Interpreting the Bible Literally

Who knows the interpretation of a thing?”

- Ecclesiastes 8:1b

We have been considering the doctrine of sola Scriptura as part of our yearlong study of the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation. As we have noted, because Scripture alone is inspired, it is the only infallible rule of faith and practice for the church (2 Tim. 3:16–17). However, like all rules, Scripture must be interpreted in order for us to know what we must believe and how we must live. And, with the need for interpretation comes the solemn obligation to interpret God’s Word correctly. So that we will have a better understanding of how we can interpret Scripture rightly, we are now going to spend a few days looking at hermeneutics—the science of biblical interpretation. Dr. R.C. Sproul will guide our study as we turn to his teaching series Knowing Scripture as the basis for our devotionals.

The most basic rule of biblical interpretation that we can follow is that we should interpret the Bible literally. What does this mean? Essentially, we are not to treat Scripture like a secret code book; rather, we are to read the Bible as we would read any other work of literature. In other words, our goal is to read the Scriptures according to the intent of its authors and the literary conventions of the particular style that is being used. We do not read poetry the same way we read historical narrative, for example, for we know that poetry employs rich imagery that often serves as a figurative depiction of reality. Historical narrative, on the other hand, tends to give us the bare facts, as it were, the orderly account of what exactly happened.

In reading the Bible literally, our goal is to get at the plain sense of the text. Scripture is divinely inspired and contains the content we need to know for salvation. This does not mean, however, that there is a secret method for discerning the Bible’s meaning. After all, in inspiring the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit guided its human authors to use common literary styles—poetry, narrative, proverb, epistle, sermon, and many others. In other words, God accommodated Himself to the genres that we know when He gave us His Word. There are rules for reading each of these genres, and we are not to violate these rules for the sake of allegorical readings that are not connected to the text.

God did not use specialized or obscure forms when He revealed Himself; He used well-known genres and languages to give us His Word. That is because He wanted us to readily understand it.

Coram Deo

If we do not read the Bible according to the literary conventions that are appropriate for the various literary styles that it is using, we will go far astray. The plainest meaning of a passage, which we derive from reading poetry as poetry, narrative as narrative, and so forth, is the meaning that controls our interpretation and application of a text. Read the Bible as you would read other books, and its essential meaning will be plain to you.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 31:9–13
2 Kings 22:8–20
Luke 12:54–56
Acts 8:26–40

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