In a recent conversation concerning how we ought to approach the Bible, I heard a compelling defense for adopting a literal approach. It will be loosely paraphrased since I don’t remember the exact quote. It went something like this…
God is a good author. He knows how to write. He invented words. He knows how to use them to communicate. He doesn’t try to communicate things—He does communicate things.
I would not mind so much standing before God and finding out that I had tried to take Him at His word and had missed the boat on a few things.
I would mind standing before God and finding out that He had meant exactly what He said in His word, and I decided I knew what He “really meant,” or what He was “actually trying to communicate.”
This is especially true if I am teaching others. God has never looked kindly on people who speak for Him and put words in His mouth. He seems to take it personal (Jer 23:31-32). That’s not a place I want to find myself.
Now, I understand about literary genre. Figurative language and hyperbole show up in poetry. A literal reading does not demand that we believe Solomon’s beloved really had teeth that look like sheep (S S 6:6) Likewise, there is a good deal of symbolism in prophecy—but that sort of language differs greatly from normal descriptive language. Often symbolic language is interpreted right in the text (Dan 7; Rev 17). Unless it is demanded by context and common sense, I do not think we reserve the right to decide that God can’t mean what the words He chose literally mean.
Insofar as we can determine what the original audience would have understood God to be saying, it seems to me that we ought to assume that is exactly what God meant to communicate to them and to us.
If the written word is the instrument God chose to reveal Himself to mankind, shouldn’t we just believe what He says about Himself—and maybe question a system of theology that demands that statements He makes about Himself actually mean something else.
Does your approach to scripture allow God to say and mean…
Exodus 32:14 (NASB)
14 So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.
Jonah 3:10 (NASB)
10 When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.
Was God deceiving and manipulating those people to coerce the desired response? But elsewhere Scripture explicitly states that God does not lie (i.e. Titus 1:2). Does truth have a different definition when we apply it to God? If a person says they are going to do something they never intend to do, it is considered deceit. Isn’t it possible that God responded to people and changed His mind just like the Word says?
If we cannot accept that possibility, is it because of a conflict with the Word of God or because a theological system tells us God can’t mean that?