The Danger of Not Reading Scripture Literally

by Joel Watts

[ene_ptp]Growing up, we were told to read Scripture via the plain sense model. The words on the page contained no mystery and were to be received exactly as we understood them. There was limited allegory (usually one instance, Galatians 4.24), but otherwise, things we didn’t understand (Revelation) became “prophecy.”
You understand what I mean. We were “literalists.”
As I transitioned from fear to faith, I went too far. I insisted on getting to the absolute mystery of Scripture via the ad fontes! approach. Again, I was a literalist, where I would look for the original meaning of the word.
The truth of the matter is that the proper reading of Scripture lies in the middle. St Matthew, in his Gospel, destroys the plain sense reading and doesn’t much help the allegorists. The blessed writer of the Epistle of the Hebrews does the same thing. Their modes of revelation always reach to original intent — but the intent as revealed in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
But this post isn’t really about reading Scripture properly — methodologically, speaking. Rather, I want to address, briefly, the need to take Scripture with a measure of plain sense reading.
In reading the Gospel of Mark, I firmly believe that many of the miracles are meant to be a hidden transcript against the rulers of the age (both the Roman and Jewish governing hierarchies). However, the plain sense reading of these passages reveal something else. The Gospel of Mark has many present-tense verbs, and I am of the opinion that this is more than a stylistic choice of the author, but is every bit part of the Gospel’s agenda. Jesus’s work is never past tense. Jesus’s words are never simply said.
Rather, the Gospel of Mark has the singular goal to remind the readers that Jesus still is…still is healing the sick, still is casting out demons (either political or spiritual), and still is speaking. Jesus is still speaking to the oppressed, still loving the unloved, and still calling to the hurt, to give them hope.
Why is this important?
Simply because, no matter the hidden transcripts, the allegories, or the parables involved, the original authors and their disciples believed Jesus was in fact a miracle worker, a healer, a compassionate friend, and the Son of God. That’s why the stories exploded — because Jesus, for them, was very much a real and present Person. They didn’t wait for Him to return, but knew that He was very much in their presence, healing and exorcising and loving.
If we focus on making the Gospels into a parable and thus allegorize (and demythologize) the words about Jesus, or if we read the Gospels as a historical account, we are going to make a grave error. One removes the power of Jesus, pretending it is some pre-modernist babble and folklore. The other removes the very presence of Jesus in the life of the Christian today — a presence that goes beyond a conscience or some sort of ethical guide, but a presence that is ever power and ever working.
We need to read Scripture as if those stories hold mystery, history, allegory, and fact in tandem. Otherwise, we will soon begin to ignore the power of Jesus to be present in our lives. We will miss the power of Jesus to heal our hearts, to heal our sicknesses, and the cast demons out of our paths — however we may interpret that.
Finally, when you read Scripture, do so as St Matthew did, as St. Paul did, and as others have — always through Christ and always pointing to the present reality by aid of the Holy Spirit.
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  1. Well said Joel! My favorite line(s)…The Gospel of Mark has many present-tense verbs, and I am of the opinion that this is more than a stylistic choice of the author, but is every bit part of the Gospel’s agenda. Jesus’s work is never past tense. Jesus’s words are never simply said.

  2. Thank you, Joel, for all your points in proving your point! Ha! Great observation about Mark being in the present tense. Yes, Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Amen. I had to look up your term, ad fontes, and found it meant “back to the source or fountain.” Where there is wrong Bible interpretation, I believe that most times it is because of not appreciating our Hebrew roots and the Jewishness of Jesus and our faith. (Hence my book, “Why Christians Should Care About Their Jewish Roots.”)
    Just like with the U.S. Constitution, the “original intent” provides a correct interpretation. Of course, we can’t understand everything with our finite minds, and Paul mentioned “mystery” many times. I love Deut. 29:29 – “The SECRET things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are REVEALED belong to us and to our children forever, that we may DO all the words of the law.”
    I was blessed reading your post. It encourages me in my walk with the Lord. Keep it up!
    Nancy Petrey

  3. Another critical point is that no accurate or complete interpretation of scripture can occur apart from the revelation given to the reader by its Author, Jesus, who is the incarnate Word Himself enlightening the readers’ minds.
    “And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God.” Rev. 19:13
    Any verse, or passage of scripture can be torn asunder by all kinds of interpretations. Even the one I just listed. I’ve read the Bible cover to cover at least a dozen times myself and have set under the tutelage of several Bible Scholar Ph.d.’s, read their books, and have heard about as many interpretations as Campbell’s has beans. But, it wasn’t until I decided to stake my life upon God’s Word being written by Him and that it was true, and trusting that God was quite capable of overseeing its preservation, that I began to really understand with ever increasing clarity what every passage meant. It’s like having the author of the book you are reading looking over your shoulder as you read and whispering in your ear, “This is what I meant by that.”

    1. Jan Bragdon, I really wholeheartedly agree with you, especially this phrase: “trusting that God was quite capable of overseeing its preservation.” Thank you so much. What a great quote from Revelation. It was after I was born again that I had such a thirst for the Word of God. This was evidence that the Holy Spirit was really working in my life.

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