How literally is the Bible to be interpreted? The answer to this question can significantly impact our Biblical exposition and Christian living. On the liberal, secular end, some people claim the whole Bible merely contains spiritual principles and shouldn’t be understood literally. On the other hand, certain subsections of the Christian end claim the whole Bible should be understood completely literally, or as literally as possible. I don’t aim to engage in the apologetical discussions necessary to converse with those who hold a secular, spiritualized view of the Bible. Rather, I presume to discuss this topic with Christians who already hold to an authoritative, inerrant, infallible, and sufficient view of the Scriptures. We must look at what one means by literal, the potential pitfalls of holding to a literal label, a better label than literal, and to what extent the Bible engages in literal interpretation.
To fellow Christians then, the questions is raised: How literally is the Bible to be interpreted? A more important, foundational question is what do you mean by literal interpretation? What does literal mean to you? It often has varied meanings in the minds of those who like to use the term. What some people mean by literal can be called “first-thought interpretation”. These people view literal interpretation as meaning whatever initially comes to mind when they read the Scriptures. What other people mean by literal can be called “flat interpretation”. Flat interpretation promotes a face-value interpretation wherever possible and recognizes nothing beyond the most basic figures of speech. Yet another related idea of literal often used is that of “plain interpretation”. Plain interpretation advocates that the text means exactly what you perceive it to mean upon initial reading. There are no doubt other ideas of what “literal” means, but I hope these few definitions help provide a decent idea of the possibilities. However, the key questions are do you like to use the term literal interpretation, and if so, what does literal interpretation mean to you?
I must say, I am not a big fan of the term “literal interpretation”. This is because, anecdotally speaking, many Christians appear to understand the term to mean plain interpretation. That is, these Christians believe the Scriptures mean whatever they perceive it to mean upon initial reading. The issue with this is that it often causes Christians to view the Bible through their 21st century mindset and neglect trying to understand the circumstances of the original audience. After all, if the Bible means whatever I initial perceive it to mean, since it’s literal, then what need have I to understand the circumstances of those whom the letter was written to? This disposition neglects the hermeneutical principle of understanding the Scriptures contextually.
Rather than holding to an exclusively “literal” label, I believe the best approach is to hold to a genre guided interpretation. That is, we let the Biblical book’s genre guide how we interpret that section of the Bible. Namely, if the book of the Bible is in a genre that’s typically interpreted literally, such as historical narrative, gospel (related to historical narrative), or epistle, then we should primarily take a literal view of those Scriptures. However, if the book of Bible contains poetry like Psalms, we’re obviously not going to interpret those Scriptures with as literal a mindset. I believe genre guided interpretation is the best approach. We interpret primarily literally those books of the Bible written in a genre meant to be taken literally, and we don’t interpret as literally those books of the Bible written in a genre not geared for exclusive literal interpretation.
Finally, to what extent does the Bible engage in literal interpretation? We must acknowledge that the Bible doesn’t interpret itself completely literally, even in more literal genres. Luke 3 states,
“And [John the Baptist] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” – Luke 3:3-6
Here, Scripture proclaims John’s fulfillment of this text from Isaiah. However, valleys weren’t literally filled and mountains weren’t literally made low. Rather, this prophetic text from Isaiah described John’s advocating of the impact Jesus and his ministry would have. In writing to the church at Galatia, Paul states,
“Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.” – Galatians 4:28-29
Here, the New Testament doesn’t interpret the promise to Abraham as literally only applying to Abraham’s physical descendants. Rather, the New Testament takes that promise in a symbolic way and applies it to the church. The book of Hebrews quotes and applies the promise of the New Covenant in Jeremiah to the New Covenant established through Christ’s blood:
But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.
For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”- Hebrews 8:6-12
Here, as interpreted in Scripture itself, the new covenant wasn’t established literally with just the houses of Israel and Judah. Rather, it was established with all who were saved through Christ’s death on the cross and subsequently incorporated into the church. Additionally, God’s laws weren’t literally written on hearts; rather, the text is symbolically describing God’s subsequent work of the Spirit and the Word in the minds and lives of Christians. There are more passages that could be cited, but I hope the aforementioned references suffice to show that Scripture itself doesn’t engage in exclusive literal interpretation, even in genres that are primarily literal. Rather, Scripture is content to interpret itself redemptive-historically and in a prefiguratory way as appropriately dictated by the progression of revelation and the advent of Christ.
To pull it all together, a key question that should be asked when discussing literal interpretation is what exactly does one mean when using the term “literal”. There are multiple meanings associated with it, and in light of its proclivity to cause Christians to interpret the Bible with a 21st century mindset and neglect contextual interpretation, I must acknowledge I am not a fan of the term. I believe the best approach is that of genre guided interpretation; wherein we interpret more literally those books of the Bible written in a genre interpreted literally, but not so much for those genre’s not geared for exclusive literal interpretation, such as Psalms. Finally, even in books of the Bible wherein literal interpretation is primary, we have seen how Scripture itself doesn’t take an exclusively literal approach, but rather interprets itself redemptive-historically and in a prefiguratory way as appropriately dictated by the progression of revelation and the advent of Christ. As I have said in a prior post (How Hebrews Informs Old Testament Interpretation), we must let how the Bible interprets itself inform our interpretation of the Bible. Key in showing how the Bible interprets itself is the book of Hebrews. I strongly encourage everyone who hasn’t already done so, study the book of Hebrews and see how the Bible engages in its own interpretation.