We should never consider figurative language, whether metaphor, symbol, or parable or any other figure, a second- best way of communicating meaning. When we do that, saying that we read the Bible “literally,” only admitting something is symbolic if we really need to, then we are showing how much the modern scientific worldview, where measurable things are all that matter, has shaped us.
We use the word “literal” in two different ways, unfortunately, which has caused some confusion. One day when my wife came in the house, drenching wet, and said, “it’s literally raining cats and dogs out there,” I couldn’t help but say: “you mean, literally? Are they poodles or German Shepherds or Tabbies?,” which, naturally, drew the usual bemused look from her. What she meant was “really raining,” which is not, technically, the meaning of “literally.” When someone says, I believe the Bible to be literally true, meaning “really true,” I’d agree with them. I would disagree with someone, however, who said that they believed the only proper reading of Scripture is that every detail is to be taken literally. Jesus is not literally a door.
No, we should let the symbols and figures of Scripture sound aloud the theological truths they point to. The Hebrews and the Greeks knew the power of metaphor and symbol, and so they could read that God is a rock or a fortress or a shepherd or a light in the darkness and just let the power of the truth sink in. And, more to the point, God chose to use language in all it’s varied forms to give us a revelation that has literal detail and figurative power, history with poetry.
Let Scripture interpret Scripture.
This is extraordinarily important. When you read a passage and wonder what “resurrection” really means or “the kingdom of God” or “sexual immorality” or “Passover” or “antichrist” or “marriage,” there is one place to turn: the rest of the Scriptures. Yes, archaeologists may have some relevant information, and there may be parallels in modern literature, science, or history, but Scripture is its own best interpreter. The New Testament passages about baptism are best explained by the other dozen or so passages about baptism and by the ritual of washing in the Old Testament, not by the use of water in the Egyptian cult of Isis. The Lord’s Supper is best interpreted by all the other passages about it and by Jesus’ “I am the bread” teaching, and by the meals like Passover in the Old Testament and the manna sent from heaven. Most of the incredible images and numbers from the book of Revelation, over which people puzzle, and which have produced wildly different interpretations going in every possible direction, have already appeared in the Bible before (e.g., the mark on the forehead, a beast rising up out of the sea, the numbers 1,000, 7, 12, etc.). There is a vivid meaning in each instance, and it is amazing how much easier it is to get at if we look up just one or two other passages that use the same language.
This “analogy of faith,” is the comparison and synthesis of the various parts of the faith. Art is about repetition and variation, and so too is history and theology. God gives us a truth like “I am your Savior,” and then he repeats it a hundred different ways throughout Scripture. Repetition and variation. The words change slightly, metaphors are used, and through it all–by the words of the prophets and the apostles–God’s word comes through strong and clear. We see the form of it all. Its lines become clearer and bolder. Conviction firms up in our minds and hearts.
And this is why we must read Scripture as a rhythmic discipline of our lives. It is a big book. It is full of epic stories, of oracles, sermons, prophecies, letters, songs, and proverbs that address the whole of life. It reveals God in all his actions and attributes. The Bible is a vivid mosaic of hundreds of personal stories where people are trying to find God, or trying to make or be their own god. It explains the issues of the 21st century as precisely as it does any other century. It is the best guide for life for men and women, boys and girls. It is the only direct and pure expression of God’s own mind.
When we read it as studying a tapestry we will be building a comprehensive structure of truth for our lives. We will see the patches of truth emerge and converge into a great patchwork. We’ll be able to say “oh, so that’s what joy means!” as we put together the pattern of what we get from Psalms and from Luke and from Philippians. We’ll be able to say: “I now understand temptation because this passage in James explains what I read a while ago in Romans and in Matthew.” We’ll know the difference between a major theme that God wants us to understand because it comes up so often (like sanctification, or forgiveness, or sin) and minor themes that should not be our focus (like “where was Jesus between his death and resurrection?”).