“How to Approach the Bible”
A study series by Arthur J Licursi
Part 7 of 24 – Hermeneutics – How We Interpret the Bible
Theologians use the word “hermeneutics” to mean “the method of interpretation” of the Bible. 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?
The allegorized approach originally arose out of a need to reconcile Biblical teachings of the church at that time with the teachings of the Greek Gnostics as the church was coming under criticism and persecution from Greek philosophers. The Greek philosophy underlying Alexandrian thinking believed the God of Judaism was absurd and unreliable. Both Clemens and Origen (c. 150-c. 215), as early church fathers, wrote about Christian doctrine and reacted to this Greek intrusion. Origen was an early Christian scholar, theologian, and one of the most distinguished of the early fathers of the Christian Church. Taking the allegorical interpretation allowed Origen and Clemens to use the Old Testament in an abstract way that disregarded the seeming absurdities of the Jewish God who “walked in gardens” and “spoke on mountains.” Clement and Origen advocated the approach of allegorizing the Bible, 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 also have adopted this approach, doing great harm to “the faith.” Such spiritualizing of the Bible has also given place to an erroneous replacement theology whereby some Christian teachers believe “the body of Christ” replaces all that was promised to Israel and is now “spiritual Israel.” Spiritualizing the Bible can lead to all types of grave errors.
If spiritualizing is the means by which you have come to perceive Bible, then it likely it will be hard for you to see it any other way without help and the courage to be different. I trust that this study may help you to see the folly of thinking that we have freedom to spiritualize the Bible as much as we want. You should be able to see that spiritualizing the Bible opens us to as many interpretations as there are people to have them – everyone can essentially write their own Bible. It's almost as if such a one has been handicapped when they read the Bible. Spiritualizing through allegory becomes a risky method of interpretation when we let it contradict truth. Some spiritualize trying to make law and grace fit together, even though they are mutually exclusive to one another. Such spiritualizing leads to inconsistency, thus keeping believers from having the secure, worry-free life that God intended for believers to enjoy as they come to know the unadulterated truths applying to them in this day of “the dispensation of the grace of God.” God has been very precise in guiding the writing of His book, the Bible. He will reveal truth for today to us 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 “rightly dividing the word of truth,” there is a set of very easy to follow guidelines for understanding the Bible as it was intended. Few people know and or apply these study principles. 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.
1. 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
) and apply it to another party to whom it was not spoken (i.e., “the body of Christ”). Israel
2. 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 seemingly unbelievable, 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, or make up false theories such as we see promulgated on the TV’s History channel to try and explain the miraculous occurrences we find Bible.
Having said all this, the “literal” method of interpretation does not preclude the proper use of metaphor, figures, allegory, or symbolism. When I say “literal interpretation” is the proper method of interpretation I do not mean that when the text clearly indicates a parable, allegory, or a figure of speech is involved, that we are to ignore those indicators to be slavishly literal. 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. So, I use “literal interpretation” to mean a “primarily literal,” plain sense, natural reading in contrast to the common “primarily symbolic” or “spiritualized” reading approach that so many use today.
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 (H)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 (H)Agar.
My rule of thumb regarding how I view allegory is this. We should not use metaphors, figures, symbolism, and allegory to manufacture or support doctrinal truth that would be contrary to the clear doctrinal truths of “the dispensation of the grace of God” that were given to Paul and clearly delineated in his writing for “the body of Christ.”
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. Allegory is a form of extended metaphor, in which objects, persons, and actions in a narrative, are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself.
All through the Old Testament the cross is seen in allegory, but it is only dimly seen. Though a hundred historical characters and the Levitical sacrifices and rituals may be seen as types and shadows of the reality of the Christ and His finished work, not once does the Old Testament state this clearly. The silence is profound. The clearest Old Testament prophecy of Christ's death is seen in Isaiah 53, yet still it does not even specify who the Sufferer would be.
Paul is the first one to reveal the detail of the cross for “the body of Christ.” Peter and the Twelve only had the Old Testament writings during their ministry to
. While Peter only scolded the Jews for killing the Prince of life (Acts 3:15), it is not until the Apostle Paul received revelation directly from the ascended Christ (Eph 3:3) that we have what is called “the preaching of the cross” (1Cor 1:18) as “the power of God unto salvation” (Heb 9:28). By Paul's great message we see that our Lord is no longer seen as the Victim in being “killed,” but rather as the Victor; not merely a Victor after death, or Victor over death, but as Victor “in” His death. His death itself is seen as His greatest triumph; both paying for the sins of the world and freeing the believer from the power of Sin as a nature. “...after He had offered one sacrifice for sins (He) sat down... for by one offering He hath perfected forever them that are sanctified” Heb. 10:12,14. Now we can look back to see the many metaphorical types and shadows of these truths that Christ has given us to be seen clearly through Paul’s straightforward writings. Only now can we enjoy the enlarged view of these very real doctrinal Pauline truths by seeing these Old Testament allegorical shadows and types; but again I say we do not make doctrine from the shadows and types. Israel
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
. 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. Israel
- 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,
1:27, Christ the seed Gal 3:16). Col
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.