“You can’t take the Bible literally!” This is an assertion I’ve heard many times. I don’t agree with it (as stated), but I understand the sentiment behind it. Often it is a reaction to fundamentalist claims about the Bible, such as that it teaches a young earth or creation in six, twenty-four hour days. Christians in the sciences, and other thinking Christians interested in the sciences, rightly raise questions about such views. Sometimes they insist “You can’t take the Bible literally!”
I want to affirm the sentiment behind the assertion, but not the assertion itself.1
I reject it primarily because it over simplifies the matter and because it is a false dichotomy (i.e., literal vs. non-literal are not the only options). Very briefly, consider the following thoughts:
- No one actually reads the whole Bible literally. No one, for example, interprets the dragon in the book of Revelation as an actual, fire-breathing, treasure hoarding monster. No one takes Jesus’ words “I am the gate” as indicating that Jesus is made of wood. No one interprets the “streets of gold” in the depiction of the New Jerusalem as being literal. All of these non-controversial examples indicate that even those who claim to read the Bible ‘literally’ don’t mean they do that all the time.
- It would be just plain silly not to read the Bible ‘literally’ at least some of the time, and perhaps even much of the time. When a gospel writer tells us that Jesus entered a certain town, he is giving us a straight-forward account of what happened and thus, in that sense, a literal account. We don’t need to go behind or beyond the words to grasp a deeper, more ‘spiritual’ meaning. (Granted, there might be other nuances present in the text, for example allusions to Old Testament texts, but those do not displace the plain sense).
- Sometimes, people inappropriately and erroneously interpret something that is intended to be ‘literal’ in the straight-forward sense of (2) as being figurative. A prime example of this is to interpret Jesus’ resurrection as a ‘spiritual resurrection’ (whatever that means). Now, a person might not believe in the resurrection; that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is the claim or assumption that a bodily resurrection is not what the gospel writers report, that the texts teach a spiritual resurrection. This ignores the plain sense of the accounts (whether the accounts are historical or not is another issue; I believe that they are). It also ignores the Apostle Paul’s comment that if Christ was not raised bodily our faith is in vain, as well as the interpretive tradition of the early church (e.g., the bodily resurrection of Jesus was one of the things at stake in the patristic disputes with Gnosticism and Docetism). Interpretation of the miracles of Jesus or of the future second-coming of Jesus as figurative similarly fall into this error. It’s one thing to hold a philosophical bias against the miraculous or the supernatural (I’m not arguing with that here); it’s another to read that bias into the texts themselves. Granted, there are cases in the Bible in which it is not clear whether a ‘literal’ or figurative intention is in place. The book of Jonah, for example, has a long history of interpretation in both Jewish and Christian circles in which the issue of whether a literal versus a ‘figurative’ meaning is intended is debated. Again, even in this case, my interest here is not about whether the story could possibly have happened (surely if God exists, God can do the miraculous!), but what the text itself claims—and in the case of Jonah, this is not clear (or, at least, not as clear as a straight-forward account of Jesus entering a town).
- At other times, people interpret inappropriately and erroneously something that is intended to be metaphorical or figurative as being literal. A nephew of mine was told by a highschool teacher that the biblical claim that human beings are made in the image of God is ridiculous, because God does not have a physical body. Totally missed the meaning of the imago Dei, due to an overly literal reading! I also think (but will not take the space to argue here) that a literal reading of Genesis, as teaching a recent creation of the earth in six literal days, is misguided. Not because I think that “modern science trumps the Bible,” but because I don’t think that the six day creationist view is faithful to the intentions and focus of the text, when it is interpreted in light of its grammar, structure, historical and cultural context of the Ancient Near East, literary features, and genre. Moreover, interpreting the text literally leads to problems and apparent contradictions within the text itself, as interpreters have always noticed throughout the history of the church (just read commentaries by patristic writers and you’ll see that ancient readers were well aware of these problems; Protestant Reformers like John Calvin were aware of them too and cautioned against overly literal readings).
All of this to say (and much more could be said) that I find the dichotomy of ‘literal’ versus ‘non-literal’ to be seriously inadequate. Instead of being forced prematurely into an either-or decision, we should attempt to read Scripture in a way that honours the actual contours and intentions of the text (as best as we can discern them). We should interpret as ‘literal’ what is intended to be taken as literal. We should interpret ‘figuratively’ what is intended to be figurative (which isn’t necessarily the same as ‘allegorical’). And frankly even this distinction is too simplistic, because the Bible contains many types of genre, each of which requires care and entails particular interpretive methods that befit the type of literature that it respresents (e.g., poetry, narrative, historiography, wisdom literature, prophetic literature, apocalyptic literature, parable, legislative material, cultic or priestly material, epistle, witness/testimony, etc.). Moreover, some books and passages are difficult to classify, either because they combine genres or even present us with a genre type that is novel and unique (Gen 1 and the gospels are good examples).
Should we read the Bible literally? Yes . . . sometimes. But not because literal equals true and metaphor equals false. Rather, we should always read according to the nature and purposes of the text in front of us. This is what the Reformers meant by the “plain sense” of the text. It’s the sense that arises naturally as we allow the text itself to guide our interpreting.
_ _ _ _ _ _
1 Of course, the assertion might reflect other assumptions and sentiments about the Bible, meaning something like: (a) the Bible is not trustworthy; (b) the Bible is not fully authoritative (for Christians); (c) the Bible is full of contradictions; (d) the Bible is not divinely inspired; or (e) the Bible is just another book, its claims about God being just human projections that provide us with inspiration and comfort. The assertion “You can’t take the Bible literally!” might also be a way of evading the moral teachings or theological truth claims of the Bible. As an evangelical, standing within the historic Christian faith, I find these assumptions and sentiments unacceptable.