Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Literal interpretation

“You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’
But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
So if your eye—even your good eye[l]—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
And if your hand—even your stronger hand[m]—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
- Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:27-30)

There are plenty of people who constantly tell us to take the Bible literally.
They even tell us that they take the Bible literally.
And even if they do slip up, they take have a better understanding than you do.

How come they don't take this part literally?
I mean, Jesus said it, so it is a command, right?

Sunday, I was reminded of this with this little phrase our pastor said,

If you take the Bible literally, you might be missing the point, literally.


Craig said...

The way I interpret scripture is to read it literally. Of course there are historical things that don't apply today and metaphors. So if the Bible says something, I take it as face value, unless it does not make sense (such as advocating plucking your eye out). Then I will look at a historical view and also the content to see if there is a metaphorical meaning.

In this case it is obvious that Jesus in not condoning physically hurting ourself, but rather using a hyperbole to address sin and the heart along with the consequence of hell.

The problem with taking things in a non-literal manner regularly makes it a mystical writing where people will create different meanings to satisfy their own desires or confusion.

Roland said...

Since Jesus is addressing a heart issue on this, when is He not doing that?
And that brings us right around to the point again.
Why do we follow a rule and not the Spirit?
God has either given us the ability to interpret or not.
You just said this part is to be interpreted non-literally.
Yet other parts are very literal.

Jesus is always addressing the heart.
Think about the words of the band, Cheap Trick, "I want you to want me."
That is exactly what God is aiming at.
He desires our desire of Him.
Literal is good up to a point. But in being literal it is good not to take it too far. Yes?

Craig said...

It is the spirit that gives us wisdom and interpretation. However, the Bible is not something that needs to be decoded. Yes some issues are more difficult to understand, but it is a message to all and not to certain individuals to find a secret meaning.

Just as I read blog comments literally there is sarcasm and joking that is detectable because it is so blatantly obvious, as is the case of this verse not being taken literally.

This is a good discussion, but for anyone that does not take a literal approach, where is the line drawn to what is literal and what is not? To me, questioning people who take the Bible literal does not make sense because it is orderly and logical, but to those who don't there is no limit to what is literal.

j razz said...

Thus, a major role of the Law was to prophesy of the coming revelation of God who is indeed Jesus Christ. And Christ fulfilled it. Thus, in Christ, the Law has fulfilled its purpose. But then are we to obey the Law? Yes, inasmuch as we obey Christ who is its fulfillment. In that, we are no longer under the Law, but we are under the authority of Christ and his commands, for he speaks as the one who is the fulfillment of the Law.

But what does this mean for us? In short, it means that we are to obey Christ. That is why in 5:21-48 he corrects the misunderstanding of what had been said before and explains it as one with authority to command men as to what to do. And what does he then say in these verses? In short (as are most sections of a sermon that tries to squeeze in the entirety of Matthew 5-7), Jesus demands a radical and passionate zeal for holiness, purity, and integrity. We must harshly avoid unrighteousness, dealing radically with each sin that we might not fall into it. Eventually Jesus shows us that to live holy before the Father is to live in moral perfection (5:48) which draws us back to Jesus just as the Law pointed us forward to him. It is in him and through his strength that we strive to live pleasing before the Father.

-Lee Tankersley

Roland said...

Decoded? No.
Understood? Yes.

As I said in the last comment I made, literal is fine up to a point.
Understanding is key.
If we don't try to understand and grow in wisdom, we are in sad shape indeed.

And you're right. Some things are more obvious than others. But even then we sometimes disagree on those things.
CS Lewis sums up some of what I'm saying here.

Roland said...

Tankersley sounds very wise.

WayneDawg said...

Craig is right -

You can take the Scripturethat you provided Roland, and read it literally; it's a literally a hyperbole.

It's the same with the historical portions of the Bible as well as the parables. You read them literally and discern the context and application to what's being said and why.

You know that and I know that.

WayneDawg said...

BTW - I didn't see the commonality of this post versus the CS Lewis quote.

Help me out -

Jeff Greathouse said...

I have to take Craig out of context for a minute because I laughed very hard.

This is to "lighten" it up little.

Craig says, So if the Bible says something, I take it as face value, unless it does not make sense

That is funny

Jeff Greathouse said...

Some of my thoughts:

I believe that the Bible is the most important of all the ways God’s person and presence are revealed to humanity. That is because it is in reading the biblical books that we most reliably hear and encounter the living Word of God, who is the risen Jesus.

The Bible contains the story of God’s interaction with humankind, first through the understanding of the Jewish people (Old Testament - 39 books), and subsequently to all people through God’s self revelation in Jesus (New Testament -27 books).

I believe that people meet God in Scripture, where God’s heart, mind, relationship to - and intention for - humankind are revealed. Through an ongoing dialogue with the God revealed in the Bible, people in every age are called to a living faith.

I believe that God inspired the Bible’s many writers, editors and compilers. As they heard God speaking and discerned God’s activity in events around them in their own times and places, the Bible’s content took shape. Among other things, the literature they produced includes history, legal code, parables, letters of instruction, persuasion and encouragement, tales of heroism, love poetry and hymns of praise.

The varying types and styles of literature found here all testify to faith in a God who acts by personally engaging men and women in human history.

At the same time, we also find in the Bible human emotion, testimony, opinion, cultural limitation and bias. I recognize that human testimony and writing are related to and often limited by culture, customs and world view.

Roland said...

That is funny!
And I like how you read the Bible as a living document and not a set of rules set in stone.
It requires wisdom to discern such things.
May God grant you even more.

It was a style of teaching that was used in Jesus' time by the rabbis. We know what he was saying, but what other things in scripture do you take 'literally' that might have some hyperbolic meaning?
And if someone else disagrees with you, who is right? You?
And the quote was to show how we can take anything too far. Including our interpretations of what we read.
Am I making sense, or is there am I being too literal? ;) (making a funny about Jeff's context pun)

Kate Morningstar said...

I have always wondered why, if lust is the problem, it's the eye we're supposed to remove. There's another body part that seems more pertinent.

Maybe WonderWoman can help me out here.

Roland said...

Although that might seem like the answer, it still doesn't change the heart.
And there are other things that can be done without necessarily using that piece of equipment.
Again, its a heart matter.

Doorman-Priest said...

"The Bible is not something that needs to be decoded." Thank goodness for that: I can stop wasting my time this term on those Old Testament lectures which were starting to suggest that the O.T. at least...well...sort of DOES need decoding.

Religious academics eh! What do they know?

Roland said...

Too funny, DP!
Too funny. :)

the Reverend boy said...

You mean my bibleman OT decoder ring is a rip-off?!?!?!?

Roland said...

Only if you got it out of a secular cereal.
The one from Christian Crunch is okay. ;)

shadman said...

Dude your just telling folks your right. I trold Ron to get a book on how to read the bible. I think Ron is sometimes off because he takes one thing here and another thing there and puts together a bible that does not have demends and this is not the truth, Jesus said unless you follow his ways your not saved. If you do not understand that freedom is not to be used to sin and do whatever you want is not truth. Woman are told not to be pastors in 3 places and yet ron said the bible does not mean this for todayt. No it does mean the woman do not lead a church and it means we are not to drink because wine is a mocker. It is a hard thing to just keep letrting a brother think you get to make the bible a book one can pick and choose and from and that is not the truth

Jeff Greathouse said...


Roland said...

Uh huh.

Well put.

Kate Morningstar said...

Who's Ron?

Roland said...

Ron is me.

Ronald Radke
Roland Drake

When I left my old church things didn't go well.
Hence the pseudonym.
What I find funny, is that I like the 'Roland' appelation, but my wife doesn't.
I guess I won't make it legal. ;)

Kinggame said...

It is illogical to say it is literal unless obviously non-literal. So, what's the split? 90% literal, 10% symbolic? 70-30? 50-50?

In Numbers, as an official rule, it says that if a man rapes a non-betrothed woman, he must pay her father 50 shekels of silver and marry her. That's it! One of the things literalists get maddest about is "adjusting the Bible for our times", but there are certain things, like this, that must be changed. Who is anyone to decide what passes and what gets updated? That's why God gave us minds, reason, and free will, to decide for ourselves. But taking the Bible literally is comical. Unless anyone here really thinks the planet is only 6,500 years old, or that the timespan from the Big Bang to fully formed humans was really 6 days...

Totally on board with you Roland, as usual.

Jeff Greathouse said...


There are a few on the blog here that would say, that is what we believe (creation ill that you gave)

Roland said...

Thanks, kg.
Dang it. Now I miss Garnett again. Oh well. At least I know the Timberwolves will do poorly for a while.
See? I have foreknowledge. Basing it on great evidence, though. ;)

Funny thing is, I think the earth could be less than 10,000 years old. I don't think its something that will save a person, though.

Doorman-Priest said...

Shadman: use your intellect. That's why God gave it to you.

The Bible is not a book like any other. Nor can it possibly be constrained by a literalist approach.

I wish I was a literalist. I wouldn't have to think for myself.

I could stone adulterers, employ slaves, burn those who wear mixed fabrics....Oh, what's that you say? Literalists don't do that? Then they aren't literalists. They have already made an interpretation.

Anonymous said...

I only want to mention that I disagree with the definition of "literalist" that just about all of you are using. It is making it the most absurd sort of definition that you could possibly take it as.

I think I am a literalist, but I am nothing like what y'all are describing. I think a post/discussion starting all over using a reasonable definition of terms would be a lot more beneficial. Aren't you just trying to "pick fights?"

Roland said...

I'm actually not trying to pick fights, just get people to look at what they think and why.

Literalism can be taken to an extreme.
Just like anything else.

What is your view of it?

Jeff Greathouse said...


No, I am not trying to pick a fight.

I will agree with you on the definition. Matter of fact, I think definitions are the majority of the trouble.

I think alot of arguments, individuals are a lot closer than they think.

We use words and the other person is hearing the words through their filter and that was not the intent of the original conversation.

I would like to hear your definition of literalist.

Craig said...

I agree and that is why I stopped commenting. There was no reasonable dialog that would further a better understanding of the topic.

Anonymous said...

A definition of literalism?

When you are sitting down and talking with your wife or children you take what they say at their word - yes? If in a conversation your children use a collequalism that you may or may not understand - you get the general jist of it and what they say is still a "literal" statement thru jargon - yes?

Literalism is taking Scripture at face value, but taking the time to get the jist of the jargon that was also used. Literalism is not taking Scripture at "face value" without putting any time into understanding the context of the passage, or of the area, or of the time - let alone of the issues that any given Scripture was being written to address. Doing all of that is not literalism, it is just being ignorant.

Reading and understanding Scripture is not much different than sitting down and talking with a child that is 30 years younger than you and trying to understand them. Accept with Scripture there is 2000-5000 years of jargon to understand and get thru.

Literalism understands that some things are pictures, some things are parables, and some things are just outdated. But literalism allows you to go in and try to understand why within the environment things were so you can understand the purpose, take it to heart, and apply it to your life today.

Jeff Greathouse said...


If that is the description and the belief that you hold to, most people would not consider that to be a literalist. They would consider that more of a biblical inerrancy.

Biblical inerrancy is the conservative evangelical doctrinal position that in its original form, the Bible is totally without error, and free from all contradiction; "referring to the complete accuracy of Scripture, including the historical and scientific parts."

Biblical literalism is the adherence to the explicit and literal sense of the Bible. In its purest form such a belief would deny the existence of allegory, parable and metaphor in the Bible.

Roland said...

That is what I am trying to do.
Read Shad's comment.
He thinks he is doing the same thing as well.
When he and I talk on the phone or in person, he always starts by telling me how I don't take scripture literally.
When we are done talking, he understands better. But it seems to happen every time we don't spend time together that he goes right back to this.
Its difficult to teach someone how to add 2+2 EVERY time you have to see them. And are forced to defend your position EVERY time.

To be honest, I am tired of always being on the defensive. Not just with Shad, but with that type of mentality and all who hold so tightly to it.
Every time I put up a post, it is a part of my process of learning and growing in Christ.
And sometimes when I do it, it is so others can start to feel what others feel, as they treat others and their views with contempt.
Might another or myself be wrong? Surely. I am wrong too often.
But we can still disagree in kindness and sometimes even fun.

I don't even for a minute think Jeff was being degrading in his comment where he took Craig's comment out of context.
I think its oddly appropriate.
It is actually a true statement.
But it seems so incongruous when someone talks about being 'literal'
Not that Craig was being overly literal.
But I will say that when he talks about the Bible being a 'mystical writing' and his concern over the way people view it, it makes me sad.
It IS a mystical writing. God is a mystery.
But enough for us to be careful sometimes when we think our answer is the only answer.

Geppy, if I e-mailed you my phone # would you be willing to talk sometime?

Roland said...

That is exactly what I think some people do not understand.
And it rends my heart.
Because they don't take it all literally, and if someone takes something and sees it in a way they don't, then it MUST be wrong.
Yet everyone interprets scripture to some extent. If no one did, we would all be blind and without hands.
That is all I was trying to point out.

Anonymous said...

Just to be clear. My initial comment on literalism was not directed at anyone specifically - but instead at how people seemed to be polarizing on defending "literal" or not "literal."

Also, if I have not been clear in the past - I don't really pay attention too much to doctrinal terminologies and such. I'm a simplistic person and care about how the teachings of Scripture affect my life. Thus, how I defined reading the Scriptures literally is how a simple person like me understands arguments on reading the Bible literally.

Jeff, I understand the definition that you gave on literal interpretation of Scriptures. But in my opinion, it is that definition that scholarly types have created that causes the argument on what it means to read the Bible literally. When anyone attacks a literal interpretation of Scripture I am immediately against there statement because practically speaking that is denying Scripture. Because how else can you read Scripture accept to understand what it is literally telling you as I described?

Jeff Greathouse said...


I got a little confused on you wording and phrases when you were addressing me.

If you do not agree with the "theological" definion of a biblical literalist but call yourself one; how are some individuals suppose to interpet it ?

That is the problem with labels.

I will tell you first hand that - that is the problem with postmodern/emergent debate is labels and the misuse of definitions.

Before I say, I completely disagree with you. How do you say/define that if a person is against literalist that they are denying scripture?

Anonymous said...

Hey Jeff, when did I ever call myself a "biblical literalist?" My words were "I think I am a literalist" which was then follow up with a fairly lengthy post describing what I mean by "literal." This description you then labeled as "biblical inerrancy" and not "literalism."

I then described that I am a simple person and not a biblical "scholar." And as a simple person taking the Bible literally means accepting what it says within the context of how it says it. Thus, my meaning is that when someone denies a "literal" interpretation of the Bible they are denying that the Bible means what it says within the context of how it says it.

You then state that the problem is with the labels. And then hint that you may just totally disagree with everything I am saying.

Jeff, are you not the one who stated on his blog that he is trying to connect with the common person and figure out where the church lost the ability to relate to that common man? If so, please pay attention to what I'm saying here. The church lost that ability by creating all of these complex labels, and doctrines, and rules and then requiring the common person to know all of this irrelevant crap.

If one reads the Bible it is very simple and very clear if you ignore all the modern day additions and just listen to what the Bible says.

Sorry for going beyond your questions, but there seems to me to be a disconnect between your stated goal and what I am hearing you say here. The common person doesn't care about all the scholarly labels and debates; that has nothing to do with life. What the common person cares about is life, and Jesus came so we may have life - and that more abundantly.

(BTW, Heidi just had a good post about life and life.)

Jeff Greathouse said...


There is way too much in the post and comments to deal with the issue at hand.

The conversation and dialogue would be much smoother face to face.

I agree with you on the "common person" but even "common people" have different definitions behind words and that is why it is important to ask for clarification.

The thread (post) was on literal interpretation and if we are going to discuss it, we need to have the same definitions - whoever has the definition.

Believe me, I do try to go common language but I have to understand where you are coming from. I will use the terms again, if an individual is a literalist, I will have one conversation, if it is inerrancy, it is a different conversation.

We can strip those temrs away and I would love to do because it gets weighty. But, I chose the words because of the conversation here.

MikeT said...

I think the point is that you are to take radical means to cut out things from your life which are genuine barriers between you and God. Like if you are wildly out of control with porn the moment you have a computer in your home, you need to keep computers out of your home. Same thing with alcohol, for example.

Roland said...

Mike, sometimes it does mean that. Read the post I made on the 25th about my church and listen to one fo the messages from the 20th or the 13th.
Either that or don't.
But if you do, you will learn some things. The one from the 20th covers why Jesus was saying it better.
But you are definitely right that sometimes we need to eliminate things.