Dinesh D’Souza opens his book What’s So Great About Christianity with a chapter on interpretation of scripture. In this chapter, he lays down the rules of what taking the Bible literally is and is not. He starts with this chapter because it is foundational to any argument supporting the authority of the Bible. The conclusion in this chapter is wonderfully simple advice both to the individual seeking to discredit the Bible and the Christian seeking to wield the word of truth in an accurate manner.
At this point let’s settle on a simple operating principle: whether you regard the Bible as inspired or not, read the text in context for what it is actually trying to say. (D’Souza, xii)
The point is that we can resolve most of the difficult issues surrounding the scripture by understanding the greater narrative, the type of literary device being deployed, and not being so ethno centric that we impose our ideas on top of the actual ideas communicated based on that culture and time.
On that last point, I want to provide an example where I personally have placed my own ideas into the narrative because of culture and time. In Matthew 19:23-26 Jesus tells the disciples that it would be easier for a camel to go through the “eye of a needle” than for a rich man to go to heaven. Quickly my thoughts imagine a tiny stainless steel sowing needle. However, that may not have been what the audience of that culture and time were thinking. Maybe they called the hoop of their sewing needles the eye or maybe they did not. More research is needed. Some scholars have proposed but never proven that there was a smaller gate into Jerusalem and this is what Jesus was talking about. We may never know exactly what the eye of the needle was that Jesus referred to, but the point is that we must not overlay our thoughts onto the original communication. It is also important to remember our lack of knowledge does not invalidate the point that Jesus was trying to communicate within the context of the Gospel.
The second point is the type of literary device. Some written forms like a book of History or a Book of Laws are intended to be taken literally. Exodus tells people that murder is wrong and this is intended to be taken at face value (Exodus 20:13). Other books like the songs in Psalms are imagery and worship to God. In Psalms, David writes “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” (Psalms 119:11 ESV) The intent is obviously not literal, but a way of saying that he has memorized, and meditated on the words of God until they become part of who he is and they give direction to his life. Listed here are few of the major types of writing that make up the Bible. When reading and studying these it is important to remember to the context.
1. Laws and Rules (Ten Commandments Exodus 20-1-17)
2. History (the Book of Acts)
3. Poetry (Psalm)
4. Personal Letters (Much of the New Testament like 1 Peter)
5. Apocalyptic (Part of Daniel and the book of Revelations)
Finally, the most amazing thing about the Bible is the overarching narrative of a world cursed because of man’s rebellion and the Creator’s plan to restore that world through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus who is God in the flesh. Philip, one of the twelve disciples, communicates that good news after the resurrection in this historical event recorded in the book of Acts.
So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. Acts 8:30-35 ESV