Stephen Noll–Rediscovering The Tapestry Of Scripture: Understanding Its Plain And Canonical Sense

Believing the Bible to be the Word of God and actually interpreting it are two important but distinct activities. Confessing the primary authority of the Bible puts us, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim, on the right road, but we still have a long and dangerous journey ahead and we need an interpreter to help us along. The way of interpretation which historically and theologically corresponds to the doctrine of verbal inspiration of the Bible is the literal sense. “Literalism” is a badge of pride or abuse nowadays, like the word “fundamentalism.” Just as those who would take their stand on the fundamentals are not necessarily fundamentalists, so reading the Bible literally does not necessarily make one a literalist. Since no hermeneutical label is without its difficulties, I prefer to stick to the classic use of literal sense.[2]

“Literal sense” is the linking together of God’s written Word, our hearts and minds made and restored in his image, and the Truth to which the Bible points (Ps 19:1, 7,14; John 15:26). The literal sense depends on a complex but real intentionality: God as the final author inspired the receiving, inscribing, editing, and collecting of his revelation so that it would convey true meaning. Although the greatest thinkers can mine Scripture and never exhaust its ore, the plain truth of God’s salvation is publicly declared (2 Cor 4:1-4; John 18:10) and available to those (and only those) who approach it as little children (Matt 11:25-26). Finally, literal interpretation does not imply worship of the Bible because language, while it is a complex symbol system, refers not to itself but to something or Someone else. Having said that, literal interpretation guards against spiritual bypasses around the text as a vehicle of meaning, for the Spirit inspires and illumines with and under the written Word.

Unfortunately, many conservatives and liberals have an atrophied understanding of the literal sense. They approach the text like Sergeant Friday: “Just the facts, ma’am!” Or “Did it really happen that way?” (Conservatives answer Yes, liberals No). If Scripture is more textured than a flat reading would allow, it is because its component strands are tightly spun into a three-fold cord of literal meaning. To distinguish the strands of each thread, I would ask three kinds of questions of any biblical text…

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Posted in - Anglican: Commentary, Theology: Scripture