What is the Literal Interpretation?
James Quiggle, author of “The Literal Hermeneutic: Explained and Illustrated,” said the literal interpretation has been called the historical-grammatical interpretation over the years, and this is what I’ve known it by. However, he goes further in his modifiers in the book’s introduction and says that “the literal hermeneutic (method of interpretation) is really the ‘historical-cultural, contextual, lexical-syntactical, theological, genre, and doctrinal analysis of the Bible’ hermeneutic.” Kind of cumbersome, isn’t it? Thus the reason for saying I interpret the Bible literally.
A lot of these modifiers to interpreting the Bible are like second nature to me now. Still, I am not perfect nor are my biases far away from my readings of Scripture. I do, however, trust that the same Holy Spirit who wrote the Bible will also show me the truth he intended in his time. (And, yes, this is something I ultimately take by faith.)
A quick summary of what those modifiers mean. (These also come from Quiggle’s book.)
- Historical-cultural—takes into account the history and culture from which a passage is written
- Contextual—factors in the immediate context a passage of Scripture is found, as well as the author’s overall point of the writing
- Lexical-syntactical—focuses on the definition of the words (including in the original languages) as well as the interplay of the words with one another in a given passage
- Theological—takes into account the amount of revelation an author had at the time of writing of a given passage, as well as compares related passages of scripture before and after the passage being studied
- Genre—uses the genre of the passage—e.g. history, letters, poetry, wisdom, literature, and prophecy—to help define the meaning of the passage
- Doctrine—harmonizes the doctrine of a given passage with all the teaching of scripture on that topic
While I don’t usually go into all that detail in describing the literal interpretation to others, I found that when people understood, even in part, what I meant when I said I interpret the Bible literally, that “Are you for real?” question on their faces (link to first post in series) would mellow into a sincere look of understanding. This would lead us to better neighborly relations, even when agreement wasn’t the ultimate conclusion.
Why the Literal Interpretation of Scripture is Best for the Christian
The literal interpretation of Scripture is based on one major premise that is the foundation of my faith journey: the belief that everyone has a final authority that informs one’s point of view.
For some, this final authority could be the latest scientific discovery. For others, it could be the teachings of a spiritual mentor. And still others, it could be how one feels in any given moment.
For me, after committing to living a Christian life, I decided that my final authority was the Bible. Granted, I was still learning it (and am still learning it), but that didn’t stall my commitment to the Bible as the ultimate source that informs my faith and life. As such, I thought that this final authority could not be my own opinion of what scripture taught, but it needed to be what God meant for the Bible to say in its original intent.
One section of Scripture that has informed my decision to make the Bible my final authority in its original intent is 2 Peter 1:19-21, which says, “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it … Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
One of the “aha” moments I received from this passage was that the Bible said the prophecies (which were of Jesus’ coming in this particular context) we find in it are completely reliable. In addition, they were not written from and/or for man’s own private interpretation but were written by the Holy Spirit through men for the fulfillment of God’s interpretation.
In other words, this passage of Scripture, as well as several others I don’t have the room in this piece to share, helped me realize the Bible has an interpretation, and it’s not something that comes from man, but from God ( See, for example, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Acts 17:10-12, Romans 15:4; and John 2:22 ). That was a powerful revelation for someone just learning about the Bible and how to interpret it, especially in light of my studies of the various interpretations of scripture in Christendom and the resulting faith families, which I also talk about in part one of this series.
I concluded, then, if God wrote the Bible (through men, by the power of the Holy Spirit—something known as the plenary-verbal inspiration of scripture) surely he would want people to understand it. And if he wanted people to understand it, surely that understanding would be attainable by the people who read it, following many of the same rules we apply to other writings down through the ages, as well as the same rules we apply when we talk and listen to one another.
Through this series of thoughts, I concluded the literal method of understanding the Bible makes the most sense in finding God’s original intent.
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