Reading the New Testament “Literally”

by | Nov 11, 2022

Paul K. Hubbard

 If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26) 

In the New Testament, the opposite of love is not indifference; it is hate.[1] When the New Testament says that we must hate our fathers and mothers and wives in order to be Jesus’ disciple, this is surely a piece of what Owen Barfield called “poetic diction,“[2] which means that a word is deformed from its ordinary meaning and stretched to suggest another. A higher one. That is, the word or phrase is not to be taken in its ordinary, restrictive sense – it is being used to create a “figure of speech.”

Conservatives and Fundamentalists often give the impression that the entire Bible should be taken “literally.” And by literally they mean that each word should be taken in its most restrictive sense. But the problem with reading the Bible literally, (as it has come to be defined), is that such a process is entirely unliterary. It violates the divine logos.

When we deform language in the process of poetic diction, we preserve language from becoming senile – and from eventually dying the ultimate death of every dead metaphor. We’ve all heard them. A metaphor is used so many times, its original contribution to the birth of a new idea is lost, and the new idea itself becomes a mechanical object that no longer conveys any life or power. If our language is filled with clichés, it is a sure sign that it is in the process of dying. We are no longer using language to convey meaning, but to manipulate our environment. And as everyone knows, there are better ways to manipulate our environment than by words. There are sticks and stones and guns and bombs.

When we deform language in the name of poetic diction, we do not lower language, we raise it. When we say that a thing is not literal, Fundamentalists and Conservatives object on the grounds that we are distorting language, perhaps even as Satan distorted language, as he distorted the ideas of language in his conversation with Eve. Though nothing that Satan said was entirely untrue, truth consists in giving the proper sense of a thing in all of its relations. If it is twisted into something that cannot be harmonized with those relations, we say that it is false. For example, the serpent claimed that if Eve ate the fruit, that she would not die. In one sense, the serpent was absolutely correct – when Eve ate the fruit, nothing happened. But there was another sense that Satan failed to mention to Eve – the primary sense. And that primary sense was a figure of speech. Eve would die, spiritually.

Thus to be literal is to be literary. Every word of Scripture, just like our own words, must be taken in their proper sense. Sometime words are used in a very restrictive sense. “Jesus wept”, for example. Sometimes, however, words are used in a creative, figurative sense.  Jesus says: “Behold, I come as a thief.” The clue that some figurative sense is being employed is the word “as” which indicates that this is a particular kind of figure of speech; i.e., a simile. The Lord is not a thief. For we know that a “thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy.”[3] The Synoptic simile, therefore is using just one of this word’s connotations to tell us something about Christ’s return. He will come suddenly, when we are not looking for him. Thus we hear: “Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching…”[4]

In the Gospel passage above, Jesus tells us that in order to be good disciples we must ‘hate our fathers and mothers.’ And while we are at it, we should also hate our wives, and our children, and our brothers and sisters. And in the end, we must hate ourselves. Now remember that the Father of all lies; that is, Satan, is constantly deforming language to conform to his own agenda of self-glorification – not to shed more light and meaning. And this is what makes his kind of literary deformation a lie – and not innocent, poetic diction. For Satan takes that which must be taken restrictively and gives a figurative sense to it. And he takes that which is figurative and gives a restrictive sense to it. All to mislead us to draw the wrong conclusions about the intent of the author. So we need to take care that the deceitfulness of sin does not persuade us to do the same thing.

Take the case of corban. Corban is a thing that has been dedicated to God. Now what the Pharisees were doing with this idea is creating a “loophole” from which they might escape the weightier sense of the fifth commandment: “love thy father and thy mother.” Listen to how Jesus handles this deceit:

And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.[5]

The Pharisees and the Sadducees knew not the proper sense of Scripture nor the power of God, thus their theology and their spirituality was nothing but a humanistic rationalism completely removed from the heart of God.

We must constantly beware that this does not happen to us. There are theologies and spiritualities everywhere we go in the world today – and also in the churches – which come up with all sorts of zany and unliterary interpretations which lead the unstable or the unlearned into the way of sin. But ‘how do we know the correct interpretation?’ – many ask. And we must say that the interpretation of any passage of Scripture is, ultimately, up to you.

The pastor’s job – as a shepherd of the flock of Christ – is not as interpreter. God doesn’t need an interpreter. And the more you think about it, the sillier such an idea becomes. God speaks in a universal, common language. The only place an interpreter can go from here is downward – into obscurity or deceit. This is how Satan deceived Eve – by interpreting that which needed no interpretation.

When the Bible uses the word “interpretation”, it is always in the sense of translating Aramaic or Latin words into Greek words. Thus, the Aramaic “Messiah” is Christos, Cephas is Petros and elwi lamma sabacyani, being translated is: o yeov mou o yeov mou eiv ti me egkatelipev. And “Golgotha” is the “place of the skull.” And in Latin, that means “Calvary.” The only exception to this sense of “interpret” is when someone speaks in a truly unknown tongue – like the ecstatic utterances of the Corinthian church – then, someone must interpret.

But God does not speak to us in an unknown tongue. And even if he did – with groanings which cannot be uttered, the Spirit himself will translate them to us.[6] Thus for as much as we use the word, “interpret” or “interpretation” – the New Testament almost completely ignores it. Yet colleges and seminaries have departments of hermeneutics, which is a transliteration of this Greek word for “interpret”- teaching students to interpret the Bible.

If we understand – or rather, if we have been convinced that the Holy Spirit was dynamically present in the creation of the written, Apostolic record, then we must know that God needs no interpreter. God does not have a communication problem. He does not ‘lisp in human language’ as one great theologian once said. God doesn’t want interpreters. He wants leaders and teachers. The pastor’s job is to give the proper sense of a passage.

If a word or a passage or an idea of a theology is taken out of the Biblical context, he needs to clean up the mess and put the idea back into context. If people come to him with worldly presuppositions in their heads that retard their comprehension of the proper sense of a passage, he needs to fully understand these worldly presuppositions and try to find ways to circumnavigate them. He must be as a divine subversive, just as Jesus is as a thief in the night, sneaking around in men’s mental furniture, defusing booby traps designed to go off as soon as truth approaches. He must fish for the man behind his restrictive ideas. He must catch him with guile (as Paul once said) just as he catches fish – all of these, of course, figures of speech – a poetic diction of ideas.

It is by poetic diction that the ‘divine thief’ steals by our defenses and captures our attention and thrusts bread and meat and milk and everlasting rivers of water before our souls. We try to keep him out with our traps and minefields and walls and moats. But we never succeed. Our puny disobediences and our hardened hearts and our dulled hearing is no match for the overwhelming power of his word and of his spirit and of his love.

Our sinful tendency is to capture God’s word and imprison it as a dead metaphor – or at least as a manageable metaphor. We want to corbanize every word of his that threatens our disobedient freedom to be slaves to our appetites. Men have pasteurized his word. They have attempted to sterilize every controversial aspect of biblical theology with their own “systematic theology” which “harmonizes” Gospels and “reconciles” the views of James and Paul concerning justification by faith or works. They have also homogenized his word. Every difference of clarity, every difference of density and every difference in depth has been utterly disguised in glittered gold and literary glue that has cut and pressed each and every word and letter and book into a uniform mold of Evangelical “inspiration.” And what is left has been chopped up into a million disassociated pieces and fed to Christian sheep in miniscule, harmless doses.

But nothing will hinder God’s word. He will sweep away centuries of bad theology with one poor Augustinian friar. He will chase away a thousand armed men by some Joan de Arc. He will completely overcome a hundred thousand Syrians with 300 Gideons that lap up Scripture like a dog. He said it in the Old Testament: his word will not return to him without having achieved its purpose. Every bit of it.[7] The word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.[8]

In what sense then must I ‘hate my father and my mother and my wife and my children etc.’ – which covers every significant human relation that I could ever have. The Psalmist says: “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.”[9] How far is the east from the west? Of course it is not a matter of distance. Our sins are gone. They are no longer on this playing field. They have been forever buried in the depths of the sea.[10]

There is no Greek word for love that describes the categorical difference between the love of God and the love of some worldly object. It is on a different playing field. Matthew’s version reads: “He that loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”[11] And that’s why Luke’s variation is so important; he makes it absolutely clear that the love of God is categorically different than all earthly loves. The word in Matthew is the ordinary filew. There is not one single word for “divine love.”

There is idolatry. If we love the world with the love that belongs to God, we commit idolatry. If we love God with worldly love, we also commit idolatry. Modern idols are not silver and gold anymore. They are steel and concrete, titanium and plastic. Our love of God must be like our worship of God; it is completely inappropriate to worship any created thing. Because only God is worthy of worship. Only God can receive and return the love that he is asking for. Nothing can compete for it because it is not of this world. The loves of this world are as categorically different from the love of God and things eternal as the east is from the west and love is from hate. And that’s why Luke says we must hate our father and mother. Because Christ is God, and our love for him is categorically superior than any human love.

[1] Hebrews 1:9 Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.

[2] See his book: Poetic Diction. Owen Barfield was a good friend of C. S. Lewis. Lewis said of him that ‘he read all the right books but got all the wrong things out of them!’

[3] John 10:10.

[4] Luke 12:37a.

[5] Mark 7:9-13

[6] Romans 8:26 Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.

[7] Isaiah 55:11.

[8] Hebrews 4:12.

[9] Psalm 103:12.

[10] Micah 7:19.

[11] Matthew 10:37.