How literal is literal?

This past weekend has really left me realizing the importance of having a clear and literal hermeneutic. For those who don’t know what a hermeneutic is, it is the science and art of interpreting the Bible. John MacArthur delivered a message at Shepherd’s Conference challenging people to use the same hermeneutics in Revelation as they do in Genesis. His desire was to show how Amilliennialism cannot be the conclusion one comes to while using a clear interpreation of the Bible.

This created quite the uproar. Some questioned whether MacArthur was getting old and is being influenced by others. Some have called him unkind and unloving. Others have said that he set up strawman arguments to make his side look and sound better. While his approach will be questioned and one can debate whether it was the best way to deliver such a message, I don’t think you can discount the message on acount of that.

What it has made me realize is that it is so important to clearly define what a literal hermeneutic is. There are those on both sides taht claim to use it, so I believe we must define what we mean. This is my attempt to narrow down what MacArthur would mean.

Literal could also be described as being “normal” or “plain”. Some have thought that the literal interpretation forces a wooden reading of everything in the Bible. Normal and plain mean that we approach every text as it would normally be approached in the world.

Obviously, there are metaphors and allegories in the text of the Bible, and those are to be interpreted likewise. This isn’t a call to read an allegory literally, but as an allegory. The problem comes when people begin to force an allegory interpretation on a text that isn’t an allegory.

one example of this was a conversation I had on another blog. The man had said that we should interpret 1,000 years as a literal thousand years. He said we don’t pretend to think that “666” or “144,000” are literal, after all. I responded by saying he isn’t be consistent with the text. 666 isn’t a measurment or count of everything, but an image, so that can’t be used to compare to. And to see that 144,000 means anything other than 144,000 isn’t necessary. It isn’t that it is obviously allegorical or a common number that represents something. John specifically chooses that number for a reason! And the fact that he goes into saying it is 12,000 from each tribe only further forces us to interpret that as being literal. If the main sense makes sense, seek no other sense.

The Bible uses non-literal language, and we need to read those passages that way. We need to read the Bible in the way that the original author intended it. The Bible was clear to the people that it was written to, and they were able to understand it. Some would say that you can’t understand the Old Testament without understanding the New Testament, but that would be to say that the people of the OT couldn’t understand the OT.

Language was created in order to clearly communicate an idea. God didn’t give us a language to use so that we can be overly confused by it. God communicated to man in this way because it was His desire to clearly communicate His nature and plan for man. He isn’t trying to keep the cookies on a higher shelf, making it hard to understand what He thinks.

I hope this is clear. I may write later about clear, literal heremeneutics role in prophecy, as that is really where the rubber hits the road, as seen in my example with numbers in Revelation.


2 comments on “How literal is literal?

  1. Aunt Beth says:

    listening to the TMS faculty series on new covenant theology I learned that you can also look if 1,000 years, or years is ever used allegorical- and time is not- a day is always referred to as a 24 hr period- a year is always used as a year. So if those who want to reject the idea of a literal millenium would have to make it an exception in years being used as literal.

    I would have to say that I was reading Matthew this morning (chpts 21- 24 ish) and it is a confusing text and the gospels are generally more confusing to me- than the OT and the epistles- the thing I find is that amill or post-mill people usually base everything on the gospels and choose to ignore OT prophecy and Revelation- or perhaps over-allegorize it.

  2. BethsMomToo says:

    Ah…a subject close to my heart. I agree with you people often have a wrong idea of what a “literal” interpretation is. We just have to remember to handle Scriptural language in the same way we do English language. Does English have idioms? So does Scripture. Does English have poetry? So does Scripture [although in a form different than ours]. In the Ladies’ Classes we have been spending a lot of time on metaphors, and the proper way to interpret them. One of the women came up to me the other Sunday and said, “Thanks to you, now I see metaphors everywhere.” Well…that’s because the ARE everywhere, and they are pretty easy to spot once your mind is attuned to do so.

    People want to defend the Grammatical-Historical Method of Interpretation, and yet seldom know how to apply it in their own studies. I find there is a big fear of grammar – probably because most of us have forgotten even English grammar. [Beth and Dad would be excluded!] But if you want to apply the GRAMMATICAL-Historical rules of interpretation, then you had better bite the bullet and learn a little bit about grammar.

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