Do evangelicals take the Bible literally?

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.

4 thoughts on “Do evangelicals take the Bible literally?

  1. I agree. I don’t answer yes or no to the question of whether I take the Bible literally. One reason is, as you explain, that a literal definition of literal (ha!) might mean that we are being stupid about language. The other side, of course, is the reason “literal” has been used to describe an evangelical interpretation: most of us do indeed believe in things like a literal flood, a literal resurrection, literal miracles, a literal second coming, etc., rather than figurative ones (like the “resurrection” at the end of a Godspell production). But still, I avoid the term, preferring instead to talk about the historical reliability of the Bible.

    You raise an interesting issue about looking at how the Bible interprets the Bible. One of the things that bothered me about, e.g., Walter Kaiser’s approach to interpretation is that he seemed to exclude some approaches that the Bible itself uses. On the other hand (and perhaps he would agree), I do not feel comfortable stretching my own interpretations quite as far as the canonical writers are able to do under inspiration.

    For instance, last week in our ACG, we were looking at how Hebrews 2 interprets Ps. 8. Does “a little lower than the angels” apply to man or to Christ? or both? To me it seems a strict hermeneutic would exclude applying it to Christ, and indeed it is possible to read Heb. 2 with that interpretation, though I’m not sure it’s the most natural reading.

    But maybe Hebrews is applying Ps. 8 rather than interpreting it. In fact that’s how I get around the strict hermeneutic–by thinking of my more symbolic approaches as an application. Thus when Ps. 19 or 119 describe the perfections of the Law (oops–back to that topic again!), and I substitute “the Lord Jesus Christ”, I do not claim that the psalmists had the Lord in mind when they wrote it, though the Holy Spirit may have. So I wouldn’t claim meaning because it wasn’t the writer’s intention, but I would claim a strong applicability based on a theological fact.

    The interpretation/application distinction appears too fine for many people, and eyes glaze over when I talk too much about it. In fact Paul himself doesn’t seem to bother with this distinction when he talks, e.g., about God not being at all concerned for oxen when he wrote that the Israelites should not muzzle a threshing ox. Yet to me it seems crucial. Is there a simpler way to convey it?

  2. Mark, you say you don’t feel comfortable stretching your interpretation as far as the New Testament authors stretched their interpretation of the Old. Nor do I, nor should we I think.

    I did not mean to convey that we should model our interpretation after that of the NT authors, but simply recognize what they did in our interpretation. Again, a subtle distinction. I’m not suggesting we look for and find typology and symbolism where the NT didn’t, but that we recognize what they were doing.

    I think we must affirm that passages like the one you mentioned regarding the oxen had immediate reference to literal oxen and how they were to be treated. But, as was the case with the Psalm writers, the OT authors wrote of things they fully didn’t understand.

    I’d love to hear more about your distinction between interpretation and application. Coffee sometime!

    Oh, and thanks for the not so subtle reminder of unfinished posting business regarding the law…

  3. Coffee–sure!

    Not completely related, but of possible interest:

    “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
    — JRR Tolkien (from the Forward to the Second Edition of LOTR)

    Because applicability resides in the freedom of the reader, applicability is both subjective and subject to higher standards of judgment. Interpretation, on the other hand, is a discernment of the author’s original intent–what was meant to be communicated to the initial audience in its context. I suspect Christians differ widely on the extent to which applicabilities of Scripture come directly from God (domination of the Author) or are a human respons(ability). I suppose it varies.

    BTW, I wasn’t worried about what you were saying–I didn’t think you were advocating a dangerous laxity.

  4. Should Paul be taken literally when he said that Jesus became a life-giving spirit?

    Should Christians be taken literally when they said that the body of Jesus before his death was animated by God?

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