Thursday, March 31, 2011

On "Literal Interpretation" and on "Symbolic Interpretation"

Some may ask, "Can any good thing come from BioLogos?" Well, at least one short video has. I actually agree with what Os Guinness has to say on this video. It comes the closest to what I have been saying, teaching, and writing for years. Evangelicals are wrong to squabble over whether the Bible should be "read literally" or "read symbolically or figuratively." A plague upon both approaches.

To speak of "symbolic interpretation" or "literal interpretation," using an adjective to modify "interpretation," creates confusion by focusing upon the act of interpretation rather than upon the act of revelation. For greater explanation see A. B. Caneday’s response to the question, Can you discuss the significance of typology to biblical theology?” in “The SBJT Forum: Biblical Theology for the Church,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 10, no. 2 (2006): 96-98. There I address a focused application of so-called "symbolic interpretation" that many call "typological interpretation."
To speak of “typological interpretation” is to confound interpretation and revelation. We rightly say that God’s revelation is typological, but to speak of “typological interpretation” is to admit to a form of “reader response hermeneutics.” Interpreters of the Bible do not cast biblical types. God, who reveals himself and his deeds in Scripture, casts the Bible’s types. God invested things with foreshadowing significance—institutions (e.g., the Levitical priesthood), places (e.g., Eden, the tabernacle), things (e.g., the ark, sacrifices, kingship), events (e.g., creation, the flood, the exodus, events in the wilderness, entry into the land), and individuals (e.g., Adam, Abraham, Melchizedek, Moses, David). God invested these with significance to prefigure corresponding features of the coming age.
My concern is that Evangelicals have greatly confounded the matter by placing adjectives in front of the words "reading" and "interpretation." Regularly, Evangelicals, whether lay folks or scholars, prefix "reading" and "interpretation" with adjectives such as "literal," "figurative," "symbolic," "typological," or "allegorical" in front of the words "reading" and "interpretation."

Listen to Os Guinness on the video. He makes the same point I make, but focuses upon those who talk of "literal interpretation." Here is a summation of what he says. 

In this video, Os Guinness continues the dialogue regarding how Christians read scripture, and points out the common misconception that a choice must be made between reading scripture literally or faithfully.

Guinness suggests that the trend toward literalism can be illustrated by contemporary pollsters who query evangelicals as to how they read the Bible, that is, whether they believe it to be “literally” true.

Many respond in the affirmative—but what they likely mean is that they read the Bible faithfully, as opposed to literally. Guinness offers an example from Psalms that reads “The mountains skipped like rams” and points out that no one interprets this passage in a literal, wooden way. Instead, readers recognize it as metaphor––figurative language used to paint a picture, not language intended to transmit a literal history of events.

One of the advances in hermeneutics during the Reformation was the understanding that the Bible should be read in accordance with its collected genres. That is, history should be read historically; law should be read legally; and poetry should be read poetically. Christians today know this, but in an effort to remain faithful to their faith and the Bible, they have boxed themselves in by trying to defend a literal reading—even when this is not in keeping with Christian tradition.