Copyright © 1998 by Natalie Pappas
There are two basic types of interpretation. One is the Allegorical Method. The other is the Literal Method. This article will examine both and determine why the Literal Method is the only sane approach to interpreting Scripture.
The first and most important reason that literal interpretation of the Bible should be employed by students of the Bible is because it is the sole method we employ in all of our daily tasks. If our spouse asks us to pick up a carton of milk from the grocery store on the way home, we pick up a carton of milk from the grocery store on the way home. We literally park our car, get out, go into the store, pick out a brand of milk, take it to the check-out counter, pay for it, and take it home. We don't spiritualize away the meaning and only remember to look fondly at the grocery store as we pass it on the way home.
When we read books, do we read them allegorically or literally? Let me phrase this differently: would we read a Chemistry book allegorically or literally? It would seem rather strange interpreting H2O as anything else other than water. In the same way, when we watch a movie, it would seem rather strange to interprete the main character's name as "Robert" as "Harry", unless of course "Harry" is a middle name which only close friends use. And the only way we would know this is if we watched the movie from the beginning and it was in the inital exposition (information) about that specific character. The movie in this way is its own dictionary. Literal interpretation simply makes more sense. Allegorical interpretation, on the other hand, is a method of interpretation used by those who manipulate those who follow them.
Using the method of allegorical Interpretation leaves one on shaky ground because with this method of interpretation, there is no such thing as absolute truth. In other words, you would not know what was absolutely true or absolutely false when reading the Bible. With allegorical interpretation anything can mean anything. The only limit is your own imagination. This is how David Koresh interpreted the Bible. This is how Jim Jones interpreted the Bible. This is why near the end March 1998, a group in the Dallas area falsely predicted God would appear on Channel 18 at midnight and give viewers a special message. Needless to say, God did not appear as scheduled. Yet hundreds of people were misled by this leader's interpretations (which led to his false prophecy that God would appear on Channel 18).
Bernard Ramm, in Protestant Biblical Interpretation, defines allegoricalism in this way: "Allegorism is the method of interpreting a literary text that regards the literal sense as the vehicle for a secondary, more spiritual and more profound sense (pg 21)". As soon as the allegorical system is used to interprete the Bible, the Bible stops being the absolute authority, and if the Bible is no longer the absolute authority, then anything goes. Since our doctrine shapes how we live our lives, a misinterpretation of Scripture could potentially harm us not only spiritually, but physically as well.
For example, if the concept of "eating blood" is allegorically defined to mean modern day blood transfusions, then many people, including children, needlessly die each year because of the method the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society's chose to interprete "eating blood". Thus, it is easily demonstrated that the method one uses in interpreting Scripture can lead to life or death.
J. Dwight Pentecost writes that the Literal Method "of interpretation is that method that gives to each word the same exact basic meaning it would have in normal, ordinary, customary usgage, whether employed in writing, speaking, or thinking" (Things to Come, pg 9). He further writes that this "literalistic approach does not blindly rule out figures of speech, symbols, allegories, and types; but if the nature of the sentence so demands, it readily yeilds to the second sense (pg 10)". One example of this is the Apostle Paul's use of allegory in Galatians chapter 4. Here Hagar and Sarah are represented as two covanants. Scripture goes on to elaborate upon this, however, notice that Scripture is doing the defining and not myself.
The main difference between the allegorical and literal method of interpretation lies in how one views the Bible. If one views the Bible as the complete Word of God, breathed out by God perfectly without error, then one trusts that every word in Scripture is defined by Scripture. In other words, the Bible is its own dictionary. If one does not trust that the Bible is the ultimate authority, invaribly the allegorical method is favored.
Which method of Scripture do you employ to interprete the Bible? Allegorical or literal? It can mean the difference between life or death, physically as well as spiritually (and that's not allegoricalizing!)