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The problem of literal interpretation
- Jacob Ninan
As we know, one of the reasons for so many divisions among Christians is that we interpret the Bible in different ways. One way some people interpret the word of God is to take it too literally. Some boast, "I read it exactly as it is written." Of course there is a big problem when people read it carelessly and interpret it adding or removing words and meanings from what is written. We must take care to use an accurate translation, and use all the help available to get as closely as possible to the exact meaning. But then we must also take into consideration the context of the particular passage in the whole Biblical revelation. We must also note the fact that words are part of a language, and that the author or the one who spoke the words recorded by the author used those words in the usual way people use words--and not in the precise manner of legal or scientific people.
For example take the following sentences Jesus spoke. "It shall be done to you according to your faith" (Mt.9:29). "Daughter, your faith has made you well" (Mk.5:34). A literal interpretation of these words has caused some people to develop wrong concepts of faith altogether. At one extreme end some people consider faith to be like a substance, according to whose quantity we can get different results. In the context of the blind men to whom Jesus said these words, if they had only half their faith would they have got only one eye opened? But did Jesus really mean that we would receive answers from God in proportion to our faith, or did He mean the same as when He said to the Canaanite woman whose daughter was healed, "O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish" (Mt.15:28)? Wasn't Jesus telling the blind men also the same thing, that they would get what they had faith for, and not that it would be in proportion to the quantity of their faith? When Jesus told His disciples that if they had faith as small as a mustard seed they could order a mountain to go away, wasn't He saying that it wasn't the size of their faith that mattered (Mt.17:20)? Faith is a trust and confidence that we have in Jesus as a result of our relationship with Him, and not any substance with which we could bargain for blessings from God. We cannot add up faith to meet the requirement of some blessing!
"Daughter, your faith has made you well" has also been misinterpreted to mean that faith has power in itself to accomplish things. This is so contrary to the fact that there is power only with God, and it is He who does things for us when He sees faith in us.
In both these cases if we only look at the words it is possible to come to such conclusions. But if we understand what faith really means--from the rest of the Bible--and then look at these verses we will see that these words cannot really mean what they seem to. It is clear that we need to understand the Bible as a whole if we want to avoid such errors. We also need to look beyond the words to the spirit.