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Taking the Bible “Literally”

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I never like the question, “Do you take the Bible literally?” It comes up with some frequency, and it deserves a response. But I think it’s an ambiguous—and, therefore, confusing—question, making it awkward to answer.

Clearly, even those of us with a high view of Scripture don’t take everything literally. Jesus is the “door,” but He’s not made of wood. We are the “branches,” but we’re not sprouting leaves.

On the other hand, we do take seriously accounts others find fanciful and far-fetched: a man made from mud (Adam), loaves and fishes miraculously multiplied, vivified corpses rising from graves, etc.

A short “yes” or “no” response to the “Do you take the Bible literally?” question, then, would not be helpful. Neither answer gives the full picture. In fact, I think it’s the wrong question since frequently something else is driving the query.

Taking “Literally” Literally

Let’s start with a definition. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the word “literal” means “taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory, free from exaggeration or distortion.” Why do people balk at this common-sense notion when it comes to the Bible or, more precisely, certain passages in the Bible?

Let’s face it, even non-Christians read the Bible in its “usual or most basic sense” most of the time on points that are not controversial. They readily take statements like “love your neighbor as yourself” or “remember the poor” at face value. When citing Jesus’ directive, “Do not judge,” they’re not deterred by the challenge, “You don’t take the Bible literally, do you?”

No, when critics agree with the point of a passage, they take the words in their ordinary and customary sense. They naturally understand that language works a certain way in everyday communication, and it never occurs to them to think otherwise.

Unless, of course, the details of the text trouble them for some reason.

What of the opening chapters of Genesis? Is this a straightforward account describing historical events the way they actually happened? Were Adam and Eve real people, the first human beings? Was Adam created from dust? Did Eve really come from Adam’s rib? Did Jonah actually survive three days in the belly of a great fish? Did a virgin really have a baby? Such claims seem so fanciful to many people it’s hard for them to take the statements at face value.

Other times, the critic simply does not like what he reads. He abandons the “literal” approach when he comes across something in the text that offends his own philosophical, theological, or moral sensibilities. Jesus the only way of salvation? No way. Homosexuality a sin? Please. A “loving” God sending anyone to the eternal torture of Hell? Not a chance.

Notice the objection with these teachings is not based on some ambiguity making alternate interpretations plausible, since the Scripture affirms these truths with the same clarity as “love your neighbor.” No, these verses simply offend. Suddenly, the critic becomes a skeptic and sniffs, “You don’t take the Bible literally, do you?”

This subtle double standard, I think, is usually at the heart of the taking-the-Bible-literally challenge. Sometimes the ruse is hard to unravel.

An example might be helpful here.

Literal vs. Lateral

In the Law of Moses, homosexual activity was punishable by death (Lev. 18:22-23 and 20:13). Therefore (the charge goes), any Christian who takes the Bible literally must advocate the execution of homosexuals.

Of course, the strategy with this move is obvious: If we don’t promote executing homosexuals, we can’t legitimately condemn their behavior, since both details are in the Bible. If we don’t take the Bible literally in the first case, we shouldn’t in the second case, either. That’s being inconsistent.

How do we escape the horns of this dilemma? By using care and precision with our definitions, that’s how.

Here’s our first question: When Moses wrote the Law, did he expect the Jewish people to take those regulations literally? If you’re not sure how to answer, let me ask it another way. When an ordinance is passed in your local state (California, in my case), do you think the legislators intend its citizens to understand the words of the regulations “in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory, free from exaggeration or distortion”?

Of course they do. Legal codes are not written in figurative language allowing each citizen to get creative with the meaning. The same would be true for the Mosaic Law. Moses meant it the way he wrote it.

But now, it seems, we’re stuck on the other horn of the dilemma. To be consistent, shouldn’t we currently campaign for the death penalty for homosexuals? For that matter, aren’t we obliged to promote execution for disobedient children and Sabbath-breakers, both capital crimes under the Law?

The simple answer is no. Here’s why. Just because a biblical command is intended to be understood literally, does not mean it is intended to be applied laterally, that is, universally across the board to all peoples at all times in all places.

Consider this situation. Jesus told Peter to cast his net in deep water (Luke 5:4). That’s exactly what Peter did because he took Jesus’ command literally, in its ordinary sense. He had no reason to think otherwise. However, because Jesus’ command to Peter was literal does not mean the same command applies laterally to everyone else. We’re not obliged to cast nets into deep water just because Peter was.

Here’s another way of looking at it. No matter what state you live in, the California legal codes are to be read literally, but don’t have lateral application to all states. They only apply to those in California.

In the same way, the words of the Mosaic Law, like those of all laws, are to be taken at face value by anyone who reads them. Yet only those under its jurisdiction are obliged to obey its precepts.

The Jews in the theocracy were expected to obey the legal code God gave them, including the prohibition of and punishment for homosexuality. It was not the legal code God gave to gentiles, however. Therefore, even if the words of the Mosaic Law are to be taken literally by those under the jurisdiction of that code, this does not mean that in our current circumstances we are governed by the details of the provisions of that Law.

A clarification is necessary here. Am I saying that nothing written in the Mosaic Law is ever applicable to Christians or other gentiles or that there are no universal moral obligations that humanity shares with the Jews of Moses’ time. No, I’m not saying that.

Though Moses gave legal statutes for Jews under the theocracy, that Law in some cases still reflects moral universals that have application for those outside the nation of Israel. Yes, we can glean wisdom and moral guidance from the Law of Moses for our own legal codes, but there are limits. Working out those details is a different discussion, however. 1

The question here is not whether we take the Mosaic Law literally, but whether we are now under that legal code. We are not. That law was meant for Jews living under a theocracy defined by their unique covenant with God. Simply because a directive appears in the Mosaic Law does not, by that fact alone, make it obligatory for those living outside of Israel’s commonwealth.

Americans are a mixture of peoples in a representative republic governed by a different set of decrees than the Jews under Moses. We are not obliged to obey everything that came down from Sinai. Just because it was commanded of the Nation of Israel does not necessarily mean it is commanded of us. If anyone thinks otherwise, he is duty-bound to take his net and cast it into deep water.

That confusion aside, we’re still faced with our original question: When do we take the Bible literally?

Reading the Ordinary Way

Here’s how I would lay the groundwork for an answer. If I’m asked if I take the Bible literally, I would say I think that’s the wrong question. I’d say instead that I take the Bible in its ordinary sense, that is, I try to take the things recorded there with the precision I think the writer intended.

I realize this reply might also be a bit ambiguous, but here, I think, that’s a strength. Hopefully, my comment will prompt a request for clarification. This is exactly what I want. I’d clarify by countering with a question: “Do you read the sports page literally?”

If I asked you this question, I think you’d pause because there is a sense in which everyone reads the sports page in a straightforward way. Certain factual information is part of every story in that section. However, you wouldn’t take everything written in a woodenly literal way that ignores the conventions of the craft.

Literally?” you might respond. “That depends. If the writer seems to be stating a fact—like a score, a location, a player’s name, a description of the plays leading to a touchdown—then I’d take that as literal. If he seems to be using a figure of speech, then I’d read his statement that way, figuratively, not literally.”

Exactly. Sportswriters use a particular style to communicate the details of athletic contests clearly. They choose precise (and sometimes imaginative) words and phrases to convey a solid sense of the particulars in an entertaining way.

Sportswriters routinely use words like “annihilated,” “crushed,” “mangled,” “mutilated,” “stomped,” and “pounded,” yet no one speculates about literal meanings. Readers don’t scratch their heads wondering if cannibalism was involved when they read “the Anaheim Angels devoured the St. Louis Cardinals.”

We recognize such constructions as figures of speech used to communicate in colorful ways events that actually (“literally”) took place. In fact, we never give those details a second thought because we understand how language works.

When a writer seems to be communicating facts in a straightforward fashion, we read them as such. When we encounter obvious figures of speech, we take them that way, too.

That’s the normal way to read the sports page. It’s also the normal—and responsible—way to read any work, including the Bible. Always ask, “What is this writer trying to communicate?” This is exactly what I’m after when I say, “I take the Bible in its ordinary sense.”

Of course, someone may differ with the clear point the Bible is making. Fair enough. There’s nothing dishonest about disagreement. Or they might think some Christian is mistaken on its meaning. Misinterpretation is always possible. Conjuring up some meaning that has little to do with the words the writer used, though, is not a legitimate alternative.

If someone disagrees with the obvious sense of a passage, ask them for the reasons they think the text should be an exception to the otherwise sound “ordinary sense” rule. Their answer will tell you if their challenge is intellectually honest, or if they’re just trying to dismiss biblical claims they simply don’t like.

Two Thoughts on Metaphor

Reading any writing the ordinary way requires we understand two points about figurative speech, both implicit in the concept of metaphor.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable…a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else.” So, metaphors take one meaning of a word and then creatively leverage it into another meaning to make an impact on a reader.

Here is the first point to be clear on: All metaphors (or other forms of figurative writing) rely first on literal definitions before they can be of any use as figures of speech.

All words must first be understood in their “usual or most basic sense” before they can be used metaphorically. We find, for example, the word “shepherd” prominently featured in the 23rd Psalm. Do you see that we must first understand the literal meaning of “shepherd” before the phrase “the Lord is my shepherd” has any figurative power?

This point is critical for accurate biblical interpretation. Here’s why.

Sometimes we attempt to solve interpretive problems by digging through a Bible dictionary. This can be a helpful place to start, but since all figurative language trades in some way on dictionary definitions, the dictionary is not the final word. It can never tell you what use a specific writer is making of any particular word or phrase.

Strictly speaking, since no word is a metaphor in itself, words cannot be used metaphorically unless they’re embedded in a context. Therefore, it makes no sense to ask of a solitary word, “Is the word meant literally?” because the word standing on its own gives no indication.

Dictionaries by definition can only deal with words in isolation. Other things—context, genre, flow of thought, etc.—determine if the word’s literal sense is being applied in a non-literal way, symbolically “regarded as representative” of something else.

Take two sentences, “The sunshine streamed through my window,” and, “Sweetheart, you’re a ray of sunshine to me this morning.” Sunshine’s literal meaning is the same in each case. However, it is used literally in the first sentence, but metaphorically in the second. Further, unless my wife understands the literal meaning of “sunshine,” she will never understand the compliment I’m offering her in a poetic sort of way.

So first, literal definitions must be in place first before a word can be used figuratively. Second, metaphors are always meant to clarify, not obscure.2

There’s a sense in which figurative speech drives an author’s meaning home in ways that words taken in the ordinary way could never do. “All good allegory,” C.S. Lewis notes, “exists not to hide, but to reveal, to make the inner world more palpable by giving it an (imagined) concrete embodiment.”3

Figurative speech communicates literal truth in a more precise and powerful way than ordinary language can on its own. The strictly literal comment, “Honey, your presence makes me feel good today” doesn’t pack the punch that the “sunshine” figure provides. The metaphor makes my precise point more powerfully than “words in their usual or most basic sense” could accomplish.

Remember, even when metaphor is in play, some literal message is always intended. Hell may not have literal flames,4 but the reality is at least as gruesome, ergo the figure.

Once again, it’s always right to ask, “What is the precise meaning the writer is trying to communicate with his colorful language?” But how do we do that? Here I have a suggestion.

The Most Important Thing

If there was one bit of wisdom, one rule of thumb, one useful tip I could offer to help you solve the riddle of Scriptural meaning, it’s this: Never read a Bible verse. That’s right, never read a Bible verse. Instead, always read a paragraph—at least.

On the radio I use this simple rule to help me answer the majority of Bible questions I’m asked, even when I’m not familiar with the particular passage. When I quickly survey the paragraph containing the verse in question, the larger context almost always provides the information I need to help me understand what’s going on.

This works because of a basic rule of all communication: Meaning flows from the top down, from the larger units to the smaller units. The key to the meaning of any verse comes from the paragraph, not just from the individual words.

Here’s how it works. First, get the big picture. Look at the broader context of the book. What type of writing is it—history, poetry, proverb, letter? Different genres have different rules for reading them.

Next, stand back from the verse and look for breaks in the passage that identify major units of thought. Then ask yourself, “What in this paragraph or group of paragraphs gives any clue to the meaning of the verse in question? In general, what idea is being developed? What is the flow of thought?”

With the larger context now in view, you can narrow your focus and speculate on the meaning of the verse itself. When you come up with something that seems right, sum it up in your own words. Finally—and this step is critical— see if your paraphrase—your summary—makes sense when inserted in place of the verse in the passage.

I call this “the paraphrase principle.” Replace the text in question with your paraphrase and see if the passage still makes sense in light of the larger context. Is it intelligible when inserted back into the paragraph? Does it dovetail naturally with the bigger picture? If it doesn’t, you know you’re on the wrong track.

This technique will immediately weed out interpretations that are obviously erroneous. It’s not a foolproof positive test for accuracy since some faulty interpretations could still be coherent in the context. However, it is a reliable negative test, quickly eliminating alternatives that don’t fit the flow of thought.

If you will begin to do these two things—read the context carefully and apply the paraphrase principle—you will radically improve the accuracy of your interpretations. Remember, meaning always flows from the larger units to the smaller units. Without the bigger picture, you’ll likely be lost.

Don’t forget the rule: Never read a Bible verse. Always read a paragraph at least if you want to be confident you’re getting the right meaning of the verse.

Do I take the Bible literally? I try to I take it at its plain meaning unless I have some good reason to do otherwise. This is the basic rule we apply to everything we read: novels, newspapers, periodicals, and poems. I don’t see why the Bible should be any different.

1 For the record, I think the immorality of homosexuality is one of those universals since, among other reasons, it’s identified in the New Testament as wrong irrespective of the Mosaic Law (e.g., Rom. 1:27).

2 The exception to the generalization would be the parables Jesus told His disciples so that they would understand the meaning, but the crowds listening in would not. Mark 4:10

3 C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, “Afterword to Third Edition,” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 208.

4 In more than one instance, Jesus described Hell as “outer darkness” (e.g., Matt. 8:12) and literal flames give light.

Related Topics: Bible Study Methods, Bibliology (The Written Word), Hermeneutics, Scripture Twisting, Terms & Definitions