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Thursday, May 4, 2017

What is "Literal" Interpretation?

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excerpts from Vern Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, chapter 8

Now it is time to reflect on the question of “literal” interpretation. In a sense, nearly all the problems are buried beneath this question. We might already suspect as much after having reviewed Darby’s and Scofield’s approach to “literalness.” 

In their approaches, strict literalness seems to be subordinated to the more fundamental principle of dual destinations for Israel and the church. For example, Scofield freely encourages the use of nonliteral, even “allegorical” meanings of OT history. “Absolute literalness” is found only in prophecy. 

And this “literalness” is quite compatible with the existence of many “figures” in prophetic speech (Scofield 1907, 45-46). So what Scofield means by “literal” is not too clear. Perhaps the word has already unconsciously been loaded with some of the assumptions belonging to the theological system.

Not all dispensationalist interpreters use the word “literal” in the same way. Modified dispensationalists, for instance, may use the word “literal” simply to refer to grammatical-historical interpretation. With them it has no other special meaning. In that case, I do not disagree with them. But in much of the published dispensational literature, there are added connotations. Hence we must examine this key word more closely.



An attempt to define “literal” interpretation, to pin it down more exactly, is surely desirable. But this is not as easy as it might appear. Charles Ryrie (1965, 86-87) invokes other, related terms like “normal” and “plain” to explicate what he means by literalness. 

But, by itself, this is not enough. Our sense of normality depends radically on our sense of context, including a whole worldview, as Stanley E. Fish shows in an article “Normal Circumstances, Literal Language, Direct Speech Acts, the Ordinary, the Everyday, the Obvious, What Goes without Saying, and Other Special Cases” (1978, 625-44). Without repeating the contents of that article, let me proceed to examine the problem by a parallel route.

One major aspect of the problem is that, in many instances, words but not sentences have a “literal” or “normal” meaning. Moreover, for both words and sentences, context is all-important in the determination of meaning at any given point in an act of communication. 

What contexts are to be looked at, and how they are to be looked at, in the determination of meaning is very important. But questions of context are, I believe, too often begged in classic dispensationalist discussion of “literalness.” We need to discuss these questions more precisely.


We may best approach the central issue using some examples. Let us start with the following sample from a piece of writing:


What does it mean? Well, we may recognize that the graphic symbol “battle” can be either a noun (“a battle”) or a verb (“to battle”). When we are not given any further context, we would most likely construe this as a noun. The verb, in fact, derives its meaning from the noun, rather than vice versa. 

If a large number of people were stopped on the street and asked to define “battle,” the great majority would probably give a definition like “a part of a war, a fight” (noun), rather than “to engage in combat” (verb). They would thereby indicate that they were thinking of the noun form rather than the verb.

Now this is an illustration of the fact that for most words there is something like a first-thought meaning, a meaning that one would naturally give when asked, “What does this word mean?” Not everyone might say exactly the same thing, but one sort of answer would usually dominate.

However, once we are given even a little bit of context, our guesses about the meaning may change radically. Let us see:

to battle

Now we are almost certain that “battle” is a verb.(But “to battle” could be a prepositional phrase, as in “Off to battle we go.”) There is still a kind of “first-thought” meaning, namely “to engage in combat, to fight.” Let us have a little more context:

I had thorns and briers to battle

Now we are in difficulty. What is the “literal” meaning of this clause? Well, if we insist that each word keep its “first-thought” meaning, we are unable to come up with a consistent interpretation. There is a tension between the verb “battle,” which suggests an animate opponent, and the “thorns and briers” which are indicated as the opponent, but are not animate.

The statement is presumably metaphorical. But of course, there is still an interpretation which results in (roughly) a minimum amount of figurativeness. For instance, a gardener might use such a statement as a colorful way to express problems that have arisen with thorns and briers. 

We could analyze it by saying that the gardener uses the word “battle” in a figurative sense as equivalent of “keep out.” But of course the metaphorical statement hints at a little more than this. It invites us to toy with a whole set of analogies between military and agricultural affairs. Are there agricultural equivalents to weapons? 

Are there stages in the agricultural “battle” when it may appear that one side is “defeated,” only to have the fortunes reversed? The use of “battle” suggests a little more than would the use of “keep out.” But we can judge how much more only when we see the context, and know whether the context exploits further comparisons between war and agriculture.

Would that I had thorns and briers to battle.

Having “would that” attached to the front of the sentence results in a global change in our estimate of the meaning. Whereas before we were surmising that we had to do with an actual experience of a gardener, now we know that the experience is only a hypothetical, imagined one.

Let us see still more context:

Would that I had thorns and briers to battle! I would set out against them, I would burn them up together.

With this much context, we can see that somewhat more extended analogies are developing between warfare and agriculture. “Set out against them” and “burn them up” are things that one could do in warfare against cities. But a “minimally figurative” interpretation would hold that all this analogy of warfare is brought in in order to illuminate the farmer’s skills against thorns and briers.

A pleasant vineyard, sing of it!I, the LORD, am its keeper;every moment I water it.Lest any one harm it,I guard it night and day;I have no wrath.Would that I had thorns and briers to battle!I would set out against them,I would burn them up together.

Now this sounds like a picture of the garden of Eden, either the Eden of the past or a new Eden of the future. We tend to suspect this all the more because the mention of the the LORD suggests the context of biblical revelation. In that context, the Genesis story involving the garden of Eden is an obvious backdrop. We therefore suspect that Eden is being alluded to. 

Yet no explicit statement makes it absolutely necessary to think this. If we were quite wooden and unimaginative, we could say, “This is just saying that the Lord has a vineyard that he is committed to caring for. It is not saying that this is a new Eden or old Eden.”

Actually, this passage comes from Isa 27:2-4 (RSV). When I say that, I give you the opportunity to take into account much larger contexts: the context of Isaiah 27, of the whole book of Isaiah, of Isaiah the person and his times, of the portions of the Bible that were written before and after Isaiah. 

In that context, Isa 27:6 says that “Israel shall blossom and bud.” In the light of that and the vineyard analogy in Isaiah 5, everyone will agree that Isa 27:2-4 is in fact using the whole picture of gardener and vineyard metaphorically. The “battling” of Isa 27:4 has in view hypothetical battles which the LORD might fight against personal enemies.

Though the whole picture is metaphorical, the particular word “battle” turns out to be used “less metaphorically” than we thought at first. Battles against personal enemies (more or less literal battles) rather than problems with nonpersonal briers and thorns (nonliteral battles) are in view. 

Moreover, the effect of the word “battle” depends on our retaining a sense of the atmosphere of warfare as well as the way in which a gardener’s struggles with thorns and briers are analogous to war.

In addition, it seems to me that the allusion to Eden is indeed present, when we take into account the total context. The model of peace in Eden is used to evoke the comprehensive peace that Israel will experience in the future. This peace doubtless manifests itself primarily in a spiritual and social way. But the fruitfulness in view still seems to suggest the inclusion of literal agricultural bounty. It thus links up with the Deuteronomic blessings (Deut 28:1-14) and prophetic predictions involving plant life (e.g., Isa 35:1-2, 32:15-20).

But we should note that a good many of these ideas are suggested or hinted at rather than said in so many words. You could not “prove” that the allusions were there to people who insisted on “hard” evidence before they abandoned the most prosaic, limited, and “controled” interpretation.



In the light of this example, we can say that there are at least three plausible ways of talking about “literal” meaning.

First, one could say that the “literal” meaning of a word is the meaning that native speakers are most likely to come up with when they are asked about the word in isolation (that is, apart from any context in a particular sentence or discourse). It is what I have above called “first-thought” meaning. Thus, the “first-thought” meaning of “battle” is “a fight, a combat.” 

The “first-thought” meaning is often the most common meaning; it is sometimes but not always more “physical” or “concrete” in character than other possible dictionary meanings, some of which might be labeled “figurative.” For example, the “first thought” meaning of “burn” is “to consume in fire.” 

It is more “physical” and “concrete” than the metaphorical use of “burn” for burning anger. The first-thought meaning, or “literal” meaning in this sense, is opposite to any and all “figurative” meanings.

To avoid ambiguity, I will call this meaning of a word the “first-thought meaning.” This is, remember, the meaning for words in isolation. But what if the words form a sentence? Well, we can imagine proceeding to interpret a whole sentence or a whole paragraph by mechanically assigning to each word its first-thought meaning. 


This would often be artificial or even absurd. It would be an interpretation that did not take into account the influence of context on the determination of which sense or senses of a word are actually “activated.” We might call such an interpretation “first-thought interpretation.”

As an example, take the text “Would that I had thorns and briers to battle!” What would “first-thought” interpretation of this be like? Well, “first-thought” meaning of “thorns” (the word in isolation) is “plant with prickly spines.” First-thought meaning of “briers” is similar. 

First-thought meaning of “battle” is “military action against an opposing army.” It seems hard to add these together in a purely mechanical way. But we might obtain the result that the speaker wished to use briers and thorns as weapons in the next military campaign, or that thorns and briers had suddenly been transformed into a science fiction scenario where they actually organize themselves (consciously) into an army. Clearly, “first-thought interpretation” is sometimes strange or absurd.

Next, we could imagine reading passages as organic wholes, but reading them in the most prosaic way possible. We would allow ourselves to recognize obvious figures of speech, but nothing beyond the most obvious. We would ignore the possibility of poetic overtones, irony, word-play, or the possibly figurative or allusive character of whole sections of material. At least, we would ignore such things whenever they were not perfectly obvious. Let us call this “flat interpretation.” It is “literal if possible.”

Again, let us take Isa 27:2-4 as our example. Flat interpretation recognizes that this passage is embedded in the rest of Isaiah 27, and this in turn is embedded in the whole book of Isaiah. 

But Isa 27:2-5 is taken simply as a prediction that the Lord will construct a perfect horticultural work in the form of a vineyard. Admittedly, Isa 27:6 “Israel shall blossom” is figurative for the spiritual prosperity of the people of Israel. So it is natural to take Isa 27:2-5 as an allusion to spiritual prosperity. But there is nothing to prove this. Isa 27:2-5 may be purely about agriculture. 

It is then related to Isa 27:6 only in terms of the common general theme of prosperity. Moreover, the purely agricultural reading is the most “literal.” It is as close as possible to “first-thought interpretation” without falling into absurdity. Hence, since it is possible, it is the “flat interpretation.”

If this seems too extreme, we could take a more moderate case. Suppose a person admits that Isa 27:2-5 is a figurative description of God’s spiritual favor to Israel. Yet the person might still claim that there is no allusion to the garden of Eden. No one could prove this wrong beyond any possibility of dispute, since Eden is not explicitly mentioned in the passage. 

This too is “flat” interpretation. But it is not as flat as the interpretation of the previous paragraph. I think it is convenient to retain the term “flat interpretation” as a designation of the most extreme case, and then recognize that there may be other interpretations which would approach this extreme by degrees.

Finally, we may speak of a third kind of interpretation. In this type of interpretation, one reads passages as organic wholes and tries to understand what each passage expresses against the background of the original human author and the original situation

One asks what understanding and inferences would be justified or warranted at the time the passage was written. This interpretation aims to express the meanings that human authors express. Also, it is willing to recognize fine-grained allusions and open-ended language. 

It endeavors to recognize when authors leave a degree of ambiguity and vagueness about how far their allusions extend. Let us call this “grammatical-historical interpretation.” If the author is a very unimaginative or prosaic sort of person, or if the passage is part of a genre of writing that is thoroughly prosaic, the grammatical-historical interpretation coincides with the flat interpretation. 

But in other cases flat interpretation and grammatical-historical interpretation will not always coincide. If the author is trying to be more imaginative, then it is an allowable part of grammatical-historical interpretation for us to search for allusions, word-plays, and other indirect ways of communicating, even when such things are not so obvious that no one misses them.

Now, what do dispensationalist interpreters mean by “literal”? Do they mean one of the above types of interpretation, or something different from any of them? 

Dispensationalists have said again and again that they recognize that there are figures of speech in the Bible. On the basis of that, and on the basis of the clearest and best of their statements on interpretive principles, we should presumably understand them to be advocating grammatical-historical interpretation. 

Moreover, in the history of hermeneutical theory, the term sensus literalis (“literal sense”) has been associated with grammatical-historical interpretation. Therefore, there is some historical warrant for using the word “literal” in a technical sense, simply to designate the aim of grammatical-historical interpretation. 

Nevertheless, in our modern context, the repeated use of the word “literal” by dispensationalists is not helpful. “Literal” tends to be understood as the opposite of “figurative.” Thus the word “literal” may quite easily suggest the two other types of interpretation above (first-thought interpretation or flat interpretation).


The word “plain” has been used as an alternative. But this word is not much better. Why not? The original listeners to a piece of communication already have tacit awareness of a full-blown context: they are aware of the context of their historical situation, the context of their knowledge of grammar, and the context of the part of the communication that they have already heard. 

Because they have thoroughly absorbed these rich contextsbefore they hear the next sentence, that sentence will (ordinarily) seem to them to have a “plain” meaning. But if we as twentieth century hearers read the same sentence and ask ourselves what its “plain” meaning is, what we will get is the meaning that the sentence or paragraph would have if occurring in our twentieth century context–the context that is an inextricable part of our tacit knowledge. 

Sometimes the grammatical-historical meaning is not at all “plain” to us, because we must work hard to try to reconstruct and appreciate the differences between then and now. Moreover, for lay dispensationalists, the “plain” meaning will be the meaning that occurs to them in the context of their already existing knowledge of the prophetic system of dispensationalism.

This leads us to the possibility of still a fourth type of interpretation. “Plain interpretation,” let us say, is interpretation of a text by interpreters against the context of the interpreters’ tacit knowledge of their own worldview and historical situation. 

It minimizes the role of the original historical and cultural context. Grammatical-historical interpretation differs from “plain interpretation” precisely over the question of primary historical and cultural context for interpretation. “Plain” interpretation reads everything as if it were written directly to oneself, in one’s own time and culture. 

Grammatical-historical interpretation reads everything as if it were written in the time and culture of the original author. Of course, when we happen to be interpreting modern literature written in our own culture or subculture, the two are the same.

We have now seen that there are certain liabilities to the words “literal” and “plain.” If dispensationalists are dead serious about advocating grammatical-historical interpretation, in distinction from first-thought interpretation, flat interpretation, and plain interpretation, I think they could demonstrate their commitment by dropping the phrase “literal interpretation.” 

“Grammatical-historical interpretation” unambiguously designates what they want, whereas the word “literal” is ambiguous, and tends (wrongly) to suggest some or all of the alternatives to grammatical-historical interpretation.

Of course, the word “literal” could still be used to describe individual words that are being used in a nonfigurative sense. For instance, the word “vineyard” literally means a field growing grapes. In Isa 27:2 it is used nonliterally, figuratively, as a designation for Israel. 

By contrast, in Gen 9:20 the word is used literally (nonfiguratively). In these instances, the word “literal” is the opposite of “figurative.” But since any extended passage might or might not contain figures of speech, the word “literal” would not any longer be used to describe a global method or approach to interpretation.

I suspect, however, that dropping the phrase “literal interpretation” might prove difficult for some dispensationalists, because “literal” has become a watchword and a banner. It is a useful banner word, I suggest, precisely because it can become a vehicle for sliding into a flat interpretation or plain interpretation when this is convenient.

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