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Levels of Meaning

Authors J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays begin this chapter with a question: “Does the Bible have different levels of meaning?”[1] That is, beyond the literal meaning, are there deeper levels of spiritual meaning to the text? The answer depends on what one means by “spiritual meaning.” Yes, the Bible has a spiritual meaning because the meaning comes from the Spirit of God. But that does not mean that we get to interpret Scripture in a “new” way that no one has heard before and call it a spiritual meaning. The Spirit has chosen to convey His meaning through literary conventions (grammar, context, etc.),[2] which means we are still faced with the task of discovering the author’s intended meaning rather than determining it for ourselves. Remember the author is the Spirit.

Spiritualizing: Spiritualizing a passage is a method of interpretation that is very often arbitrary and reader-directed. “In our zeal for ‘superspiritual’ meaning we often miss completely the message God has intended for us – in essence substituting our word for his.”[3] This method of interpretation must be avoided. Duvall and Hays suggest looking for the literary meaning, i.e. the meaning discovered by paying attention to the context, historical background, grammar, word meanings, etc.[4] Because the Bible is God’s divine revelation, the literary meaning is the spiritual meaning.

Allegory: “An allegory is a story that uses an extensive amount of symbolism.” Parables are not allegories because parables do not have such a high degree of details that represent something else. Take for example, the parable of the lost coin in Luke 15:8-10. Here, we read of a woman who loses a coin and sweeps the entire house until she finds it; and when she does she celebrates. Some Christians might want to allegorize the story and find a theological correspondence to almost all of its details. Consequently, the woman represents Jesus, her house represents the world, etc. This is a mistake. The parable of the coin comes out of three consecutives parables, all essentially conveying the same thing: just as the woman goes to great lengths to find the coin, God likewise goes to great lengths to bring us into His kingdom. “Few texts in the Bible are allegorical,”[5] say Duvall and Hays. So take great care in how you analyze and interpret the text.

Check back next week for Chapter 12: The Role of the Holy Spirit

We’ve barely scratched the surface with Grasping God’s Word! We highly recommend you purchase this excellent book here.

[1] J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 202.

[2] Ibid, 206.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 210.