We must know what the human author of a scriptural text wanted to say before we can come to any conclusions as to what God is telling us.
What matters is not the external sound but the meaning; not the words or expressions in themselves, but the intention in the minds of the human authors who used such words or expressions.
“All that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirmed should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit . . . The interpreter of the Sacred Scriptures, if he or she is to ascertain what God has wished to communicate, should carefully search out the meaning which the sacred writers really had in mind, that meaning which God had thought well to manifest through the medium of their words”.
Vatican Council II, Divine Revelation no 11-12
Why the “literalist” sense will not do
Let us start from basics and take a simple example. In Matthew’s Gospel we find this important admonition of Jesus:
Love your enemies.
Pray for those who treat you badly.
In this way you will become true children of your heavenly Father for he causes his sun to rise on bad and good people alike, and makes his rain fall on dishonest as much as on honest people.
The general meaning is straightforward enough. But suppose we want to probe further and ask ourselves what is meant by the statement that God ‘causes his sun to rise’?
We could fall into the trap of thinking it is the words that matter, and so just look up a dictionary.
This is what fundamentalists and literalists do. They think they can establish the meaning of the phrase by the meaning of the words. However, this is misleading.
In the sixteenth century, for instance, the astronomer Copernicus had begun to show that it is not the sun that moves around the earth, but the earth that encircles the sun.
Literalist Christians rejected this finding as impossible because, they said, ‘it goes against the inspired Scriptures’. Matthew 5,45 was one text quoted to prove this claim. For Jesus says: ‘The Father makes the sun rise . . . . ‘ Therefore, it is the sun that moves and not the earth, they said.
Another text misunderstood in a similar way was Joshua 10,12-15, in which Joshua is said to have made the sun stand still. On the strength of such literalist interpretations, Galileo Galilei was ordered by the Holy Office in 1633 to retract his belief that the earth circles round the sun, and condemned to house arrest till the end of his life!
But if the words by themselves do not fix the meaning, where do we find it? The answer is: in the context of the whole passage.
When Jesus adduced the example of his heavenly Father making the sun rise on good and bad alike, he did not want to teach astronomy. Modern science lay outside his scope and would have been beyond the grasp of his audience anyway. The question whether it is the earth that lies at the centre or the sun, is not touched by the intended meaning of his words. Jesus just uses an everyday expression we still use today. We say: ‘the sun rises’, inspite of our better astronomical knowledge!
We are talking here about an important principle which applies to all authors of Scripture. What it means, in fact, is that since God speaks through human authors, God follows their human mind and heart and way of speaking. We will only know what God was trying to say by knowing what his human instrument wanted to say.
Case study: six-day creation
Begin by looking at this video (click on start arrow):
© Wijngaards Institute.
This is the beginning of the famous creation account of Genesis 1,1 – 2,4. The whole world is created in six days. God rested on the seventh day.
- Until modern times the story was interpreted literally by most Christians! They believed firmly that God finished the whole of creation in six 24-hour days.
- With the discovery of evolution, Genesis 1,1 – 2,4 became a serious problem for many people’s faith. How could the Word of God be wrong about such an important aspect of existence? They did not understand that Genesis 1,1 – 2,4 had never intended to teach how God created the world, only that God had created everything.
To learn the principle of intended meaning, please examine this case study very carefully: God creates the world in six days .
After completing the case study, return to this lesson.
Exercise: The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart
In the book of Exodus we read how Moses orders the Pharaoh of Egypt to give the people of Israel their freedom. But in spite of the ten plagues, the Pharaoh refuses to give in.
- “When Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his courtiers. So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened and he did not let the people of Israel go as the Lord had commanded him to do through Moses.”
- “Then the Lord said to Moses: ‘Go to meet Pharaoh for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his courtiers so that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your children and grandchildren how I made fools of the Egyptians.”
Exodus 9,34 – 10,2
This text has often been misunderstood in the past. It was one of the passages by which Calvin tried to prove his doctrine of predestination, namely that ultimately God assigns us to heaven or hell even before we have done anything good or evil.
Reading the context (Exodus 5 – 12), try,if you can, to answer these questions:
- What does ‘hardening one’s heart’ mean?
- Was the Pharaoh wrong to oppose God’s command? In other words: did the Pharoah harden his own heart?
- What then is meant by the phrase ‘God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart’?
Postscript: what is the “literal” sense?
The intended meaning is sometimes called the ‘literal’ sense. It is then distinguished from the ‘literalist’ sense.
The literal meaning of a text, as opposed to the ‘literalist’ meaning, is then the meaning which the original speaker or writer intended. In other words, we should ask ourselves: what did this person want to say? We may not read more, or less, into a piece of writing than what its author actually had in mind.
However, because most people will spontaneously confuse the ‘literal’ sense with the ‘literalist’ sense, it may be better to avoid the term.
If you have found this course helpful, please help us to keep it free for others by giving us a donation. Please click here