In this article, I’m going to attempt to persuade you that no one really interprets the Bible literally. Rather, we weigh different parts of the Bible against one another, looking for the reading that seems most persuasive. As part of this process, a person’s background can affect one’s biblical interpretation, making people of different backgrounds better able to see each other’s blind spots. These claims may seem obvious to some and sacrilegious to others.
I’ll start, by revisiting one of the most commonly read parables in the Bible — the Parable of the “Prodigal Son”.
How Americans Interpret the Parable of the Prodigal Son Differently
If you were to ask a North American Christian why the Prodigal Son returned, you would get a variety of answers, but one of the more common responses I’ve heard is that the Prodigal Son squandered his money on prostitutes and chose to return to his father once his money ran out. In fact, the allegation about the prostitutes that we remember is not explicitly part of the story’s original narrative, (Luke 15:13) but rather it is an accusation made by the older son when the younger son returns (Luke 15:30). It is the older son’s accusation that is stuck in our memories.
How Others Interpret the Parable of the Prodigal Son
By contrast, if you were to ask Christians from another part of the world, particularly a place that has experience with famine, you would find that a greater number of them would mention the word “famine” in their answer. (Luke 15:14)
How Experience Affects How We Read
The story of the Prodigal Son illustrates how our own experience shapes how we read the Bible and what we remember. North Americans below the age of 80 do not have direct experience with famine and so our memories don’t connect to this part of the story as strongly as do the older son’s allegations of sexual immorality.
For North Americans, “Sexual Immorality” is a more familiar concept than famine; we focus on it more easily; and it imprints itself more strongly in our memories.
Who Are You in the Parable of the Prodigal Son?
Some of you may be familiar with the Bible Study practice of empathizing with the different characters in a Bible story. In this story, we might ask:
- Have you ever felt like a prodigal son?
- Do you sometimes feel like the older son; or if you have children,
- Do you identify with the role of the Father?
The Bible includes many rich stories that contain insight from a multitude of perspectives and if we want to experience the Gospel most fully, we should consciously try to empathize with each of the characters in a parable.
How Does Being Single Change One’s Focus? *
As a second example of how who we are shapes how we read the bible, consider the case of 1 Corinthians 7, which the NIV Translation titles “Concerning Married Life”. Christians who are single are less likely to quickly scan over Pauls’s writings regarding singleness, much as many Americans scan over the famine in the story of the “Prodigal Son”. I put an asterisk in the above paragraph heading because by “Single” I specifically meant to describe not just people who haven’t yet married, but people who are single and who are open to the possibility of remaining single. These people are more likely to read the Bible with a mind receptive to Paul’s message on singleness. On the other hand, singles who aspire to marriage or who have internalized society’s marriage norms are less likely to pick up on Paul’s instructions.
What Would Paul Have Us Do Regarding Marriage and Sexuality?
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul responds to a request from the church at Corinth concerning the subject of sexuality and marriage with a recommendation coupled with a series of concessions meant for those who fall short of the goal.
Most people who are marriage-minded focus on the concessions, but Paul is clear in saying that he wishes that all the unmarried and widowed believers would remained unmarried, as he is (1 Corinthians 7:8). In the next verse, Paul gives the concession that if believers are not practicing self-control they should marry. “For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
Grandfathered into this arrangement are all those currently married. Paul grants that married couples should remain married, but he advises the widowed not to remarry.
What Reason Does Paul Give for his Recommendation?
Paul does not always give rationales for all his recommendations, but in chapter 7 he gives several, though I doubt many people can recall his most significant reason.
Some readers will pick up on verse 28:
But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.
Some marriage-minded readers might also cite verses 29-31, arguing that Paul thought the end of the world was coming soon, and that if he’d have known that the world would continue for over 1,000 years, he would have approved of marriage out of a need for children. But notice that once you suggest the possibility that Paul was wrong about the timing, you are speaking against the ideal of literal inerrancy and you lose the ability to apply this interpretive mode to Paul’s other writings.
No, Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 goes straight to the core of the “First Commandment”:
32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
That’s quite a charge against married people — that in choosing marriage, they are choosing to divide their love for God— as forbidden by the first commandment: (Mark 12:28-34)
28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[a] 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[b] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[c] There is no commandment greater than these.”
Now if you are a marriage-minded person, like most of society, this interpretation of the seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians is likely going to face a lot of resistance in your mind, even though you will recognize that marriage may compete with other worthy goals. If you are particularly practical, you might ask how we are supposed to continue to procreate as a species if all the “best” people stay single. More philosophically, you might critique Paul for assuming an economy of scarcity, saying something like:
Is there is only a finite amount of love to go around? If I have a child, will it really mean less love for my spouse and less love for God?
Because a plain and literal interpretation likely challenges at least one of your beliefs, you will likely consider alternatives to the plain literal version I just described.
I talked through an early version of this article with a father of eight and he did not undergo an immediate change of mind, phoning his unmarried children to discourage them from marrying. I have yet to meet even one parent who says to their child: “Don’t marry. I want no grandchildren”, out of a desire for their child’s undivided devotion to the Lord. Yet that appears to be the position Paul advocates if you take a plain and literal interpetation. You may find some other bible verse to negate what Paul is saying here, or may make some other explanation, but your eventual stance on this will be to choose some reason/s not to take Paul seriously or literally.
Our Actions Reveal Our Beliefs
Sometimes when we talk about literal biblical interpretation, we use examples that have a bearing on how we interpret other parts of the bible, but not much effect on our everyday lives. For example:
“Did the creation happen in 6 literal 24-hour days”?
This question affects how we read the Bible, and what we may think about various scientific theories, but this is mostly a hypothetical question compared to the question of whether marriage is an ideal, rather than a concession.
I’d like to suggest that we can know more about what we really believe by keeping track of what we actually do, rather than by our assent to intellectual positions that have little bearing on our lives. And we can’t faithfully believe in Paul’s recommendation that it is better to stay single, while encouraging all of our children, friends, and grandchildren to get married.
Weighing the Evidence
Now some of you may say: It’s just one chapter of the Bible, and there are many other parts of the Bible that support the traditional view of marriage, and marginalize Paul. As they say in law, “the preponderance of evidence” speaks in favor of marriage. That is a valid position, and one I myself favor. I wrote this article to raise your awareness that you weigh the scripture through various factors, rather than read the bible literally; and that people of different perspectives can help us see things that are in our blind spots.
All Truth is God’s Truth
Once we acknowledge that it is not always wise to employ simple biblical literalism, we may choose to supplement our understanding with other modes of knowing including science, reason, mysticism, and emotion. I don’t have the space or wisdom to articulate how that all gets worked out, but I am reminded of St Augustine’s quote, which is often paraphrased “All Truth is God’s Truth” :
A person who is a good and true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature.
About the Next Article
In the next article, I’m going to argue that, if you read the Bible literally, there are two views of sacrifice in the Old Testament:
- The conventional view that God commanded the Israelites to make sacrifices to Him.
- The view of the Psalmists, Hosea, and Jeremiah that God did not desire or command the Israelites to make sacrifices.