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Literal Bible Interpretation
and Bible Contradictions
Today, there is much controversy over literal Bible interpretation. Most of that is due to scientitific discoveries of the last 200 years.
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However, it is not evolution or science that has driven Christians away from a literal Bible interpretation.
As far back as A.D. 225, one Christian—who could not possibly have heard of Charles Darwin or of evolution—explained why Scripture was never meant to be a literal, historic document.
His explanation, which I am about to give you, is full, logical and powerful. I am also going to show you that it is not unique to Origen, the author of this marvelous, insightful discussion on Bible contradictions and literal Bible interpretation.
So buckle your seat belts. You have probably never heard an argument like this one because it's been lost to most of Christianity for centuries.
Why the Bible Is Not to be Interpreted Literally
The following is all from Origen's De Principiis or "Beginning Principles."
It is about God—of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—that these men, filled with the Divine Spirit, mainly write. It next followed, necessarily, that they should instruct mortals by divine teaching … and then should tell us what this world is, why it was created, and from where the great and terrible wickedness which covers the earth had sprung.
Since, then, it was the intention of the Holy Spirit to enlighten [only] those holy souls who had devoted themselves to the service of the truth with regard to these and similar subjects, the following purpose was kept in view. … For the sake of those who either could not or would not give themselves to this labor and toil by which they would deserve to be instructed in … things of such value and importance, [God purposed] to wrap up and conceal … in ordinary language—under the covering of some history and narrative of visible things—hidden mysteries. (IV:1:14)
Let me pause here so you can catch up on what he's saying.
- The main purpose of the writers of Scripture was to teach about God.
- The Holy Spirit only wants to enlighten those who actively pursue truth, so he hid mysteries of great value and importance under ordinary language, in history and narratives.
Now let me establish that, if you are a Bible believer, then what he says is incontrovertibly true.
Jesus gave the very same reason to explain why he spoke in parables. He told the apostles that "it is given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 13:11). But to those who are outside?
I speak to them in parables because seeing they do not see and hearing they do not hear nor understand. (Matt. 13:13)
Nor was this limited to Jesus. Jesus was actually quoting what was said to Isaiah when he appeared before God in heaven (Isaiah 6:1-10).
So Origen is establishing that proper Bible interpretation understands that God wants to hide things from those that do not seek them.
He goes on:
Therefore, the narrative of the visible creation is introduced, along with the creation and formation of the first man, then the descendants which followed from him in succession … In addition, the description of battles is given in a wonderful manner … by which certain unexplainable mysteries are made known to those who know how to investigate statements of that kind.
By an admirable discipline of Wisdom, the Law of truth, even the prophets, is implanted in the Scriptures of the Law … as a kind of covering and veil of spiritual truths. This is what we have called "the body of Scripture" so that in this way what we have called the "covering of the letter," woven by the art of Wisdom, might be capable of edifying and profiting many, while others derive no benefit. (ibid.)
Okay, let's pause again.
Origen now argues that Bible interpretation involves mysteries hidden by the letter of Scripture and that God did this on purpose, even revealing the "Law of Truth," which would be a reference to the New Covenant, in the words of the old Law … but only to those who would pursue truth diligently.
To the rest—which unfortunately means many of us modern Christians—the truth is hidden under our literal interpretation of the Bible.
Origen goes on, and here's where we get to the meat of the matter:
But if in all instances of this "covering" the logical connection and order of the Law had been preserved, we would certainly not believe … that anything else was contained in it except what was indicated on the surface. So for that reason, Divine Wisdom took care that certain stumbling blocks—interruptions—to the historical meaning would take place. He did this by introducing into the middle [of the narratives] certain impossibilities and incongruities. (ibid., IV:1:15)
What an astonishing assertion about Bible interpretation!
Origen, almost 1800 years ago, is arguing that the Bible contains contradictions ("incongruities") on purpose, so that we would know to look for a symbolic meaning!
In this way, the very interruption of the narrative might … present an obstacle to the reader, so that he might refuse to acknowledge the way that leads to an ordinary meaning, and—being excluded and barred from it—we might be called to the beginning of another way, so that … passing to a loftier and more sublime road, [God] might lay open the immense breadth of Divine Wisdom. (ibid.)
Origen believed that when we argue against contradictions and impossibilities in historical narratives, we are missing out on the breadth of Divine Wisdom and improperly interpreting the Bible!
Origen was not moved to this method of Bible interpretation by Charles Darwin or by modern science, neither of which existed in the early 3rd century.
Origen adopted this method of interpreting the Bible from the Bible itself!
And why shouldn't he? The apostle Paul saw the old and new covenants in the story of Sarah and Hagar (Gal. 4:21-31). Jesus saw the resurrection in the statement that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matt. 22:32).
Let's go on just a bit further with De Principiis (On Beginning Principles). But first, let's let him sum up his position on interpreting the Bible:
Now all this, as we have remarked, was done by the Holy Spirit so that when we find that events lying on the surface can be neither true nor useful, we may be led to investigate the truth that is more deeply concealed and to a meaning worthy of God in the Scriptures, which we believe to be inspired by him. (ibid.)
So what are these events that should lead us to seek a deeper meaning in our Bible interpretation?
So that our meaning may be ascertained by the facts themselves, let us examine the passages of Scripture.
Now who is there, pray, who is possessed of understanding, who will regard the statement as appropriate the first day, the second, and the third, in which both evening and morning are mentioned, happened without sun, moon, and stars? The first day was even without a sky! (ibid., IV:1:16)
Origen begins with the creation story, questioning its literalness based on Scripture only, not on evolutionary science which would have to wait 16 centuries to be discovered and accepted.
And who is so ignorant as to suppose that God, as if he were a farmer, planted trees in a garden, in Eden towards the east, with a tree of life in it—a visible, palpable tree of wood—so that anyone who ate of it with bodily teeth would obtain life, and, eating again of another tree, would come to the knowledge of good and evil? (ibid.)
Well, we know who would be so ignorant. Most of us Christians who are alive today because we've lost an understanding of Bible interpretation.
And know that we have indeed lost an understanding of Bible interpretation.
The explanations here are not unique to Origen …
Symbolic Bible Interpretation in the Early Church
Justin Martyr, almost a century before Origen, discusses the very same things in his Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew …
Trypho said … "Scripture compels us to admit [that one of the three men appearing to Abraham in Gen. 18:1-2 was God]. That's obvious. But there is a matter about which we are deservedly at a loss. That is, about what was said that he ate what was prepared and placed before him by Abraham. (ch. 57)
Here, Trypho the Jew admits to Justin Martyr that the Scripture says that those three men were really the Lord and two angels. But the idea that God would eat literal food threw them for a loss.
Not Justin. Justin was familiar with everything that Origen would say almost a century later, so he had a ready explanation.
I would say that the Scripture which affirms they ate has the same meaning as when we would say about fire that it devours all things. We certainly should not understand that they ate, masticating with teeth and jaws. Even in this case, we should not be at a loss about anything if we are even slightly acquainted with figurative modes of expression. (ibid.)
Trypho gave in to Justin's Bible interpretation. He did so because even the Jews knew about the figurative interpretation of Scripture. Justin specifically asked him.
"Perhaps you are not aware of this, my friends, that there were many sayings written obscurely, in parables, mysteriously, or in symbolic actions, which the prophets who lived after the persons who said or did them expounded."
"Assuredly," said Trypho. (ch. 68)
One Last Early Christian Example of Symbolic Bible Interpretation
I do not want to tire you by producing the whole litany of early Christian writers who can be shown to agree with Origen's method of Bible interpretation, so I'll give you just one more. This is from around the year 185, about halfway between Justin and Origen:
The Law has figuratively predicted all [these types of men], delineating man by the various animals. Whichever of these, it says, has a double hoof and ruminates [i.e., chews the cud], it proclaims as clean … Who then are the clean? Those who make their way by faith steadily towards the Father and the Son, for this is indicated by the steadiness of those animals which divide the hoof. And they meditate day and night on the words of God so that they may be adorned with good works, for this is the meaning of the ruminants. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V:8:4)
The apostle Paul went even further than Irenaeus in applying Scriptures about animals to humans.
In 1 Corinthians 9 he argues that God does not care about oxen, so there's no way that the law about not muzzling an ox while it treads the corn was really only about oxen. "No doubt," he says, "it is for our sakes this is written."
Some Final Comments from Origen on Literal Bible Interpretation
No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise and that Adam lay hidden under a tree is related figuratively in Scripture so that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it. The departure of Cain from the presence of the Lord will obviously cause a careful reader to inquire what is the presence of God, and how anyone can go out from it. (IV:1:16)
Origen argues that any of us should be able to see these things.
It is very easy for anyone who wishes to gather out of holy Scripture what is indeed recorded as having been done, but what nevertheless cannot be believed as having reasonably and appropriately occurred according to the historical account. (ibid.)
He then gives us a New Testament example.
The devil is said to have placed Jesus on a lofty mountain so that he might show him from there all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. How could it literally come to pass, either that Jesus would be led up by the devil into a high mountain, or that the latter would show him all the kingdoms of the world—as if they were lying beneath his bodily eyes and adjacent to one mountain? (ibid.)
I call these final comments on Bible interpretation because they're the last ones I'm quoting. He has much more to say on the subject, which you can read online for free at ccel.org.
God Himself Rejects Literal Bible Interpretation
As you can see, the early churches charged the Holy Spirit himself with purposely introducing things that would stir us to search for deeper truths. Truths that would be hidden to the lazy and complacent but revealed to those who diligently sought for them.
They give numerous examples. We know that the Bible says that no food is unclean (Mark 7:18-19; Acts 10:14-15; 1 Tim. 4:3-4; etc.). Yet the Law makes it clear that some animals are unclean, and there are even Christian denominations, like the Seventh Day Adventists, that ignore the New Testament and forbid the eating of unclean meats.
The early Christian approach to Bible interpretation answers all that for us, sending us to the deeper meaning of Scripture, the meaning that Jesus spoke of when he said he came to bring the Law to fullness (Matt. 5:17). Jesus went on to give numerous examples of the fullness of the Law.
Just as importantly, in my eyes, is the fact that God simply does not help those who wish to defend a literal Bible that is historically accurate in every detail. As you can see from the rest of this site, literalists are left contradicting themselves, being deceitful with the evidence, and in every way being intellectually routed in their defense of literal Bible interpretation.
In fact, scientists go on making amazing discoveries and astounding the world, and while literalist Christians debate Bible interpretation and science with them, their power rapidly dissipates.
God wants to convince the world with power, not words! (1 Cor. 4:19-20: Matt. 5:13-16; Jn. 17:20-23).
Let us return to using the Scriptures for what they were meant for, to instruct us in righteousness so that we might be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
This is the goodness and power of God, not the other.