I have a friend who isn’t a believer but reads the Bible. At times he’s frustrated by the fact that I don’t always employ a literal hermeneutic. It’s actually kind of fun to frustrate him with my non-literal understanding of certain parts of the Bible…but is it a responsible fun? In other words, should we consistently employ a literal hermeneutic?
For some, taking a passage literally means accepting it as true, while taking in nonliterally means disbelieving it’s truth or playing fast-and-loose with truth. This doesn’t hold up though. Literal statements can be true or false, and I’m more than capable of disbelieving a literal statement. And, some statements are true, but not true literally. If, for example, I said that I have skeletons in my closet, that would be an untrue statement if taken literally (or is it?). But it’s true taken nonliterally (figuratively) – we’ve all got our issues, don’t judge!
When it comes to the Bible, no one, and I mean no one, employs a strictly literal hermeneutic consistently – after all, the word ‘literal’ means “taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory”. To read the Bible this woodenly would lead to the most bizarre interpretations imaginable. That’s because the Biblical writers didn’t mean for everything to be taken literally. They were as adept at using figurative speech as we are – and we do it a million times a day!
Scripture is filled with exaggeration/hyperbole (i.e. ‘he told me everything I ever did’), sarcasm, synecdoches (where a part figurative stands for the whole – i.e. John using the ‘the Jews’ to refer to those who opposed Jesus, or ‘the altar’ standing for the whole of the temple, etc). There’s also plenty of metaphors/similes, and there’s parables and poetry…and don’t forget the apocalyptic stuff (heads up – the sword coming out of Jesus mouth in Rev. 19 isn’t literal). There also anthropomorphism employed to describe God – he doesn’t literally have hands, arms or nostrils, as God is a spirit, not corporeal.
Literal is often wrong because, while the writers wanted us to accept the truth of their statements, they didn’t want us to take their statements literally. In fact, you can see quite a few examples of people getting it radically wrong because they took Jesus’ words to literally, failing to realize his words needed to be interpreted spiritually. Think, for example, of Nicodemus who didn’t get the whole ‘born again’ thing, thinking Jesus was speaking of a literal, physical rebirth when Jesus was speaking spiritually. Or, think of the Pharisees taking Jesus to say the literal temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed and rebuilt in three days when he wasn’t speak of the literal brick and mortar temple but his body. Or think of the accusation leveled against the early church that they were cannibals (yep, it happened) because they claimed to be eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ. Most evangelicals I know won’t take those passages literally – though I believe we are truly partaking in the body and blood, it isn’t the literal, physical body and blood (if you want more on this, check out my four part series here).
Now, admittedly, many who advocate a literal hermeneutic make allowances for figurative language. Ryrie, an influential advocate of a literal hermeneutic, contends that “the literalist (so called) is not one who denies that figurative language, that symbols, are used in prophecy, nor does he deny that great spiritual truths are set forth therein; his position is, simply, that the prophecies are to be normally interpreted (i.e., according to received laws of language) as any other utterances are interpreted- that which is manifestly figurative being so regarded.”
Unfortunately, even this watered down version of ‘literal’ doesn’t pass the test, for the NT writers, under the inspiration of the Spirit, don’t treat prophecy in the same way Ryrie insists they be treated. For example, in Matthew 2 the writer tells us that Jesus was taken to Egypt to escape Herod and that this was to fulfill what Scripture said, “Our of Egypt I called my son”. Matthew actually is quoting Hosea 11. Hosea 11 is speaking there of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. So words that literally pointed to a nation leaving Egypt, prophetically and spiritual speak of Jesus.
Rather than taking the Bible literally, lets strive to take it faithfully. Faithful means getting at what the author truly intended, and not just the human author, but the divine author. Indeed, the intention of the divine author may go beyond, waaaaaay beyond, that of the human author. The human author may have not have actually even understood what they wrote, not truly!
How then, loosed from the moorings of the intent of the human author, are we to find our interpretive way? We use common sense and a good dose of reason; we allow the Bible to interpret the Bible, the community of the church through the ages to inform our interpretations, and we have a PROFOUND trust in the Holy Spirit to guide!