Q&A: Calvinist Hermeneutics

Calvinist Hermeneutics


Do Calvinists see the Bible as literal, figurative, or some combination of the two?


I suppose the answer depends on how you define "literal" and "figurative." I would say "literal," with the explanation that Calvinists often define the "literal" meaning as the "originally intended" meaning. Clearly Scripture contains much figurative language, but that language is literally true insofar as the things the language symbolizes are true. For example, Jesus refers to himself as the "true vine" (John 15). That is a metaphor, a figure of speech - he's not really a vine. But the literal meaning of the text (as opposed to the literal meaning of the word "vine") includes such ideas as "Jesus is the only foundation for true faith," etc. In other words, as I would use the term "literal" in this context, it would include interpreting metaphors as metaphors, symbols as symbols, hyperbole as hyperbole, etc. I would contrast the aforementioned "literal" approach with a "figurative" style that allows for interpreting non-metaphor as metaphor, etc. (the Roman Catholic quadriga does this, in my assessment, though it also contains "literal" aspects).

I would also contrast the Calvinistic approach with the traditional Dispensational hermeneutic, which might be called "woodenly literal." Specifically, in traditional Dispensational thought, it is common to think that a passage ought to be interpreted "literally" unless it is thereby rendered unreasonable or otherwise objectionable. For example, the words "seven years" ought to be understood to refer to seven calendar years unless this reading is too problematic to sustain. Their commitment is to read the text according to the most common denotations of words and phrases whenever possible. In Calvinistic thought, however, the commitment is to read the text according to the perspective implied by genre, literary convention, history, theology, etc., which must be determined on a case-by-case basis. For example, if the term "horse" were to appear in a historical narrative, it might be reasonable to assume that it probably referred to the animal typically called by that name. However, if it appeared in poetry or prophecy, which are highly metaphoric, that assumption might not be as readily warranted.

I guess the best way to summarize the Calvinistic approach is to say that we read the Bible basically the same way we read any other piece of literature, allowing context, genre, history, theology and many other factors to help us figure out the author's intended meaning. The difference between the Bible and other literature is that we receive the Bible alone as God's authoritative standard, committing ourselves intellectually, morally, emotionally and behaviorally to the truth it teaches (whatever that may turn out to be), not questioning the good intentions or reliability of its authors with regard to the truth they intended to convey. But this is generally (not always) a separate matter from discovering the author's intended meaning.

To put flesh on this idea (that's a metaphor, by the way, that literally means "to give you a specific example of this idea"), consider that within Calvinistic circles we debate the meaning of the "days" of creation on the bases of: the meaning of the Hebrew word for "day"; the genre of Genesis 1; the juxtaposition of the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2; the ancient Hebrew worldview; the literary structure of the book of Genesis; the similarity of Genesis 1 and 2 to other ancient Near-Eastern literature; science; the rest of Scripture's references to these "days"; biblical and systematic theology; and anything else that seems relevant to the discussion. For us, meaning is determined by the author's original intention, so we try to discover that intention through the assessment of all the conventions and assumptions relevant to the text.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.