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 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.”

Is God Personal? A Letter to a Deist

 

 

Is God Personal? A Letter to a Deist

It would seem it is quite hard to say anything about the deity seeing that the sizes of the universe demonstrate that God is far advanced over us mere mortals.  It would seem presumptuous of us to say anything about him, especially if those ideas lessoned his character in any way. Therefore, to say that he is personal or impersonal would be a presumptuous statement limiting him by imposing a human characteristic upon him. It seems it would be closer to the truth to refer to Him as trans-personal or beyond personality,  personality being a human characteristic. Jesus hints at this when he said that the deity knows every hair on our heads. This would indicate that His personal knowledge must be far greater than any human being. This might raise the question does not a personal knowledge of someone infer in itself a degree of a personal relationship?

The bigger question is, Why would one want to believe that the deity is impersonal? Would believing in a universe with an impersonal God be any different than a universe without a God? It surely is more convenient and comfortable to live in the universe with an impersonal God than a trans-personal one that might hold men responsible for their behavior. It does seem to me that belief in an impersonal God is not much different from atheism on a pragmatic level. The benefit of such a belief or non-belief would simply be to avoid any uncomfortable conclusion about God. It also would give one the convenience and comfort of avoiding some hard questions and decisions about life and death.

Of course, the truth is, if there is a divine trans-personal God like the Biblical God it really does not matter what we believe about Him. We still will be judged by His will and our decisions or even the lack of them. It will not matter whether or not we ignore or dodge the questions. The safe position is to believe in a trans-personal God. If there is no trans-personal god, it really doesn’t matter. Does it? However, if there is that would open the possibility that we share in some of his characteristics like anger and love. It comes back to whether or not you believe that man created God in his image or God created man in his.

Moreover, to say that God is impersonal is to say that billions of people that claim to have a relationship with Him are delusional or simply liars. Such a belief would have to be totally subjective unless you could get into the skin of every one of those people that claim they have a relationship with God. The most that any person could say is I personally do not have a relationship with God. Of course, because an individual does not have a relationship with God does not mean or prove that God is impersonal and has no personal relationship with any humans. It also seems that a lack of faith in a personal God would slam the door shut on having any experience with God. Why would a person want to do that? If a person has the choice of living in a universe where there is a personal God or a universe where there is no trans-personal God why would anyone choose the impersonal? We all have reasons for our beliefs and it seldom reason.

The Death of Psychology

 

 

The Death of Psychology

Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.  Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.  For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural,  and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error. Rom 1:22-27

Psychology[1] in specifics has helped a lot of people. However, in general, it has corrupted and contributed to the downfall of civilization. One example of this is it has turned taboos into taboos. This is especially true in the area of sexuality. In this, it has led to the wreaking of marriage and family, which are the basic building blocks of civilization. It’s done this through its constant attacks on what is normal sexuality; claiming like so many things that our sexuality is socially created. It has failed to see that the original taboos were there for a reason though sometimes exaggerated. Its whole view of sexuality is based on a materialist view of man as a purely a biological animal.

This can also be seen in their attempt to do away with the feelings we call shame or guilt[2]. Psychology’s highest goal seems to be helping people to feel good about themselves, even if they ought not to feel good about themselves and their behavior. This is even the case when it’s obvious that a person can get relief from their guilt and shame by quitting a certain behavior that they or society labels as wrong. Their answer to everything is destroyed or weekend the standard seldom is it to bring people’s behavior up to the acceptable standard. The root of this teaching is their denial of any normal standards and wholesale acceptance of moral relativism.

I grant you a  lot of this psycho babbling has been corrected by some of the behaviorists. However, the damages had been done and the myths have been established. So the mad Hatters of blunder land continue their destruction of the culture and the destruction of all norms in the name of feeling good.

Of course, the outcome of such behavior is obvious to a rational person and that is the dumbing down of our culture and morality to the point of nonexistent. And the strangest thing is that they’re doing this in the name of science[3]. However, in actuality, they are simply demonstrating the folly of human knowledge that has been detached from the reality of  God, morality and natural law.

[1] Most of my remarks are directed at psychology on the academia level.

[2] Guilt is the peg which a civilization hangs its hat. The standards of any civilization can be no higher than its guilt level.

[3] I have some serious reservations about calling psychology science. When examined it more resembles a pseudo-religion than science. Note Thomas S.Szasz “The Myth of Mental Illness” and “The Manufacture of Madness”

What About the Doctrine of Eternal Security?

What About the Doctrine of Eternal Security?

The doctrine of eternal security was first taught by Augustine of Hippo 354-430 AD and was not readily accepted by the church at large; prior to him it is not found in any of the early writings of the church fathers[1].  The next prominent one to teach it was John Calvin[2] 1509-1564 AD.

In my thinking, the doctrine of eternal security is a “me” doctrine and human-centered. It is irrelative to the person who intends to continue with Christ and obey him.  One of its roots is the lack of faith in the forgiveness we received by Christ and reflects anxiety over one’s salvation.  It is a stumbling block for many because it destroys the tension between sanctification and justification, which is necessary for a balanced Christian walk.  By its very nature, it inhibits growth and a striving for maturity and holiness in Christ.  By this, I am not inferring that we can make ourselves mature nor earn our salvation by growing, but just like in the natural world where a child is expected to grow up, a believer is expected to grow up in their faith.  We must continue to do those things that contribute to our growth.  Things like fellowship, prayer, meditation and the reading of scripture.  To neglect these is like a man that refuses to eat and yet expects to live.

[1]  Here are some typical quotations from their writings: We ought, therefore, brethren, carefully to inquire concerning our salvation. Otherwise, the wicked one, having made his entrance by deceit, may hurl us forth from our life. Barnabas (c. 70-130).
Those who do not obey Him, being disinherited by Him, have ceased to be His sons. Irenaeus (c. 180).
It is neither the faith, nor the love, nor the hope, nor the endurance of one day; rather, “he that endures to the end will be saved.” Clement of Alexandria (c. 195).  God gives forgiveness of past sins. However, as to future sins, each one procures this for himself. He does this by repenting, by condemning the past deeds, and by begging the Father to blot them out. For only the Father is the one who is able to undo what is done. …So even in the case of one who has done the greatest good deeds in his life, but at the end has run headlong into wickedness, all his former pains are profitless to him. For at the climax of the drama, he has given up his part. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195).

[2] http://eternalsecurity.us/a_historical_examination.htm

 

What is the Israel of God?

What is the Israel of God?

“Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.” Gal 6:16

There has been much debate as to the meaning of the apostle Paul’s expression “the Israel of God” in his letter to the Galatians. Much of the debate has been caused by people holding to various eschatology theories of the nation of Israel and its relationship to the church. However, the apostle gives us a clue as to the meaning in the expression itself. If there is an Israel of God, there must be an Israel that is not of God. Who or what is this false Israel? In the book of Galatians and throughout his writings, the apostle tells us who makes up this wrong Israel. The false Israel is made up of fleshly Israel, including those who believe in Christ yet want to bind the law of Moses on all Christians[1]. In other words, they believe that a person is saved by faith in Christ plus the law of Moses or by becoming a Jew. This group of people are called Judaizers and have been present within the church since its earliest beginning. In the book of Acts, you can read about how they actually followed the apostle Paul around undermining his message of salvation through Christ alone and attempted to convert Paul’s disciple back to Judaism (Christ plus Judaism) bring them back into the bondage of religion.

Let’s look at what Paul and the New Testament says about fleshly or the physical descendants of  Abraham who made up the physical nation of Israel in the days of Paul and today. Our first text will be a metaphor given to us by Paul in Galatians Chapter 4:21-30).

“(21) Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? (22) For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. (23) His son by the slave woman was born in an ordinary way, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise.

(24) These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. (25) Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem because she is in slavery with her children. (26) But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. (27) For it is written:

 

“Be glad, O barren woman,

who bears no children;

break forth and cry aloud,

you who have no labor pains;

because more are the children of the desolate woman

than of her who has a husband.”

 

(28) Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. (29) At that time the son born in an ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. (30) But what does the Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son” (31). Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman” (Gal 4:21-31).

We can gather from Paul’s words that there are two Israel’s one is spiritual and one is fleshly or physical. Physical Israel is born through natural processes (physical birth) and is based on biology. On the other hand, spiritual Israel is based on a birth brought from above by the spirit of God (John 3:1-5).  Paul’s conclusion is stated in verse 30,  which is that the slave woman physical Israel will not receive the inheritance of eternal life unless they become spiritual children through faith in Jesus Christ. “It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”  8, In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring (Rom 9:6-8).

Who are the children of the promise? It is clearly stated that they are believers in Jesus and those that have been baptized into Him. “26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal:26-29). We can gather from this that now a new humanity or nation made up of all men who are saved by faith in Jesus. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10). Who is Peter talking to? Is he not talking to the Israel of God?

The citizenship requirement in this new nation is a spiritual birth into it through water and spirit him (John 3:1-5).

For further study, I’d recommend  T Austin’s Sparks “The Israel of God.” You can get it free by coping into your browser the link below.[2]

 

[1] Phi 3:1-6, Gal 3:1-26

[2] http://www.austin-sparks.net/english/books/israel_of_god_the.html