the Church on the Hill
by D. Eric Williams
Pastor, Cottonwood Community Church
It is common among Bible believing Christians to insist the Bible be interpreted literally in order for it to be interpreted properly. Yet an insistence upon wooden literalism as the gold standard raises difficulties. Rather than demand a literal interpretation of the Bible, followers of Christ must insist upon an authentic reading of the text.
At this point many of my readers have branded me as a “liberal.” After all, conservative Christians are taught from their earliest years that anything other than a literal interpretation of Scripture is to diminish the authority of the Bible. Yet, this is not the case. To suggest an authentic interpretation of Scripture is superior to a literal reading is to say we must understand the Bible as it would have been understood by the original audience.
In Joshua 7:19, Joshua confronts Achan with his sin, saying, my son, put, I pray thee, honor on Yahweh, God of Israel, and give to Him thanks, and declare, I pray thee, to me, what thou hast done - hide not from me. Generations of Sunday school children have been told that the honest response of Achan to Joshua's admonition is proof his soul was saved even though he paid a grave consequence for his sin. However, if we understand the culture in which this exchange took place, we realize that Joshua was using the formal language of the court. It is not unlike the charge given to a witness before a modern tribunal when he raises his right hand and swears to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” No one would suggest the person who repeats these words - and then gives truthful testimony - has somehow given witness to the new birth. Therefore, to read the Joshua passage authentically is to understand that Achan was charged with giving truthful testimony; the state of his soul is not in view here.
Another hurdle for literalism is found in the conflict between the differing accounts of Paul's Damascus road experience. In Acts chapter nine it says, the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one (Acts 9:7). Yet in chapter twenty-two Paul says, those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me (Acts 22:9). On one hand Paul's biographer, Luke, says the traveling companions of Paul heard a voice. On the other hand, he records Paul as saying they did not hear the voice of him who spoke. This poses a problem for those wedded to strict literalism.
Forms of the same Greek words ????? (akouo, to hear) and ???? (phone, a sound, a tone, a voice) are used in both cases: ??????????? ???? ???? ?????? (hearing indeed the voice/sound) and ??? ?????? ???? ??????? ???? ??????????? ??? (the voice/sound not hearing of the one speaking to me). So what did Paul mean? Did his traveling companions hear the voice or not? If we hope to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion, we must read the text authentically rather than literally. They cannot have had sound-waves act upon their sense of hearing and not have had that happen as well. Both could not have happened; it had to be one or the other. However, it is not uncommon for a person to make use of their sense of hearing without understanding what they have heard. Moreover, we recognize that in authentic human communication the same word can be used in different ways. Thus, it is generally thought that Paul meant his traveling companions physically heard sounds but did not intellectually understand what they heard. To them it was merely noise, perhaps like thunder (John 12:28-29). We arrive at this conclusion (as commentators on this passage generally do, by the way) through a process of authentic interpretation. And most of the time we do so without giving it a second thought.
More on this next week.
Editor's note: The question marks are where actual Greek lettered words were. Those Greek characters would not translate to the webpage, at least in the program I use.