Sunday, July 12, 2009

Understanding God: speaks literally or symbolically

If one thinks about it, the heart of much of the confusion and divisiveness among many Christians, particularly along sect lines, involves confusion about when the Word of God in the Holy Bible is absolutely literal as stated, and when a certain about of symbolism is appropriate.

I was going to write a commentary about Revelation 22:15 for an entirely different blogging topic when I realized that this is a great passage to help people to understand how to correctly balance understanding of "literal" versus "symbolic." That, by the way, is an artificial debate, which results from trying to be lazy in one's discernment about the true meaning of anyone's spoken word, including God's. Excessive literalists are lazy in one direction (they don't want to think about it, just "tell me what to do" is their hope), while excessive symbolists are lazy in the other direction (they don't want to obey some of God's more difficult instructions and thus they hope to be wishy washy and say that it's not literal and thus need not be strictly followed). The truth is that the Word of God must of course be strictly followed, but God speaks in the lingua franca of the people (the common tongue of the time) and thus there will be moments of symbolic speech which takes nothing from the total truth and requirement of those meanings.

Revelation 22:15
Outside are the dogs, and the sorcerers, and the fornicators, and the murderers, and the idolaters, and everyone who lives and practices falsehood.

In the Book of Revelation John the Apostle has been taken in vision to heaven where he sees all that will take place at the End of Time, the Second Coming of Christ, the Final Judgment. In conclusion of this vision Jesus Christ is speaking to John through Christ's angel. Jesus has given John instructions about revealing all that he has seen and heard, and is giving a summation, which are the final words by him in the Christian Bible. Jesus has just finished praising those who "have the right to the tree of life" (in heaven and in the New Jerusalem), and he now, in Revelation 22:15, lists those who will be excluded from heaven (those who are "outside.")

You can now see why I chose this excellently clear passage to help you to work on your literal/symbolic discernment. What is the first group that Jesus lists will be outside of heaven, excluded from the heavenly city to come? "Outside are the dogs."

I am only half joking when I say that Bible literacy and common sense historical and cultural knowledge have become so low that someday soon young readers of these modern generations will worry that members of the canine species are excluded from heaven. After all, Jesus said that "dogs" will be excluded. This is the perfect example to start a personal effort for you to discern that the Bible is both literal and truthful throughout in meaning, but that one has a responsibility for understanding the plain, historic and cultural context of the language that God uses throughout. Obviously God is not speaking of excluding beagles, mutts, spaniels, retrievers, Pomeranians, etc from heaven. God is using a derogatory term for certain human beings, one that has been used for many centuries in many languages and cultures: dog.

I want to keep this commentary short and sweet so I'm not going to itemize what type of human behavior is so sinful that it renders a person being called "a dog." It was not that long ago that Americans would call someone who was deceitful a "dirty dog." So the term "dog" has an enduring longevity over the centuries to denote certain types of unworthy persons and if one reads about the cultural meaning of being "a dog" from Biblical times, you will realize that it's easier to recognize than to itemize.

The heart of what I am trying to convey is that here is a very obvious example of where everyone can agree that God is being exact in his meaning but using a symbolic term for a quantity that is not so precise. Compare that to another type of person on the list, which are the "murderers." A "murderer" is a much more precise term than a person who is "a dog." In fact, you can see that those are probably the opposite ends of the spectrum of precision in language, where murderer is a very precise term while "dog" is less precise to modern ears. However, in Biblical times and indeed to the present time in many cultures the meaning of "dog" is very well understood. Someone being called a dog by someone else knows exactly the derogatory tone of the term. Thus it is the Bible reader's responsibility to not gloss over the term "dog," but to understand that one must embrace the symbolic meaning to obtain precision of understanding. Thus one must be somewhat well educated in the vernacular of Biblical times, and that is not so much school smarts as common sense. As a hint much of what is behind the accusation of being a "dog" is a lack of honor. As modern society has lost and continues to lose much of its sense and understanding of honor, likewise it is in danger of missing a very specific admonition given with great clarity by Jesus Christ.

Both the person who thinks that Jesus meant beagles (literal) AND the person who thinks it's just a general symbolic word that doesn't merit much thought (symbolic) are in error. The term dog DOES denote a specific category of sinful and unworthy behavior that is being warned about.

Another very specific term, like murderers, that is easy to understand is "everyone who loves and practices falsehood." That is a literal lover's delight. Jesus Christ is warning that those who lie AND those who love lies will be excluded from heaven. There is no symbolism to obscure the meaning there.

Idolaters is also a specific term, and reading the Bible indicates that anything that is fashioned by human hands and then loved and worshipped by those hands is idolatry. Again, one must understand that a literal term can have a broad list of qualifying behaviors. Everyone should realize that there are many modern idolaters today even if they are not worshipping Baal or another Biblically cited false god, since they worship modern creations of the hands. Likewise the group "sorcerers" have a very specific meaning, though some might try to argue regarding what is a sorcery out of the list of many activities that are forbidden, such as magic, divining and so forth. In other words, idolaters and sorcerers are easy to understand and precise terms, but there is a temptation by humans to quibble about whether specific activities are included in those terms.

There is the remaining group, fornicators, that exactly straddles the literal and symbolic. Again, this demonstrates one must read and study the entire Bible to have genuine understanding of any of the parts. If one reads the Bible thoroughly, one understands that sometimes God is referring to literal sins of fornication (sexual activities) while other times God is using the same term to refer to those who are unfaithful to him, to their faith. It is impossible to study the Bible and not notice that sometimes God uses the terms fornicator, harlot and whore to refer to those who engage in illicit sexual behavior while other times God uses those exact same terms to refer to those who have faith in him and who then fall away from faith, or those who spread false faiths and their followers, to those who perform works on behalf of Satan, and those who, to use a modern term, cheapen God and his people.

So we have seen that in this one sentence we see the range from most symbolic to most literal:

(Symbolic) Dogs...fornicators... idolaters...sorcerers....everyone who loves and practices falsehood...murderers (Literal).

Whether Jesus Christ uses a term that is easy to understand in its literalness or more difficult to understand in its symbolic verbiage of the vernacular language, it makes no difference about how crucial they are to understand and to obey God in these matters. One cannot stand in front of God in Judgment and whine, "Well, I didn't know what you meant by 'dogs.'"

I hope that this has been an easy to understand and helpful place to start in recognizing that there really is NO "literal" versus "symbolic" difficulty in the Bible. One must simply recognize that God means to be understood, and hence he used the speech of the day in very clear terms. Moderns must continue to respect and understand the speech of the day of the Bible in order to obtain full and completely correct personal understanding of what God is saying.