As far as possible I take scripture at face value, accepting what is written without trying to redefine its clearest meaning, as long as its context does not suggest that it should be taken as being symbolic. (Regarding biblical symbolism – rarely is the reader left in ignorance about the meaning of a symbol. The interpretation is usually revealed in the text.)
Let me give you an example of accepting God’s word AS WRITTEN compared to God’s word “INTERPRETED”
Revelation 20: 1-10 And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time.
I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.
When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God's people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
How do we address this passage:
AS WRITTEN: After Jesus’ return Satan will be imprisoned and his deceptive power over the nations will be totally removed from the earth. Jesus will reign with his saints for 1000 years. After the 1000 years Satan will be released and will gather an army to oppose the rule of Jesus. Satan will be defeated and thrown into the lake of fire. There will be a thousand year gap between Jesus’ return (and the resurrection of the saints) and a second resurrection (that of the unsaved) which will precede the judgement.
AS INTERPRETED: This 1000 years is a symbolic period representing the church age, Satan was bound by Jesus at the cross and the saints are now ruling with Christ who is seated on His throne in heaven. Jesus’ return will be immediately followed by the judgement because there is no literal 1000 year earthly reign.
This is an extreme example – but it is one that is very WIDELY applied. Am I guilty of “interpreting scripture” because I choose to believe what is actually written instead of trying to explain why it doesn’t really mean what the passage actually says?
When scripture tells me that
“God our Savior, … wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ
Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men”
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is
patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
Why should this mean anything different to what it says?
And yet many add to, change or reinterpret the meaning of these verses because taken according to their literal meaning they totally discredit their favoured doctrines.
When scripture tells me that God desires all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth and that God doesn’t want any to perish – then I don’t try to “interpret” or explain those statement away to make them fit other doctrines.
When I read statements that refer to election – those references to election do not negate the truths about who God desires to be saved. Instead of ignoring or redefining the statements about God’s desires, we should look further and see WHO is said to be elected and under what conditions. Again, when we find the answer to that it would be foolish to ignore that answer because it contradicts a doctrinal bias. Especially when that answer is totally consistent with other references through scripture
Is it “INTERPRETING” these verses when we accept that they mean that God wants ALL MEN to be saved, that Jesus gave Himself as a ransom for ALL MEN, that God does not want ANYONE to perish but wants EVERYONE to come to repentance?
Is there anything in the context of these statements that would indicate that a literal meaning should not be applied?
Sometimes the intended meaning of a few verses isn’t always immediately apparent from the content of the verses themselves. If that is the case we must allow scripture to interpret scripture . In other words, what does scripture elsewhere say that will open our understanding?
For example, what are we to make of John 1?
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
What would this mean to us if we were reading it for the first time? There is nothing in these first two verses to tell us what or who this “Word” is. We have to read further into the chapter to see:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.' "
From this we get a better idea of what the first two verses are about. The “Word”, from the context of the following verses can be seen to be Jesus. This truth becomes even more apparent when we continue into John’s writing.
This is also the case with Ephesians 1 – one of the favourite proof text passages regarding unconditional “election”. Not only is it the case that nowhere in this chapter does it indicate that “election” is unconditional, the chapter actually spells out the condition continually.
That election and every benefit available to “the elect” are THROUGH HIM (Christ) and IN HIM. And the passage also includes the revelation of how people come to be IN HIM.
And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his glory.
So to be in Christ someone has to hear the gospel and believe. And then being in Christ we are included in the elect. This is also totally consistent with other parts of scripture that reveal that believing or having faith in Jesus is a primary condition of salvation. (A well known example being John 3:16 – “Whoever BELIEVES will not perish…”).
During many doctrinal discussions I find myself repeating “But what does SCRIPTURE say. What are the words on the page telling us – not how can I manipulate those words to make them fit my doctrine.
Too often we are prone to “interpreting” scripture instead of submitting ourselves to its clearest and plainest meaning because that clearest meaning can be more challenging than we like. Recognising the clearest meaning would require some kind of change, whether in doctrine or behaviour. It is much more comfortable to find a way of “interpreting” the text so that uncomfortable change is not necessary.