Taking it Literally…Literally?

2 May 2023

In the tribe I come from, we regularly talk about Literal-Grammatical-Historical hermeneutics. We’ll call it LGH for short, or (many of us) “literal hermeneutics.”

We all know what we mean, but the terminology is a bit strange for newcomers, because — how to put it delicately? — we don’t mean the word “literal” literally.

That’s not as crazy as it sounds. Within the history of biblical interpretation, there have been eras when the text was subjected to the most ridiculous flights of fancy. Things like the four rivers flowing out of Eden being a reference to the four cardinal virtues, or the Levitical dietary laws actually prohibiting, not the eating of certain animals, but the vices figuratively associated with those animals. There’s nary a hint in the actual text itself (nor in the later inspired references to it) of such interpretations. Against that backdrop, “literal” interpretation meant that the four rivers flowing out of Eden were actual rivers, and the prohibition against shellfish meant — follow me closely here — that Israelites weren’t allowed to eat shellfish.

Pretty straightforward, right?

So then what do we do with “He shall cover you with his pinions”? If we’re interpreting it literally, then don’t we take that to mean that God has feathers?

“Of course not,” we say. “Don’t be silly.”

But the thing is, a newcomer who asks such a question is not being silly. He’s taking the word “literal” in its ordinary sense: literal as opposed to metaphorical. Take a look at some basic dictionary definitions:

in accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical:the literal meaning of a word.

following the words of the original very closely and exactly:a literal translation of Goethe.

true to fact; not exaggerated; actual or factual:a literal description of conditions.

being actually such, without exaggeration or inaccuracy:the literal extermination of a city.

(of persons) tending to construe words in the strict sense or in an unimaginative way; matter-of-fact; prosaic.


To a normal person’s ears, when we talk about “interpreting the Bible literally” we are the ones that sound crazy. Many passages are obviously metaphorical, and even we admit that. So if you read a metaphor literally, wouldn’t that be a very basic hermeneutical mistake?

“Well, yes, it would,” we say. “But that’s not what we mean by it.”

And it’s not. We mean that we interpret the utterance according to the original author’s intent, not according to some exercise of allegorical ingenuity imposed on the text after the fact. But again, this is not a particularly obvious way to take the word “literal.”

New Zealand pastor Bnonn Tennant had an interesting take on this recently. I quote:

I think the term literal is functionally meaningless; it is just a pious way of begging the question in favor of whatever interpretation “seems” obvious to the person reading it. In other words, “literal” is a shorthand way of saying that scripture should be read according to the normal rules of communication….

The problem with this, he goes on to point out, is that what we think of today as the normal rules of communication are not the standard everywhere and for all time:

As a simple example, consider how scripture speaks of the moon being turned to blood. A “literal” hermeneutic will say this means the physical moon becomes perceptibly red. This is the most “natural” way to read it—for a 21st century Western Christian. If a newspaper said such a thing, we would assume that the physical moon is in view; but also that physically being transformed into blood is not. That’s the “literal” sense to 21st century English readers inculcated in an Enlightenment worldview.

But what makes us think that worldview is the natural way to read the text of Scripture? It’s certainly not the worldview of the people who wrote it. To the extent that we intend to be guided by authorial intent, we obviously have no business substituting our worldview for theirs.

Tennant suggests dropping “literal” from our description of the hermeneutic and substituting “theological.” His argument is that “literal” doesn’t really mean what we’re trying to say (as above) and that “theological” better captures our desire to read the text as a theologically coherent whole. I would be concerned that “grammatical-historical-theological” hermeneutic signals a tendency to use our theology as a background assumption of our interpretation, rather than allowing our theology to be chastened by the text as we should. That’s not, of course, what Tennant means — but I’m concerned he’s just trading one set of “that’s not what I mean by it” conversations for another.

What do you think?


Nothing But Game Days

11 April 2023

I was talking with a friend recently about the relationship between the weekly worship service and daily practice, and she expressed surprise at me saying “Sunday’s game day.” From her perspective, Sunday is practice, and when we go out into the world Monday morning, that’s game day.

I was speaking from the perspective of worship. From that angle, your personal, private devotions are important in the same way that running your sprints and hitting the weight room regularly and doing your own skill drills are important if you’re going to be on a basketball team. You can’t improve if you don’t practice, but the goal is to show up prepared, with the rest of the team also prepared, so you can do your best work together. Corporate worship is when we do our best work together.

She was speaking from the perspective of mission. From that angle, the weekly service is a bit more like reviewing the game film the day after the game. It’s taking a break from the work to come back into the courts of heaven, lay it all before God, make necessary course corrections, be assured of His love and power, and then be sent out to do it all again this week.

Which perspective is correct? Well, that’s a bit like asking whether worship or mission is more important. Both, obviously. God has us oscillating back and forth between them for a reason — we need both to keep us healthy and whole.

Natural Motivation

4 April 2023

I was part of a discussion of heavenly reward recently. The Bible speaks quite a bit about heavenly rewards for faithfulness here on earth, but most Christians don’t teach on the subject. Some skip it because they foolishly think only the faithful will be in heaven to start with, so they conflate conditional rewards with the gift of eternal life. Others skip it because it seems to debase obedience: “We ought to serve out of love,” they will say, “not to fill up some celestial piggy bank for ourselves.”

Jesus does not agree: He directly taught people to lay up treasure in heaven.

Paul does not agree: He encourages us to compete for “an imperishable crown.”

The author of Hebrews does not agree: he holds up Moses as an example to follow, “for he looked to the reward.”

Why, though? God could simply command our obedience: certainly we owe it to Him. Why does He bother to offer reward?

First of all, because rewards move us. This is basic to human nature; from the very beginning God built us to tend and keep the Garden; we’re supposed to notice what generates a return and what does not, and do more of the former. God wants us to know the good results that come from our labor, so the better we understand the rewards God has in store for us, the more we are moved to do what He has for us.

There’s more to it, though:

  • People climb Everest every year; at this point enough people have done it that there’s little prospect of meaningful reward, but people keep doing it. It’s a magnificent achievement, and that’s enough.
  • Soldiers run into enemy fire to drag a wounded buddy to safety; it’s not like they’re gonna get a Nike sponsorship out of that. Everybody I know who’s done that gives the same reason: “He’d do it for me.”
  • Farmers work like nobody in the world at harvest time, to get the crop in ahead of the storms. Random people at the beach will dive into dangerous surf just to pull a total stranger out of the water. Why? In both cases, they say the same thing: “It had to be done.”

Rewards are not arbitrary; they’re coupled to God’s mission in the world. It’s a bit like a car salesman getting the “Salesman of the Year’ trophy for selling more cars than anybody else. There’s no point in false ‘humility’ about it (“I don’t want the trophy; I just want to sell cars.”) The trophy is happening because he just wants to sell cars; the bonus is happening because he made a ton of money for the boss; it’s a share in the spoils of victory.

God crafted our psyches; all our basic motivations come from His hands. We labor for a return. We attempt crazy, ridiculous, enormous tasks because He does, and we’re like Him that way. He likes it, and so do we. We risk ourselves for each other because He loves, and we love after Him; we risk ourselves for outsiders because Jesus did the same for us. We do difficult and necessary work because God does; when we fell; He set about the mending of the world because it needed to be done, and only He could do it. At our best, we’re like Him that way; we do it because someone has to, and we’re there. God loves all of that, and rewards are designed to ‘cut with the grain’ of the motivations He implanted in our natures to start with.

Empire and Patriarchy

28 March 2023

Empire and patriarchy are very nearly swear words in contemporary culture, and a great many Christians are being blown sideways by that particular wind of doctrine. If we are going to follow Jesus, then we must make our peace with both.

We are citizens of the New Jerusalem, a city that is not yet on Earth, but it will be. When it comes, it will be the capital city of the whole planet, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory and honor into it. On that day, it will be the Bride, the Church, and a political entity. We are not called to make it all happen tomorrow, but we are called to live into what we know to be true. So to the extent that we are able to now, we  mirror the culture and customs of the coming City, which is to say that we are envoys of the coming Empire to end all empires, governed by Jesus, the King of kings. You can go to heaven without grasping this truth, but you can’t be a faithful, discerning follower of the King of kings without grasping what a king of kings actually is: an emperor. 

Does that mean we’re fans of every empire going? Of course not. Jesus is the standard by which all empires are measured; the civil authorities are His agents for good, responsible to live up to the calling He’s given them. Our resistance to evil imperial power and our submission to good imperial power are both grounded in our prior submission to Jesus as agents of His empire. 

Likewise, you can’t be meaningfully Christian without being a heartily willing participant in patriarchy. We are children of God the Father, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth derives its name. Our leader is the ascended man Jesus, our Lord and Brother and High Priest and King. This patriarchy–rule by our Father and the Man He has ordained–is absolutely necessary to a faithful Christian walk. 

As with empire, so with patriarchy: resistance to evil patriarchal power is grounded precisely in our prior submission to the rule of our Father in heaven. And submission to good, God-ordained patriarchal power is grounded in that same submission. 

In either case, trying to avoid empire or patriarchy because some exercises of power are evil is like trying to avoid food because you’ve had bad tacos. No matter how prevalent bad tacos might be, the solution to bad food is good food, and the solution to bad patriarchy is good patriarchy. In the world our Father made, patriarchy is inevitable, and a good patriarchy is one where the men ruling are themselves ruled by God their Father and Jesus their King. Reject rule by good, godly men, and you will get rebel men instead. Good luck with that.

He Planned to Succeed

7 March 2023

John tells us his purpose in recording the signs Jesus did: “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” (Jn. 20:30-31)

John is unique among the books of the New Testament in that it contemplates an unbelieving audience. Does that mean that once we believe, we have nothing further to learn from the book? Not at all!

In a modern evangelical setting, we tend to think that John’s evangelistic purpose means it’s a gospel tract – when they believe, John has accomplished what he set out to do. Not quite. John is not a modern evangelical, and this is not some 100-word “Ticket to Heaven” pamphlet.

John intended to succeed, and he had no intention of leaving his new, baby believer readers to their own devices. His gospel is meant to be read, believed, and then re-read as a believer. What happens when they believe? John tells us: “…and that believing, you may have life in His name.”

This “having life” thing — how does it work? Well, John’s already told us that too: this is not something that happens when you die; the life Jesus gives begins now, when you believe (3:36) and continues forever (5:24). If John convinced you before you got to 20:30-31 — which he’s certainly trying to do — then your life has already begun!

Moreover, Jesus has already told us that simply possessing life is not His goal for you: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” And earlier: “He who believes in Me, as the Scriptures have said, out of his belly will flow rivers of living water.”

How does one live abundantly, you ask? Especially now that Jesus is gone?

The Last Discourse to the rescue! In 13:1, John frames the discourse in such a way that it also advances his evangelistic purpose, but let’s not miss what this whole teaching is. Starting in 13:31, Judas has left the room. Jesus is speaking only to believers — the 11 faithful disciples — and He’s teaching them how they will live when He has returned to heaven. As we listen with their ears, we learn how to conduct abundant lives today.

So listen! I just sat down and re-read John 13-17. I’d encourage you to do the same today.

Overemphasizing God?

7 February 2023

In the run-up to the panel discussion on the Holy Spirit that my friend Chris hosted for Gulfside Ministries, I was mulling over a series of questions that he was planning to toss to the panel. I had a strong opinion about one particular question, but just for fun, I decided to toss the questions to my apprentice and see what she thought. I didn’t tell her any of what I was thinking; I just said “I have the list of talking points for that panel tomorrow — want to see it?” Like me, she’s a theology nerd, so of course she did.

She looked them over, and pinged on the same question I had. “There seems to be on one hand an over-intellectualizing of the faith that minimizes the HS as well as an overly-mystical approach to the faith that overemphasizes the HS. Perhaps not minimizing or overemphasizing but something else. In terms of major errors, is this a proper framing?” She read the question, pondered for a moment, and then asked, “How does one overemphasize a person of the Godhead?”

How, indeed. I made my case for reframing the question in that discussion, which you’re welcome to watch, but there’s a piece of it I want to develop here.

What is it that we think the Holy Spirit does? Do we think that He tries to get us to do irresponsible, disorderly things? Is it the case that we need to hem the Spirit in with Scriptures to get him to behave?

No. Holy Spirit is not some slightly better behaved Bacchus who’s going to drive us mad for His own personal amusement. He is the God of the universe. It is He who inspired the Scriptures to start with. When an assembly (like Corinth) goes completely bananas to the point that those who are outside the church come in and it seems that everyone’s lost their minds (you can read about this in 1 Cor. 12-15), it is not because they “overemphasize the Holy Spirit.”

It is because they are far from Him. In their theologizing, they may talk about the Holy Spirit all the time, but they’re liars, aren’t they? The Spirit does not lead you to commit sin. The Spirit is a God of order, not confusion. What they are doing, these people who “overemphasize the Spirit,” is blaming their own stupid and irresponsible excesses on the Spirit. It is precisely because they are failing to follow the Spirit’s leading that their excesses have a chance to creep in: “I say then, walk in the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh, for the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh….”

The Spirit lusts against the flesh. The Spirit is at war; He wants all the territory for Himself. And He’ll take it, if we let Him. When we insist on going our own way, all manner of disobedience creeps in as a knock-on consequence. We cannot avoid being the puppets of our lusts apart from the Spirit.

So walk in the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.

Holy and Just and Good

31 January 2023

An acquaintance in one of the theology groups I hang out in asked what a Christian’s view of the Law should be. I put a little time into a response, and it seems worth sharing here:

The Law is holy and just and good, just like the man said. Sometimes we have a hard time seeing that, and that’s a good occasion to pray for God to open my eyes, that I might see wondrous things in His Law.

The Law was the rule of communal life for Israel, and as a Gentile it compels me to come and marvel: Who has such wise laws as these? It’s an inspiration. As a voter with a voice in public policy in my Gentile nation, I can’t simply seek to bring Israel’s law over wholesale, but if I’m at the city council meeting or the voting booth asking WWJD?, how dumb would it be to ignore the one time God explicitly set up a civil law code?

The Law is principally for the sinner, not the righteous, but it’s also Scripture, and all Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. The Law can sanctify in the sense that it set Israel as a nation apart from her neighbors (and that’s not nothing), but it can never sanctify in the sense of making me more like Christ. However, to the extent that I no longer live, but Christ lives in me, I will fulfill the Law truly, because Jesus leads me to love God and my neighbor, and in so doing, I cannot help but fulfill the Law.

Trying to use the Law in check-box fashion to gain God’s favor — either for admission to heaven or to gain his approval in this life — sets the Law against faith and against the Spirit, but faith is not against the Law. It’s faith that moves Paul to call the Law holy and just and good, faith that moves the Psalmist to meditate profitably on the Law, faith that allows me to participate in Christ, who fulfilled the Law for me and — through love of God and neighbor — fulfills the righteous requirement of the Law in me.

She Didn’t Eat the Bark

22 December 2022

People who have command of an ideology wield a powerful tool for directing – if not possessing – the minds of other people. When the ideology is a theological system, the tool has usually been honed over generations, and whatever anomalous data the Bible presents has already been accounted for. The explanation may not be particularly compelling – especially to those not ideologically possessed by that particular theological system – but whatever the passage or objection, they’ll have an explanation already worked out, and it will work.*

*work = keep their adherents from dwelling on the problem passage

Experience, however, is another matter. It is one thing to ignore a verse that doesn’t quite make sense to you anyway. It is another thing entirely to ignore getting fired, being unable to conceive a child, losing a loved one. Major crises in life compel our attention: “God shouts in our pains” as C. S. Lewis said. 

For a leader who depends on his command of theology to order his world and his followers, reality is threatening, intrusive. A demand to base your theology on Scripture rather than experience is a way to throw pesky experiences out of court before they can be properly accounted for. 

That’s ridiculous on the face of it, since every experience you’ve ever had happens in God’s world under God’s control. The world and the Word do not contradict, and it is necessary to rightly interpret them both. But rather than exert the effort to properly interpret both, some people would rather insulate their poor interpretation of Scripture from falsification by disallowing God’s acts in the world as evidence. Jesus told people to believe the works, but some teachers would tell you otherwise. One wonders what they’re afraid of….

That’s bad, when a leader is running that game on you. But the really bad news is that a lot of us don’t need some nefarious cult leader to run that game on us; we’re busy doing it to ourselves. Having invested in learning a theological system that was supposed to make the world make sense, we refuse to consider anything that might upset the apple-cart and force us to revise our sense-making scheme, whether it’s a problem passage in Scripture or a problem event in life that falsifies our theology.

What should we do? Let’s go back to the Garden.

Eve looked at the forbidden fruit, and saw that it was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise. Three parts to her thought process. How did she know it was good for food? She’d never had fruit from that tree before. This is induction from experience, and if she’d been looking at any other fruit, she’d have been right. It was pleasant to the eyes – straightforward sense experience. Desirable to make one wise? That one she got straight from the serpent. 

We all know the story – on the basis of those three factors, she was deceived and she ate. What did she miss? The divine revelation. God had already told her that this particular fruit would kill her. The threat was imperceptible to her senses, which should have caused her to thank God for the warning. Instead, she was deceived and forgot the warning. 

Every other time she’d made that inductive judgment about a piece of fruit, she’d been right. And with any other tree in the Garden, she’d still have been right. But this tree was deadly, and because God is good, He’d warned her about it. 

The lesson here is not that we can’t trust our senses and reason. God made us for the world and the world for us; it is comprehensible to us. We can trust our senses and our reason, but we can’t trust them alone to get us to the truth. We also have to receive what God has told us. If we ignore divine revelation and try to go it alone based on sense data and reason – the Eve mistake – our grasp of the world will be fatally flawed.

It will be equally flawed if we expect to navigate the world with God’s word alone apart from the senses He gave us. Eve ate the fruit of the trees, not the bark.

“And such were some of you”

29 November 2022

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.
(1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

There are two ways to abuse “…and such were some of you, but you were washed….”
1. think it’s an instant, automatic transformation
2. think that it doesn’t really happen

Both of these are mistakes. I’ve known no shortage of addicts who want to believe that #1 is their reality. God can really do that, and sometimes, He does. More often, He shows you the possibility of success, and then lets you walk it out the hard way. He doesn’t just want you off yoru substance of choice; He wants to make the non-addictive life a part of your character. He wants to teach you how to feel your feelings rather than numb them — and cast them on Him when they’re too much. Whatever the hungry darkness that waits to consume you, He wants you to know that He can walk you through it. Not theoretically; He wants you to know it in your bones. He wants to walk through it with you. In the words of C.S. Lewis, He is making you fit for the Kingdom of God, and He doesn’t care what it costs Him, or what it costs you.

The opposite error is to think that being a “Christian drunk” or a “Christian kelptomaniac” or a “Christian lesbian” is just who you are as a person, that that’s that. No, I have the worst–and best–possible news for you: you were washed. These things about you–nobody is saying they weren’t really true. But that was then; you were washed. There is nothing inevitable about your sins, not anymore.

What are we to do with this? Tell the truth, of course. If you fit the definition of a drunk, then there’s nothing wrong with copping to it, as long as you do it in a spirit of confession. “Hello, my name is Jack, and I’m an alcoholic,” may be true today, and you shouldn’t hesitate to tell the truth if it is. But when the Kingdom of God has fully come, it won’t be true anymore. Which is to say, that’s not who you are. Your identity is something else; “alcoholic” is a barnacle clinging to you. You will enter into the Kingdom; the barnacle will be scraped off in due time. You should be looking forward to it, not investing your identity in the barnacle.

If you pray “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” and mean it, then you need to admit the possibility that the barnacle could be scraped off sooner than later.

So call your sins out for what they are and really confess them. Nothing wrong with that. And then, having laid your sinful desires at the foot of the cross, don’t pick them back up. Don’t identify with them, because God says you were that, but you were cleansed from it. Confession isn’t the whole process; the next step is accepting the identity God has given you.

Functional Mysticism

19 November 2022

Here’s a Merriam Webster definition of mystical: “involving or having the nature of an individual’s direct subjective communion with God or ultimate reality.” Let’s start with that.

Does the Bible describe direct subjective communion with God? Yes, and this is not remotely controversial. Abraham met God and talked with Him. Moses conversed with God as a man speaks to his friend. Gideon argued with God; Jacob physically fought Him. Isaiah saw a vision that nobody else saw; God told John to look for the Spirit descending like a dove; Saul of Tarsus heard a voice where everyone else heard thunder.

What about today? Today, the Christian faith teaches that you can be a partaker in the divine nature. The Christian faith teaches that if you belong to Jesus, you have been born again spiritually, and are presently indwelt by God Himself in the Person of the Holy Spirit. The Christian faith teaches that the indwelling Spirit comforts and teaches you (among other things). If these subjective experiences are actually happening in your life, then you have a direct, relational experience of God Himself. 

You might not like the word mystical to describe it, but…re-read that definition. If you have a real relationship with God, there it is. 

If those things are not happening in your life…well, then you’re not a practicing Christian. I’m not saying you’re not going to heaven; how would I know? You and Jesus can work that one out. But if you do not have an actual, real-life experience of the realities the New Testament promises to God’s people, if those things aren’t actually happening in your life, then you do not have a Christian spirituality.

At best, you’re an ideologue whose drug of choice happens to be theology. Maybe your doctrinal paperwork is all in order, and that’s great as far as it goes. As far as doctrinal paperwork goes, Jesus was a Pharisee (and so was Paul) so you see how far that gets you. 

Gentle Reader, I am confident of better things where you’re concerned — there’s lots of folks whose doctrinal paperwork ain’t caught up to what they actually do in real life. But that’s a problem, because that gap between your actual walk with God and the things you’re willing to affirm causes you to criticize people who are willing, not just to live, but to tell the truth. You need to update what you’re willing to say, so that it matches what you know in practice.

If you don’t, then you will push people into the arms of the enemy. When kids that grew up in the church go looking for a functioning spirituality at the coven down the street because all they ever saw at church was talk and moralizing, that’s on us. And it’s high time we quit talking like we don’t have the real thing, because we actually do.