It is written” (Luke 4:12).
“The Bible means exactly what it says!” I’ve heard this a number of times, and in one sense, I agree. In another sense, that statement could inadvertently be more dangerous than it seems.
The Bible is not just a literal composition. Yes, it is a rule of thumb to understand any passage literally unless there is good reason or evidence to understand it otherwise. However, it should also be understood by all students of the Bible that there is plenty of reason to not take some passages literally. We will illustrate this in a moment.
While the Bible does mean what it says, perhaps it’s better to say that any given passage means what it means in its particular context. So, what is meant by context?
• There is the immediate context, which involves the verse or sentence itself.
• There is the remote context, which involves the sentence or paragraph to which it belongs (e.g., Solomon’s petition concerning the Temple).
• There is the total context, which involves any other passage where the subject or theme is also employed.
Within the immediate, remote and total contexts, are other elements that must be considered:
• Every text also has an historical context (e.g., Assyrian period, First Century A.D., etc.).
• There is linguistic context. In what language was it first written? Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic? How is the author utilizing that language? Literally? Symbolically? Prophetically?
• There is syntax and grammar. What parts of speech are employed? What is the gender, number, case, voice, tense, mood of the words? How are the sentences and paragraphs formed, and what is being emphasized by such?
• Every text (sometimes whole books or even whole sections of Scripture) also falls into a category of literature (history, prose, poetry, bio or historiographic, prophetic, symbolic, etc.), and each passage is written from a particular point of view (first person, prophetic perfect, second person, anthropomorphic, etc.), and has an intended audience.
• Every text has redemptive context. Where, and in what way, does this event, teaching, prophecy, etc., fit into God’s overall plan?
• There is also a theological context. The text cannot mean anything that contradicts the balance and nature of God’s character as revealed in Scripture.
• There is also the anthropic context. The text cannot mean anything that contradicts the balance and nature of man as revealed in Scripture.
• Really, we could go on, but this should suffice for now.
Yes, in one sense, the Bible always means what it says. But that does not give us the license (or laziness) to take everything literally. It is better to say that the Bible [or, any particular passage] means what it means in its given context.
Fact is, there are many texts that should NOT be taken literally because taking them literally would violate one or several of the above mentioned contexts or considerations.
An example of this is abuse of context is when Satan quotes Scripture (Psalm 91:10-11) in the temptation of Jesus:
There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. For he shall give his angels charge concerning thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone” (Psalm 91:10-12; cf. Matthew 4:6; Luke 4:10,11).
Taken literally, and with no modifying context, Satan implores Jesus to jump from the Temple to prove His Sonship [deity] to on-lookers. Jesus’ response, “it is written,” implies that additional context and considerations would modify, and therefore supply a correct understanding of, the 91st Psalm.
At the least, the redemptive and theological contexts would forbid it, as this spectacle wasn’t part of God’s plan, and Jesus would not to submit himself to anyone but the Father. The total context of Messianic literature would forbid it, because there are numerous passages that speak of our Savior as One who must suffer for us [not avoid suffering, which Satan’s application of Psalm 91 seems to imply].
Context is valuable because it either gives limitations, or adds pliability to a given text. As it turns out, Psalm 91, like any other passage, is only as literal as the context allows.
“The passage means what it says!” says Satan.
But in reality, any passage only means what it means, within its given context.