明白聖經4─字義解經 Literal Interpretation 史普羅 R.C. Sproul (Ligonier Ministries)

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In this session of our course on understanding
Scripture, we’re going to consider the meaning and the function of the literal interpretation
of the Bible. But before we do that, let’s pray. Again our Father, we come to You seeking
to know You more intimately and more accurately, not to the end that we simply may be puffed
up by an increase in knowledge but that in increasing our knowledge of You, we may increase
our love for You and our obedience toward You. Be with us now as we continue to study
this question of biblical interpretation. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen. I mentioned a couple of lectures ago that
sometimes people will say to me, as I think they do to you from time to time, that that’s
your interpretation, isn’t it, and we explored the implications of that question. Well another
one that I hear very often, and I suspect you do, too, is that when I will be citing
something from the Bible or giving a theological point and referring to the Scriptures for
support, people will look at me and say, “R.C., you don’t interpret the Bible literally, do
you?” And they look at it with — look at me with kind of an expression of consternation
and bewildered disbelief. And notice even how the question is phrased — it’s not simply
a direct question. It’s not simply, “Do you interpret the Bible literally?” but it’s phrased
more negatively than that. It’s, “You don’t interpret the Bible literally, do you?” Well
whenever anybody puts that to me, I have just enough mischievousness, I think, in my personality
and make-up to sometimes use shock tactics to get somebody’s attention, because when
anybody ever says to me, “You don’t interpret the Bible literally, do you,” my standard
reply to that question is, “Well of course. Like, who doesn’t? Who in their right mind
doesn’t interpret the Bible literally?” Now I know very well that the idea of literal
interpretation is an idea that’s associated once again with uneducated people, people
who are backwoods in their mentality, who are anti-intellectual and anti-scholarly and
anti-academic. And literalistic interpretation seems to be the chief occupation of such unlearned
simpletons, and certainly is not worthy of ministers of the church or of teachers in
seminaries by any means, and that’s why I sort of get that mischievous kick out of saying,
“Well of course. You know, if you want to think that I’m a country bumpkin who knows
nothing about biblical science, that’s all right too. I’ll accept that, but yes, indeed,
I do interpret the Bible literally.” But it usually provokes an engaging response where
people’s interest is piqued at least for the minute by saying, “You do? You really interpret
the Bible literally?” And they scratch their head, and there’s sort of an interest awakened
there, and they’ll say, “Well,” you know, “why? Why do you?” and as we pursue that line
of reasoning and thinking, I’ll respond even more simplistically by saying, “What other
possible way is there to interpret the Bible than to do it literally? Of course I interpret
the Bible literally.” But what’s going on here, of course, is that
when I’m speaking about interpreting the Bible literally, and my interrogator is asking me
if I interpret the Bible literally, we’re not talking about the same kind of thing.
When I talk about interpreting the Bible literally, I have something very concrete and specific
in mind. I’m talking about a method of biblical interpretation, again, a method that was very
important to the rediscovery of the Bible during the protestant reformation and a method
that was closely linked to what I outlined in our last session as the Grammatico-Historical
method of interpretation. Luther, of course, did not invent the idea of literal interpretation,
but he did use the technical language of what he called seeking the sensus literalis of
Scripture, the sensus literalis. It’s a Latin phrase, S-E-N-S-U-S, and literalis, L-I-T-E-R-A-L-I-S,
and all it means in translated is the literal sense or the literal meaning of Scripture.
And so in the way in which Luther was talking is the way in which I’m talking when I say
the first rule, primary rule of biblical interpretation, of sound biblical interpretation is to interpret
the Bible literally. But what did Luther mean by it? In a simpler way, he said what we should
be seeking for as we come to the Scripture is the plain sense of the meaning of the text,
and to elucidate further what is meant by interpreting the Bible literally in that classical
sense is simply that we are to interpret the Bible according to its litera, which is according
to its literature, according to the way it is written. Well if that’s all we mean by
literal interpretation, then we should interpret the newspaper literally, we should interpret
poetry literally, we should interpret music literally. Anything that’s written as literature
should be interpreted as literature, meaning that we follow the normal patterns and the
normal rules of literary interpretation. Now sometimes that throws conservative people
for a loop. Evangelical Christians sometimes get very agitated with me when I say that
a practical rule for literal interpretation is that we should interpret the Bible like
we would interpret any other book, that we should read the Bible in a certain sense like
we read any other book. And this people hear with horror. They say, “What do you mean?
The Bible’s not like any other book. The Bible’s the Book of Books; it’s the norm of norms
and without norm. The Bible’s the Word of God and alone the word of God. It’s inspired;
it’s infallible; it’s inerrant.” And I hear all of that, and I believe all of that, but
when I come to read it and to interpret it, the rules for interpreting it are no different
from the rules of interpreting any other book, in this regard: that the Bible is written
with sentences, and the sentences have individual words and all of the inspiration of God the
Holy Spirit on the text of Scripture does not make it a magical book. In the Bible,
a noun is a noun and a verb is a verb, and if you want to understand how these things
fit together, you have to understand the rules of grammar. If you want to learn — take the trouble to
learn the ancient languages of Hebrew and Greek, even though I believe that God the
Holy Spirit inspired the Greek writings of the original New Testament documents, there
is no such thing as what we call Holy Ghost Greek. The Holy Ghost and inspiration doesn’t
change nouns to verbs and verbs to nouns, and so I am still, as a human interpreter,
called to recognize the difference between adjectives and adverbs, questions and answers,
indicatives and imperatives, and all of that. And so all Luther was getting at when he says,
“Come to the Bible and look for its literal sense,” is look for its plain meaning. Now he did that for a reason, because the
group in the Middle Ages, a very strange approach to Scripture, a kind of mystical approach
to Scripture, were saying, if you really want to know what the Bible says, you can’t just
look at the plain meaning, but there is a hidden, esoteric, mysterious, mystical, spiritual
meaning hidden behind every text, so that if, if, for example, the Bible says, “And
Paul went down to Jerusalem,” or “Paul went up to Jerusalem,” that what’s hidden behind
that text is some mysterious illusion to people going up to heaven, and we just had to be
able to crack the mystical code and underline and get beneath the layers of the text to
discover that hidden, secret, mysterious, mystical meaning. That kind of stuff really
turned the Bible into a waxed nose because everybody was free to discover all kinds of
mysterious insights in the Bible that the text of the Scripture never said at all. And
Luther said, “Let’s return to soberness; let’s go to the text and read the text for what
it says.” There’s to be no spiritualistic interpretation
of the Scripture. That is, literal interpretation is opposed to spiritualistic interpretation.
Does that mean that we’re supposed to be unspiritual when we come to the Bible? We’re not supposed
to pray, or that — oh, no, no, no. You know the difference between being spiritual and
being a spiritualist? A spiritualist is somebody that goes into a dark room and taps on tables
and tries to communicate with departed spirits; they’re not into being really spiritual in
a biblical sense, they’re being contrary to the Holy Spirit, but they’re called spiritualists,
and spiritualistic interpretation is that kind of interpretation which turns the Bible
into a book of magic. Now there are different forms of it, and in
our own day, I’ve seen in — on countless occasions earnest Christian people, evangelical
people caught up in one form of spiritualistic interpretation that I call “lucky dipping.”
You have a problem, a personal problem, and you pray about that problem. It’s a spiritual
problem perhaps, and you want the mind of God. You want guidance from God. And so the
game of lucky dipping is played this way: You make your prayer to God. You say, “God,
I don’t know whether I should go and take this job in Alabama or stay in Boston. Now
I have to make a decision, and I want to please You, God, and I’m going to ask You to guide
me and to lead me, and I’m going to ask You, please, to do it through Your sacred Scripture.”
And so what I do is after I make my prayer, I piously take my Bible and I shut my eyes
and I just take the covers and turn them upright and let the Bible dangle open and flip the
book over, and then without looking, I take and put my finger down on the text, and then
I open up my eyes and wherever my finger falls, I get my message from God. And lo and behold,
I might read there as I look at the text, “And David went down to the Negev,” and I
say, “Aha! The Negev is the south of Palestine. David went down to the Negev. That’s my answer,
God is telling me, of the two options, I’m supposed to take the southern one, and so
that means I should take the job in Alabama rather than the talk — the job in Boston.
I’m not kidding; this goes on daily in the Christian world in the name of spirituality,
in the name of obedience, and there’s no difference between that and using your Ouija board. We
take the Bible and turn it into a superstitious tool of magic. We violate the meaning of the
text. God the Holy Spirit did not inspire the text that tells us that David went to
the Negev to teach me that I’m supposed to go to Alabama. I remember a very earnest young Christian
girl that I had in a college class who really wanted to please God with her life, but she
was very much concerned that she came to her senior year. She was suffering from senior
panic, she didn’t have a boyfriend, no prospects for marriage, and she did not want to spend
the rest of her life single, and she asked me to enter into a covenant of prayer for
her that she’d be able to find a boyfriend. And I did and we talked about it and I counseled
her, and she was very, very upset inwardly about whether or not she was going to be a
spinster or whether or not she was going to be married. And so she prayed earnestly that
God would give her a man. And one day she came in, and she was thrilled to death and
I said, “What’s the matter?” And she said, “Oh,” she said, “Guess what?” She said, “I’m
getting married.” I said, “You are? To whom?” And she said,” I don’t know.” I said, “Wait
a minute. You’re gonna marry a stranger? You got a lottery ticket or something? What happened?”
She said, “No, I don’t know who I’m going to marry, but I know I’m going to get married.”
I said, “Well how do you know that?” She said, “Well the Lord told me.” And I said “How?”
She said, “Well I asked the Lord to tell me whether or not I was going to get married,”
she said, and so I prayed that God would reveal it to me, and then I closed my eyes, and I
lucky dipped and the words came on the text, ‘Weep not, daughter of Zion, for behold, your
prince cometh riding upon the foal of a donkey.'” And she said, “Don’t you see? God told me
in that text that I’m going to get married.” You know, if Cinderella or was ever — Prince
Charming was ever in real life, here it was. I mean, God had just virtually promised this
woman that she was not only going to have her prince, but he wasn’t going to ride a
horse but the next best thing; he was going to come into town on a donkey. And I and I
tried — I didn’t want to crush her exuberance, but I had to explain to her that wasn’t quite
the way we were supposed to interpret the Scriptures. And I have to say that about three
weeks later she met a fellow that she had met before and they had a whirlwind courtship
and got married and she’s convinced to this day that that was the answer to her prayer. And some people may say, well wait a minute,
aren’t there innumerable incidences in history where God has in fact used a verse of Scripture
in a very, very strange way to turn the lives of people upside down? Yes. Think of Augustine.
You remember the story of St. Augustine, who was living a life of riotousness, licentiousness,
immorality? His mother was a devout Christian; Monica was praying in tears every day for
the conversion of her son, and as the story goes, Augustine was walking through the garden
on occasion and children were gathered there in a grove and they were playing a game that
had a little refrain to it in Latin, “Tollo legi, tollo legi and he heard these words,
and their literal meaning was, “Take up and read, take up and read.” And so he was fascinated
by that, and there happened to be a copy of the New Testament there, and he just picked
it up, and he opened up the text and his eyes fell on the text of Scripture, “Not on riotousness
and drunkenness, not on immorality and licentiousness, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make
no provision for the lust of the flesh,” and so on, and Augustine says that that text gripped
his heart and brought to him a dramatic transformation to the Christian faith. Yes, you say, spontaneous reading of Scripture.
One verse — his eyes fell on one verse. Well I’ll tell you what, when that happened, in
that holy moment, on that special occasion when Augustine picked up the text, what converted
Augustine was a corrupt understanding and application of the biblical text. I don’t
doubt that the Holy Spirit used that special occasion to bring Augustine to the faith,
but he used the plain sense of the meaning of Scripture to do it because the text that
he saw and that he read and the Spirit used to convict him spoke precisely to the sin
in his life, which is exactly the intention of that text. It didn’t require some kind
of mystical magical superstitious twisting and distortion of the text in order to do
it. Jonathan Edwards had the same thing when he
was struggling over predestination and his eyes fell upon the text, “Now unto the immortal
invisible only wise God.” His soul was flooded by the impact of that one verse, but the soul
was flooded as a result of the blunt interpretation of the passage, and so what we’re looking
for is sober interpretation so that we can grasp the real meaning of the text, which
will mean the same thing for you as it does for me. Its application may be different in
your life than it is to mine, but I don’t want to labor the point. At the heart of literal interpretation involves
a certain little bit of homework that we have to do. Literal interpretation is usually understood
as a very simplistic thing, but in its actual practice in the traditional sense here, it
requires a really a high degree of sophistication, and in some cases some very technical knowledge,
because before I can interpret the Bible literally and accurately, I must be able to recognize
the literary forms in which Scripture comes to us. And part of this course, as I said
sooner or later, and you’re thinking it’s going to be later, but we’ll get to it, I’m
going to give you practical rules that will help you improve your ability to interpret
the Scripture so that you’ll be able to recognize certain problems and certain types of writings
that are there in the Scripture and how we handle them and what the pitfalls are that
we have to watch out for. But, for example, to interpret the Bible literally requires
that we be able to distinguish between poetry and historical narrative, between didactic
literature, between wisdom literature and apodictic literature. There are all different
kinds of literary forms, and there are rules for interpreting poetry that are different
from rules that we use to interpret narrative history, or teaching portions of the epistles,
for example, are different from songs that we find in the Old Testament, and we have
to be able to learn to distinguish the difference, and it’s not always easy. On some occasions,
you pick up a piece of literature and it’s very clear that it’s poetry — it rhymes,
it has rhythm, it has a certain structure to it that poetry has, and we recognize that
it’s lyrical poetry and treat it accordingly. On the other hand, there are times when the
literary forms are clearly historical narrative. But there are times when it’s not always so
clear. Take the book of Jonah; let’s look at Jonah, for example. Is Jonah history or
is it some other kind of special symbolism? Is it an epic poem? Is it a fable designed
to teach a moral lesson, or is it a real historical event? Which is it? There’s been all kinds
of debates about that. I remember when I was a seminary student, I was at seminary. It
was predominantly liberal at that time, and the Old Testament professor, a very warm and
sanguine individual, very kind to his students, but he had had his PhD. He had studied in
a liberal college, he had studied in a liberal seminary, he got his doctorate in a liberal
institution, and he was a liberal professor. And one of the assignments that I had in a
advanced course in Hebrew Exegesis was to write a paper, a term paper on the question
of the literary form of the book of Jonah, and I remember I undertook that question and
I produced a paper for this professor in which I argued that the book of Jonah was written
as historical narrative. And the professor was beside himself — not in anger. He wasn’t
hostile; he was delighted. He actually implored me to have this essay published in a religious
journal, and I couldn’t understand why, and he said, “Well it’s so innovative! It’s so
novel!” He’d never heard anybody argue that Jonah was actually written as historical narrative,
and he thought that my arguments were pretty good. He thought that it was a liberal interpretation.
I said, “If I did that, I’d be sued for plagiarism because all I’m giving you is the classic
traditional orthodox conservative approach to the book of Jonah,” that he had never encountered
in his lifetime. But the point is, even as I was doing that
study, you see a book like Jonah, portions of it are written in a style that is very
much like narrative history, but right smack dab in the middle of it, there’s a lengthy
poem that’s clearly poetic: it has the stanza, the structure, the syntax, the versification
of poetry. It’s right there as poetry, and how does it fit together with the narrative?
It’s not always an easy question, and here’s something we need to be very careful about.
There are conservative people who believe that Jonah was not a historical person, not
because they don’t believe in miracles, but because they’re persuaded that the literary
structure, the literary form of Jonah is not a historical form and so that it ought not
to be interpreted as history. On the other hand, you have people who are liberal who
say, “Oh, it’s of historical literary form, but we know it’s not history because it’s
supernatural and we know that miracles don’t happen.” So their philosophical prejudice
against miracles prejudges the interpretation of the text. And we have to be very careful
of that because the Bible can be distorted both to the left and to the right, both by
liberals and to conservatives, conservatives who want to impose a crass form of literalism
in the popular sense when it ought not to be imposed. And on the other hand, liberals,
who, because they don’t like what the Bible says, try to recast it into the shape of symbols
or poetry when it doesn’t have a poetic structure to it at all. What we don’t want to do is
to violate the way the book is written. When I was in high school, I went to a course
at a local church and the minister was explaining to us the miracles of Jesus from a liberal
perspective, and he talked about the feeding of the five thousand. And he said, “Well we
know that Jesus couldn’t have, you know, miraculously fed five thousand people from a couple of
fish and a couple of loaves of bread, so if we can’t interpret it that way,” and he said,
“what really happened there was obviously that some people brought their lunch but most
of them were not diligent enough to prepare for it, and so Jesus was able to persuade
those who had brought something to share with those who had not, and so the real miracle
is an ethical one. And we stopped and thought, “Oh, isn’t that marvelous? What a wonderful
way to reinterpret the Scripture.” But that man violated the text because the text doesn’t
purport to teach that Jesus persuaded people. What the text is saying is that Jesus, through
supernatural powers, astonished everybody. You know, you may not believe that, but so
what? Say, “I don’t believe it,” but you understand what it’s saying. You see, the question of belief or unbelief
is a question that comes after interpretation. First you have to understand what it says
and then we have to say, do we believe it or don’t we believe it, but we can’t, because
we don’t believe it, reinterpret it. Or we’ve seen errors in the other direction, enforced
literalism or enforced historicity when the bible doesn’t warrant it. I’ve read more than
one attempt by conservatives and evangelicals who, trying to show how marvelous and wonderful
the biblical prophesies are, that not only do you look at the prophesies of the future
in Jeremiah, and Isaiah, and Micah, and Joel, and Nahum and that, but they will go back
to poems in the book of Job or in the Psalms or in the Proverbs and you’ll see a poem there
where somebody’s worshipping the greatness and the grandeur of God, and it says, “The
word of God goes through the air to the four points of the earth.” And somebody reads that
and they say, “You mean, Job said that the word of God is sent through the air? How is
the word of God sent through the air? This is a prophesy for the invention of radio because
today the word of God is sent through the air on radio beams or on television beams.”
That’s not what the text was talking about. That text is talking about a poetic expression
of the power of the word of God to compass the globe; it has nothing to do with television
and radio. But in their zeal to prove that the Bible has predicted prophesy, which I
think it does, they read into passages prophetic content that was never meant to be, and so
the idea of distorting the Bible by mistreating its literary form is a pitfall that is shared
both by the liberal and by the conservative, and if we’re really going to interpret the
bible literally, we will be careful not to ignore the literary forms in which the Bible
is written.

 

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