“Do you take the Bible literally?” asked my neighbor. We were just getting to know each other. He knew that I was a pastor and, I think, was curious as to what sort of pastor I was. He himself was a former Methodist, a man who, as far as I know, did not attend church, but labeled himself as “spiritual but not religious” (it was the first time I’d ever heard that now common description).
“Do you take the Bible literally?” is a good question, but one colored with ambiguity. It’s often taken to be the equivalent of the question: “Do you believe that the Bible is true?” These are, however, very different questions. Let me set the stage first by making a clear affirmation:
I believe that the Bible is true
I have a high view of the truthfulness of Scripture. I do not believe that, due to human authorship, the Bible is a mixture of error and accuracy, of falsehood and truth, of actual events mixed in with myths and legends. There are, of course, some errors in transmission (we don’t have the original copies), but they’re minor and don’t change the basic teachings. Yet, it’s critical that I add two qualifications to this statement
1. I believe that the Bible is true in what it intends to assert as true
While the Bible is a true record, everything it records is not, in itself, true. Very early in the Bible, for instance, the snake tells Eve that if she eats of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil she will not die (as God has warned her – Gen. 3:4). He is lying. Eve eats the fruit and does die. The Bible, in this sense, is a true record of quite a few falsehoods, but they are presented as such and are not meant to be believed as true. It is, after all, a history of sinful human and demonic beings. A second qualification is also necessary
2. Literalism is not the same thing as truthfulness
When I say, “My boss was a real bear this morning”, it’s obviously a figure of speech; not intended to be taken as literal truth. Behind the figure of speech, though, is an actual truth – that my boss was crabby this morning. The Bible, like much of our modern communication, is full of this sort of thing – literal truth spoken in non-literal ways. More about that in a moment.
So, when asked if I believe the Bible is to be taken literally, I say: “The Bible is to be taken literally where it intends to be taken literally.” This, of course, raises a question:
How do I know what’s intended to be taken literally in the Bible?
This isn’t always an easy question to answer, but here are a few suggestions.
1. I discern the literal from the non-literal by taking into account the original audience
The Bible was written to a particular audience in a particular culture, time and place. When we interpret a passage it’s best to ask: what would this have meant to the original readers or listeners? Would they have taken the words in the passage literally? When Paul writes, for instance, in 1 Corinthians 15, that Jesus was raised from the dead, did his original readers think he was speaking literally or just symbolically? It’s obvious that Paul intended to speak of a literal physical resurrection.
2. I discern the literal from the non-literal by taking into account the genre
Some genres are generally more literal than others. Historical narratives in the Bible are usually meant to be taken literally. When the Bible says, for example, that God created the heavens and the earth, in Genesis 1:1, it means that God actually did create them. Straightforward moral/doctrinal teaching is usually meant to be taken literally. When the Ten Commandments tell us not to commit adultery, that’s exactly what they mean (Deut. 5:18) – don’t have sex with someone who’s not your marriage partner. Genres like prophecy, poetry, and parable, however, often use symbolic language. And any part of the Bible may use metaphors, similes and analogies. Revelation 5:5, for instance, calls Jesus both a lion and a root. Obviously, these are only metaphors, not to be taken literally.
A symbol, though not literally true, however, may be true in what it represents. The church, for example, is called “Christ’s body” (1 Cor. 12:27). While Christians are not the literal toes and fingers of Jesus, the Church does function in some ways as a literal body functions – with various parts working together for a common cause. Generally, with a little thought, it’s obvious what’s intended to be taken literally and what’s more symbolic, though this isn’t always the case. In our day, for example, there’s an increasing debate among conservative Christians about the creation narrative – whether the Bible teaches that the earth was created in six literal 24 hour days or whether the word “day” is meant to represent God’s creation over a longer period of time.
3. I discern the literal from the non-literal by understanding the level of accuracy intended by the language
There are phrases like “all Israel” (“When Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel” Deut. 32:45) which don’t mean that every possible Israelite heard the words. Surely some were sick, or too old or too young to be in attendance. And when the Bible tells us that “Jesus said”, what follows may not be the exact words he spoke, since Jesus usually spoke Aramaic and the New Testament is written in Greek, which is then translated into English (or Spanish, or whatever). Furthermore, sometimes what is quoted is a paraphrase, rather than the exact words. We often do that today, giving the gist of what someone said rather than quoting their specific words. This is not to imply that the biblical quotes of Jesus are inaccurate. They’re accurate enough to give us a clear idea of what He meant. Other literal accuracy issues may involve numbers – did Jesus feed exactly 5000 mean (Mark 8:19) or is it possible that He fed 5012? It’s likely that Scripture sometimes uses ballpark figures.
Why is it important to understand what the Bible literally means? It’s important because God’s words matter. And they mean, not whatever meaning we choose to read into them. They mean what God intended them to mean. Understanding them accurately and following them faithfully will lead us into an intimate, life-giving, eternal relationship with God. That’s what I wish for myself and for you too as well.