Christians and the Literal Sense

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. III: The Golden Age of Patristic Literature (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 182-183.

Isidore of Pelusium was a fifth century Christian thinker. Quasten states the following regarding his approach to the Bible:

The writer follows the historical and grammatical method of the School of Antioch…and rejects allegorism (4, 117). He condemns the attempt to see figures of Christ everywhere in the Old Testament, since this will encourage pagans and heretics to be suspicious of the true Messianic passages (2, 195; cf. 2, 63; 3, 339)…Nevertheless he welcomes allegorical interpretations if they serve only for edification.

Today, I want to share two recent interactions with conservative Christians over biblical exegesis. These Christians claimed that they were interpreting the Bible “literally,” in the historical-grammatical sense. I tried to argue, however, that Christians (except for dispensationalists, perhaps) throw literal interpretation out the window when they apply Old Testament passages to Jesus. You’ll get the tenor of the discussions as I describe them in more detail. 1 and 2 will discuss the interactions, and 3 will contain some personal reflections.

1. On Facebook, a Christian friend of mine posted this quote by John Wesley: “The general rule of interpreting Scripture is this: the literal sense of every text is to be taken, if it be not contrary to some other texts. But in that case, the obscure text is to be interpreted by those which speak more plainly.” (John Wesley, letter to Samuel Furly, 10 May, 1755).

I then replied, Yeah, except when Christians try to apply the Old Testament to Christ. Then the literal sense goes out the window (in many cases)!

She asked me “How so?,” and I responded:

My statement is somewhat of a sweeping generalization, since dispensationalists at least try to go with the literal sense of the Old Testament. But Christian tradition throughout the centuries has tended to allegorize the parts of the OT that don’t neatly mesh with Christianity. For example, Jeremiah and Ezekiel predict a revival of the Levitical priesthood with sacrifices when God restores Israel and rules over her. Ezekiel even mentions atonement sacrifices. Yet, Christian interpreters have said, “That’s just symbolic for Jesus.”

Hosea 11:1 applies “Out of Egypt I called my son” to Israel. Matthew applies it to Jesus. Maybe he’s doing something legitimate–like saying Jesus is the new Israel. But he’s not exactly taking the OT literally.

I’m tempted to start a little project. [My friend] cited John Wesley as supporting the literal meaning of Scripture. I’m interested to see if [Wesley] followed through on that when he was discussing the sacrifices in the restored Israel, or if he instead spiritualized those passages. Wesley’s commentary is on E-Sword, so that’s where I’ll look.

My friend replied that Wesley may have been discussing practical Christian living rather than the interpretation of prophecy, since he was responding to someone who wrote him. And a conservative Christian friend of hers pointed out that certain Old Testament passages are clear: Isaiah 9 predicts a king of righteousness and peace, and Isaiah 53 mentions a suffering servant who dies for the sins of many. For him, these passages obviously referred to Jesus in their plain, literal sense.

I gave the results of my little Wesley project:

Okay, here are the results of my Wesley project: (1.) I couldn’t find his comments on Ezekiel 45.2. (2.) I did, however, find his comments on Jeremiah 33:18, which states that after Israel’s restoration: “Neither shall the priests the Levites want a man before me to offer burnt offerings, and to kindle meat offerings, and to do sacrifice continually” (KJV). Wesley comments: “A man – That is, a ministry to abide in the church to the end of the world, nor is it unusual for God in the Old Testament to express promises to be fulfilled under the gospel by expressions proper to the Old Testament.” That seems to be a symbolic interpretation. (3.) On Hosea 11:1 (Out of Egypt I called my son, which Matthew applies to Jesus in Matthew 2:15, even though it’s about Israel in Hosea): “Was a child – In the infancy of Israel. I loved him – Manifested my tender and paternal affection to him. Called my son – Adopted him to be my son, and as my son, provided for him, and brought him out of servitude. Out of Egypt – But Israel, the first adopted son was a type of Christ the first – born. And the history of Israel’s coming out was a type of Christ’s future coming out of Egypt.”So I guess that here, he respects the literal sense of Hosea 11:1, while also allowing the verse to be a type of Christ.

Wesley likes the literal sense, but he interprets symbolically the Old Testament passages about future sacrifices under the Davidic king. In the case of Hosea 11:1, he tries to maintain its literal sense, while also making it a type of Christ escaping to Egypt.

I was reminded of two points in this interaction. First of all, conservative Christians do uphold the literal sense of certain Old Testament passages, such as Isaiah 53. They see in that chapter an individual who suffers and dies for the sins of others, the role that Christianity ascribes to Jesus. But their “literal interpretation” is not the same as other communities’ “literal interpretation,” for there are Jews and biblical scholars who interpret the passage differently.

Second, some Christians seem to think that prophecy is cryptic, whereas the biblical instructions on how to live are plain. I can understand where they may get the idea that prophecy is cryptic, since Daniel presents his prophecy as a sealed book. At the same time, if we can’t go with the literal sense of a prophecy, doesn’t that allow the prophecy to mean anything and everything? Even if it doesn’t go that far, interpretive control has been weakened! How can we identify the false prophets, if a prophecy can be interpreted in a non-literal, symbolic manner?

2. On my Christian dating site, a lady posted an article contrasting exegesis with eisegesis. Exegesis is deriving meaning from the biblical text, whereas eisegesis is reading what we want into the biblical text. She said that Christians (or readers of the Bible in general) should practice exegesis, not eisegesis.

I responded:

[T]he New Testament doesn’t always go with the literal sense of a passage. That’s how Matthew could apply Hosea 11:1 to Jesus, even though the passage in its context is about Israel. Sounds like eisegesis to me! Another example of eisegesis: the way many evangelicals like to find “types” of Jesus in the Old Testament. Do those Old Testament passages identify themselves as types? No. Eisegesis!

A meek young man then replied:

In regards to typology, that is true at times. Don’t forget, at times the New Testament itself makes reference to types. For example, Hebrews states that the rock which followed Moses in the wilderness was a type of Christ. So, though it wasn’t there in the Old Testament, it was clarified for us by the New. Countless Psalms would not be considered Messianic were it not for such clarification.

I liked this young man’s answer. He struck me as meek and unassuming, and he was at least familiar with the problem that I was raising: that Christian interpreters read things into the Hebrew Bible. But I’ll bet that he’s still committed to the plain, literal sense. For him, however, we should be looking at the plain sense of the Christian Bible as a whole. The New Testament plainly uses Christian allegory and typology for Old Testament passages, so, in his mind, that shows that those passages related to Christ or a Christian message. I, by contrast, tended to look at those Old Testament passages apart from the Christian Bible. Just looking at the Old Testament passages by themselves, without the New Testament, there is no indication that they were types or allegories about Christ. They don’t explicitly mention Jesus, after all!

3. Can one be a Christian and believe that the Hebrew Bible doesn’t point to Christ in its literal sense? When the biblical prophets predict sacrifices (including ones for atonement) under Israel’s restoration, that makes me wonder if Christians have the Old Testament right.

Isidore thought that the Old Testament does point to Christ in certain cases. He may have had in mind the same passages as that Facebook Christian: Isaiah 9, Isaiah 53, etc.

But he tended to go with the literal sense most of the time. He went with allegory, however, when the aim was to edify Christians, not to convince unbelievers of the truth of Christianity. Unbelievers could probably look at Christian allegory and typology and say to the Christian, “Who says? I think you’re reading stuff into the text.”

I wonder how Isidore and other Christian literalists addressed the sacrifices under restored Israel, if they indeed did address them!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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