The WYSIWYG Principle of Bible Interpretation

Once, in the early days of computer word processing, typing a document required the operator to insert codes of what appeared to most of us as gibberish. But, done well, the finished document printed out as desired. But, you did not know if the codes were right until it printed. But (thankfully) text editors like Word and WordPerfect developed a WYSIWYG approach. WYSIWIG (pronounced whiz-e-wig) is an acronym standing for “What You See Is What You Get.” This computer development let us see on the screen what our documents will look like when printed.  What you see is pretty much what you get.

We can take this idea to Bible interpretation as the WYSIWIG Principle. Sometimes referred to as the literal principle, it is the easiest principle of Bible interpretation. It seemly means that what the Bible passage says is what the Bible passage means. In fact, most of the biblical text is actually literal, no hidden meanings at all.

The WYSIWIG Principle groups with two other principles, the Symbol Principle and the Symbol-Story Principle. As we apply these principles to a passage we ask (1) if we are to take the passage literally or (2) is there a symbol present which has deeper meaning or (3) if the entire passage relates many symbols which stand for a different paradigm? The next two posts will deal with the Symbol Principle and the Symbol-Story Principle so let’s continue focusing on the WYSIWYG Principle.

Once we determine that the passage is not giving one or more symbols, we simply take the passage at face value. It is what it is. What you see is what you get.

Here is an important example.  Read Luke 18:25 (ESV), “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” As a young believer, I was taught this verse made a symbolic reference to a tiny gate in the wall surrounding Jerusalem. This gate was so small that camels had to be unloaded and led through on their knees before being reloaded and on with their caravan journey. Could this be true? Is this verse literal as it is or symbolic in some way? To answer our question, let’s employ several principles of interpretation first.

  1. The In-the-Neighborhood Principle: What do the verses before and after this verse say? The verse sits in a passage from verse 18 through verse 30. What are these verses about? They recount an encounter between Jesus and a rich young man who was seeking to follow Jesus. Jesus told him to sell everything and give the proceeds to the needy, then follow him. The young man went away sad because he valued his riches more than following Jesus. Then Jesus made the observation we have as verse 25.
  2. The When and Where Principle: This is first century Judea. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, likely near Jericho. Jesus was making a teaching point with this observation. No archeological evidence exists that verifies a tiny gate as I was taught. Also, since there were many gates into Jerusalem, why would camels be coaxed through such a gate in this manner? People in Judea would have been very familiar with camels, probably the largest land animal most had ever seen. They would also understand needles with eyes. The needle’s eye was likely the smallest opening the Judeans would have been familiar with.
  3. The Phraseology Principle: There is no use of a word such as “like” or “as” to lead us to believe something symbolic is alluded to here.
  4. The WYSIWYG Principle: From our use of these interpretation principles, we can see that likely Jesus was talking about a real, everyday camel and a real everyday needle. He was using an exaggerated word picture to describe how hard it is for a person trusting in riches to humble himself enough to put faith in God alone.

The Bible is the most trustworthy book of all time. Applying the WYSIWYG Principle is the default principle for Bible interpretation.

Reflection: Meditate on Deuteronomy 29:29 (ESV): “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

Learn More: Spend some time with Dr. Bob Utley at viewing his Bible Interpretation Seminar.

Published: Jul 26, 2016


Select Category