When Augustine wrote his manual on biblical interpretation, he observed that reality is made up of signs and things. Here’s an illustration to explain what he meant. A wedding ring signifies a promise of marital union. So a wedding ring is a sign. Yet it also a ring, which means that a wedding ring both signifies and is a thing. While such a distinction might seem pedantic or obtuse, it provides easy categories to explain why I am suggesting that we sometimes misunderstand the Bible’s meaning.
To understand the importance of signs and things, we first need turn to the Bible to see how it talks about heaven and earth and the Bible.
Heavenly and earthly realities intersect
In the Bible, we learn that heaven and earth are not so divided as we might assume today. For example, Moses says, “[the Most High] fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God” (Deut 32:8). Each nation has a spiritual being standing behind it as Daniel well knew when he calls a spiritual being “The prince of the kingdom of Persia” (Dan 10:13).
In the New Testament, we learn that churches have angels presiding over them (Rev 2–3). And for this reason, Paul advises women to wear a symbol of authority on their heads “because of the angels” (1 Cor 11:10). So angels and spiritual beings bear an important role with nations, the church, and even individuals in the church.
And yet they do not stand outside of our experience because we receive the Spirit and the blessing of the spirit in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3). We also portray Christ’s wisdom through the church to make it “known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10).
And this heavenly place constitutes the realm of our war in which we do not fight against flesh and blood “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).
In light of the above biblical passages, we seem forced to conclude that our reality comprises heaven and earth and sharply distinguishing the realms does not match the Bible’s meaning. The spiritual realm and the corporeal realm work side-by-side. Like a ven diagram of two circles, they overlap in the centre.
Our world is not flat. It’s thick all the way up.
And this means when we read the Bible, we should understand many of the things that it talks about as signifying spiritual realities.
The Bible comes from God to us on earth
When God spoke to Moses, he spoke from heaven and from earth (Deut 4:33, 36, 39). The words Moses recount come from a heavenly source yet inscribe themselves upon an earthly book. And Moses’ experience paradigmatically shows how other biblical authors wrote inspired Scripture. They too heard divine words from heaven that works for earthly prophecy.
Peter explains it in this way: “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 2:21). The Spirit of Christ (1 Pet 1:10–11) carried people along to speak God’s message.
In other words, biblical authors participated in heavenly realities (the Spirit of Christ) while prophesying words that would later become written as Scripture.
The words of Scripture, therefore, constitute human words that speak of divine things. The words signify something beyond themselves.
Signs point to things
And so we return to Augustine’s claim that reality is made up of signs and things. When God promises to save, the promise signifies an actual event of salvation (e.g., Christ’s death on the cross).
When God tells Abraham “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (Gen 22:18), the promise signifies the reality of the promise’s fulfillment.
Yet many of us who read the promises of the Old Testament stop at the sign. We see “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” and do not consider the things signified. But what do “offspring” and “blessed” signify?
Paul tells us clearly.
First, the “offspring” or “seed” is Christ: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ” (Gal 3:16)
Second, the blessing is the Holy Spirit: Christ received our curse by dying on the cross “so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal 3:14).
The seed and blessing signify the Father’s plan of redemption that included sending Christ and the Holy Spirit into the world. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, and he perfected the work of the Son by sending the Spirit.
Biblical words (signs) point to spiritual realities (things)
And this is why I say we often misunderstand the Bible. We get so lost in the signs that we miss what they signify.
When we read the Bible, we read words which signify ideas. And those ideas oftentimes reflect spiritual realities. So if we get stuck on studying signs alone, then we will miss out on the point of reading the Bible.
If we read the Bible only to understand its history, its grammar, its literary genres, or whatever else, then we have stopped at studying the signs. Certainly, we must study the signs, but we do so to understand what things they signify.
Put concretely, we should read God’s promise to Abraham as signifying Jesus (the seed) and the Holy Spirit (the blessing). God’s promises may also signify other things, but it nevertheless does point to Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
And if we miss that, then we’ve misunderstood the nature of reading the Bible. We read to know God. We study to know spiritual things. We meditate on Scripture to experience the Spirit who makes us the kind of person ready to receive the divine Word of God.