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Faithful Christian – A Literal Bible?
I recently wrote about Dispensationalist teaching and how it interprets the Bible ‘literally’. Now, I need to clarify the final authority of God’s word, and share a biblical view of interpreting the various types of language in Scripture, the inspired word of God.
· LITERALLY TRUE
So just what do we mean when we say, ‘I believe the Bible is literally true?’ And what about the condescending response: ‘Oh, surely you’re not someone who takes the Bible as literal are you?’ And many people are grateful their church teaches a ‘literal understanding of the Bible’. Now, I am not criticising Christians for this expression, but there is a lot of misinformation out there, and non-Christians are quick to use it against Christians, thinking our position is out-of-date, and indefensible.
So, just what do we mean when we defend the Bible as the word of God and literally true? Generally, that we accept it fully as God’s inspired word, wholly without error and true on all the subjects it teaches. Fair enough, but what about ‘literal’? We take every word written in the original languages as ‘God-breathed’ (2 Tim. 3:16), where Scripture teaches its own divine origin. While fully endorsing the divine verbal inspiration of biblical Scripture (66 books) and its entire ‘inerrancy’ (freedom from all falsehood) and ‘infallibility’ (not liable to mislead and entirely truthful in all its teaching), we also recognise that most Christians use a translation of the Bible, where words with near or close equivalents have been chosen by translators.
· SPEECH IS A GIFT
Consider for a moment the nature of speech and language itself. The Bible teaches that God created our first parent, Adam, ‘in his own image’ (Genesis 1:27) – that is, in God’s image; his moral, rational and personal likeness. As a direct consequence of this exalted honour mankind is endowed with speech. Now, many people mock the teaching, for instance, of Genesis chapters 1 to 11 as primitive or unscientific, and do so as a mark of their sinful defiance against God. They dislike Genesis and are in revolt against God and his creation of the universe and mankind, and the subsequent moral fall.
So, when we interpret the Bible ‘literally’, we interpret the words as God’s own word to us, and also take account of Scripture as ‘literature’. In this, we accept there are various literary genres such as prose and poetry, allegory, and parable, in forms ranging from historical records, stinging rebuke, legal defences, praise songs and personal letters. And we are careful to interpret a metaphor as a verbal picture revealing a literal truth, and symbolic imagery revealing its own special meaning, or a simile likewise. And many words mean what they literally mean.
Thus in Genesis, when we read, ‘there was evening and there was morning, the first day’ (Gen. 1:5), we are clear from conventional usage and the context that the Hebrew word ‘yom’ refers to a 24-hour period. But when the Psalmist says ‘My soul melts away for sorrow’ (Psalm 119:28), we know the word ‘melts’ is a metaphor, and not describing a physical reality like metal melting in furnace.
· THE BIBLE AS LITERATURE
In short we try to identify the type of literary genre we are reading, as well as the form and parts of speech being used. A good knowledge of grammar and the cultural or historic setting of any particular part of Scripture is a great help. We are looking at words, which in their original languages were given by the Holy Spirit of God, who, without contradiction, used the individual style of the human writers to communicate the word of God.
And therein, is part of our difficulty with this word ‘literal’. We often use it to emphasise our loyalty to God’s verbally inspired word as opposed to the liberal theological belief that the Bible is only the vague, religious reflections of men. Therefore, we must take the word of God for what it is and USE it as the living word, ‘sharper than any two-edged sword’ (Hebrews 4:12).
· YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN!
As we do this, let’s try to make a sensitive, meaningful point of contact with the person we are speaking with as someone made in God’s image. Knowing that men and women are by nature hostile to God as their personal Creator, we are concerned that they are lost in spiritual darkness, until they bow the knee and acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. Until a person receives new birth by the Spirit of God he or she does not know God or who they are themselves, in relation to God.
That is why we must expose ‘science’ masquerading as dogmatic, final truth as grounded in man’s wishful thinking that he is himself master of the universe, proudly thinking he can discover truth without God.
· IT’S THE LITERAL TRUTH
Thus we must gently wield God’s word as ‘the sword of the Spirit’ (Ephesians 6:17), challenging unbelief and lovingly showing that it is offensive to God and needs his forgiveness. Carefully, we ought to uncover the false refuges of evolution, ‘modern’ secular science, humanism or atheism, or whatever other false foundations people are building their lives upon. Then we need to share the character of God, his holiness, the fact of sin, that all are law-breakers in need of great mercy. Then share the good news that God has already demonstrated this once for all at the cross, when the Son of God died the death sinners deserved – when ‘Christ died for the ungodly’ (Romans 5:8) – the most wonderful truth. It is not a legend. Neither does it require to be de-mythologised, but it is the plain, literal truth!
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