What Does it Mean to Interpret the Bible Literally?
I often hear people (especially dispensationalists) say how they interpret the Bible literally as opposed to those who interpret it spiritually. By building this either/or stance many people who call themselves literalists make everyone else who doesn’t interpret Scripture “literally” out to be mystics or liberals who deny the inspiration of Scripture. However three things should be kept in mind regarding this notion of interpreting the Bible literally.
1.) Many people claim that they follow the literal-grammatical-historical method of interpretation. People who follow the literal-grammatical-historical method of interpretation suppose that those who hold to anything other than what they think it is, somehow undermines the validity of the approach. I do employ a literal-grammatical-historical method of interpretation; however, two things must be said in regard to this method. First, while we interpret the text using the original languages, considering the original audience, and the historical situation, our exegesis does not stop there. We have only completed half of the interpretive process. We must look at these individual texts within the larger context of Scripture and see how they point to and find their fulfillment in Jesus. Only when we read our Bibles from a biblical-theological perspective will we truly do justice to the text. Second, the word literal is a tricky word. Dispensationalists use it in an either/or sense, but we have to consider more carefully what it means to read our Bible’s literally, which I will unpack below.
2.) Those who claim they interpret the Bible literally fail to follow their own hermeneutic consistently. They would never pluck out their eyes as Jesus commands in Matthew 18:9 nor do they think the beast in Revelation 13:1-10 is a literal beast with ten horns and seven heads. These people claim that they read their Bible in the most simple and plain sense; however, Scripture as a body of literature does not come to us as a neatly packaged textbook with bulleted outlines. Rather, Scripture comes to us in various forms, which means we must pay careful attention to genre. Moreover, while most “literalists” will recognize that metaphorical or symbolic language exists in the text they only concede that such language exists when it is expedient or convenient to their position.
3.) To read our Bible literally is to read it according to its respective type of literature. The word literal and literature come from the same stem in Latin (litter). For me to read my Bible literally means that I ask myself what kind of genre am I reading: epistles, narrative, poetry, prophetic, apocalyptic, etc. For those who believe reading the Bible literally is a simple task, they often neglect how language actually works. For instance, literalness does not indicate truth or falsehood. A literal statement can be false (e.g., aliens built the pyramids) and a non-literal statement can be true (e.g., its raining cats and dogs). Thus, for a person reading Scripture to take something as symbolic or “non-literal” does not deny the literalness of the truth being conveyed. When we understand the dual-authorship of Scripture we can better appreciate the Bible as a piece of literature. Recognizing the Bible as a piece of literature in no way undermines inspiration. Rather, we understand that God inspired human authors to write Scripture without overriding their respective personalities, occasions for writing, and styles (2 Pet 1:20-21; cf., Luke 1:1-4). Thus, if we want to read Scripture “literally” then we must become good literary critics. My use of the word critic is meant to be used in a positive way. We must carefully discern what genre we are reading and understand the ways the author seeks to convey information by recognizing the various literary devises the author uses. We must understand the characteristics of a particular genre and apply these principles when interpreting a particular passage. For example, the book of Revelation is subject to a lot of debate, whether it is symbolic or “literal” (as a dispensationalist would argue). However, the characteristics of apocalyptic literature is that it is highly symbolic. Symbolism in apocalyptic literature is often important to conceal truth from some, while revealing it to others. Symbolism also is often employed for shock value to jolt the reader and usually possesses a sense of irony or paradox. Symbols are powerful and vivid vehicles for describing the true identity and reality of the thing signified. Plain language often cannot capture these ideas as well as symbolism can.
What I am driving at is that for someone to suggest that interpretation is simply a matter of reading the Bible “literally” really has no sense of how literature works. If we want to read our Bible’s faithfully, then we must be willing to be students of the Bible not just from a theological standpoint, but from a literary standpoint. Those who use the literal-grammatical-historical method of interpretation must recognize that to truly be faithful to this hermeneutic (which I employ) one must do much more than word studies, sentence diagramming, and background studies. To truly be faithful to the literal-grammatical-historical method of interpretation is to understand the body of literature we are reading and to move beyond the immediate context and consider the larger scope of redemptive-history, which includes taking upon ourselves the hermeneutic of Jesus and his apostles.