There’s a bad habit that’s becoming very common among Christians reading and interpreting Scripture. It has come to my attention more frequently than usual of late, so I’d like to challenge it right now—directly and aggressively.
I encountered it most recently during a conversation with some friends about the book of 2Samuel, in which the prophet records the covenant that God made with King David. At this point, one of my friends called attention to an aspect of the covenant which foreshadowed Christ. But this aspect was somewhat confusing, and so a discussion began about its actual meaning. Right away, another member of the group piped up and suggested, “Well, maybe that was just symbolic.”
Immediately, this struck me and provoked further thought. I have heard this sort of sentiment before from other Christians who stumbled upon confusing portions of Scripture (or more often, portions of Scripture which they would rather minimize), but found it quite troubling. What does someone mean when he decides to classify a portion of Scripture as “symbolic?” I would suggest that the intent behind such claims boils down to little more than a desire to render the passage in question effectively meaningless.
Here’s why I think that. The word “symbol” has a meaning. The dictionary defines it as “something used for or regarded as representing something else; a material object representing something, often something immaterial; emblem, token, or sign.” The second definition actually references algebraic mathematics and chemistry, both of which use symbols to represent realities, namely unknown numbers and configurations of atoms.
The point? The word “symbol” does not mean what we often take it to mean (something along the lines of “an arbitrary, emotional impression,” a.k.a., “whatever I want it to mean”). It has a definite meaning, namely a character or picture that represents something else.
Thus, when invoking the almighty symbol as an explanation in biblical study, it is not enough to appeal to the vague, strange or confusing nature of a given passage in order to declare it “symbolic.” A symbol is a concrete concept, a reality merely once removed from its subject (sometimes twice removed if you’re reading John’s epistles or the Old Testament prophets).
Now, symbols obviously have a place. When Jesus tells the Parable of the Sower in Luke 8, He uses symbols (a farmer, seeds, various soils, crows, thorns, rocks, etc.) to demonstrate very concrete, spiritual truths. And beginning in verse 11, He explains what each of the symbols in question represents. Likewise, when Jesus calls Himself “the door” and “the good shepherd” in John 10, we understand from the context that Jesus is not literally a piece of wood or a benevolent livestock herder, but God in Flesh explaining Himself through word pictures. Besides this, John explicitly calls these references “figures of speech,” (symbols).
This has a practical-as-potatoes application: First, before labeling a given passage of the Bible (or any piece of literature, for that matter) as symbolic, you must demonstrate a warrant, from the context of the passage itself, that the words were intended to be taken symbolically. Thus when speaking of, for example, the six days of the Genesis Creation Week, or the 1,000 years of Revelation’s Millennial Reign of Christ, one must be able to point to specific instructions from the author that the words on the page mean something OTHER than their literal, every day meaning. In both of these cases, no such warrant exists. Thus, interpreting these numbers to represent “indeterminate long periods of time” is an arbitrary position, imposed upon the passages in question, rather than EXPOSED from their content.
Second, applying this principle is necessary to protect the very nature and character of what we Christians are so serious about—Truth. As one of my favorite pastors once commented, “If the words on the page of the Bible don’t mean what they say, then they can mean absolutely anything.” Obviously, we are not free to assign our own meanings to the Word of God. The words on the page already have meanings, quite independently of what anyone believes or desires. This applies not only for literal passages, but genuinely symbolic ones as well. And if we recognize this, perhaps we will be a little less eager in the future to whip out our “symbol card” whenever we are confused or uncomfortable with what God has revealed.