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Literal and Figurative Language in Scripture

Erling Ylvisaker

1933 Synod Convention Essay

This subject possibly might more fittingly be termed, Some Principles of Interpretation Having to Do with Literal and Figurative Language.

A. Let us begin with the fact that the Bible, like most other books, is written in a style which contains both literal and figurative expressions. For example, when we read the story of the nativity, we find prose that is literal, simple, but as beautiful as any figure of speech. “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” Again, “she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.” Throughout the telling of the story of Christ’s birth, Luke uses a plain narrative style which is to be interpreted by the most fundamental laws of language.

However, a portion of the Holy Scriptures is written in figurative language which calls for a special care in exegesis. When a word is employed in another than its primary meaning, it is called a trope, from the Greek word Tropos, a turn or twist of language; that is, a word turned from its primary usage to another meaning. For instance when James, Cephas, and John are called pillars of the church, (Gal. II, 9), we see at once that the word pillars is a metaphor. And when the church itself is said to be “built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets” (Eph. II, 20) we know that the image of a house or temple is the mental picture of the passage.

Figures of speech have been divided into two distinct classes: Figures of words and figures of thought. This distinction is an easy one in that a figure of words is one in which the image is confined to a single word, whereas a figure of thought may require for its expression many words, and even sentences. When Jesus said, “Go and say to that fox,” (Luke XIII, 32) meaning Herod, the image is confined to the single word, fox. Figures of thought, which require sometimes one verse, sometimes many verses, are found in the allegories, parables, and other tropes.

The purpose of this paper is not to make an exhaustive study of all the different types of figures of speech employed by the inspired writers, but it is essential that we realize that the Bible abounds in many different images which, so to speak, had their native home in Palestine. Consider this verse (Psalm XVIII, 2) “Jehovah my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my rock—I will seek refuge in Him; my shield and horn of my salvation, and high tower”—all of which the Hebrews understood perfectly well because the words were chosen from their everyday language. When David exclaims, “God is my rock,” the native of Palestine visualized Mount Sinai and other peaks, and thought, “If God is my rock, He is firm and everlasting.”

For our better understanding, let us make a list of the more common figures of speech found in the Old and New Testament: Personification (Matt. VI, 34): “Be not therefore anxious for the morrow, for the morrow will be anxious for itself.” Here the morrow itself is pictured before us as a living person, pressed by care and anxiety. Hyperbole or exaggeration (Judges VII, 12) where the writer describes the enemy: “Lying in the valley like grasshoppers for multitude; and as to their camels, no number, like the sand which is upon the shore of the sea for multitude.” Irony, by which the speaker says the very opposite of what he means: Elijah’s saying to the Baal worshippers in very effective irony (I Kings XVIII, 27): “Cry aloud; for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is on a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.”

Simile (Is. LV, 10, 11): “For as the rain and the snow come down from the heavens, and thither do not return, but water the land and cause it to bear and to sprout, and it gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so shall my word be which goes forth out of my mouth.” Delitzsch says about this passage: “The images chosen are rich with allusions.”

Besides these, we have the riddles (Judges XIV, 14), the parables, and the allegories, but we have made it clear that Scripture’s picturesque language is Palestine’s natural manner of speech. It is no exaggeration to say that the holy writers made use of the hills, the Jordan, the climate, the valleys, seedtime and harvest, shrubs, beasts and birds, to portray in vivid images the unseen mysteries of the Kingdom of God. Imagine the Holy Bible robbed of these mental pictures. Sarah and Hagar, the deliverance from Egypt, the rock and the Manna, the lifting up of the brazen serpent, these were all types which furnished the New Testament writers with spiritual building material. The tiny mustard seed has its moral; lilies teach their lessons. Harts panting for water brooks, roes feeding among lilies, eagles hasting to their prey, the ox and his yoke—these are but random specimens out of a literary treasure box; and they are all found in the Holy Land where the dialect of God’s spiritual kingdom was to be spoken, written, and taught.

B. We come now to the specific rules of interpretation in order to determine when language is used figuratively and when literally. It is an old hermeneutical principle that words should be understood in their literal sense unless such literal interpretation involves an obvious contradiction or absurdity. However, this rule needs to be explained more in detail. To begin with, we can state that we dare not leave the literal content of a text until the Word of God itself compels us to. “Knowing this that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation.” (2 Pet. I, 20.) If Scripture interprets Scripture, then we have no right to let our own reason pass final judgment. It is not enough that a text possibly can be explained figuratively, but the Word of God must demand the departure from the literal sense.

We can mention three such Scriptural occasions.

1. The context may tell me that the words have a figurative meaning. For example, if I hear the word “door,” then I think of a door in my house, a door made of wood. But if I read that Christ is the door, then I know instantly that now we are not speaking about a common door which swings on iron hinges. Jesus says, “I am the way.” I know that Jesus is not a cement highway, nor a path in the woods. But by this vivid picture He emphasizes that He is the way to eternal life. We could probably enumerate many more passages to prove the same thing: that the context itself may compel us to depart from the literal, or usual, sense of the word.

2. Parallel passages also must have a bearing on our exegesis. For example, when Christ says, “On this rock will I build my church,” the Pope makes this comment: “Here we see that Christ built His Church on Peter, and since I am the Apostle Peter’s successor, it follows that Christ wanted to build His Church on me.” But the Apostle Peter could not have been the designated rock because other portions of Scripture inform us that Peter was not a rock-did he not deny his Lord? Furthermore, St. Paul tells us that the rock is Christ, and that we are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.

Likewise, when we are told (Luke XI, 20) that Christ drove out devils with God’s finger, we understand that the word finger is to be explained figuratively, for parallel passages tell us that God is a Spirit and that the devils were not ousted by hands of flesh and bone but by the Word of God. Luther writes, “When the church Fathers interpreted a text they did so not with their own reason—if they did, they usually failed—but by employing another passage which is clearer, and thus they explained Scripture with Scripture.” (Erl. 27, 244).

3. The analogy of faith also will compel me to interpret a passage in the light of more truth. Rom. XII, 6: “Let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith.” St. Paul tells us that there is one mediator between God and man, namely the man, Christ Jesus. But that does not imply that this same Christ Jesus is not also true God, for that would be contrary to the principle that one Scriptural truth is in harmony with every other Scriptural truth. In Isaiah XI, 6, we read that the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the kid, etc. Many chiliasts have wanted to interpret this passage literally: the animals shall be friendly to that extent here upon earth in the millennium. However, by the analogy of faith we must reject this interpretation, for it leads to absurdities.

Luther says in his sermon on Genesis: “I have often said that he who desires to study the Holy Scriptures must see to it that he sticks to the common usage of the words, whenever and wherever he can, until an article of faith forces him to read the words otherwise.” (Erl. 33, 24, 25).

Again Luther: “Just because Christ in Matt. 16, 18 calls Himself a rock, it would not do for me to read the word Christ into the text every time I find the word rock. Nor would it do to say: Moses struck a real rock ·with his staff; therefore when Christ speaks of rock in Matt. 16, 18, He necessarily means the same kind of physical stone. What shall we do then? Every word shall be explained literally unless our faith contradicts that meaning. For instance, on first thought I should permit the word rock in Matt. 16, 18, to mean a physical rock, but because my faith will not tolerate that interpretation, I must here give the word rock a spiritual significance. My faith will not bear that I let Christianity rest upon a stone” (Walch 19, 1601).

When we say that Scripture alone—by context, parallel passages, and analogy of faith—must determine when a passage shall be interpreted figuratively, we do not imply, however, that, even for the mature believer, this correct understanding is always an easy task. We read in John 7:17, “If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine.” Earnest prayer, concentrated meditation, and a willing heart to abide with the Word, are all a part of that doing of God’s will which begets a sound knowing of the doctrine. As we confess in the third article: not by mechanical rules as in mathematics, but by the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit accomplished through the Gospel itself, do we become faithful interpreters.

C. This is the gist of the matter: the danger of confusing literal and figurative language. The history of Biblical interpretation is the account of many fanciful speculations built on the plain and simple words of Scripture. The early Jews of Alexandria, who perfected the allegorical method, tried to find a moral lesson in every statement of fact. Thus to them the four rivers of Eden mentioned in the second chapter of Genesis were not mere streams of water, but the four virtues: prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. This allegorical system disregarded the laws of language, took away the everyday significance of words, and inserted figurative interpretations based on pure speculation.

Among the later abusers of the literal text was Emanuel Swedenborg, who maintained a three-fold sense of Scripture—the natural, the spiritual, and the celestial. Thus he explained “Thou shalt not kill” first in its natural sense, as forbidding murder; secondly, in the spiritual sense, as forbidding to “act the devil and destroy a man’s soul”; and thirdly, in the celestial sense, the angels understand killing to signify hating the Lord and the Word. Swedenborg is dead, but his disciples, who are never satisfied until they have theorized as far as their imaginations can reach, are still with us.>

Perhaps the sect that has gone farthest astray by their wholesale spiritualizing is the Christian Scientist party. When they have blown their whims into the clear text, the reader must rub his eyes. On page 46 of their Science and Health, we read this exegesis on the verse, “And God said, let us
make man in our image, after our like- ness”: “There is no life, truth, nor substance in matter. Spirit is immortal truth; matter is mortal error. Spirit is God, and man in His image and likeness. Therefore, man is not material; he is spiritual.”

And so we could go on showing how these false interpreters have turned the literal language of Scripture into a frying-pan for their own religious fancies. It was just this type of confusing the literal with the figurative phrases which caused the early controversy about the Lord’s Supper. Luther had this to say about Zwingli’s doctrine: “If each one of us should have the privilege to depart from the plain meaning and invent figurative conclusions according to his own reason, then Scripture would be nothing but a straw blown hither and thither in the breeze” (Walch 18, 2270–75).

The dispute concerned the meaning of Jesus’ words, “This is my body.” Luther says in the same passage: “Some theologians wanted a trope in the word ‘this’; others in the word ‘is’; still others in the word ‘body.’ I have observed,” continues the Reformer, “that errors do not come from the Bible itself, but all errors have come from this, that the interpreters have attempted to explain literal language figuratively.”

From his writings we can judge that Luther was very much in earnest about condemning this perverting exegesis.

Carlstadt and a few others maintained that the word “this” in “This is my body” did not designate the bread in Christ’s hand, but that “this” designated the body of Jesus. Zwingli himself laughed at this and called the explanation of Carlstadt “trefflich Frevel.”

Zwingli picked on the word “is” in the passage “This is my body” and declared that the word “is” here means signifies, or better still, “is a picture of.” The bread thus becomes a symbol, an image of Christ’s body, which, according to Zwingli, is locked up in heaven.

Luther answered this claim very effectively when he wrote: “If the sects could find in any language on earth one passage, one sentence, where the word ‘is’ can have the meaning of ‘signifies’ they could have won the controversy. It seems to me that they disregard all the laws of language which we have learned in kindergarten” (Walch 20, 1131–38).

Jn the passages where Jesus says, “I am the door,” “I am the true vine.” “I am the way”—in all these there is a figure of speech, but this trope can never be found in the substantive word “is.” Christ is not only a picture of a door; He is the door.

History relates that when Zwingli at Marburg an 1529 found it hard to defend his position that Christ’s body is not actually present in the Lord’s Supper, Zwingli argued that he had dreamed a dream. He had seen a man-black or white he could not remember—and this man had advised the dreamer to consult Exodus 12, 11, which reads; “It is the Lord’s Passover.” Plainly, neither the quoted passage nor the dream had anything to do with the Lord’s Supper.

Oecolampadius and Calvin wanted to insert a mere image into the word “body” in the sentence, “This is my body.” These two insisted that Christ did not mean His real, physical body, but merely the image of his body. But, as Professor Pieper used to say: “How can this be so when Jesus explicitly states about the mentioned body: ‘which is given for you’? How could an imaginary body be given for us?”

The point is that Scripture itself at no place even intimates that the words of Jesus, “This is my body,” are to be interpreted figuratively.

It might be well to mention another false doctrine cropping up from this confusion of literal and figurative language; namely, the teaching of the millennium based on several figurative expressions in the Old Testament, and more especially on Revelation XX, 1–7.

The millennial theory was embraced by the early Jews and in various forms was taught by a few of the church fathers. Papias supposed that during the thousand years there would grow colossal grapes. By the way, these luscious grapes have become a symbol of the earthiness of chiliasm. Augustine, however, correctly urged that the earthly kingdom of Christ is the church which was even then in the millennia! period. At the time of Luther a fanatical form of chiliasm was espoused by the Anabaptists of Germany who took possession of the city of Munster, in order to set up there the reign of the saints.

The chiliasts, in ancient and present times, are characterized by their teaching respecting the second advent of Jesus which, they believe, will be accompanied by the resurrection of the martyrs and saints, who w:ill reign with Christ on earth in a state of blessedness for a thousand years, after which the resurrection of the wicked will occur, together with the final judgment.

In passing, I would like to suggest several passages in Scripture which not only permit us, but compel us to interpret the figure “thousand” in Revelation XX as a symbol.

1. John V:25–29 states that there shall be one, and not two, resurections from the dead.

2. Revelation XX:4 states that the souls of them that were beheaded lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The souls of the believers in heaven and on earth reign with Christ now. Does not the Apostle Peter say that every believer is a spiritual priest and king? Thus Revelation XX is a picture of the Gospel’s victory over Satan-it is a spiritual reign.

3. Heb. IX:28 reads: “So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many, and unto them that look for Him shall He appear the second time without sin unto salvation.” Plainly, as we confess in the second article, He shall return only once more to judge the quick and the dead.

4. The millennial theory contradicts the hope of the Christian by placing our desires on this earth—absolutely contrary to what St. Paul says in Philippians 3:20: “For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The danger of chiliasm to him who accepts its implications is that he forgets that the Kingdom of God is within us: forgiveness of sins, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. Like the Jews who wanted to re-establish the Kingdom. of Israel, the chiliast l:ives in expectation of a heaven here on earth. The colossal cluster of grapes is the symbol of his salvation.

Let me quote from McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia: “The tendency of the millenarian theory to chill the hopes, and thus repress the missionary activities of Christians, by representing the efforts of Christians to convert mankind as fruitless, until the com:ing of Christ, constitutes not the least serious objection to such opinions.”

Briefly said, a literal interpretation of this number thousand which in Biblical language is a symbol of rounded fulness (being a multiple of ten—we have ten fingers), dissipates the Gospel into a mere plan for a worldly utopia.

D. Finally; in the passages which we commonly call “sedes doctrinae” the language is always literal, never figurative. Each article of faith is explained thoroughly and clearly in some definite portion of Scripture, and in that particular portion, the doctrine has its own home. In line with this truth we find the article of justification expounded in plain language in Romans III, IV, V; the doctrine of the resurrection in I Corinthians XV, and the doctrine of election in Ephesians I and Romans VIII. In these proof texts we are to interpret the words according to their natrual and ordinary usage.

Luther has this to say: “The sacred teachers have this method of interpretation that they allow the clear passages to bring light upon the more obscure. This is also the order of the Holy Spirit: to dissipate darkness with light. But the sectarians do the opposite. They choose an uncertain sentence which fits their own conclusions, disregard the context, make a plain passage obscure, and then teach that all this is the unadulterated truth” (Erl. 30, 113).

The Scriptural principle can be illustrated by Jesus’ words of institution. Here the Lord used plain and simple speech: “This is my body, and this is my blood.” Tf the bread were only bread, and wine only wine, and not the blood of Christ, we would need no clear proof text, but because Jesus wanted to teach the mysterious and the sacramental communion of the bread and body, He used such direct language that even Peter and Andrew, the fishermen, could understand. It is a common law of all languages that new things must be explained simply, while familiar facts can afford to be explained with less familiar modes of speech. It is just because the Bible has taught us our articles of faith in every day language (“Thy Word is a Lamp unto my feet”) that we can rely upon the Word in life and death. If error creeps in, it is not because the Scriptures are unclear in matters that concern our salvation, but because men like Zwingli insist on saying literal language has figurative meaning or because others have tried to stretch figurative language as a child stretches a rubber band.

Trench, the English authority on the Parables, writes these pertinent words: “Once more-the parables may not be made first sources of doctrine. Doctrines otherwise and already grounded may be illustrated, or indeed further confirmed by them; but it is not allowable to constitute doctrine first by their aid. They may be the outer ornamental fringe, but not the main texture, of the proof. For from the literal to the figurative, from the clearer to the more obscure, has been ever recognized as the law of Scripture’s interpretation. This rule, however, has been often forgotten, and controversialists, looking round for arguments with which to sustain some weak position, one for which they can find no other support in Scripture, often invent for themselves supports in these” (The obscure).

In the Formula of Concord—Thorough Declaration, article VI, 501, we read, “Now surely there is no interpreter of the words of Jesus Christ, as faithful and sure as the Lord Christ Himself, who understands best His words, His heart and opinion—and here, as elsewhere in presenting all articles of faith, He uses not allegorical, but entirely proper, simple, indebatable and clear words; and in order that no misunderstanding can occur, He explains them more clearly with the words, ‘Given for you, shed for you.’ He allows His disciples to abide by this simple, easy sense, and commands them to teach whatsoever He had taught them.”

In closing, the author wants to say that he feels that this is only a beginning. But perhaps we have done enough to persuade ourselves that the interpretation of Scripture requires the humility to let the Word of God speak for itself. Melanchton warned Zwingli that the latter would not be able to defend his false exegesis before the judgment throne; let us be sure that our own interpretation will be blameless on that Great Day.