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December 17, 2013 / compassioninpolitics

Biblical Hermeneutics–How do you distinguish between literal and metaphorical meaning in the Bible?

I don’t think distinguishing metaphor in the Bible is much different from distinguishing it other literatures or genres (except the spiritual and God transcends our notions of reality).

Further, I think reading most of the text through a metaphorical or allegorical (story with a larger meaning) lense almost always makes sense. What is God doing here? What is He trying to communicate? There is (almost) always a story within a story message.

1. Moses
2. David
3. The Old Testament Kingdoms

So, its probably most helpful to view is as useful story which has an echo of meaning throughout history. I think the literal versus metaphorical distinction is less important–than seeing it through this narrative. It its always a metaphorical message to us through story. In this way, it transcends this typically academic or interpretive dichotomy.

1. Overlapping meaning
2. Layers of meaning
3. Both/and frame

The distinction itself, while potentially useful, is a means of reading the text in a semi-scientific or semi-legalistic.

Most all interpretive lenses to the text implicitly draw on a metaphor or frame through which to read the text. To the extent that these interpretations add meaning which is relevant to the core message–it may be relevant.

Often the spiritual might be told in metaphorical language–well from a God who is the Alpha and the Omega….and the I am…..and through whom all things are possible….I’m not sure we’re always in the position to make that call. Does that mean we can’t gain from such discussions or distinctions? No.

You can draw on:
1. Immediate context
2. Broader context
3. History

But how can you know for sure or with greater confidence or credibility? If there is a question I would consult:
1. Someone who is well read in Biblical interpretation or theology (perhaps multiple someones)
2. God via Prayer
3. A trusted Biblical Commentary (available on Amazon and I think there may be some open source/free ones as well). You just want to be clear on the worldview of the author–at least ideally.

A somewhat related but none-the-less contrasting viewpoint is provided here:

Biblical hermeneutics is the science of properly interpreting the various types of literature found in the Bible. For example, a psalm should often be interpreted differently from a prophecy. A proverb should be understood and applied differently from a law. This is the purpose of biblical hermeneutics—to help us to know how to interpret, understand, and apply the Bible.

The most important law of biblical hermeneutics is that the Bible should be interpreted literally. Literal Bible interpretation means we understand the Bible in its normal/plain meaning. The Bible says what it means and means what it says. Many make the mistake of trying to read between the lines and come up with meanings for Scriptures that are not truly in the text. Yes, of course, there are some spiritual truths behind the plain meanings of Scripture. That does not mean that every Scripture has a hidden spiritual truth, or that it should be our goal to find all such spiritual truths. Biblical hermeneutics keeps us faithful to the intended meaning of Scripture and away from allegorizing and symbolizing Bible verses and passages that should be understood literally.

A second crucial law of biblical hermeneutics is that a verse or passage must be interpreted historically, grammatically, and contextually. Historical interpretation refers to understanding the culture, background, and situation which prompted the text. Grammatical interpretation is recognizing the rules of grammar and nuances of the Hebrew and Greek languages and applying those principles to the understanding of a passage. Contextual interpretation involves always taking the surrounding context of a verse/passage into consideration when trying to determine the meaning.

Read more of this article here: http://www.gotquestions.org/Biblical-hermeneutics.html#ixzz2nlCq2LC5

CARM offers these questions as a model for Biblical interpretation (link):

Who wrote/spoke the passage and to whom was it addressed?
What does the passage say?
Are there any words or phrases in the passage that need to be examined?
What is the immediate context?
What is the broader context in the chapter and book?
What are the related verses to the passage’s subject and how do they affect the understanding of this passage?
What is the historical and cultural background?
What do I conclude about the passage?
Do my conclusions agree or disagree with related areas of Scripture and others who have studied the passage?
What have I learned and what must I apply to my life?

One Comment

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  1. compassioninpolitics / Dec 17 2013 7:46 pm

    My Take on Biblical Interpretation:
    I don’t think distinguishing metaphor in the Bible is much different from distinguishing it other literatures or genres (except the spiritual and God transcends our notions of reality).

    Further, I think reading most of the text through a metaphorical or allegorical (story with a larger meaning) lense almost always makes sense. What is God doing here? What is He trying to communicate? There is (almost) always a story within a story message.

    For instance, these narratives have definite literal and allegorical meaning:
    Moses
    David
    The Old Testament Kingdoms

    So, its probably most helpful to view is as useful story which has an echo of meaning throughout history. I think the literal versus metaphorical distinction is less important–than seeing it through this narrative. It its always a metaphorical message to us through story. In this way, it transcends this typically academic or interpretive dichotomy.

    Overlapping meaning
    Layers of meaning
    Both/and frame

    The distinction itself, while potentially useful, is a means of reading the text in a semi-scientific or semi-legalistic.

    To me, the question isn’t did this happen or did this happen–but rather how can I learn from this? How can I be a better Christian? How can we be a better Christian community?

    Most all interpretive lenses to the text implicitly draw on a metaphor or frame through which to read the text. To the extent that these interpretations add meaning which is relevant to the core message–it may be relevant.

    Finding a Biblical Interpretive Lense:

    Here is a methodology for Biblical interpretation from Mark Driscoll
    1. LISTEN FOR THE TRUTH
    2. UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT
    3. LET SCRIPTURE INTERPRET SCRIPTURE
    4. READ FROM THE TEXT, NOT INTO IT
    5. TRUST THE CLARITY OF SCRIPTURE
    6. RECOGNIZE LITERAL AND FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE
    7. HANDLE INTERPRETATION DISAGREEMENTS WISELY

    Source: theresurgence.com
    7 key principles for interpreting the Bible

    Notice, the contextual issue is key to determining meaning. I think that in terms of number 6 (and even your question)–the question is really what is the genre?Or what is the Biblical genre or what is the literary genre?

    The article unpacks most all the principles. This method causes you to step back from just the metaphor versus literal–to understanding Biblical interpretation as part of a larger issue or system of meaning discovery.

    Beware of “Its Just Metaphorical”
    Often the spiritual might be told in metaphorical language–well from a God who is the Alpha and the Omega….and the I am…..and through whom all things are possible….I’m not sure we’re always in the position to make that call. Does that mean we can’t gain from such discussions or distinctions? No.

    The analysis about semi-legalism and semi-scientific applies here. We’re humans interpreting a BIG, BIG God.

    Learning More About Interpretation and Resolving Interpretive Conflicts:
    If there is a question I would consult:
    Someone who is well read in Biblical interpretation or theology (perhaps multiple someones)
    God via Prayer
    A trusted Biblical Commentary (available on Amazon and I think there may be some open source/free ones as well). You just want to be clear on the worldview of the author–at least ideally.

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