"Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls." (Jeremiah 6:16)

When The Literal Is Not To Be Taken Literally

(the error of always taking literal biblical statements in a universal or absolute sense)

by James. B. Mozley (1813-1878)

Excerpted from the preface of his book The Primitive Doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration (1856).

The question of baptismal regeneration belongs to the general question of literal interpretation, and must be settled by those rules by which the question of literal interpretation in other cases is settled. All baptized Christians are asserted in Scripture to be regenerate. I say this with the full knowledge that my statement requires explanation; but the explanation is not difficult. First, then, under the phrase “asserted to be” regenerate, I mean to include all those places in which Christian communities are addressed as such; in which, that is, the fact is implied, or taken for granted, rather than stated. And this may fairly be done, for a reference to a fact is equivalent to asserting it, and it is all one whether you say something of a person, or address him as being it. Again, under the term regenerate, I include a class of expressions synonymous with it, and obviously signifying or implying a new or second birth. Thus, Christians are addressed by St. Paul as “dead to sin”; but a death implies that a former life is over, and that the life which the Christian is living now is a new or second life, which, of course, involves a new or second birth. They are addressed again as “dead with Christ,” “buried with Christ;” and of these expressions the same may be said that was said of the preceding one. Again, they are addressed as “risen with Christ,” and a resurrection is the commencement of a second life, or a new birth. They are addressed again as “quickened,” as “ alive from the dead,” “alive unto God” — expressions which are obviously synonymous with regenerate or born again. The members, then, of the Christian societies to which St. Paul writes are all, without distinction, addressed as regenerate or born again; and therefore it may correctly, and with perfect truth, be said, that Scripture asserts all baptized Christians to be regenerate.

Now, how is this assertion to be interpreted? It may be said that we must go to the Fathers for this purpose; but the Fathers throw no new light on this language, for they simply repeat it. They use substantially the same language which Scripture uses, only somewhat expanded and enriched; and therefore, instead of interpreting Scripture, the Fathers have themselves to be interpreted as much as Scripture has to be. It may be said again that our own baptismal office at any rate interprets this language; but our baptismal office again simply repeats it. For the interpretation of this assertion of Scripture, then, we are thrown back upon Scripture itself, that is to say, upon the ordinary and received rules or principles of interpretation which we apply to Scripture.

Now the received rule for the interpretation of Scripture is, that where a text can be taken literally, consistently with sound reason and facts, the literal interpretation has the precedence; but that where this cannot be done, the literal interpretation must give way for another.

Let us take, for example, the maxim in Scripture, “Resist not evil.” The Quakers interpret this text literally, and so condemn all war and the use of arms, as contrary to Scripture. But to this it is replied, that society could not be maintained and human interests protected without the liberty of appeal to force; and therefore, that, in the case of this text, the literal meaning cannot be the true one. Again: the Roman Catholics interpret the text, “This is my body,” literally; but to this it is replied, that on any principle of literal interpretation, our Lord’s body was His visible natural body, then present at the Last Supper, while the bread was the material bread on the table; that, this being the case, it is contrary to possibility that one thing can be another; and that here again, therefore, the literal interpretation cannot be the true one. And in the case of many other texts of Scripture, we reject without much scruple the literal meaning, where we see that such meaning is contrary to sound reason, or to other texts of the same Scripture.

Indeed, however natural and proper a general bias in favour of literal interpretation must be admitted to be, the rule of literal interpretation must be seen, when we calmly examine it, to need many checks, and to be only as a limited and qualified rule a useful and true one. If we adopt it exclusively, or abandon ourselves to it, it becomes instantly as foolish, wild, and extravagant a principle of interpretation as any that could be named,—the fruitful source of all kinds of mistakes and excesses, and even the greatest follies and absurdities in religion. This has evidently been the result very often in fact; but it will be useful, perhaps, to enter a little into the reasons of it.

Persons, then, who demand a literal interpretation of statements and texts of Scripture, on the mere ground that it is the literal one, forget to begin with one very important and fundamental consideration, and that is, the nature of human language. To judge from their law of interpretation, one would suppose that language had nothing else to do but to express simple matters of fact in the simplest way. Such may have been the original stock of human language; but, if it was, there has been a very large aftergrowth upon it. Human language is a growth, a structure, an accumulation of a wonderful and complex kind; it contains the most apt and versatile machinery for the expression of all the relations in which the human mind stands to persons and things around it; not only the perception of matters of fact, but all the postures and attitudes of thought. It invents as it advances new modes of statement, and accumulates means and expedients for giving force to expression; it seeks not only to inform nakedly and correctly, but to strike, attract, and impress. All this is an advance upon the original mode of literal assertion, and often a departure from it. Thus metaphor is a mode of expressing truth, which is a departure from the literal one; and thus the proverbial and didactic department abounds in terse and pithy forms, which, taken literally, would be very extreme pieces of advice indeed, and anything but safe rules to act upon, but which are not designed for such interpretation; the extreme form being fixed on for the purpose of startling, seizing the attention, and occupying the memory, and the correction being left to common sense to provide. A great positive advantage is thus gained by a departure from the literal style; while it is properly assumed that people are reasonable enough not to be misled by the mere form, which they are intended to take in the spirit in which it is selected. And what goes on thus obviously in the departments of metaphor and maxim, goes on more or less in the whole of language. Every department of language abounds in forms and modes of speaking, which are not designed to be understood literally, but which must be taken with a salvo. A sort of tacit understanding thus goes on, as it were, between the constructors — if it be allowable thus to impersonate them—of human language, and those who use and apply it, i. e. society at large. The user knows what the constructor intended, and does not misunderstand his expression, or take it to mean more than it really does. And this knowledge is gained so gradually, and so easily, so entirely by merely living in society, talking to others, and seeing the meaning of what they say to us, that it becomes at last an unconscious intuition ; nor are we in numberless cases the least aware how much of this understanding in reality we practise, and how largely we have to interpret what we hear in social conversation or read in books. We should be indeed surprised, did we examine the naked grammatical meaning of a large part of speech and writing, how little purely literal statement there was in language, and how much of it had to pass through this medium of tacit explanation. The intercourse of man with man is almost one act of mutual interpretation, in which allowance is made for forms of speech; but the process is so familiar to us, that we forget that we are interpreting, and seem to ourselves to be taking only literal statements in their literal sense.

To apply these observations to the interpretation of Scripture. One often hears one party and school in religion charging another with not interpreting Scripture literally. “You are explaining away the sacred text,” it is said; “you are not taking plain words in their plain meaning; the inspired writer says so and so, you must take him to mean what he says.” Now it may be the case that the literal meaning of a passage in Scripture is the true and natural meaning; and that an interpreter, in opposing the literal, may be guilty of violating the true and natural, meaning of a passage. An enlightened and candid reason must determine where this is the case. But to say that because such a meaning is the literal, it therefore must be the true one, is a most serious error; because it may often be the very reverse. The inspired writer need not always confine himself to the original stock of human language when he inculcates a duty, or informs us of a truth. He may, and he often does, use its aftergrowth and later formations — those parts of human language which come to us in the first instance accompanied by a tacit understanding, and arc originally designed for an interpretation different from what they grammatically bear— language, therefore, which to interpret literally is simply to violate the very design and meaning of its employer. The writer himself docs not mean himself to be understood literally; he is only using some mode of speaking which language has naturally in its progress and history contracted: he does not mean to be understood so universally as he actually expresses himself; he supposes that his readers will modify his statement for themselves; be employs some excess of expression which he supposes they will of themselves correct and reduce to its real signification, some figure of which he assumes they will be able to see the substance. In such cases, then, we must set aside the literal understanding of a passage for one to which the general growth and expansion of language directs us. Nor can we on many occasions do greater injustice to an inspired writer than by understanding him literally.

Thus, to take the maxim in Scripture, already quoted — “Resist not evil.” It is evident that the injunction here is given thus universally for the sake of proverbial force and effect: the universal form being one of those forms and modes of speaking which mankind have adopted and use when they want to impress some particular truth, or inculcate some line of conduct very strongly upon others. The form proceeds upon this idea, that the truth or duty in question must be made as much as possible to absorb and occupy the mind of the hearer, who is too biased against it to make such a monopoly at all dangerous, the danger being in fact the other way: so exceptions are not, for the time, recognised: for this would be to divide the hearer’s attention, and give him an excuse for indulging his bias against the truth, by giving a partial sanction to it; so that he would be thinking of the exception, just at the time you wanted him to think of the rule. The universal form thus meets us continually in conversation; and Never do this, it is said, or Always do that, and the like. Scripture, then, adopts this form in the case before us, and says absolutely — “Resist not evil.” But it would be absurd to imagine, therefore, that we were intended literally never to resist evil. Mankind are too prone to resistance in the case of any yoke or grievance; they are impatient, headstrong, violent. When quietness and passiveness, then, are inculcated upon them, they are inculcated universally, because the duty stands in need of all the force that can be given to it, and must be made to monopolise their attention as much as possible. But Scripture supposes that this will be understood by a reader, and that he will not give to the form in which the maxim is put, more than was intended by it.

The same remark may be made on another form in which this duty is put in Scripture: “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any will take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also; and whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.” Here the form selected is not the simply universal, but the symbolical one. An extreme case is put, and is made to stand for a forcible and striking image of the duty. But, having answered this purpose, it would be most unreasonable to insist on the extreme instance itself, and take literally what was only intended to be symbolical.

And so with respect to the text, “This is my body.” Mankind have in all ages largely employed forms of statement which are not literal, for the expression of truths; and Scripture follows the general usage. It would be unreasonable, therefore, to suppose that we were intended to accept, at whatever cost to common reason, the literal interpretation of this text. So far, indeed, from being the natural interpretations, are not all these literal interpretations of Scripture language I have mentioned, most unnatural, forced, and artificial? Are they not evidently a strain upon the language of Scripture, instead of the easy and natural explanation of it? Does not Scripture leave us to our common sense, to modify and correct for ourselves, the naked grammatical meaning of many of its injunctions and statements? And are we using this common sense, and obeying the intention of Scripture, when we insist on the naked grammar; when we refuse to this language the medium through which it was intended to be seen, and which is, in fact, its legitimate complement, without which it is defective and incomplete language?

Now to bring these considerations to bear upon the subject before us. The question of baptismal regeneration comes under and belongs to the general question of literal interpretation, and must be settled by those rules upon which the question of literal interpretation in general is settled. On the one side it is maintained that the assertion that all baptized persons are regenerate must be taken literally; that a plain statement must be understood in its plain meaning, in which meaning it asserts a fact. On the other side, it is maintained that this assertion must not be understood literally, but hypothetically, as a charitable presumption made respecting the whole body of the baptized. The question of literal interpretation, then, in the case of this statement, must be decided by the same rules by which we should decide it in the case of any other statement or text of Scripture. Can it be interpreted literally, without prejudice to sound reason or facts? If it can be, let it be; but if it cannot be, then we must take some interpretation of it which is not literal, i. e. the hypothetical one; that being in the present case the alternative. We interpret numberless other texts of Scripture differently from their literal meaning; nothing is more common; and, therefore, why should we not do the same in the case of the present statement, if circumstances require it?

Now in the case of the assertion that the whole body of the baptized are regenerate, there is one consideration, which absolutely precludes a literal interpretation, viz., that such an interpretation would be opposed to the plainest facts. The term regenerate involves in its Scriptural meaning real goodness and holiness; St. John saying that whosoever is born of God sinneth not” and “whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world;” and St. Paul saying that “as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God and that “he that is dead (i. e. dead to sin, and alive unto God, an expression which is equivalent to born again or regenerate) is freed from sin,” and cannot live any longer therein.” But it is quite evident that the whole body of baptized Christians are not good and holy men. Just as a literal interpretation then would, in the case of the text “Resist not evil,” be contrary to the plain needs of society, and, in the case of the text “This is my body,” to the possibilities of things, so, in the case of the present assertion of Scripture, it would be contrary to facts.

The literal interpretation, then, being impossible — in this state of the case, the consideration, that was adduced above, of the nature and constitution of human language, comes in to help us to the right and true interpretation of the assertion. Human language is, as I have said, a complex creation, and contains forms and expedients for expressing all the attitudes of human thought. But the attitude of presuming something about another, which we do not know in fact, is a common attitude of the human mind, which has come in along with human intercourse and society. This being a natural attitude of the human mind, then, language undertakes to express it; and it expresses it by means of a peculiar kind of assertion — an assertion, in form, literal and matter of fact, but seen, when taken in connection with the circumstances and whole context, to be really hypothetical. As human language contains the universal assertion for didactic, and the metaphorical one for illustrative purposes, so it has the hypothetical one for presumption; and public and private life, conversation and books, abound alike in it. It is common to suppose or presume men to have all kinds of good qualities, when they may or may not have them in fact. A man in society addresses his next neighbour, whom he never saw before, as if he were an excellent and good man, and assumes the fact in his whole tone and manner. The orator addresses a whole crowd, as all honourable men; and national poets speak of whole nations as heroic and magnanimous.

The form of presumption then being so common, familiar, and recognised a one among mankind, Scripture adopts it, and speaks of bodies and communities of men on the hypothetical or presumptive rule. Scripture speaks of all baptized Christians as good and holy men, born of God, born again, risen again, dead to sin and alive to God. It is impossible to interpret such statements literally, as this would be making Scripture assert what was contrary to fact. And this being the case, the alternative of the hypothetical interpretation becomes necessary; while at the same time the structure and machinery of human language, and the general usage of mankind, suggest it as the natural and obvious construction.

Leave a Comment