Syriac Grammar – Chapter 5

Classical Syriac Grammar

I have just posted chapter 5 of my Classical Syriac Grammar.  It covers independent personal pronouns, enclitic independent personal pronouns, and pronominal suffixes on prepositions.  It can be found at

Exercises will be added shortly.  Enjoy!


Syriac Grammar Chapter 3 is Now Up

Classical Syriac Grammar

I have just posted chapter 3 of my free online grammar of Classical Syriac in the Estrangela Script (  This chapter covers some basic signs used in writing, nouns, possessive ܕ, prepositions, the conjunction ܘ, and verbless clauses.

Practice sheets for chapter 3 will be posted as they become available.  Once again, feel free to download and print as many copies as you would like.  However, please do not alter any of the material, post it to another website, or publish it in any other form.  Thanks!


No…George Liele Was Not America’s First Missionary

George Liele

This is a post I’ve wanted to write for quite some time. But, as time wore on, it seemed like this was a topic that people weren’t really interested in talking about anymore. That is…until I listened to a recent message by David Platt at Together for the Gospel 2018.[1] In his message, David Platt restated a historical claim that I think is completely historically untenable, namely, that George Liele, a former African-American slave, was America’s first missionary, predating Adoniram Judson by several decades.

The idea that Liele was America’s first missionary is an idea that has been repeated several times in various publications.[2] More recently, it’s an idea that has gained some currency in Southern Baptist circles, most likely out of a desire to promote racial reconciliation due to their legacy of racism and support of slavery.  This came out clearly in 2012 when a resolution was made at the Southern Baptist  Annual Convention that mentioned Liele as someone “who many acknowledge as the first overseas missionary from the United States in 1782.”[3]

The problem, though, is that the claim that Liele was America’s first overseas missionary is historically untrue – and this is something that is fairly easy to demonstrate.  The purpose of this post is twofold: (1) To introduce George Liele to those who might be unfamiliar with him and (2) to show that, although Liele had a remarkable ministry, it is historically inaccurate to say that he was America’s first missionary.

Sources for the Life and Thought of George Liele

There are three main groups of sources available for understanding the life and thought of George Liele. The first and most important group of sources are found in The Baptist Annual Register for 1790, 1791, 1792, and Part of 1793 by John Rippon.[4] John Rippon, a leading Baptist minister in Great Britain, became interested in learning more about the life and ministry of George Liele when he read a letter written by the Rev. Mr. Joseph Cook of South Carolina, which described, in the barest of details, the success Liele had in planting the first Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, and in planting another Baptist Church in Jamaica.[5] Rippon, desiring to know more about his life and ministry, wrote letters to acquaintances of Liele in South Carolina, Georgia, and Jamaica to uncover more information. He also sent a list of fifty questions to Liele himself so that he could describe the work of his ministry in his own words. From these sources, Rippon was able to compile a brief biography that has served as the basis for virtually every account written about Liele since that time.

In addition to the biography contained in The Baptist Annual Register, Rippon also included a number of letters written by acquaintances of Liele and a number of letters written by Liele himself. The Baptist Annual Register also contains biographies of two of Liele’s colleagues in Georgia, Andrew Bryan and David George, both of whom were heavily influenced by Liele’s preaching. These biographies contain a great deal of first-hand information about the character of Liele’s ministry in Georgia. The secondary sources about Liele consist largely of a recapitulation of the material found in The Baptist Annual Register with little or no historical analysis.[6]

The second group of sources comes from the Votes of the Honourable House of Assembly of Jamaica for October to March, 1791-2,[7] and October to December, 1796.[8] These sources contain records of payments given to Liele by the Crown for transporting military equipment by carriage from one military outpost to another in Jamaica. Liele himself refers this work in his response to the fifty questions sent to him by John Rippon, citing this as the reason why his response to Rippon’s letter was delayed.[9] The amounts given in these records give some kind of idea of what Liele’s income was like during this part of his ministry in Jamaica.

The third group of sources consist of stories or anecdotes contained in secondary sources that do not provide information about where they got their information from. The most significant sources in this group include the History of the Baptist Missionary Society from 1792 to 1842 by F. A. Cox[10] and The Voice of Jubilee: A Narrative of the Baptist Mission, Jamaica by John Clark, W. Dendy, and James M. Philippo.[11] Since the authors of these sources were associated with English Baptist missions to Jamaica in the early nineteenth century, it seems likely that they heard these stories from first-hand witnesses. That being said, although oral history should be given its due weight, the sources outlined above provide more direct and reliable information about the life and ministry of George Liele.[12]

Liele’s Life in Georgia

George Liele was born a slave in colonial Virginia sometime around 1751.[13]   At a very young age,[14] Liele moved with his master, Henry Sharp, to the Province of Georgia, where slavery had only recently been introduced.[15] According to his own account, Liele grew up living a moral life because he had a “natural fear of God” and his conscience was checked by the fear of death.[16]   However, as Liele would later realize, he was trusting in his own personal merit to save him, rather than in Christ. All of this changed in 1773,[17] while Liele was sitting under the ministry of the Rev. Matthew Moore, a Baptist minister in Burke county, Georgia. One Sunday afternoon, while listening to Moore’s preaching, Liele came under deep conviction of sin. He realized that his good works were insufficient to save him and that his sin, which he saw unfolded before his eyes in Moore’s preaching, condemned him to hell.

Liele remained in a state of despair for nearly six months. During these six months, he became more and more despondent until he found peace in Christ:

“The more I heard or read, the more [I saw that I] was condemned as a sinner before God; till at length I was brought to perceive that my life hung by a slender thread, and if it was the will of God to cut me off at that time, I was sure I should be found in hell, as sure as God was in heaven. I saw my condemnation in my own heart, and I found no way wherein I could escape the damnation of hell, only through the merits of my dying Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; which caused me to make intercession with Christ, for the salvation of my poor immortal soul….” [18]

As a result, Liele called upon Christ and found the peace with God that he was looking for. Liele spoke to his congregation about what had happened and he was soon baptized by Matthew Moore.

Immediately after his conversion, Liele prayed that God would somehow use him in the work of the ministry. He began to read hymns and explain the more significant parts to his fellow slaves on his plantation. As Liele wrote, “Desiring to prove [the sense I had of] my obligations to God, I endeavoured to instruct [the people of] my own colour in the word of God.”[19] Liele’s desire to share the gospel sprung from a sense of gratitude and obligation to God for the salvation he had received in Christ. This sense of gratitude and obligation to God would play a key role in the manner in which he carried out his ministry toward his fellow slaves.

Liele’s gifts for ministry were soon recognized by the white members of his congregation and he was invited to preach before the congregation at a quarterly meeting. After he had finished preaching, the church unanimously affirmed Liele’s gifting for ministry and licensed him as a probationer.[20]  Liele was given his freedom by his master, George Sharp, who happened to be a deacon in Liele’s church, sometime afterward. Several writers suggest that this was done to give Liele greater freedom to preach the gospel. While this is a reasonable inference, there is no hard evidence suggesting that this might be the case.

Liele preached the gospel from plantation to plantation until the British evacuated Savannah in 1782. Some of the character of Liele’s ministry can be seen through the testimony of Andrew Bryan and David George.[21] Andrew Bryan was converted when he heard Liele preach from John 3:7, which speaks of the necessity of being born again. Although Bryan and his fellow listeners were slaves, Liele clearly believed that what his audience needed to hear was not a message about how they could be freed from temporal slavery from human masters but about how they could be reconciled to God. Bryan would later become the minister of an African American church in Savannah and would suffer imprisonment and severe whipping under suspicion that his church had incited several slaves to escape from their masters. But, like Liele, his message was not a message about freedom from slavery but a message about freedom from condemnation and so Bryan viewed his sufferings as being suffering “for the cause of Jesus Christ”. This is an example of the kind of follower that Liele’s preaching produced.

David George likewise came under the influence of Liele during his ministry in Georgia. George was converted after a fellow African American told him that he would “never see the face of God in glory” if he continued to live as he did.[22] After experiencing a struggle similar to Liele’s about the insufficiency of good works to save him and the condemnation that his sin deserved, George came to trust in God’s mercy as it was displayed in Christ. Not long afterward, he heard George Liele preach on Matthew 11:28, which says, “Come unto me all ye that labour, and are heavy leaden, and I will give you rest.”[23] George felt that the entire message was directed toward him and the struggle over sin and condemnation he had just recently experienced. Although the details of Liele’s message have not been preserved, much can be learned about the character of Liele’s preaching by paying attention to George’s response. This passage would have been relevant to Liele’s hearers on a strictly literal level because most, if not all, of his hearers were slaves. However, it seems clear from George’s response that Liele’s focus was on spiritual labour and spiritual rest rather than temporal rest, a spiritual rest which both Liele and George saw as being far more important.[24]

Liele’s Move to Jamaica

After Liele’s former master, Henry Sharp, was killed fighting for the Crown in the American Revolution, Sharp’s heirs, who did not approve of Liele being set free, had the authorities arrest him and throw him into prison. Liele was released when an acquaintance named Colonel Kirkland helped him obtain the proper papers to prove that he was free.[25] When Savannah was evacuated by the British in 1792, Liele and his family sailed to Jamaica with Colonel Kirkland as indentured servants because of money that he owed to him back in Georgia. Liele worked for Colonel Kirkland for two years in Jamaica before being granted his freedom.

     At this point we can consider the main issue that prompted this post in the first place, namely, was George Liele America’s first missionary? (We will answer this question without taking into consideration what counts as America at this point.) The answer is clearly no. The reason Liele moved to Jamaica was because of a debt that he owed to Colonel Kirkland. He, along with Colonel Kirkland, were evacuated from Savannah as refugees, not as missionaries. There was no church in Georgia that sent Liele to Jamaica for the specific purpose of carrying out missionary work. Liele himself clearly did not go to Jamaica for the purpose of carrying out missionary work. The reason why Liele went to Jamaica was because of the British evacuation of Savannah and a debt he owed to Colonel Kirkland.   The fact that Liele’s reason for moving to Jamaica has been so often overlooked can only be accounted for by a lack of familiarity with the primary sources or a very poor reading of the primary sources.

That being said, the fact that Liele did not move to Jamaica as a missionary does not mean that his work in Jamaica has any less value. In fact, the ministry he carried out as a refugee in Jamaica was quite remarkable.

Liele’s Work in Jamaica

In 1784, Liele began to preach in Kingston, Jamaica, and, along with four other refugees from America, formed a small church. Within a short period of time, Liele’s ministry began to see success, especially among the slaves and the poor. By the time he wrote to John Rippon in 1791, he had baptized nearly four hundred people. All in all, there were about fifteen hundred people on the island that were being ministered to by Liele. In addition to his regular ministry, Liele established a free school to teach slave children and free children how to read and write.

Liele carried out all of this ministry while supporting himself through farming and through transporting goods from one part of the island to another.[26] Liele would not accept money from the slaves who attended his church because they only received a very small amount of money from their masters to buy food with and he believed that it would bring “scandal to religion” if he were to accept money from them.[27] The free people in his congregation gave what they could but they had little money as well. The fact that Liele worked so hard to support himself and took no financial compensation for his ministry demonstrates once again how he valued the gospel above all things.

Liele would not accept slaves as members of his church unless they had letters from their masters stating that they behaved decently toward them and that they had shown evidence that they were truly converted.[28] In other words, before Liele would accept a slave as a member of his church, he wanted proof from the slave’s master that he was obeying the New Testament injunctions for slaves to obey their masters. One of the reasons why this was so important was because slave owners were fearful that Christian ministry among their slaves would lead to unrest or even rebellion among their slaves. Indeed, Liele’s meetings were interrupted on many occasions by whites who feared that Liele’s preaching would lead their slaves to revolt. This continued throughout the early part of Liele’s ministry until he received special permission from the Jamaican House of Assembly sanctioning their freedom to worship.

Although the problems lessened, there continued to be resistance to the idea of evangelizing slaves. Stephen Cooke, a member of the Jamaican House of Assembly,[29] noted that it was this fear of revolt that kept Liele’s work from having more success:

“The idea that too much prevails here amongst the masters of slaves is, that if their minds are considerably enlightened by religion or otherwise, that it would be attended with the most dangerous consequences; and this has been the only cause why the Methodist ministers and Mr. Liele have not made a greater progress in the ministry amongst the slaves. Alas! how much is it to be lamented, that a full QUARTER OF A MILLION of poor souls should so long remain in a state of nature; and that masters should be so blind to their own interest as not to know the difference between obedience inforced [sic] by the lash of the whip and that which flows from religious principles.”[30]

But, as Cooke noted further on, Liele gained the goodwill of many slave owners by not permitting any slave to become a member of his congregation without their master’s permission. In addition, Liele made sure that the church covenant was read to the members of his congregation once a month so that the illiterate slaves in his congregation would know what duties they were to perform in keeping the commandments of God. Liele showed this covenant to the Jamaican House of Assembly when he petitioned for freedom for his church to gather for worship and he showed it to the owners of slaves who had applied for membership at his church and both groups came away satisfied.[31] Although the text of this covenant is not available, it must have included an injunction for slaves to obey their masters, otherwise it would be difficult to explain why it met with such approval by the Jamaican House of Assembly and the owners of slaves who wanted to become members of Liele’s church.

Liele also sought to gain the goodwill of slave owners by putting a bell in the church steeple so that the slave owners might know when their services started and know that their slaves had returned home at the right time. Liele did all of this because he knew that the progress of the gospel would be hindered if he did not gain the goodwill of slave owners by exhorting the slaves in his congregation to be obedient to their masters. The progress of the gospel was so important to him because he knew from experience that freedom from condemnation and sin was much more important and was of a much greater value than freedom from human slavery.  The result was thousands of slaves and free people who came to faith in Christ.


While it is clearly historically inaccurate to say that Liele was America’s first missionary, Liele lived an incredible life as a minister of the gospel and left behind an incredible legacy.  During his time in Georgia, Liele showed what it meant to put the gospel above all things despite his circumstances and the evil he saw all around him.  The influence he had in Georgia and beyond (including in Canada through David George) was profound.  During his time in Jamaica, he made the most of the circumstances he found himself in as a refugee and poured out his life and energy out of love and compassion for those he considered to be his fellow people.  Once again, the results were profound.

Liele’s legacy, at least as far as it concerned Jamaica, can be aptly summarized through the words found in a letter written by Thomas Swigle, one of Liele’s co-workers, to John Rippon:

“We have great reason in this island to praise and glorify the Lord, for his goodness and loving kindness in sending his blessed Gospel amongst us, by our well-beloved minister, Brother Liele. We were living in slavery to sin and Satan, and the Lord hath redeemed our souls to a state of happiness to praise his glorious and ever blessed name; and we hope to enjoy everlasting peace by the promise of our Lord and Master Jesus Christ. The blessed Gospel is spreading wonderfully in this island; believers are daily coming into the church, and we hope, in a little time, to see Jamaica become a Christian country.”

I remain respectfully, Rev. and Dear Sir,

Your Brother in Christ,

Thomas Nicholas Swigle.[32]

Mark Steven Francois

[1] The message can be found at

[2] See, for example, David Killingray, “The Black Atlantic Missionary Movement and Africa, 1780s-1920s,” Journal of Religion in Africa 33 (2003), 6; E. A. Holmes, “George Liele: Negro Slavery’s Prophet of Deliverance,” Baptist Annual Quarterly 20 (1964), 350; Timothy C. Tennent, Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2010), 258; and Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 266.


[4] The Baptist Annual Register, for 1790, 1791, 1792, and Part of 1793. Including Sketches of the State of Religion Among Different Denominations of Good Men at Home and Abroad (London: Dilly, Button, and Thomas, 1793).

[5] Ibid., 332.

[6] See, for example, David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America, and Other Parts of the World (Boston: Manning & Loring, 1813), which simply reproduces the material found in The Baptist Annual Register. For some examples from early twentieth century see John W. Davis, “George Liele and Andrew Bryan, Pioneer Negro Baptist Preachers,” The Journal of Negro History 3 (1918), 119-27, and George Liele, Stephen Cooke, Abraham Marshall, Johnathan Clarke, Thomas Nichols Swigle, “Letters Showing the Rise and Progress of the Early Negro Churches of Georgia and the West Indies,” The Journal of Negro History 1 (1916), 69-92.

[7] Votes of the Honourable House of Assembly of Jamaica, In a Session begun the 25th of October, and ended the 22d of November, 1791; A Session begun the 23d of November, 1791, and ended the 10th of March, 1792; and A Session begun the 13th, and ended the 15th of March, 1792. Being the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sessions of the Present Assembly. Saint Jago de la Vega: Alexander Aikman, 1792.

[8] Votes of the Honourable House of Assembly of Jamaica, In a Session begun October 28, and ended December 21, 1796. Being the Fifth Session of the present Assembly. Saint Jago de la Vega: Alexander Aikman, 1796.

[9] Rippon, The Baptist Annual Register, 337.

[10] F. A. Cox, History of the Baptist Missionary Society from 1792 to 1842, Vol. 2 (London: T. Ward & Co., and G. & J. Dyer, 1842). Cox suggests that Liele’s teaching was likely “very imperfect and intermingled with many false and superstitious notions” (12). This seems unjustified on the basis of the information given about Liele in The Baptist Annual Register. It seems as though this judgment was made on the basis of experience with other Christians in Jamaica.

[11] John Clark, W. Dendy, and James M. Phillippo, The Voice of Jubilee: A Narrative of the Baptist Mission, Jamaica, From its Commencement; with Biographical Notices of its Fathers and Founders (London: John Snow, Paternoster Row, 1865).

[12] The situation might be somewhat different if these authors gave some indication of who passed on these stories and when.

[13] The Baptist Annual Register, 335. The date of Liele’s birth is not certain but in 1791 he estimated that he was about forty years old.

[14] While no date is given, Liele must have moved at a very young age because he knew nothing about his parents except that their names were Liele and Nancy (The Baptist Annual Register, 335). Liele knew that his father was known as one of the few genuine African Christians in that part of Virginia but he received this information second-hand.

[15] Slavery was introduced into Georgia in 1750. For the historical background of the introduction of slavery into the Province of Georgia see Darold D. Wax, “Georgia and the Negro Before the American Revolution,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 51 (1967), 63-77. For the role played by George Whitefield, the great revivalist, in the introduction of slavery into Georgia see Stephen J. Stein, “George Whitefield on Slavery: Some New Evidence,” Church History 42 (1973), 243-56.

[16] The Baptist Annual Register, 332.

[17] The Baptist Annual Register, 332. Liele says that his conversion experience began “two years before the late war”, i.e. the American Revolution.

[18] Ibid., 333. The words in square brackets were added by John Rippon. In The Baptist Annual Register itself, Liele’s words are in quotation marks and the words that were added are found outside of those quotation marks. It is interesting to note from this quotation that Liele was able to read. For the significance of Liele’s ability to read in the context of African-American literacy during the First Great Awakening see Frank Lambert, “‘I Saw the Book Talk’: Slave Readings of the First Great Awakening,” The Journal of Negro History 77 (1992), 194-95.

[19] The Baptist Annual Register, 333.

[20] Ibid., 334. Probationers were ministers who were in preparation for being ordained.

[21] Andrew Bryan’s story is found on pages 339 to 343 of The Baptist Annual Register and David George’s on pages 473 to 484.

[22] The Baptist Annual Register, 475.

[23] Ibid., 475.

[24] This was not the only encounter that George had with Liele. One day he heard Liele preach in a cornfield and he wanted to join with the people who were gathered there in prayer. However, he felt ashamed and went to a swamp to pray by himself. He eventually went to Liele and Liele’s advice proved a great help to him and helped him on his path toward Christian ministry. George ministered together with Liele for a short time in Savannah before moving to Charleston where he was eventually evacuated to Halifax, Nova Scotia, with the British. George would go on to have a profound ministry in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Sierra Leone.

[25] Ibid., 334.

[26] See Votes of the Honourable House of Assembly of Jamaica (1791-2), 250, and Votes of the Honourable House of Assembly of Jamaica (1796), 132, 160.

[27] The Baptist Annual Register, 336. Stephen Cooke, a member of the Jamaican house of assembly and an acquaintance of Liele, wrote the following about Liele’s refusal to take money from slaves: “I am led to believe that it has been of essential service to the cause of GOD, for his industry has set a good example to his flock, and has put it out of the power of enemies to religion to say, that he has been eating the bread of idleness, or lived upon the poor slaves” (Ibid., 338).

[28] Ibid., 335.

[29] John H. Davis, “George Liele and Andrew Bryan, Pioneer Negro Baptist Preachers,” 122.

[30] The Baptist Annual Register, 338.

[31] Ibid. 343-44.

[32] The Baptist Annual Register, 542.


No…Sola Scriptura is Not Found in the Bible: But That Was Never the Point

Bad Arguments Against Sola Scriptura Part 1 - Not Found in Scripture

This past week I listened to two lectures on the doctrine of sola scriptura (Latin for “scripture alone”): one by a Protestant scholar and the other by a Roman Catholic apologist. One of the things that stood out in the lecture given by the Protestant was his insistence that the doctrine of sola scriptura is something that can actually be found in scripture. The person who spoke from a Roman Catholic perspective, on the other hand, argued quite strongly that the doctrine of sola scriptura cannot be found in scripture. Now it might come as a surprise to some people but in this case I would say that I actually agree with the person who was speaking from a Roman Catholic perspective: I don’t think that the doctrine of sola scriptura can actually be found in scripture. But, unlike the Roman Catholic apologist, I don’t think that makes the doctrine of sola scriptura wrong.

What is Sola Scriptura?

According to many Roman Catholic apologists, it would be inconsistent for a Protestant to believe in sola scriptura if the doctrine of sola scriptura can’t actually be found in scripture. While this argument might sound fairly strong on first examination, the reality is that it is based, at least in part, on a misunderstanding of what the doctrine of sola scriptura actually is. Unlike what so many people think– both on the Roman Catholic and on the Protestant side – the doctrine of sola scriptura does not mean that scripture is our only authority when it comes to what we believe and what we do as Christians; the doctrine of sola scriptura means that the Bible is our ultimate authority, under God, for what we should believe and do as Christians. As Protestants, scripture is not our only authority – but it is the authority by which all other authorities need to be measured. This is how it is worded in the Westminster Confession of Faith:

Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter 1.10)

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we can rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.[1]

The Belgic Confession says something similar:

Belgic Confession (Article 7)

Therefore we must not consider human writings – no matter how holy their authors may have been – equal to the divine writings; nor may we put custom, nor the majority, nor age, nor the passage of time or persons, nor councils, decrees, or official decisions above the truth of God, for truth is above everything else.[2]

So sola scriptura does not mean that the Bible is our only authority when it comes to what we believe and do as Christians – but it is our highest authority, the authority by which every other authority is to be judged.

Why We Should Believe in Sola Scriptura

So the question that we need to ask now is this: why should we believe in the doctrine of sola scriptura?

There are basically two reasons why we should believe in sola scriptura – and we need both, otherwise the argument isn’t very strong.

1. The first reason why we should believe in sola scriptura is because we believe that scripture is inspired by God and that it is completely trustworthy when it comes to what we should believe and do as Christians. Of course we could get into a debate about whether or not scripture actually is inspired by God, whether or not scripture actually is trustworthy, or how do we really know which books should be in the Bible. But none of those points are really at issue here. During the Protestant Reformation, both sides were in agreement on this point. Of course, there eventually would be debate about the scope of the Old Testament (i.e. do the apocryphal/deuterocanonical books belong to the Old Testament) but even that isn’t really fundamental to this debate: during the Protestant Reformation both sides believed in the inspiration and trustworthiness of scripture.

But the inspiration and trustworthiness of scripture isn’t really enough to bring a person all of the way to the doctrine of sola scriptura – there is one more ingredient that is needed.

2. The second reason why we should believe in sola scriptura is because we don’t believe that any other source of authority is inspired by God and is completely trustworthy for what we should believe and do as Christians. As Protestants we don’t believe that the Pope is infallible, even when he speaks ex cathedra. (As a side note, Luther’s opponents in the sixteenth century clearly had a higher view of papal infallibility than the Catechism of the Catholic Church does today and certainly more than Roman Catholic apologists do today. I wonder if this is because, from our perspective today, it is all too clear that popes can and do make serious theological mistakes).   As Protestants, we respect the ecumenical and other councils of the church, but we don’t believe they are infallible. And as Protestants – at least the early Protestants like Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin, etc. and those who follow closely behind them – we read and respect the accumulated wisdom of the church fathers, but it is pretty easy to show that they were not infallible. No matter how close they might come to the truth, as Protestants we can never be sure that they are completely trustworthy because in too many instances they have shown themselves not to be trustworthy. That was the point that Martin Luther was trying to make at the Diet of Worms:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason – for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves – I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.[3]

Notice that Luther didn’t base his belief in sola scriptura on the fact that sola scriptura is found in the Bible. Luther’s belief in sola scriptura is based on his view of the inspiration of scripture and the fact that two of the highest authorities for the Roman Catholic Church – popes and councils – are not completely trustworthy because they have often made mistakes and contradicted each other. And because Luther believed these two things, that meant that every other authority needed to be judged on the basis of scripture because scripture is the only authority that can be considered to be completely trustworthy for what we believe and do as Christians.

But Whose Interpretation Should We Follow?

The person who was arguing from the Roman Catholic perspective also brought out one other point that needs to be considered: he said that the doctrine of sola scriptura assumed an infallible interpreter. The Roman Catholic Church, he said, has the teaching authority of the church, the magisterium, to give them an authoritative interpretation of scripture. Protestants, on the other hand, have simply transferred the authority to interpret scripture from the church to the individual – which is a recipe for chaos.

What should we say in response to this? There are three quick things we can say in response to this:

a) First, it is fairly easy to show on the basis of individual examples that the teaching authority of the church is not infallible. They can make mistakes and they have made mistakes. So when the teaching authority of the church makes mistakes, scripture trumps the teaching authority of the church.

b) Second, Protestants traditionally do believe that the church and tradition have the ability to guide believers in the right interpretation of scripture. We would be fools to think that we as individuals are capable of getting everything right while everyone else is wrong. That is one reason why we need to have pastors and teachers and scholars to help God’s people understand scripture. That is one reason why we need to read church history and get as much wisdom as we can from Christians who came before us. And that is one reason why we need to be accountable to a larger church body so that it’s not just me or my small group and the Bible. If we think that sola scriptura means me plus the Bible and that’s it, that is a complete misunderstanding of how the early reformers understood the doctrine of sola scriptura.  So we would be fools not to gain wisdom from the teaching authority of the church and tradition.

But with all of this in mind, we still need to recognize that the teaching authority of the church and tradition still need to be placed under the authority of scripture because they are not infallible.  If the teaching authority of the church and tradition contradict scripture, scripture trumps them both.

c) Third, some people might think that I’m too much a child of the enlightenment but I actually do believe that there is objective meaning in the text and that that objective meaning is publically available. With the right training and the right presuppositions, Christian leaders should be able to come to a fairly good consensus on what scripture teaches in most cases. That is one reason why I think biblical theology is so important: it’s because I firmly believe that a more careful reading of scripture and how scripture fits together will bring us closer to what God actually wants us to believe and do as Christians. While I don’t think that Christians will ultimately agree on every issue (there are a lot of factors that go into how we form our theology!), I do think that a more careful reading of scripture will bring us closer together on many points. But even if everyone is not as optimistic as I am, I still think that scripture is clear enough that we can say that some teachings are definitely wrong and that some teachings are definitely right on the basis of what scripture has to say.


Again, I don’t think that sola scriptura is found in scripture. But that was never the point. The point is that both sides during the Reformation believed in the inspiration and trustworthiness of scripture – the difference is that the Reformers didn’t believe that other sources of authority were infallible. This meant that scripture needed to be the authority by which every other authority needed to be judged because only scripture is completely infallible. And that is the doctrine of sola scriptura – not the only authority but the highest authority for what we believe and do as Christians.

[1] See

[2] See

[3] Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart; New York: Image Books, 1992), 39.


Why Roman Catholic and Eastern Christians Are Not Interested in Biblical Theology

Why Roman Catholic and Eastern Christians Are Not Interested in Biblical Theology

On October 31, 2017, many people around the world will be celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It was on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg that began a series of events that would ultimately result in what is now known as the Protestant Reformation.

But 2017 also marks another important anniversary.  It was thirty years ago when Jon D. Levenson published his well-known article, “Why Jews Are Not Interested in Biblical Theology.”[1] Since the publication of that article, a whole stream of articles by other Jewish scholars have appeared that deal with how Jewish writers might effectively engage in a distinctively Jewish form of biblical theology.  As we approach the five hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, one particular article stands out, an article by Benjamin D. Sommer entitled, “Dialogical Biblical Theology: A Jewish Approach to Reading Scripture Theologically.”[2] Sommer begins his article the following way:

“Strictly speaking, there can be no such thing as Jewish biblical theology. While many definitions of the term ‘biblical theology’ exist, they all accord some privileged place to the Bible. All forms of Jewish theology, however, must base themselves on Judaism’s rich post-biblical tradition at least as much as on scripture, and hence a Jewish theology cannot be chiefly biblical….Conversely, any theology that focuses especially on scripture is by definition Protestant and not Jewish, for the notion of sola scriptura has no place in Judaism – even as an unrealizable ideal.”[3]

In an endnote he goes on to say:

“It is no coincidence that the desire to create such a theology arose neither in Judaism nor in Catholic or Orthodox settings but in Protestant settings in the eighteenth century, and that it remained an exclusively Protestant undertaking for so long. The view that the theology of the Bible is of particular significance (though not necessarily having ultimate authority) results in large part from the notion of sola scriptura.[4]

In this post I would like to develop Sommer’s observation that biblical theology, at its root, is essentially a Protestant undertaking that is based, to a large extent, on the Reformation idea of sola scriptura. Piggybacking on Levenson’s article, I will argue that Roman Catholic and Eastern Christians[5] should not really be interested in biblical theology and that when they are they are functioning in a way that is inconsistent both with the history of biblical theology as a discipline and their own tradition, which functions in a very similar way to Judaism as described by Sommer. As a grid for understanding biblical theology as an academic discipline we will focus on Johann Philipp Gabler’s inaugural address (1787) at the University of Altdorf entitled “On the Proper Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the Specific Objectives of Each,”[6] which is universally understood to mark the beginning of the study of biblical theology as an academic discipline.

Definition of Sola Scriptura

But before we can proceed to an examination of Gabler’s inaugural address, it is important to define what we mean by the term sola scriptura. Sola scriptura, according to my understanding of the term, does not mean that scripture is the only authority for defining the faith and practice of the church but that it is the supreme authority, under God, for defining the faith and practice of the church. As Carl Trueman puts it, “As the norming norm, the Bible is that by which all other theological statements must be judged as to their truthfulness of content and adequacy of formulation.”[7] Article 7 of the Belgic Confession puts it this way:

“Therefore we must not consider human writings – no matter how holy their authors may have been – equal to the divine writings; nor may we put custom, nor the majority, nor age, nor the passage of time or persons, nor councils, decrees, or official decisions above the truth of God, for truth is above everything else.[8]

This understanding of sola scriptura, followed by both the Lutheran and Reformed branches of the Protestant Reformation, allows tradition (i.e. the formulation of theology by Christians in the past) to play a role in both forming and formulating theology for the church today, but places tradition under the authority of scripture. In this sense, Sommer is correct when he says, “One might argue that even in Protestantism, tradition has always played a role alongside scripture, but at least the ideal of an exclusively or primarily biblical doctrine nevertheless deeply affected Protestantism.”[9]

The Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology

With this definition in mind, we can now proceed to a discussion of Gabler’s “On the Proper Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the Specific Objectives of Each.” Gabler begins his address by articulating what can only be understood as a strong affirmation of sola scriptura:

“All who are devoted to the sacred faith of Christianity, most worthy listeners, profess with one united voice that the sacred books, especially of the New Testament, are the one clear source from which all true knowledge of the Christian religion is drawn. And they profess too that these books are the only secure sanctuary to which we can flee in the face of the ambiguity and vicissitude of human knowledge, if we aspire to a solid understanding of divine matters and if we wish to obtain a firm and certain hope of salvation.[10]

Gabler’s description of scripture as “the one clear source from which all true knowledge of the Christian religion is drawn” is a clear affirmation of sola scriptura.

But not only does this section reveal a strong belief in sola scriptura, it also makes it clear that Gabler’s  goal in pursuing biblical theology was not simply historical (i.e. to describe the theology contained in or assumed by the various writings of scripture): Gabler’s ultimate goal was a dogmatic/didactic one (i.e. to define what Christians should believe today). In other words, biblical theology was meant to produce “true knowledge of the Christian religion” and to give “a solid understanding of divine matters.” The problem with contemporary dogmatic theology, as Gabler saw it, was that various factors were at play (i.e. poor interpretive methods, reading one’s ideas into the text, etc.) that obscured this “one clear source” and “only secure sanctuary.”[11] This state of affairs necessitated the development or, rather, discovery of what Gabler referred to as biblical theology that could form the basis for dogmatic theology.

But in order to understand what Gabler meant by biblical theology, it is first necessary to understand what he meant by the term dogmatic theology. Dogmatic theology, according to Gabler, refers to the elaborate theological formulations that were developed throughout church history and were still being developed in his day by Christian theologians.[12] These theological formulations were influenced, among other things, by the ability of the author, the time period in which the author lived, the place where the author lived, the sect the author belonged to, and various other contingent factors.[13] Gabler, because of his strong belief in sola scriptura, wanted to bypass these theologians and the contingent factors that affected their theology and develop a theology that was based on the theology of the Bible itself, using methods that would lead to a more reliable reading of scripture than were available to dogmatic theologians before.

With this in mind we can define what Gabler meant by term biblical theology. Based on everything Gabler said about biblical theology in his address (keeping in mind that Gabler himself did not give his own definition of the term), biblical theology can be defined as the beliefs, manner of life, and practices advocated by the authors of scripture that, through careful analysis, can be said to be normative for Christians today.  Another way of putting it is this: biblical theology, as a discipline, is meant to discover the Bible’s final word on what Christians should believe, how they should behave, and how they should practice their faith.  In this regard it is important to emphasize that for Gabler, the term biblical theology was not limited to theology but also included the morality and the practices that were advocated by the biblical authors.  In this sense, the term biblical theology can be somewhat misleading since its focus is not strictly limited to theology.

Gabler outlined two basic steps for steps for discovering which beliefs, practices, and morals found in the Bible were normative for Christians today.  The first step was to gather the various theological data that were either expressed or assumed[14] in scripture and analyze them, in the original languages, according to the time period in which they were written, the testament in which they were written, the author who wrote them, the peculiar usages of each author, the genre of the passage, the literary context of the passage, and the like.[15] Once analyzed, the theology of each individual author could be distilled to express what they advocated for in terms of belief, morality, and practice.  In other words, Gabler advocated using the best exegetical methods available in his time to analyze and extract the theological data that is contained in the text.   Commenting on the rigour that would be required in this first step, Gabler noted: “If we abandon this straight road, even though it is troublesome and of little delight, it can only result in our wandering into some deviation or uncertainty.”[16]

The second step, according to Gabler, was to compare the theology of each author and isolate the ideas that are universally valid from those that were limited to the time period in which they were written – but without distorting the original intention of each individual author.[17]  By comparing the various biblical authors with each other, the truths, manner of living and practices that are universal can be isolated from those that were confined to a particular time period. Gabler gives the rites of Moses and the practice of veiling women in Paul as examples of practices that are not universal in character.[18]

Once these normative truths, morals, and practices have been isolated and properly arranged, they can then be used as the basis for a biblically informed dogmatic theology.[19] Again, Gabler appeals to sola scriptura near the end of his address when he says, “And finally, unless we want to follow uncertain arguments, we must so build only upon these firmly established foundations of biblical theology, again taken in the stricter sense as above, a dogmatic theology adapted to our own times.”[20]

Biblical Theology, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Christianity

Based on Gabler’s exposition of the nature and purpose of biblical theology, it is easy to see why Sommer would say that there can be no such thing as a Jewish biblical theology. As Sommer explains it, Jewish theology needs to take into account not only what the Bible says but the theology found in the post-biblical tradition. The same is essentially true for Roman Catholic and Eastern Christian theology. Roman Catholic theology does not simply taken into account the theology of the various biblical authors when forming its theology and practice: the teaching authority of the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, also plays an essential role. Eastern Christian theology does the same thing, though, with added emphasis on the importance of reading scripture through the lens of the church fathers. Biblical theology, as formulated by Gabler with its basis in sola scriptura, is fundamentally at odds with how the Roman Catholic and Eastern churches form and formulate their theology since tradition also plays an important and, in some cases, decisive role.  As Sommer noted, biblical theology is a distinctively Protestant undertaking.

This does not mean, however, that biblical theology can have no place in these churches. Where the church, tradition, or the fathers have not spoken definitively on an issue,  biblical theology might help to clarify or fill out what they believe on these topics.

However, the role that the authority of the church, tradition, and the fathers plays means that certain beliefs and practices are not open to challenge. For example, what if it could be shown that Isaiah or Paul teaches penal substitutionary atonement? This would be extremely difficult for eastern Christians to accept since penal substitutionary atonement is so foreign to their tradition. What if it could be shown from scripture that Mary did not remain a virgin for her entire life but had sexual relations with Joseph and had other children? Again, this issue would be off limits for writers in Roman Catholic and Eastern Churches because of their view of tradition.

This is part of the danger of what we are celebrating on the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation’s return to scripture meant, at least in principle, that everything that the church taught and believed is open to question on the basis of a closer reading scripture. In practice, however, tradition kept most things from being questioned. But the principle of sola scriptura created a climate where even some of the more fundamental teachings of the church could be questioned on the basis of a closer reading of scripture.

While there certainly is a real danger when it comes to the application of the doctrine of sola scriptura, sola scriptura is one of the most exciting developments to come out of the Protestant Reformation.  The Reformation’s insistence on sola scriptura, when used responsibly (in a way not dissimilar from Gabler’s), means that we can recover biblical truth that may have been hidden, obscured, or even lost for one reason or another as the traditions of the church developed and ruled their reading of scripture. Sola scriptura gives us as Christians freedom to explore what the Bible says and to accept it as true even if the tradition says something to the contrary.

We would be foolish to think that sola scriptura is not dangerous when used irresponsibly. But I believe that the fundamental truths of Christianity are, in fact, found in scripture and are safe precisely because they are found there. Since sola scriptura does not mean that scripture has the only say but the final say in matters of faith and practice, the accumulated wisdom of Christian theologians of the past (i.e. tradition) can help us fill out and explain what scripture says. Sola scriptura makes the type of biblical theology described by Gabler possible and, given the recovery of biblical doctrine during the Reformation, makes it well worth the risk.

Mark Steven Francois

[1] Jon D. Levenson, “Why Jews Are Not Interested in Biblical Theology,” in Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel (eds. Jacob Neusner, et al; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 281-307.

[2] Benjamin D. Sommer, “Dialogical Biblical Theology: A Jewish Approach to Reading Scripture Theologically,” in Biblical Theology: Introducing the Conversation (eds. Leo G. Perdue et al; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 1-53, 265-85.

[3] Ibid., 1-2.

[4] Ibid., 265, n. 2.

[5] I.e. Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and the Church of the East.

[6] For the text of the address see John Sandys-Wunsch and Laurence Eldredge, “J. P. Gabler and the Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology: Translation, Commentary, and Discussion of his Originality,” in Scottish Journal of Theology 33 (1980), 133-58.

[7] Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2012), 80.

[8] Available on the website of the Christian Reformed Church at

[9] Sommer, “Dialogical Biblical Theology,” 265 n.2.

[10] Sandys-Wunsch and Eldredge, “J. P. Gabler and the Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology,” 134.

[11] Ibid., 134-7.

[12] Ibid. 137-8.

[13] Ibid., 138.

[14] Ibid., 141. “Nonetheless, there is a sufficient number of ideas, and usually of such a kind that those that have been omitted can then be inferred without difficulty, if they constitute a single principle of opinion expressly declared, or if they are connected to the ideas that are stated in some necessary fashion.”

[15] Ibid., 140-41.

[16] Ibid., 139.

[17] Ibid., 141-2.

[18] Ibid., 142. Note that Gabler does not explain why Paul’s instructions about veiling women does not apply today though he explains that rites of Moses have been invalidated because they have been fulfilled in Christ.

[19] Ibid., 144.

[20] Ibid., 144.



Dissecting What People Mean When They Talk About Taking the Bible Literally

Maybe We Should Stop Using the Word Literal

I imagine that most of us have heard people say at one point another that the Bible either should or should not be taken literally.  For many people on the more evangelical side of Christianity, it is almost a mantra to say that the Bible needs to be understood literally and that when people don’t take the Bible literally they are not being faithful to scripture. For people on the more “progressive” side of Christianity, it’s almost a mantra to say something like, “We take the Bible seriously but we take it too seriously to always take it literally.” And if we haven’t heard people talk about literal interpretation in either of these two contexts, we have probably heard people talk about it when election season comes around in the United States.  It is common for reporters to ask politicians whether or not they take the Bible literally and it is common for political candidates to give their opinion about whether or not the Bible should be taken literally.

Based on the various ways that people use the word literal in the context of biblical interpretation, I’m convinced that most people, including people who have been trained in biblical and theological studies, don’t really understand what they mean when they use the word literal.  Now, of course, if you were to ask them to give some concrete examples for what they mean by the word literal, they would probably be able to make what they are thinking on this issue clear enough. But I’m convinced that the average person would have a very hard time actually articulating what they mean by this.  The result, quite naturally, is a lot of hazy thinking about how we should interpret the Bible and about how we communicate what we believe about how we think the Bible should be interpreted.

In this post, I want to dissect what people actually mean  when they say that they either do or don’t interpret the Bible literally and I want to suggest that most of the ways that people use the word literal in this context are both imprecise and misleading.  I also want to suggest that we limit the word literal to one particular use of that word, which will become clear as the discussion progresses

Various Ways That People Use the Word Literal in Biblical Interpretation

There are essentially five different ways that people use the word literal in the context of biblical interpretation.

1. The first way that people use the word literal  has to do with whether or not they believe that a particular passage of scripture is authoritative for how Christians should act on a moral level today.

For example, when someone says that they don’t take the New Testament’s teaching on divorce literally, what they really mean is that they don’t think that the New Testament’s teaching on divorce is authoritative for Christians today.  But clearly this is a rather unusual way of using the word literal.  The opposite of literal is not “I don’t think this is authoritative for people today”; the opposite of literal is figurative.  Regardless of what we believe about divorce today, we should be able to say that Jesus or the author who recorded the words of Jesus literally meant that divorce is only permissible when one of the two partners commits sexual immorality and that remarriage under any other circumstances would be considered adultery.  We should be able to say that this is the literal meaning of the text without saying that we actually agree with it or think that it is authoritative for Christians today.  But to say that we don’t interpret this text literally simply because we don’t agree with its teaching is a very strange way of using the word literal.

I suspect that some of this has to do with the fear of saying that the Bible is wrong on certain issues because of the Bible’s status as scripture.  I find it hard to imagine that someone would say that they don’t take the moral teaching of Huckleberry Finn literally; they would simply say that they don’t agree with it because they don’t view it as scripture and don’t want to sound like they are attacking scripture. But using the word literal in this way is an invitation for confusion and is somewhat misleading.

2. The second way that people use the word literal has to do with whether or not they believe that a particular passage of scripture actually reflects God’s thinking on a certain issue.

For example, there are many people who would say that they don’t take the command in Deuteronomy 7 for the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites literally.  But what exactly does it  mean to take this passage non-literally?  Do they mean that the author of Deuteronomy 7 never meant to say that God wanted the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites and show them no mercy?  Do they mean that the author meant this language to be understood in a non-literal or figurative way (e.g. the Canaanites represent sin and God wants us to completely root out sin from our lives)?

What they really mean is that they don’t believe that God could have actually said this.  But this is clearly a non-standard and non-intuitive way of using the word literal.  The opposite of literal is not “we don’t think this actually reflects God’s thinking on this issue”; the opposite of literal is figurative. In this case, the question we should be asking is this: “Is God really being portrayed in Deuteronomy 7 as commanding the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites?” The issue of whether or not he actually did command the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites is a separate issue and has nothing to do with whether or not this passage should be taken literally. We should be able to separate how we evaluate the text on a theological level from how we evaluate it on a historical or literary level.  We should be able to say that we believe that an author mean x, y, or z without necessarily saying that we agree with it.  But to say that you don’t take a passage literally because you don’t agree with what it says is a real stretch of what the word literal normally means.

3. The third way that people use the word literal has to do with whether or not they believe that a particular event recorded in the Bible actually happened in history.

Take, for example, the story of Moses parting the waters of Red Sea (yes, I’m aware that in Hebrew it actually says the Sea of Reeds). There are many non-conservatives who say that the events recorded in this story simply did not happen. But instead of saying that the events recorded in the story simply did not happen, very often they will say that they don’t think that the story should be taken literally.

Now we have to be careful here because there are some stories in the Bible that were never meant to be understood to reflect events that actually happened in history. Think about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. As far as I know, I don’t think anyone would argue that the author of the Gospel of Luke believed that the events recorded in the Parable of the Good Samaritan actually happened. And that’s not because they don’t believe that the events recorded in the story are realistic – it’s because the Parable of the Good Samaritan is a parable and, based on the genre, we shouldn’t expect the details of the story to represent events that actually happened in history. But that doesn’t mean that the moral or theological truths told in the story aren’t true.

But even here the use of the word literal is somewhat problematic.  Let’s take a fairly controversial example: the creation story in Genesis 1.  There are many people who say that they don’t take the creation story in Genesis 1 literally.  In other words, they don’t believe that the earth was actually created in six days with a day of rest on the seventh day.  But what if the author of the text actually believed that the earth was created in six days?  In this case, a literal reading would say that the author believed that the earth was created in six days.  But even if the author didn’t believe that the earth was created in six days, a literal reading could still say that the author is presenting the creation of the earth as though it happened in six days.  In both cases, the word literal would be a literary evaluation rather than a historical or factual evaluation.  Using the word literal to refer to how the details of the text correspond to actual history is both imprecise and confusing.

4. The fourth way that people use the word literal has to do with whether or not the language used in a particular passage of scripture should be understood in a figurative or a non-figurative way according to what the author of the text intended.

This is the most straightforward way of understanding the word literal. The opposite of the word literal in this case is figurative, metaphorical, or symbolic. There should be no disagreement about the fact that there are certain portions of the Bible that should not be taken literally when the word literal is used in this sense. When Jesus refers to false prophets as wolves in sheep’s clothing, he doesn’t literally mean that the prophets are wolves or that they are literally dressed up in sheep’s clothing. He is using this language to illustrate something about the natural of false prophets and how destructive they can be to unsuspecting people.

So when people say, for example, that they don’t take the Bible’s teaching about divorce literally, it can be a little bit confusing because the Bible doesn’t really use figurative language when it talks about divorce.  What they mean is that they don’t think that the Bible’s teaching on divorce s applicable for today.  But, again, we need to keep in mind that the opposite of literal is not “I don’t think it is applicable for today”; the opposite of literal is figurative.

5. The final way that people use the word literal is that the literal level of interpretation has to do with what the human author of the biblical text was attempting to communicate in his own historical context as opposed to any additional meaning that might have been intended by the Holy Spirit.

This is the meaning that most reflects the way that the word literal has been understood in the history of interpretation. The literal meaning of the text is the plain-sense meaning of the text, the meaning that was intended by the human author of the biblical text, as opposed to some kind of deeper meaning that was intended by the Holy Spirit. For example, a literal reading of the Song of Solomon takes into account the fact that there are certain parts of the text that need to be understood in a non-literal (i.e. figurative way) but recognizes that the Song of Solomon is essentially an example of ancient Israelite love poetry. A non-literal reading would the plain-sense meaning of the text as a code for something deeper like the love that Christ has for the church or the love that God has for Israel, even though that doesn’t seem to be what the human author was intending.

In this case, using the word literal makes sense if we understand how the word literal has been used in the history of interpretation. However, since the normal meaning of the word literal has to do with non-figurative language, using the word literal in this sense could be confusing. Someone might think that a person doing a literal reading of the Song of Solomon is ignoring the tremendous amount of figurative language that is used in the book, even though this type of literal reading would take into account an author’s use of figurative language.  Using the word literal in this sense is clearly a recipe for misunderstanding.

Concluding Thoughts

Based on the vastly different ways that people used the word literal in biblical interpretation, my suggestion would be that we simply avoid using the word literal as much as we possibly can. Instead of using the word literal, we should simply explain what we mean without having to resort to a word that could be easily misunderstood.

So, for conservatives, instead of saying that you believe that the Bible should be understood literally, you should say (a) we believe that everything that the Bible affirms to be true ultimately comes from God; (b) we believe that events portrayed in the Bible as actually happening history did, in fact, actually happen in history; and (c)  when the Bible gives its final word in a particular subject, it is authoritative for both the beliefs and lifestyle of believers.

For people on the more progressive side of things, instead of saying that you don’t take much of the Bible literally, simply say (a) that there are certain events recorded as history in the Bible that you don’t believe actually happened in history; (b) that there are certain theological statements in the Bible that you don’t think are actually true; and (c) that there are certain moral teachings in the Bible that you don’t think actually come from God.

If we have to use the word literal, we should limit ourselves to the way that people normally understand the word literal today. In other words, we should stick with the fourth definition given above – namely that the word literal refers to something that should be understood in a straightforward, non-figurative, way in terms of how the material is being presented in the text. Statements about the truthfulness of the text, the historicity of the text, or its applicability for today should be expressed in language that does not use the word literal, otherwise we are just asking for our language to be misunderstood.  We need to make sure that we are more precise and more self-aware when it comes to the language that we use in biblical interpretation.

Mark Steven Francois




Five Strategies for Explaining Away Passages in the Bible We Don’t Like

Five Strategies for Explaining Away Passages in the Bible We Don't Like

One of the things that I find very interesting is that when people find something in the Bible that they’re not very comfortable with, they usually won’t just come out and say, “I simply disagree with what the Bible has to say here.” Now for most people I think this has to do with their belief in the inspiration and authority of scripture. For others it has to do with cultural residue that, for some reason, still makes people want the Bible to be right on certain issues, especially when it comes to moral issues.

So when people encounter something in the Bible that they don’t like, they usually won’t say that the Bible is wrong; they will often try to come up with some very elaborate arguments to try to show that the Bible isn’t actually saying what people think it is saying.   Sometimes this is done for apologetic reasons (i.e. to defend the Bible from its critics), which, by the way, is no excuse.  At other times it’s because they have an agenda for something that they are trying to push for the church today.  But very often it is simply because we have a hard time accepting that the Bible might actually disagree with some of the beliefs or values that we have today.

In this post, I want to deal with five common strategies that people often use to try to explain away passages in the Bible they don’t like.  Now obviously I’m not recommending these strategies because I don’t think they usually lead to a credible readings of the biblical text.  But the more we are aware of these strategies, the easier it will be to spot them and the less likely we will be to use them.

So here are the strategies:

 Strategy #1 – Cast as much doubt as you possibly can on the meaning of key words in the text that you’re dealing with – even if the context or a little bit of research will make the meaning of the word clear.

Now it’s definitely true that there some cases in the Bible where we’re not entirely sure what a particular word or a particular phrase means. Usually it’s because the word or phrase only appears once or twice in the Bible and because it isn’t found in literature outside of the Bible.

And it’s definitely true that there have been some words that have been translated incorrectly in our English Bibles. That’s one of the reasons why it’s important for both biblical scholars and pastors to know the biblical languages and be familiar enough with linguistic theory to properly use them.

That being said, one of the main strategies that people use to undermine the traditional teaching of scripture is to cast serious doubt on the meaning of key words that are found in the passages they are dealing with. This is the case with תּוֹעֵבָה in Leviticus 18:22, ἀρσενοκοίτης in 1 Corinthians 6:9, and αὐθεντέω in 1 Timothy 2:12.  The idea is that if you can cast enough doubt on what those words have been traditionally understood to mean, even if the alternatives that you come up with aren’t very convincing, then you can proceed to say that these passages don’t really teach what they seem to teach on the surface.

Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that there can’t be a legitimate debate about what these words mean. But when you’ve seen this strategy used enough times – and it always happens to be by people who have a vested interest in the passage not meaning what it has traditionally been understood to mean – it’s pretty easy to see this strategy for what it really is. If we can’t lay aside our desire to have the text say what we want it to say, it’s going to be very difficult for us to give a credible reading of that text.

Strategy#2: Do some “background” research, construct a narrative based on that “background” research, and use that narrative to completely contradict what the text actually says.

The reason why I use the word “background” in quotation marks is because very often the background material that people bring to the text is either not real (i.e. based on false information or the  faulty interpretation of that information) or not very relevant to the text.

Let me just give two quick examples. First, it is sometimes said that Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2:12 should be read in light of the worship of Artemis in the city of Ephesus, where Timothy was ministering when this letter was written. The problem with this is that even though this background material is real, it doesn’t seem to be very relevant for understanding 1 Timothy 2:12. Regardless of how we think 1 Timothy 2:12 should be applied today, the way that Paul words his instructions in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and the instructions he gives about overseers in the following chapter make it seem as though this was his normal teaching regardless of what city he was referring to. An even more important consideration is this: Paul never mentions or even alludes to Artemis worship anywhere in this letter. When Paul mentions false teaching in Ephesus, his main concern seems to be with some form of proto-Gnosticism (1 Tim. 6:20-21), extreme asceticism (1 Tim. 4:1-8), and/or some kind of false teaching that had to do with Jewish law (1 Tim. 1:3-11). Regardless of what kind of false teaching lies in the background of 1 Timothy, which might not even be relevant for applying  1 Timothy 2:12, Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2:12 doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the worship of Artemis.

Another example – and this one is really controversial today – has to do with what Paul has to say about same-sex sexual practice in Romans 1:26-27. This is often explained today in terms of the Greco-Roman practice of pederasty, temple prostitution, or the sexual exploitation of slaves. But what’s interesting about Romans 1:26-27 is that Paul’s concern doesn’t seem to be the age difference between the partners in the relationship; his concern doesn’t seem to be that this activity might be carried out in the context of idol worship, which doesn’t even seem to be on Paul’s radar despite the mention of idolatry in the previous verses; and his concern doesn’t seem to be with sexual exploitation, even though I’m sure he would say this is wrong as well. His problem seems to be that he doesn’t think that men should be having sexual relationships with other men, which makes sense given Paul’s Jewish background. What Paul has to say about lesbian sexual relationships in 1:26 would seem to confirm this but this can be left for another time.

The point is this: when we use “background” material to help us interpret the text, that background material needs to be both real and relevant. There needs to be very strong reasons in the text itself to show that this background material really is relevant. We also need to make sure that we don’t use “background” material to overrule what the text seems to be saying when taken on its own terms. We can disagree with what Paul had to say (obviously not if you believe in the inspiration and authority of scripture) – but we shouldn’t make him say something he never meant to say.

Strategy #3 – Blame the Greeks.

This is something that happens quite a bit. Simply blame the Greeks. The idea here is that there are certain elements of traditional Christian theology that can’t be found in the Bible but are actually based on the influence of Greek philosophy, which seeped into Christian theology in the formative centuries of early Christianity.

Let me just give one example. People who believe in conditional immortality will often argue that the idea of an eternal hell is based on the Greek concept of the immortality of the soul rather than on categories that can actually be found in the Bible. If we want to understand what the Bible has to say on this issue, according to them, we need to get rid of any influence from Greek philosophy and read the Bible on its own terms.

While this sounds very good in principle, in many cases it simply doesn’t work. Now, of course, we do need to accept the possibility that some of the things we believe as Christians or the way we formulate things theologically are due more to the categories of Greek philosophy than the Bible, but saying so doesn’t always make it the case. Going back to the example of conditional immortality, if the Bible actually does teach something similar to the immortality of the soul, which I think is a priori likely given both Egyptian and Mesopotamian beliefs about the afterlife (I also think it is found in the Bible too!), then it doesn’t matter if some of the early theologians of the church were influenced by the ideas or language of Greek philosophy that fell along the same lines. When early theologians went too far in this regard, like Origen’s beliefs about the eternality of the soul and the descent of souls, it was very often filtered out by the tradition, which itself was ruled and guided by the categories of scriptures.

So if we’re going to blame the Greeks for something we see in scripture, we need to make sure that it isn’t simply the case that the Greeks sometimes agreed with scripture.

Strategy #4 – Find another passage that, in reality, could easily be harmonized with the teaching you are trying to undermine but use it to overthrow the clear teaching of passages you don’t like.

 One of the best examples of this is when people use 1 John 4:8, which says that God is love, to cancel out any passage that, for them, seems incompatible with saying that God is love.

Another example is when people use Galatians 3:28, which says, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” (NIV) to overthrow everything else that Paul has to say about gender. Sticking with this last example, it is interesting to note that the same Paul who said that there is neither slave nor free in Galatians 3:28 also told Christian slaves to obey their masters and never told Christian masters to set their slaves free: clearly he didn’t think that being “one in Christ” erased these distinctions.  We can deal with the issue of Paul’s attitude toward slavery in another post.

I even heard one theologian say on a program on the BBC that Matthew 7:21 teaches that people will be judged exclusively by the good they do in this world and that what they believe about Jesus will have zero relevance on the Day of Judgment. Now that clearly doesn’t match up with the overall teaching of scripture and, I would argue, doesn’t match up with the theology of Matthew either.

I could give many more examples. The problem in each of these cases is that the interpreter is drawing conclusions from these verses that the authors themselves would not have drawn and, in some cases, that go against what the author explicitly teaches elsewhere. We can’t simply pick and choose the passages that we like, draw whatever conclusions we want from them, and then use them to overthrow what the Bible teaches in other passages of scripture.

Strategy #5 – Find as many reasons as you possibly can for why the text doesn’t mean what people usually think it means – even if those reasons aren’t compatible with each other.

I’ve seen this one quite a bit. Simply list as many arguments as you possibly can, even if these arguments are mutually incompatible, and try to overwhelm people with the amount of arguments you can find. Chances are most people won’t even realize that these arguments are mutually incompatible anyway – but who cares because the whole point is to win the argument, right?

Let me just give one example. In one blog post I reviewed awhile back, they said that in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul was only giving a temporary injunction against women teaching and having authority over men in the church. But in that same post they also said that the word that is normally translated as “have authority” or something along those lines really means “to domineer” with violent overtones. So which one is it? Is Paul only giving a temporary injunction against women domineering men in a violent way? Will that somehow be acceptable in the future? Both arguments can’t be right and it is very misleading to present these arguments as though they can actually work together.

Well, our main goal when it comes to interpreting a text shouldn’t be to win an argument. The main point should be to be honest with the text and to be honest with the evidence. We should be honest enough to point out when the arguments we are using are incompatible with each other so that we won’t give the false impression that there are ten cumulative arguments in favour of our position rather than maybe one or two. Pick the argument you think is right and then stick with it. But don’t present arguments that are incompatible with each other and make it seem like they help your case.


In the end, regardless of what theological position we come from and regardless of where we might want to come out on certain issues, we need to be honest with what the text says. If we have to do some kind of crazy interpretive gymnastics to get out of what the text seems to be saying, we might need to consider the possibility that the text is actually saying exactly what we think it is saying.  And if at the end of the day we don’t agree with what the text says, we should have the courage to say that we don’t agree with it, rather than trying to make the text say something that it doesn’t.

But if we do believe in the inspiration and authority of scripture, we need to have the kind of attitude that is reflected in Isaiah 66:2b.  In Isaiah 66:2b, God says:

Isaiah 66:2b – This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. (NIV)

This is the kind of attitude we need to have when it comes to scripture, especially if we find something in it that we might naturally want to disagree with. We shouldn’t be trying to find loopholes or use whatever strategy we can find to try to get out of what the Bible is saying.  When we’ve done all of our hard work in interpreting the text and we’re convinced that we understand the Bible’s final teaching on a subject, we need to make sure that we listen to what it says.  And that begins with being honest with the text.

Mark Steven Francois