Not many people would read the first chapter of Genesis today as an allegory about Christ’s Church. However, Augustine of Hippo was one such reader who did just that. For example, when God creates creatures in the sea and sky, Augustine asserted that aquatic creatures represented sacraments of the Church and that the birds were missionaries.
Being that reading something presented so plainly as a sort of allegory opens one up to several possible interpretations, Augustine was not one hundred percent positive that his reading was correct. “This is what the creeping things and birds suggest to me at present,” he writes in his final chapter of Confessions.
Other people with confidence read Genesis as simply talking about the order of creation, much like a history book. Theological liberals generally are not interested in allegory nor taking the Bible literally, but rather understanding which Babylonian creation myths mirror the creation account in Genesis.
If so many smart people can read the same thing in so many different ways, how do we know is the right way to read the Bible? The following are my suggestions, which I believe are correct at present.
1. Always try reading the Scripture plainly. To very roughly paraphrase a supposed contention of Martin Luther, you can’t go wrong just reading the Bible at face value if you don’t know how to read it. God generally isn’t speaking in riddles and asking “gotcha” questions. Don’t know how else to read Genesis? Just take it literally. Now, that is not to say there are not other important themes in the book (foremost that being the nature of sin and how it separates us from God, and how God prepares a means to reconcile us back to Him), but if you don’t get it, that’s fine. If you attend church long enough and have a good pastor, his job is to get you started on how to get more out of it. But in the meantime, when all else fails, take what is written at face value. If you have questions, find someone who’s authority you trust to ask.
2. Go with the emphasis that is already in the text instead of teasing outside meanings into it. This I find critically important. I won’t get into specifics now, but as you continue reading this blog you will see I take issue with theology that will patently ignore the obvious contentions and reasoning already in Scripture and instead emphasize other ideas. Those other ideas (paedobaptism, annhilationism, universalism, not showing modesty in dress, etcetera) may very well have logical and sometimes loosely Biblical grounds. However, if we are ignoring clear statements and rationale in Scripture in order to justify these pet ideas, take into account there is a strong chance that these ideas are man’s invention and not God’s.
3. If you can read a “New Testament idea” into the Old Testament, do so. As the Epistle to the Hebrews makes clear, the Old Testament foreshadows the New Testament. My honest opinion is that Christians should read the New Testament first and then the Old Testament. In fact, it would probably be wise to read the New Testament a few times before reading about all those cute animals that went onto an ark while the rest of humanity was killed. Because, if we read a story like Noah’s Ark without understanding that the story corresponds with how God saves His people through the waters of baptism*, then we miss the point entirely. When Abraham substitutes a ram in the place of his son Isaac for a sacrifice, the message there isn’t “cool, let’s kill rams,” but that the only way to deal with the punishment for our sin is to place it upon a substitute, which ultimately is Christ. Then, when we get much more confusing parts of the Old Testament (“I called you out of Egypt” in Hosea, “I shall name him Emmanuel” in Isaiah, Hagar being an allegory for the Old Covenant in Galatians), we are to accept the New Testament rationale for these situations, and then employ the preceding two strategies to understand the rest. If you need the Spark Notes of the whole Old Testament read Acts 7.
*See 1 Peter 3:20-21. And no, baptism in of itself saves no one, it is a means God uses to reflect the reality of baptism by the Holy Spirit.
4. Don’t approach Scripture with modern sensibilities, nor presume modern sensibilities are superior to Biblical sensibilities. This probably warrants its own post, but to put it briefly never assume God is unfair. He’s bigger, better and smarter than you. Being that God wrote the Bible, never EVER read into something that is said in Scripture saying, “Well, we know better today.” In reality, we don’t. God is the God of all of humanity and His Son is the only cure to what ails us, which is our proclivity to sin continually. When people get hung up on slavery, gender relations and even genocide in the Bible, we are emphasizing our ideas of fairness above what the Bible says is important, which is namely being obedient and faithful to God, and glorifying His name. Now, that is not to say any of those things I just named are not important, but we need to put a biblical emphasis on those things, not a modern day emphasis on the Bible.
5. Understand the nature of God that is presented in His revelation. I will get into more detail in a later post about this, but putting it very succinctly, God is all-powerful and totally sovereign. No one and nothing can resist His power, as the Scripture states, “And no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (Dan 4:35) All things happen, including the salvation of some and damnation of others, ultimately by God’s sovereign decree. He does these things for His own name’s sake in which to glorify and magnify Himself (Psalm 23:3, Psalm 106:8, Isaiah 48:9, among others.) God puts it plainly: “For My own sake, for My own sake, I will act; For how can My name be profaned? And My glory I will not give to another.” (Isaiah 48:11) If God is the greatest of all possible things, then the greatest end He works to achieve is His own. If He were to do any less, He would be setting His “divine mind” to things that are less than the greatest.
May God bless you this Sunday and prepare your heart to grow closer to Him and do His will.