The Bible, Allegorical or Literal?
If you are really serious about dividing the Word of God, then you must get your hermeneutics correct.
So what then is hermeneutics?
Hermeneutics is simply interpretation. However, who’s interpretation are we talking about? More specifically, is there a system of hermeneutics that will legitimately interpret the Bible? An interpretation that ensures Scripture is not being violated.
To correctly interpret scripture, one must leave behind any pre conceived ideas and examine scripture with an open mind, not depending on past teaching or emotions. Not using scripture to prove a view point. Our view point should be based on scripture. The foundation of our view point should be scripture.
Having said that, there are really only two ways of understanding the Scriptures:
The allegorical method of interpreting scripture was introduced to the church via the Alexandrian School of Learning by Gnostic teachers, such as Philo and Oregin and Clement of Alexandria.
This was passed on to Augustine of Hippo, who in turn introduced it into the Roman Catholic Church.
This began with the early church theologians introducing ideas like Replacement Theology, an attempt to replace Israel with the church. God’s promises made to Israel became of non effect because of the rejection of Jesus Christ as Messiah and they were claimed by the church, saying that the Jews were no longer the Chosen People.
Some people reject the allegorical meaning of scripture and would rather use terms such as types, symbols, images, similes, examples, parable, motif, figure,metaphors and analogy.
Symbol: Something that represents another thing.
Image: A word or action that names a concrete thing.
Type: A symbol that looks forward to an antitype for future fulfillment.
Metaphor: An implied comparison.
Similes: Compare one thing to another by using the formula like or as.
Parable: Brief stories that employ familiar situations, events, characteristics, or elements in order to teach important spiritual truths.
Motif: A recurring theme or a “structurally unified verbal whole”.
Archetype: An image or pattern that recurs…the universal elements of human experience.
Analogy: A comparison between two things, typically on the basis of their structure and for the purpose of explanation or clarification.
Figure: A person, animal, or object that symbolizes something. A pictorial or sculptural representation, especially of the human body.
Sign: A token; something by which another thing is shown or represented; any visible thing, any motion, appearance or event which indicates the existence or approach of something else.
Token: A sign; something intended to represent or indicate another thing or an event.
The problem with the allegorical method, is that the literal meaning of the passage is usually disregarded in favour of the allegory. This is dangerous. It leads to fanciful interpretations that have no basis in fact. The interpretation then lies in the imagination and thoughts of the interpreter. All biblical passages must follow the guidelines set forth in the plain meaning of the Word. A type or symbol must ring true to the context of Scripture.
Literal interpretation gives to each word the same exact basic meaning it would have in normal, ordinary, customary usage, whether employed in writing, speaking or thinking.
In other words it is taken at face value.
The literal meaning of sentences is the normal approach in all languages. It does many things but some of them are quite clear.
All secondary meanings of documents, parables, types, allegories, and symbols, depend for their very existence on the previous literal meaning of the terms.
Also the greater part of the Bible makes adequate sense when interpreted literally.
To take scripture literally does not rule out figures of speech, similies, symbols, allegories or types but if the nature of the sentence so demands, it readily yields to the literal sense.
Above all this, the one thing that it does the best: is keep a firm check on mans own imaginations.
The literal method recognizes that types, symbols, metaphors and allegories are found throughout the Bible. However, these are used to expound upon and explain the literal message of Scripture.
John 1:6 says, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John ” That is literal.
But John 1:29 shows John pointing to Jesus and saying, “Behold the Lamb of God.” That is figurative or symbolic but it is clearly understood that Jesus is not a literal lamb.
The literalist does not deny the existence of figurative language. The literalist does, however deny that such figures must be interpreted so as to destroy the literal truth intended through the employment of the figures.
For anyone to claim that to take the text literally is naïve or childish is completely wrong, in light of such scriptures as:
Mt 11:25 At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.
Mt 21:16 And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?
Man has complicated what the Lord intended to be simple.
Having accepted that the correct way is to understand the Bible is literally (i.e. it means what it says and it says what it means) we must be careful to appreciate the difference between understanding and interpreting.
The meaning of the word "understand" in the literary sense is to comprehend the meaning the writer intended it to have. However "interpret" means giving it the meaning the reader thinks or wants it to have. When it comes to the Bible of course, what the reader thinks it means is not the issue.
What the Lord intends it to mean is everything.
It is important therefore, to read the Bible literally but to also to comprehend what it is that is written. That is, what the words themselves actually say, not what we interpret them to mean.
We cannot therefore interpret scripture in the light of a particular idea, teaching , viewpoint or school of thought.
Neither should we accept the illusion that we need all sorts of qualifications and degrees, or be guided by those who have, before you can properly understand the scriptures. They ignore the fact that the scriptures themselves say you don't. The scriptures declare that it is the Lord who gives understanding, not seminary colleges, etc. and that He gives it to whoever He will. Even with holding it from the "wise and prudent" and revealing it to babes" as quoted earlier.
It is very clear to understand scripture, when there are such statements as “I am the way the Truth and the Life and no one can come to the Father but through Me”. Or when the Bible says “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the earth”.
Those are basic fundamentals that can never change.
The Bible is actually very logical and is written so that the common man can understand it.
The problem comes when men begin to "allegorize" the meaning of the verse. Most of the time, when the Scriptures describe a rock, it is a rock. Same with hot. Hot means hot and cold means cold.
The basic necessity for understanding scripture is to be a born again believer.
We know the Bible reveals that the natural man receives not the things of God.
It is the Holy Spirit that leads into all truth.
The original Apostolic churches and the Byzantine Christian Empire that were formed with the aid of Constantine the Great were quite literal in their approach to the scriptures and were also "sola Scriptura" (Scripture only), in that they held the authority of what was written in scripture was above the authority of any man or church, (even Constantine himself deferred to the authority of the written Word of God as being of greater authority than his own).
It is only with the rise of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches who overthrew (by military force) the 1,000 year Byzantine Christian Empire that the idea that interpretations and traditions of the church and church leaders, had greater authority than the written word of God. The idea that only those with certain knowledge and special training could properly interpret the scriptures is very much from the teachings of the heretical Gnostic (one with knowledge) movement that began in Alexandria, which filtered into the Roman Catholic Church and constantly plagued the early churches through the teachings of Augustine and later through the reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.
A strict allegorical method of interpreting the bible usually ends up with eisegesis and not sound exegesis. (That is reading something into scripture rather than getting something out of scripture).
Hermenuetics is a tool which needs to be practised. The more one uses the sound methods of hermeneutics, the more one understands what the scriptures mean.
One thing we must always use in hermeneutics is the Christocentric rule. Christ is the absolute authority on all scripture. What He taught, cannot be refuted or debated. He taught plainly and soundly on most doctrinal issues.
One should always study the bible in context and never out of context, Many Christians take single scripture as if it has some magical power of its own. Sadly many times what they say is out of context with the biblical text.
Finally one should never be lazy in biblical interpretation, it takes time, prayer and dedication to open up the meaning in biblical studies.
If we are going to study the Bible in order to determine what applies to us today, relationally and doctrinally, the first question we should consider in our approach to our study is this; should the Bible be interpreted “literally,” or may we take the liberty to “spiritualize the Bible” through allegory whenever we think we see an allegory?
Even though Jesus Himself referred to the Old Testament literally. It seems the church to this day has not been able to completely shake their negative influence of embracing spiritualized allegory ever since. This approach has given rise to the many non-Biblical beliefs that have been adopted and past on by the Roman Catholic Church. Many protestant believers today have also adopted this approach, doing great harm to “the faith.”
Such spiritualizing of the Bible has also given place to a gross error referred to earlier called “replacement theology,” whereby some Christian teachers believe “the body of Christ” is something they call “spiritual Israel,” the new real Israel; where all that was said of Israel is to apply to “the church, which is His body” today. Spiritualizing the Bible can lead to all types of grave errors.
Spiritualizing the Bible opens us to as many interpretations as there are people to have them – everyone can essentially write their own Bible.
If we approach the Bible in God’s prescribed way; that is to use the method prescribed by Paul, which is to “rightly divide the word of truth.”
In doing this, there is a set of very easy to follow guidelines for understanding the Bible as it was intended. Few people know The first key is to view the Bible literally. Literal is the proper and “normal method” used to interpret what the Bible says. We can see that this is true as we consider the following facts and logic concerning the literal method of interpretation.
Literal is the way average people normally communicate.
When we say “I am giving this gift to you.” it does not mean I am giving this gift to someone else. Yet, this is exactly what many Christians, Christian Bible teachers, and preachers do with the Bible. They apply and take that which was said to one party (i.e., the Law given to Israel) and apply it to another party to whom it was not spoken (i.e., “the body of Christ”).
Why abandon the literal method when we have examples that demonstrate that the Bible has consistently been literally fulfilled?
E.g., The Bible specifically and literally tells us exactly where Jesus was to be born; He would be born to a virgin, how He would suffer and die, soldiers would gamble for His garments, plus 100 other points of fact. Though, all of these were fulfilled as prophesied - literally; we should not let our lack of faith limit God’s ability or willingness to fulfill His promises literally. We need not to spiritualize it to make it acceptable.
This is what some have done with the six days of Genesis, because they find it difficult to accept that these were literal 24 hour days, they allegorize them into long periods of time.
Having said all this, the “literal” method of interpretation does not preclude the proper use of metaphor, figures, allegory, or symbolism. When saying “literal interpretation” is the proper method of interpretation this does not mean that when the text clearly indicates a parable, allegory, or a figure of speech is involved, that we are to ignore these. The “literal interpretation” just means that we do not take license to treat anything non-literally without those indicators being present. We do not try to spiritualize because we cannot make sense of something any other way.
The Apostle Paul himself uses allegory and Paul even identifies it as allegory several times in his writings. E.g., Paul’s allegorizes Sarah as representing “grace” and Agar representing “the law.”
Galatians 4:24 Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar.
Biblical metaphors, figures, symbolisms, and allegories are mechanisms used to convey and enlarge our understanding of a literal truth, but not to establish or make doctrine.
Here are some examples of proper Biblical allegory of Christ’s cross that only become crystal clear to us by the knowledge we gain from Paul’s straightforward writings.
In the Old Testament animal blood sacrifices were made to only “cover” the sins of the people of Israel. These blood sacrifices were a proper Biblical allegorical reference to Jesus as “the lamb of God.”
The OT allegory did not give us the complete picture because by Paul’s writing we see something more – Christ’s blood now purges or takes away sins (Heb 10:2-4).
It is only by Paul’s teachings that we now have a clear view of Jesus Himself as the real or literal redeeming “lamb of God” whose blood was shed to pay for all sins, to redeem and justify anyone who believes this to receive Him.
Jesus Himself is also literally viewed as the real “serpent lifted up” (John 3:14) bearing our sins and also dying as our serpentine “old man” (Rom 6:6, 7:4). Jesus reveals Himself “lifted up” to be the reality of the brazen serpent “lifted up” on Moses rod (Numbers 20). In that account the Israelites were bitten by serpents and dying, but they were healed when they looked upon the brass serpent “lifted up.” Yet, it is only by Paul’s teachings that we learn the full clear meaning in Romans 6, 7, 8.
Jesus Himself allegorized again in John 11:24. There Jesus views Himself as the literal “seed,” as the real “grain of wheat” that was to fall into the ground and die in order to bring “forth much fruit” of His life. It is only by Paul’s teachings that we learn that He died and we are the living fruit of His death, having His resurrection life in us (see Rom 6:4, 7:4, Col 1:27, Christ the seed Gal 3:16).
These truths are clearly stated by Paul, but these allegories above are all very helpful. They are given to enlarge our view, helping us to see Christ as the literal reality of each aspect of the Pauline truths that they enlarge.
A story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.
‘Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory of the spiritual journey’ but the spiritual journey that it is referring to is real one, it is an allegory of a literal experience.