One of the things I had to learn once I started seminary was how to effectively and rightly interpret Scripture. I guess I hadn’t though much about it up to that point. I figured you just read the Bible and did what it said. From time-to-time, I would have people ask me, “Do you interpret the Bible literally?” Hm. Wasn’t sure how to answer that. I guess so. At the time, I didn’t understand what they meant. I later learned that some people interpreted everything literally. Since there are passages that instruct women to “adorn themselves in respectable apparel…” (1 Timothy 2:9-10), some churches have decided it best that women not wear make-up or shorts or anything other than long dresses. While I respect their desire for modesty and am totally in favor of the appropriate amount of cover-up, make-up, in my humble opinion, is not a bad invention. Therefore, I assumed that I didn’t take everything literally.
On the other hand, there were those who argued for allegorical interpretation of Scripture. In this case, stories like Jonah and the Whale, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Noah and the Flood were not historical events but stories made up in order to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. I definitely didn’t fall into that category.
So, when I got to seminary, I learned how to properly interpret Scripture. I learned that it is important that we seek out the author’s original intent according to the context in which he wrote. What was he trying to say when he wrote what he did under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? I learned that there are different genres in Scripture just like there are different genres in other types of literature. As such, they must be interpreted accordingly. For instance, poetry can’t be interpreted the same as history. Imagery is used that cannot be taken literally. If it were, then a painting of the bride that Solomon describes in Song of Solomon 4 would end up looking like a strange work of art by Pablo Picasso…more like the Elephant Man than a beautiful woman.
During my studies, I discovered a device that is often used in Scripture called “Phenomenological Language.” When someone uses this literary device, they are simply describing what they see as they see it without using technical jargon or concern to describe what is actually happening. For instance, in Psalm 19, David, in describing the heavens that God created, writes:
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
5 which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
Now, if we take that literally, we have a lot of problems with Scripture. As a matter of fact, this verse has been used by some who believe the Bible is full of errors. They say that if God essentially wrote Scripture, it should be known that the Sun does not actually move, but that the earth revolves around a stationary sun. This, therefore, proves Scripture errant. These people fail to realize the phenomenological language that is being used to provide word-pictures. David is simply looking up and describing the heavens as he sees it. The reality is, we know that the Earth revolves around the Sun yet we do the same thing today! Think about it: “What time is sunrise today?” “Did you see that beautiful sunset?” “I love watching the Sun rise over the ocean.” What are we saying about the nature of the Sun’s actions in relation to the Earth when we talk like this? Nothing. That’s not what we’re talking about at all.
In light of this, it’s important that we understand how we interpret language. Otherwise, it can completely derail our understanding of Scripture and how we live our lives.
I have another one for you. We talk about “going to church.” How often do you talk to your family and friends about going to church? It happens all the time, doesn’t it? Do you go to church every Sunday? What church to you go to? What are we doing? We’re using phenomenological language! It looks like we’re going to church, but that is not the reality. The Bible describes the Truth behind the language in places like 1 Corinthians 12:27, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” Again in Romans 12:4-5, “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” As a matter of fact, there are over 20 passages in Scripture that talk not about going to church, but being the Church! Our understanding on this point makes all the difference in the world as to how we respond to it.
If I believe that I simply go to church on Sunday, then my level of commitment and involvement is very limited. I go to the store to get what I need and leave without another thought of it. I go to the movies and am entertained for a couple of hours and then get on with my life. I am, essentially, a consumer who gets what I need and then moves on with that experience having little impact on the other parts of my life.
If, on the other hand, I understand that I am the Church, that changes everything! I cannot be a father only when I’m around my children or a husband only when I’m around my wife. These aspects of my identity shape everything about me. They determine decisions and actions, attitudes and thoughts. That is me. In the same way, I cannot be a part of the Church only when I’m there. I am a part of the Body of Christ at all times and in all places. That fact should also shape decisions, attitudes, actions and thoughts. It should determine how I function within the Body as well:
I don’t ask whether I should serve. I assume that. Instead, I ask “Where should I serve.”
I don’t ask wether or not I should give. I assume that. Instead, I ask, “What should I give?”
I don’t ask whether or not I should participate. I assume that. Instead, I ask, “How do I participate.”
I don’t ask whether or not I should be a witness for Christ at work and play. I assume that. Instead, I ask, “How can I be a good witness in my context?
I hope you can see the importance of understanding Scripture rightly, and how our use of language matters, as well. If I talk too much about “going to church,” that will eventually shape my thinking about it. Instead, I need to begin reminding myself at all times and in all ways, that, because I have been adopted by the Father, redeemed by the Son and sealed by the Spirit, I am the Church. In so doing, I’m changing the way I identify and interact with all of the other members of that same Body of Christ, serving, giving and going with the right attitude and determination to glorify Him in all things.