Tag Archives: bible

You’ve Got Questions: What’s Wrong With Using Allegory to Interpret Scripture?

You’ve Got Questions: What is Wrong with Using Allegory in Interpreting Scripture?

Any time spent in the Word of God is time well-spent. Reading one verse of Scripture is worth having been born just to have the existence to read it. However, while it is always beneficial to read and study the Word of God, it must be recognized that there are faulty interpretative methods used in study of the Bible. One of these flawed interpretative methods used often times is the allegorical approach to interpretation.

Not long after the period of the New Testament, some early church fathers began to use allegorical methods of interpretation (Origen for example). Allegory as defined, is a genre of literature that assigns symbolic significance to textual details. A good example of the use of allegory is in John Bunyan’s famous work, Pilgrim’s Progress. Every character has a signification in relation to the Christian life. Now, when allegory is intended by the writer and understood by the reader(s), allegory can be a powerful literary tool. But, if it is not intended by the author and is used as an interpretive method by the reader, then a dangerous and faulty misrepresentation of the author’s meaning will surely be the result.

A significant reason why allegorical interpretation is flawed is defined in what we are trying to accomplish through interpretation in the first place. What goal are we striving to reach when we study the Bible? We are striving to discover the author’s intended meaning in a text. We are not studying the Bible to discover some secret meaning. If we are using an allegorical approach, then we aren’t trying to discover the author’s intended meaning—we are concluding on an interpretation that appeals to our senses. Just think if two or more people used the allegorical approach to studying the Bible—if that’s the case, then there can be as many interpretations as there are readers! We shouldn’t arrive at an interpretation of a text based on some mysterious skepticism, we should arrive at an interpretation of a text based on the author’s intended meaning.

You would not interpret the Constitution using allegory. The goal is to discover what the Constitutional writers meant by what they wrote. You would not interpret the daily newspaper using allegory. The goal is to find out what the reporters mean by what they write. You wouldn’t even consider using allegory to correctly understand any material you are reading (unless of course the literary genre is allegory). Why should you use allegory in interpreting the Bible? You shouldn’t use allegory unless it is implied by the author. The problem isn’t the literary tool of allegory—the problem is illegitimate importation of allegory.

In any act of communication, there are three elements: a writer or speaker, a text or spoken words, and a reader or listener. So when it comes to the Bible, who decides what the correct meaning is? Many say that the reader is the determiner of meaning, but if that is so, then there can be as many interpretations as there are readers—and they can’t all be right. Some say that the text is the determiner of meaning, but a text is an inanimate object. Texts cannot construct or create meaning, but they can convey meaning. Someone has to put these words on paper, they don’t just evolve onto papyrus or scrolls. The determiner of meaning is the author. The author intended something for a specific group of people at a specific time in history. Any act of communication can progress only on the assumption that someone (the author) is trying to convey meaning to us and we then respond to that meaning by the speaker or writer.

For further helps on interpreting the Bible, please consult: A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible, Robert H. Stein and 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible, Robert L. Plummer

 

You’ve Got Questions: What are the Different Views on the Inspiration of the Bible (and Which One is Correct)?

You’ve Got Questions: What are the Different Views on the Inspiration of the Bible (and Which One is Correct)?

Everyone who claims the name “Christian” must believe that the Scriptures are inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16). Yet, a wide variety of meanings are attached to the word “inspired.” There are four main views on the inspiration of the Bible:

1. Neo-Orthodox Theory. This view holds that God is utterly transcendent; that is, He is absolutely different from us and far beyond our comprehension (see What is the Incomprehensibility of God?). We can only know something about him if He reveals Himself to us, as He did in Jesus Christ. Neo-Orthodoxy asserts that the Bible is a witness to the Word of God or contains the Word of God. According to this view, as people of biblical times experienced God, they recorded their encounters the best they could. Sometimes their reports contained paradoxes or even errors, but their descriptions nonetheless help other understand God better. And as others experience God through these accounts, the accounts become God’s Word all over again.

Evaluation

Neo-Orthodoxy does have a high view of God. However, the Bible claims to be more than simply a witness to the Word of God. It testifies that it is God’s Word (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The Bible also claims that as God revealed Himself, people inspired by the Holy Spirit recorded His message (2 Peter 1:20-21). They could do so because God accommodated Himself to their limited understanding. Neo-Orthodoxy, thus fails to provide an adequate explanation for all the biblical evidence, and should be rejected entirely.

2. Dictation Theory. This view, as the term implies, suggests God simply dictated the Bible to human scribes. God chose certain individuals to record His Word and gave them the exact words He wanted. The writers wrote only what God dictated to them. This view is generally rejected by most, but has been suggested by segments of conservative Christianity.

Evaluation

Scripture does suggest that sometimes God may have communicated a precise, word-for-word message to human authors (Jer. 26:2; Rev. 2:1, 8). At other times, He allowed writers to express their own personalities as they wrote (Gal. 1:6; 3:1; Phil. 1:3, 4, 8). Still, the Holy Spirit ensured the finished work accurately communicated God’s intention. Thus, the dictation theory does not account for all the biblical evidence and is therefore inadequate as a theory of inspiration and should thus, be rejected entirely.

3. Limited Inspiration Theory. This view holds that God inspired the thoughts of the biblical writers, but not necessarily the words they chose. God guided the writers, but He gave them the freedom to express His thoughts in their own ways. Because the writers had this freedom, the historical details they wrote may contain errors. However, the Holy Spirit protected the doctrinal portions of Scripture from any error to safeguard God’s message of salvation.

Evaluation

The Bible is used for doctrine (2 Tim. 3:16), but the historical records of the Bible are absolutely vital for the doctrinal parts of the Bible to be confirmed. An actual historical Adam is central to Paul’s argument in Romans 5:12-21. Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:41 imply that the book of Jonah is not merely a parable; rather, a real historical prophet named Jonah who actually preached to the Ninevites. Now, most Bible students recognize that there are statements in Scripture that are hard to reconcile. But is the best solution to admit error? If God allowed for error in His Word in Genesis 1, why would I consider believing that John 3:16 is true also? This view is therefore inadequate as a theory of inspiration, and should be rejected.

4. Verbal Plenary Theory. Like the other views, verbal plenary inspiration asserts the Holy Spirit interacted with human writers to produce the Bible. Verbal refers to the words of Scripture. Verbal inspiration means God’s inspiration extends to the very words the writers chose, but it is not the same as the dictation theory. The writers could have chosen other words, and God often allowed them the freedom to express their own personalities as they wrote. But the Holy Spirit so guided the process that the words they chose accurately conveyed the meaning God intended. Plenary means “full” or “complete.” Plenary inspiration asserts that God’s inspiration extends to all of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. God guided the writers no less when they recorded the historical details than when they discussed doctrinal matters.

Evaluation

The verbal plenary inspiration view seems to deal best with all the biblical evidence. It recognizes the human element in Scripture, and allows that different writers wrote in different ways. But it also affirms the Holy Spirit as the Bible’s ultimate Author. The Spirit of God prompted human authors to communicate God’s message of love and salvation to a world that desperately needed it.

Implications of Verbal Plenary Inspiration

If the Word of God is indeed, dually authored as the verbal plenary inspiration view asserts, several implications are true for the way we approach the Bible:

First, it means the Bible is trustworthy. We can trust it to provide reliable information. It provides many insights into the history of God’s people and also describes God’s plan for the world and for our lives. It reveals life’s highest meaning and purpose, and tells us how to become all God wants us to be.

Second, verbal plenary inspiration means the Bible is authoritative. Because it is God’s Word, it speaks with God’s authority. It calls us to read it, to understand its meaning, and to submit to it. And it remains God’s truth whether or not we choose to submit.

Recommended Resources: Encountering the Old Testament and 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible

You’ve Got Questions: Is Justification by Faith or by Works?

You’ve Got Questions: Does James’ Teaching About Faith and Works Contradict Paul’s Teaching About Faith and Works?

When climbing from lowlands to mountaintops, one must often pass through clouds. While ascending to the peak, sight soon becomes fogged. When you enter a layer of clouds, it helps to have a guide to help you avoid loose rocks that you can’t see as you try to get the best views of the mountaintop. I hope that this article will serve as a guide to clarification regarding the compatibility of the teachings of Paul and James about faith and works. If you’ve studied the Scriptures for long, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. We often receive questions along the lines of “Explain how these verses do not contradict!” or “Look, here is an error in the Bible!” If you are troubled in answering your skeptics or just desiring clarity from theses passages of Scripture, I pray that you are helped by the information presented here. I want you to get the best view of the mountaintop of truth that is evident in these passages.

The Obstacle in Our Journey

The obstacle that we have approached in our journey of Bible study is this: Does James’ teaching on faith and works contradict Paul’s teaching on faith and works? To answer this question it is important to understand that there are difficult passages of Scripture. There are verses that appear to contradict each other. We must remember that the Bible was written by approximately 40 different authors over a period of around 1500 years. Each writer wrote with a different style, from a different perspective, to a different audience, for a different purpose. We should expect some minor differences. However, a difference is not a contradiction. It is only an error if there is absolutely no conceivable way the verses or passages can be reconciled.

James writes in his letter “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24; out of context), while Paul writes to the Romans “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28; also out of context). Some see an apparent contradiction by saying that Paul is teaching salvation by faith alone and James is teaching salvation by faith plus works. This apparent problem is solved just by examining the contexts of the passages.

The Clouds Dissipate

To begin, let’s look at an earlier verse where this concept began: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” (James 2:21 ESV). On the surface, James may seem to contradict Paul. Paul denies that Abraham was “justified by works” (Rom. 4:2), arguing from Genesis 15:6 that Abraham’s faith was “counted to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3). However, James’ assertion in this verse (that “Abraham [was]. . . justified by works”) is based not on Genesis 15:6 but on Genesis 22:9-10, where (many years later) Abraham began to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Thus, James apparently has a different sense of the word “justify” in view here, as evidenced by the different Scripture passages, and the different events in Abraham’s life, to which James and Paul refer. The primary way in which Paul uses the word “justify” emphasizes the sense of being declared righteous by God through faith, on the basis of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (Rom. 3:24–26), whereas the primary way that James uses the word “justify” here in James 2:21 seems to emphasize the way in which works demonstrate that someone has been justified, as evidenced by the good works that the person does (see Matt. 12:33–37).

With that biblical concept in mind, some clouds have hopefully dissipated as we now look at the verse in question. “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24). James again seems at first to contradict Paul’s teaching that one is justified by faith alone (Rom. 3:28), but the two are compatible. For James, “faith alone” means a bogus kind of faith, a mere intellectual agreement without a genuine personal trust in Christ that bears fruit in one’s life. Recall how the “demons believe—and shudder” (2:19). He is arguing that simple mental assent to the Christian faith does not save anyone. The faith that saves, as both Paul and James both affirm, embraces the truth of the gospel and acts accordingly. Therefore, the conclusion drawn is that James, in agreement with Paul, argues that true faith is never alone: it always produces works (Eph. 2:10).

I have heard it said well before that Paul is emphasizing the purpose of faith: to bring salvation. While James is emphasizing the results of faith: a changed life. Paul expects just as much of a changed life as James does: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). James and Paul do not disagree in their teaching regarding salvation. They approach the same subject from different perspectives. Paul simply emphasized that justification is by faith alone while James put emphasis on the fact that genuine faith in Christ produces good works.

Keep Digging and Digging

The Bible is a book that is not merely for reading. It is a book for studying so that it can be applied. Through careful study in the contexts of our passages above, the answer is discovered. If vigorous study of the Word is neglected, then it is like swallowing food without chewing and then spitting it back out again—no nutritional value is gained by it. The Bible is God’s Word. As such, it is as binding as the laws of nature. We can ignore it, but we do so to our own detriment, just as we would if we ignored the law of gravity. It cannot be emphasized strongly enough just how important the Bible is to our lives! Studying the Bible can be compared to mining for gold. If we make little effort and merely “sift through the pebbles in a stream,” we will only find a little gold dust. But the more we make an effort to really dig into it, the more reward we will gain for our effort. “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word” (Psalm 119:16).