A brief word on Biblical interpretation

I’m not exactly a fundamentalist, certainly not in the modern hyper-literal sense.  But unlike many I have read some of the original early 20th Century tracts ‘The Fundamentals’ – I even have one volume on my own shelves – and I think I’m broadly in sympathy with their approach.  Many of the writers were far from backwoods hicks, and they included British professors as well as American contributions.  They appear to have intended the classical idea of ‘literal interpretation’ going back to the Reformation.  For the likes of Calvin and Luther, this was a scholarly issue of ‘interpretation according to the literal sense’, which was part of the medieval idea of the ‘Four-fold Sense’ of Scripture.

In this scheme every text was flatly and indiscriminately interpreted according to four ‘senses’ including ‘prophetic’ and ‘allegorical’ and the ‘literal sense’ in this context didn’t mean some special hyper-literal interpretation but was more a case of ‘reading it like an ordinary book’.  The ‘literal’ sense had come to be down-played by scholars in comparison with the other more exciting, indeed exotic senses; but the Reformers realised that it was nevertheless the one that mattered most, because it was by the plain meaning of the literal sense that the validity of other interpretations could be judged, while the questionable practices of the Roman church were often supported by the exotic interpretations but actually contradicted the humble literal sense.  The idea, in effect, was that you should be able to show the rightness of your interpretation by inviting your hearer to read the Bible with you and see for themselves what it meant; not always possible with the exotic ‘senses’.

To show what was meant by the ‘literal sense’ I particularly like the following quote from the Bible translator Tyndale; it’s also useful because he wrote it way before some of the modern controversies like Darwinism and can’t be accused of just ‘making up excuses’ to ‘get round’ such later issues….

“Thou shalt understand, therefore, that the scripture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense. And that literal sense is the root and ground of all, and the anchor that never faileth, whereunto if thou cleave, thou canst never err or go out of the way.  And if thou leave the literal sense, thou canst not but go out of the way.  Nevertheless the scripture uses proverbs, similitudes, riddles or allegories, as all other speeches do; but that which the proverb, similitude, riddle or allegory signifieth, is ever the literal sense, which thou must seek out diligently.

In other words, it’s that ‘read it like an ordinary book’ thing.  Ordinary books use all kinds of literary and artistic devices to get their message across, as does all human language – that’s what Tyndale means by ‘as all other speeches do’ and so does the Bible. Intelligent reading will take account of them.  Figures of speech, literary conventions of the day, different genres (poetry, annals, saga, prophecy, allegory); God inspiring his word is no less artistic than a human writer!

I won’t go into all the detailed consequences of this approach now, but I do want to offer one particular insight that I have into the issue of ‘literalism’.  It took till I was 50, but we eventually discovered that I suffer a mild form of autism, somewhere at the ‘absent-minded-professory’ end of Asperger’s Syndrome.  No, I’m not a mathematical nerd; rather I got the ‘hyperlexic’ version and have been a fluent reader since age three.  But consider the following, used as an illustration of the problems of autism

It’s school sports day, it’s the big race, the starting pistol fires and they’re away.  It soon becomes clear that young Johnny is lagging and hasn’t got his mind on it; thinking to help, you call out to him, “Johnny, pull your socks up!!” …. And Johnny stops and pulls his socks up!

Johnny is autistic, maybe a bit more severely than I am, and he takes things literally; which in a world of people who use language more normally and use figures of speech and so on, can often have awkward consequences, and sometimes rather more serious than a misunderstanding about pulling your socks up!  This is a problem that I’ve largely (though not entirely) avoided myself, partly I think because my hyperlexia allowed me to understand about figures of speech at an early stage.  I quote it here to make it clear that being ‘literal’ is not as straightforward as some people make out; there really is such a thing as being too literal!  And I do not think we honour God when we insist on reading the bible as if we are autistic even when we aren’t; or indeed in a way, reading as if God himself were autistic and capable only of the dumbest of dumb wooden literalism.

So my basic view is that we are meant to take the Bible seriously – very seriously – but not in a ‘dumb wooden literal’ way.  More in future blogs ….


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