Today I received an email from a reader named Ryan, who writes:
I’m in a discussion with a guy regarding free will, and in our discussion, we’ve come to a point where he is asking how we know when to interpret Scripture literally or figuratively. The reason he asks is because he utilizes the argument against “no one is good, not even one” as we see unbelievers doing good all the time. I’ve tried talking with him about God’s standard of Good as compared to man’s standard, but he says that he sees a verse like that as more metaphoric, in that no man is totally good, but that he can choose to still do good things. He then asks how I know that we are to take the verse talking about earth’s ‘four corners’ as figurative, wanting me to say that I base it on extra biblical evidence, so that he can prove his point that he sees unbelievers doing good things every day, so a verse like found in Romans 3 can’t be literal.
Any help you can give me would be wonderful. How do I answer this question well?
Bearing in mind that I’m by no means a trained exegete, there seem to be a few ways to address this:
1. There’s a disparity between empirical and moral extra-biblical evidence
On the one hand, as regards interpreting Scripture in light of extra-biblical evidence, there’s an obvious disanalogy between empirical and moral evidence. We can know that the earth is round in a good number of extra-biblical ways, because God has equipped us with faculties to make these sorts of determinations. In one sense, the same is true of moral judgments: God has equipped us with a conscience to tell between good and evil. But there are two major differences which must be noted:
a. Direct disparity
Whereas Scripture’s purpose is very seldom to describe brute empirical facts, it is very often to describe moral facts. Its chief concern is with the relationship between God and man—and the major problem with that relationship is a moral one. So whereas we may have good warrant for treating as metaphorical empirical descriptions which are prima facie not literally true, the same warrant does not exist to treat prima facie false moral descriptions as metaphorical.
b. The implausibility of interpreting Scripture against our moral intuitions
Expanding on (a), it must be noted that Scripture claims our moral intuitions are fundamentally skewed by the fall. It describes man as totally depraved, and his way of judging good as fundamentally wrong. Rather than judging goodness by looking to God, we naturally judge goodness by looking to man. Thus, if we believe Scripture, we should expect that our prima facie moral judgments will be wrong in many instances—especially with regard to morality in respect to God, as opposed to merely in respect to other people. If Scripture is correct, then fallen man only considers this latter “human-human” morality, and ignores that while one may do good to another man, that same act may still be evil as regards God. I would direct your friend to Paul’s direct statement in Romans 14:23 that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin”. For this reason, our moral intuitions do not provide any kind of extra-biblical support for rejecting the literal truth of Scripture’s moral statements. Quite the opposite is true. If Scripture’s statements are literally true, then our moral judgments are most likely false as regards our goodness with relation to God.
c. Assuming the consequent
Building on (b). your friend is flagrantly begging the question against you. He wants to deny the literal truth of Scripture’s moral statements on the basis of his own moral intuitions. But one of the things that Scripture says about his moral intuitions is that they are incapable of providing a reliable basis for these sorts of judgments—thus, if Scripture is literally true in these matters, his moral intuitions provide no kind of useful extra-biblical data. By insisting that they do, he is therefore assuming the very thing he needs to prove: namely, that Scripture’s moral statements are metaphorical.
2. Moral intuitions are subjective and vary between people
Moreover, I do not share your friend’s moral intuitions. On the contrary, one of the things that makes Scripture so plausible to me is how accurately and unashamedly it describes the moral condition of man. To be sure, as an unbeliever I certainly would have agreed with your friend. I would have rejected Scripture’s moral statements on exactly the same basis: I refused to judge goodness as something in relationship to God, and instead recognized only human-human moral relationships. Thus, I judged most people to be relatively good. However, as a believer who knows that all things are rightly judged in relationship to God, it is impossible for me not to see that “no one does good”, since even great acts of charity and self-sacrifice are driven not by a motivation to honor God, but by a desire to honor man. All the moral actions of any unbeliever—and many of believers as well, since we are by no means perfect yet—are basically idolatrous despite whatever benefit they may have to other people. So I would say that:
a. Judging between conflicting intuitions
Your friend’s entire case seems based on the assumption that his moral intuitions in this matter are correct—yet given that his intuitions are by no means universal, this is a highly tendentious assumption. If someone else, like me, finds Scripture’s moral statements intuitively plausible when taken literally, his whole case is undermined. Why should I accept his intuitions over mine?
b. Judging like an unbeliever rather than a Christian
Given what I’ve said about how unbelievers judge moral issues, your friend’s attitude in general constitutes a Big Red Flag. He is judging moral issues exactly as if he were an unbeliever, rather than as a Christian. Mind you, given that he appears to be at best a semi-Pelagian, that doesn’t come as any great surprise.
3. Exegetical deficiencies
On the other hand, his contention is inept on exegetical grounds as well. A phrase like “the four corners of the earth” is not difficult to see as a figure of speech. However, a phrase like “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God”—along with the rest of the three chapters Paul dedicates to describing the moral condition of man, and the umpteen passages he draws from in the Old Testament—are plainly not. There is simply no linguistic warrant for taking all of these passages as metaphorical; so if your friend wishes to do so, the burden of proof rests squarely on his shoulders. Whereas Scripture never repeatedly and explicitly claims that the earth has four corners (it does use the expression once or twice, but that is at best an implicit claim), it does repeatedly and explicitly claim that man is totally depraved, morally corrupt, unable to please God, and so on. It states this fact in any number of different ways, from the hand of any number of different prophets. So your friend needs to have an answer to each of those passages.
4. The slippery slope to hell
Your friend’s avenue of argument leaves the way open to deny basically any doctrine that someone finds personally objectionable:
a. Any doctrine can be denied based on some arbitrary intuition
If it’s reasonable to take depravity as metaphorical because a literal view conflicts with one’s moral intuitions, then it is reasonable to take the Trinity as metaphorical because a literal view conflicts with one’s logical intuitions; or it’s reasonable to take hell as metaphorical because a literal view conflicts with one’s emotional intuitions. Perhaps your friend is thinking of adding unitarian universalisism to his Pelagianism?
b. Many doctrines can be denied even on the basis of purely moral intuitions
But even if we arbitrarily confine the argument to moral intuitions, a great deal can still be denied. Many people find the notion of penal substitution morally abhorrent. Even if your friend does not, how does he propose to convince people of the truth that Jesus died for their sins, when their moral intuitions would lead them to believe that, in fact, the crucifixion was a merely metaphorical event? That would certainly be deeply hypocritical. And denying the doctrine of hell on moral grounds is as old as the hills. Not to mention the goodness of God, and/or the unity of Scripture, since YHVH did some pretty unsettling things back in the day when Israel was still in vogue. No doubt examples can be multiplied.
In short, it seems to me that your friend is taking the approach of subjecting Scripture to his own personal opinions, rather than allowing Scripture to stand in judgment over his opinions. That is not Christianity—it is a religion of his own invention; merely inspired by the Bible.