The Symbol Principle of Bible Interpretation

We use symbols all the time. Once my mother asked me what my sons as teenagers wanted for Christmas. I told her, “They like CDs.” She thought for a minute and replied that she didn’t have that kind of money. I realized that I used CD to present compact disc and she used CD to mean certificate of deposit. We had our symbols mixed up. The symbol of “CD” was not clear. The Bible uses many symbols so we need to understand how symbols in the text affect our interpretation.

We are considering three similar principles of interpretation. The first was the WYSIWYG Principle. It tells us that most of the time the Bible passage we are studying is simply straightforward and means what it says. But, if the passage gives us reason to think that a word or phrase is used symbolically, we need to interpret it differently. The Symbol Principle, also known as the figurative principle, acknowledges that a passage may have a deeper meaning. It may say something but mean something else. The third principle is the Symbol-Story Principle. There will be more on it in the next post.

A missionary was surveying to find Christians in a closed Asian nation where Christians are often persecuted. He found some believers in a village. They stood in the public square quietly talking about their faith. But suddenly, these local believers were stricken with terror and all of them bolted at full runs in several directions. The missionary and a stray dog were left alone in the dust. After a bit, the missionary caught up with some of those believers. They wanted to know why the missionary had not run as well. They told him that the Bible taught them to beware of dogs (Philippians 3:2). What would the WYSIWYG Principle say? The passage is a warning from Paul for the Philippian believers to avoid false teachers. In the first century, people did not have dogs as pets like we do. Dogs were mangy, opportunistic scavengers. And, in Paul’s mind, false teachers were just like that. Paul was not using “dogs” to mean four-legged canines. He was referring to false teachers. Paul used the symbol to make an important parallel. Since canines could not be what Paul meant, we assume he used “dog” as a symbol.

Symbols can be difficult to spot at times. Watch for special word usages like over-exaggerations (Matthew 5:29-30). Jesus never meant that people should injury themselves but that avoiding sin must be taken seriously. Literature focusing on end-times is often very symbolic and cryptic. You see this in passages like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation. If you have a hunch that a passage has a symbol, refer to your study helps in your study Bible, commentaries, or dictionaries. I find Dr. Utley’s commentaries at www.freebiblecommentary.org very helpful.

Don’t forget to look elsewhere in your Bible. The Bible is often its own best commentary. Like Revelation 1:12 and 16, what are the seven lampstands and the seven stars? Read on to Revelation 1:20. They are the seven churches of Asia Minor and their seven angels. Angels are messengers so these are likely the pastors of the churches.

When you suspect a symbolic meaning is present in a passage, ask:

  • Is there likely a deeper meaning here?
  • What suggests a deeper meaning?
  • What does the context help you know about this passage?
  • What do reliable study helps say about this passage?
  • What is the meaning of the passage?

Remember, the passage usually means what it says, but when it may be saying one thing but meaning another thing, look to the Symbol Principle for help.

Reflection: Practice your interpretation skills with Matthew 7: 24-27. What do the two houses symbolize?

Learn More: Check out Dr. Bob Utley’s free course on Bible interpretation. You can find it at www.freebiblecommentary.org.

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