When Literal Interpretations Don’t Hold Water

by John Makujina

Conservative Christians have acquired the label literalists because they accept the record of supernatural events in the Bible as literally true, whereas liberal Christians tend to see those events merely as representations of theological principles. In a different sense, however, both conservatives and liberals could be labeled literalists when they fail to recognize certain expressions in the Bible as figures of speech and instead interpret them literally. Mishandling figures of speech in this and other ways is a common source of faulty interpretations. In his latest book, The Sins of Scripture,1 liberal theologian and critic of historic Christianity Bishop John Shelby Spong is guilty of such errors, which result in distorted interpretations. Using Spong’s interpretations as examples, this article will examine three common figures of speech and how to understand them correctly.

Hyperbole. The first type of expression we’ll look at is called hyperbole, which is an exaggeration for effect. When people say, “He couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn,” or “I’ve told you a million times,” for example, they are overstating matters to make a point. In the same vein, most interpreters recognize that when the writer of Judges claims that the Benjamites could “sling a stone at a hair and not miss” (20:16) it simply means that they were accomplished marksmen, not that they could actually expect to strike something as fine as a hair at any meaningful distance.2

Most scholars, likewise, regard Jesus’ command to remove an offending member of the body as hyperbole, an exaggeration of His point that we should take serious measures to avoid sin:

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire…. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell…. If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:43–48)

When Spong comments on this text, however, he entirely overlooks the hyperbole. He not only takes the statement as a summons to literal self-mutilation, but also as a sort of self-inflicted penance to avoid more severe punishment by God…

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When Literal Interpretations Don’t Hold Water

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