This question is not as cut and dry as one might think. The natural impulse is to say, yes, of course. But don’t be so quick, or you might not like the corner you paint yourself into!
For example, even those who claim to take the Bible literally must admit that there is metaphor, simile, symbolism, etc. No one I know of takes the picture of a sword coming out of Jesus mouth in Revelation 19 literally – it becomes quite a grotesque picture if you do. Or Psalm 64:7 speaks of God shooting his arrows at his enemies. Again, I don’t know anyone who thinks God’s got a big compound bow in heaven and is taking aim. So, does anyone really take the Bible literally?
I actually don’t like using the word ‘literal’. When asked if I take the Bible literally, a negative response will make other Christians nervous. If I say I do, then I many people assume I take all portions of the Bible in this literal, wooden sense. Can I suggest that ‘faithfully’ is a better word.
By faithfully I mean that we take potions of the Bible literally that were intended to be taken, and present themselves in a literal fashion. In this category, I would include the Old Testament stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, Joshua, David and the like. Also, I would include all the Gospel stories of miracles, including the literally bodily resurrection of Jesus. This sets me apart, and other evangelicals apart from those who interpret these stories as great myths or merely nice religious stories with no factual basis. Much of the Bible is written as a historical record of God’s interaction with his creation. These events are presented as literal facts and must be taken by the faithful Bible interpreter literally – in the natural, intended sense of the author.
But, by using the word ‘faithful’, I am not chained to wooden literal interpretations of passages that were intended to be taken as word pictures. I already mentioned some of those passages above. There are many more. For example, Jesus’ statement from John 2 about rebuilding the temple in three days shouldn’t be taken literally in the sense that he was going to rebuild the Jerusalem temple in three days. That’s exactly why the Jewish leaders didn’t get what Jesus was saying – they were reading/hearing him too literally.
Oh yeah, and by using the word ‘faithfully’ instead of literally, I allow myself the read the Bible as Jesus and the apostles did. They did not read their Old Testament only literally, but also typologically. What do I mean? I mean that they saw in the Old Testament all kinds of patterns and types (symbols) that were fulfilled in the New Testament. For example, the New Testament authors see the exodus from Egypt as a pattern, a type, that was meant to foreshadow the churches exodus from bondage to sin and death. This does not mean that they denied the literal exodus event, but they say it as pointing to something greater.
How do you know what is a ‘faithful’ interpretation of Scripture? I can offer a few suggestions here. First, look at the larger context of Scripture. How does Scripture interpret itself? I have heard people explain fuller, more spiritual meanings of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where each detail of the story is said to stand for something spiritual. However, Scripture doesn’t interpret itself that way. Nowhere is this parable interpreted this way. The same is not true of the exodus event. Scripture does represent our deliverance from sin and slavery as another exodus. So pay attention to how the Bible interprets itself (the Reformers referred to this principle as the ‘analogy of faith’).
Secondly, though I affirm sola Scriptura, I also want to affirm the benefit of consulting the church, both past and present, in the interpretation of Scripture. By referring to the present church, I don’t mean the pastors, though we are a part of it. I mean, instead, the community of faith. There is tremendous benefit of reading, studying, interpreting and applying Scripture in community, not merely in isolation. That doesn’t mean we don’t spend alone time in the Word, but it does mean we don’t only spend alone time in the word. Talk with other about what you’re learning. Ask other Christians, “does my understanding of this ring true to you?” We were made for community, it is a gift. Use it.