For many Christians, how to interpret the Bible can be a challenging question. Some believe that the entire Bible should be taken literally as the inerrant Word of God. Others think that some parts are meant to be understood metaphorically or allegorically. This debate has significant implications for how we read and apply Scripture. As an Evangelical or Charismatic Christian, you likely view the Bible as God’s authoritative Word. But you may wrestle with how literally to take its teachings. Below we’ll examine the evidence for and against literal interpretation of the Bible.
The Bible is a complex collection of many different kinds of literature – history, poetry, prophecy, letters, and apocalyptic writings. This diversity can make interpretation challenging. Some parts of the Bible, such as the Gospels and Acts, read as straightforward history. Other sections, like the Psalms, are filled with vivid poetry and metaphor. Apocalyptic writings like Daniel and Revelation are full of symbolism and imagery.
So should the whole Bible be interpreted literally? Or does the diversity of genres suggest some flexibility is needed? Below we’ll explore the key arguments on both sides. We’ll also consider what church history and Christian tradition have to say about biblical interpretation. With an open mind and prayerful study, we can come to wise conclusions.
As you wrestle with this question, consider these key takeaways:
- The Bible includes different kinds of literature that may require different interpretive approaches.
- Church history offers important insights – Augustine advocated interpreting Scripture in light of its literary style.
- Both literal and metaphorical meanings can be spiritually true and authoritative.
- Focus on the clear passages to understand the unclear ones.
- Seek the interpretive guidance of the Holy Spirit through prayer.
- Strive for intellectual humility when interpretations differ between Christians.
The Case for Literal Interpretation
For those advocating literal interpretation, Scripture is seen as the inerrant Word of God. As God’s revelation to humanity, the Bible must be completely true and reliable. And the meaning of the text is precisely what the human authors intended to communicate under divine inspiration. This view takes the Bible at face value as much as possible. Let’s examine some key arguments in favor of literal interpretation:
The Bible Repeatedly Claims Divine Authority
Throughout Scripture, we find statements about the Bible’s authority as God’s Word. 2 Timothy 3:16 famously declares, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God”. The psalms also say God’s Word is flawless and true (Psalm 12:6). And Jesus himself affirmed the authority of Scripture and accepted Old Testament stories as historical fact. These examples show the Bible claiming divine authority for itself.
Much of the Bible Presents as Historical Narrative
Substantial portions of Scripture, especially the Gospels and Acts, read as straightforward historical accounts. Details like names, places, and dates all correspond with recorded history. And the authors claim to be eyewitnesses reporting “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes” (1 John 1:1). This eyewitness testimony lends itself to literal interpretation as actual events.
Literal Meaning Is Often the Most Obvious Meaning
For much of the Bible, the literal meaning immediately makes the most sense. When Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, no special interpretation is needed. The story powerfully illustrates loving one’s neighbor through the plain narrative. Much of Scripture is most clearly understood through its literal wording and context.
Departing from the Literal Opens the Door to Subjectivity
When we move away from the literal text, interpretation becomes much more subjective. Allegorizing or spiritualizing Bible passages to non-literal meanings leaves the interpretation up to the creativity of the reader. This undermines Scripture as an objective authority. A literal approach anchors interpretation in the text itself.
The Apostles Interpreted the Old Testament Literally
The New Testament writers overwhelmingly treated Old Testament prophecies and events as literal history. Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, his crucifixion and resurrection – the apostles present these as fulfillments of literal OT prophecies. They interpreted Jonah’s time in the great fish as historical, not allegorical (Matthew 12:40). This example gives weight to literal interpretation.
The Case Against Literalism
While the arguments above are persuasive, there are also good reasons to be cautious about strict literalism. Let’s examine some key considerations from the non-literal perspective:
Not All Genres Were Meant to Be Taken Literally
The Bible contains parables, visions, poetry and other genres that clearly are not meant to be interpreted literally. For example, when Isaiah says mountains and trees will clap their hands (Isaiah 55:12), he is vividly personifying nature, not intending literal meaning. Proverbs uses allegorical imagery to describe wisdom (Proverbs 8). Song of Solomon paints word pictures of love using figurative language. Not all genres were intended to communicate literal, factual truth.
New Testament Writers Didn’t Always Interpret Literally
While the New Testament contains many literal interpretations of the Old Testament, other times the meaning is more symbolic. The writer of Hebrews sees the Old Testament tabernacle as a “copy and shadow” representing a greater, heavenly reality (Hebrews 8:5). Paul interprets the story of Sarah and Hagar in Genesis as an allegory for two covenants (Galatians 4:24). He sees Adam as a symbolic head representing all humanity (Romans 5:14). This shows biblical authors could look for deeper, non-literal meanings.
Hyper-Literalism Can Miss the Bigger Picture
Strict literalism may focus too narrowly on detailed facts while missing the authors’ intended message. For example, when Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, the historical details are likely fiction. The real meaning is found in the moral – how we should demonstrate love to others. If we get hung up on literal details, we can miss the purpose of Scripture. Literalism risks missing the forest for the trees.
Some Passages Are Difficult to Take Literally
Parts of the Bible simply strain against a strictly literal reading. For example, Genesis 1 portrays evening and morning before the creation of the sun on day 4. The gigantic dimensions described for Noah’s ark stretch credulity. And anthropomorphic descriptions of God’s “outstretched arm” sometimes sound more figurative than literal. Good reasons may exist for non-literal understanding of these passages.
Truth Can Have Deeper Levels than Just Fact
If the Bible is God’s Word, we should expect depths of meaning beyond the literal, factual surface. Even human works of great literature convey truth through symbolism and metaphor. The parables of Jesus illustrate non-literal ways of expressing deeper lessons. Just as art and music can embody truth through imagination, Scripture may use literary forms to convey divine truth beyond literal facts.
Insights from Church History and Christian Tradition
This debate over biblical interpretation has been going on for centuries. Looking to church history and Christian tradition provides helpful insights. Here are a few important voices on this question:
Augustine (354-430 AD)
The early church father Augustine set some key principles for biblical interpretation that are still relevant today. He encouraged interpreting Scripture in light of its literary style, genre and context. He saw the Bible as having both literal and spiritual meanings intended by God. Augustine cautioned against subjective allegorizing unmoored from the text itself. His balanced approach took seriously both the literal text and its spiritual depths.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)
The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas distinguished between the “literal sense” and “spiritual senses” of Scripture. The literal sense refers to the plain, historical truth conveyed by the text. But it allows for figurative language when clearly indicated by the passage. Building on this literal foundation, Aquinas saw three spiritual senses – allegorical, moral and eschatological. This honors the text while finding deeper meanings not limited to literal facts.
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, emphasized the primacy of the literal sense. But he contended that the literal meaning was not always equivalent to the superficial, historical reading. Luther saw Christ as the central subject of all Scripture. But he grounded interpretation in the clear literal meaning, not uncontrolled allegorizing. Like Augustine and Aquinas before him, Luther’s approach balances literal and non-literal interpretation under the Spirit’s guidance.
In response to the medieval church’s excessive allegorizing, Protestant reformers emphasized the literal meaning of Scripture. But they allowed typical Protestant interpretive approaches like typology that see divinely-intended connections between Old Testament symbols and New Testament realities. Their renewed focus on the text itself provides a helpful framework for wise interpretation.
Finding a Balanced Approach
Considering the strengths and weaknesses of both literal and non-literal interpretation leads us to a balanced approach that takes the Bible seriously while also recognizing its complexity. Here are a few principles to guide us:
Respect the Authority of Scripture
We should come to the Word of God with reverence, expecting to hear His voice. While we interpret thoughtfully, Scripture remains our highest authority and standard for truth and life.
Interpret According to Literary Style
Since the Bible contains different genres of writing, we must interpret according to the literary style. Poetry, parables, visions and apocalyptic passages will likely involve non-literal meanings. Historical narratives should generally be taken literally while considering poetic elements.
Let Clear Passages Guide the Unclear
When confronted with a difficult passage, we have the rest of Scripture to help us interpret it. We let the clear guide the unclear, interpreting an obscure verse through the lens of wider biblical teaching.
Depend on the Holy Spirit’s Guidance
While approaching Scripture with our best reasoning, we ultimately depend on the Holy Spirit’s illumination. As we study the Bible prayerfully and obediently, the Spirit will give insight andapply its truths to our lives.
Value Both Individual and Community Interpretation
We should study and discern God’s Word both privately and in fellowship with other believers through the centuries. With humility, we can learn much from the thoughtful interpretations of others.
Aim for Firm Convictions with Charitable Attitudes
Christians should interpret Scripture boldly and teach it confidently. But we should also hold our interpretations with humility and charity towards those who see things differently on secondary issues.
With these principles in mind, we can have confidence in the Bible as God’s authoritative Word while also recognizing its complexity. Though you will likely lean in a more literal or non-literal direction, appreciating the strengths of each provides balance. Most importantly, seek the Spirit’s wisdom and guidance through prayer as you continue studying and applying God’s precious Word. His truth will light your path.