and controlled by the Spirit.

 

A general truth in regard to discerning whether the Scriptures are talking about the indwelling of the Spirit or a gift from the Spirit can be seen in the terminology of the Spirit ‘coming on a person’, or in contrast the Spirit entering or ‘dwelling in a person’.  When the Spirit comes upon someone it takes control of them and uses them.  The expression does not refer to the indwelling of the Spirit.  For example, in the book of Numbers 24:1-3, the Assyrian false prophet Balaam had the Spirit of God come on him.  It is obvious that the writer is not talking about the indwelling of the Spirit but the Spirit coming on him to give him power to fulfill the purpose of God at that particular time.[9]  The Spirit coming on a person has to do with the Spirit giving the gifts and power to fulfilling God’s purpose in one’s ministry.  On the other hand, the idea of the Spirit dwelling in a person is for the purpose of justification and sanctification.  “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed-not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence-continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil 2:12-13, Also note Rom 8:9-17)

[1]Bullinger, E. W. Figures of Speech Used In The Bible (Kindle Location 139). Kindle Edition

[2]Bullinger, E. W. Figures of Speech Used In The Bible (Kindle Locations 181-183). Kindle Edition

[3]Bullinger, E. W. Figures of Speech Used In The Bible (Kindle Locations 181-183). Kindle Edition

[4] Rom.1:11-13 “I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong- that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.”

[5] This is going back to the creation story of the first man who God breathed his life into. In the disciples, God breaths the life of new creation.

[6] It is atonement and forgiveness of sin that opens the door of the kingdom.

[7] Eph 5:17-18. “Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.  Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.  Instead, be filled with the Spirit”.

[8] When we say that a person is immersed or baptized in his work or hobby, we understand that to figuratively mean that they are engrossed and overcome by it.

[9] Num 24:1-3 “When Balaam looked out and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God came upon him  and he uttered his oracle.”