Dissecting What People Mean When They Talk About Taking the Bible Literally

Maybe We Should Stop Using the Word Literal

I imagine that most of us have heard people say at one point another that the Bible either should or should not be taken literally.  For many people on the more evangelical side of Christianity, it is almost a mantra to say that the Bible needs to be understood literally and that when people don’t take the Bible literally they are not being faithful to scripture. For people on the more “progressive” side of Christianity, it’s almost a mantra to say something like, “We take the Bible seriously but we take it too seriously to always take it literally.” And if we haven’t heard people talk about literal interpretation in either of these two contexts, we have probably heard people talk about it when election season comes around in the United States.  It is common for reporters to ask politicians whether or not they take the Bible literally and it is common for political candidates to give their opinion about whether or not the Bible should be taken literally.

Based on the various ways that people use the word literal in the context of biblical interpretation, I’m convinced that most people, including people who have been trained in biblical and theological studies, don’t really understand what they mean when they use the word literal.  Now, of course, if you were to ask them to give some concrete examples for what they mean by the word literal, they would probably be able to make what they are thinking on this issue clear enough. But I’m convinced that the average person would have a very hard time actually articulating what they mean by this.  The result, quite naturally, is a lot of hazy thinking about how we should interpret the Bible and about how we communicate what we believe about how we think the Bible should be interpreted.

In this post, I want to dissect what people actually mean  when they say that they either do or don’t interpret the Bible literally and I want to suggest that most of the ways that people use the word literal in this context are both imprecise and misleading.  I also want to suggest that we limit the word literal to one particular use of that word, which will become clear as the discussion progresses

Various Ways That People Use the Word Literal in Biblical Interpretation

There are essentially five different ways that people use the word literal in the context of biblical interpretation.

1. The first way that people use the word literal  has to do with whether or not they believe that a particular passage of scripture is authoritative for how Christians should act on a moral level today.

For example, when someone says that they don’t take the New Testament’s teaching on divorce literally, what they really mean is that they don’t think that the New Testament’s teaching on divorce is authoritative for Christians today.  But clearly this is a rather unusual way of using the word literal.  The opposite of literal is not “I don’t think this is authoritative for people today”; the opposite of literal is figurative.  Regardless of what we believe about divorce today, we should be able to say that Jesus or the author who recorded the words of Jesus literally meant that divorce is only permissible when one of the two partners commits sexual immorality and that remarriage under any other circumstances would be considered adultery.  We should be able to say that this is the literal meaning of the text without saying that we actually agree with it or think that it is authoritative for Christians today.  But to say that we don’t interpret this text literally simply because we don’t agree with its teaching is a very strange way of using the word literal.

I suspect that some of this has to do with the fear of saying that the Bible is wrong on certain issues because of the Bible’s status as scripture.  I find it hard to imagine that someone would say that they don’t take the moral teaching of Huckleberry Finn literally; they would simply say that they don’t agree with it because they don’t view it as scripture and don’t want to sound like they are attacking scripture. But using the word literal in this way is an invitation for confusion and is somewhat misleading.

2. The second way that people use the word literal has to do with whether or not they believe that a particular passage of scripture actually reflects God’s thinking on a certain issue.

For example, there are many people who would say that they don’t take the command in Deuteronomy 7 for the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites literally.  But what exactly does it  mean to take this passage non-literally?  Do they mean that the author of Deuteronomy 7 never meant to say that God wanted the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites and show them no mercy?  Do they mean that the author meant this language to be understood in a non-literal or figurative way (e.g. the Canaanites represent sin and God wants us to completely root out sin from our lives)?

What they really mean is that they don’t believe that God could have actually said this.  But this is clearly a non-standard and non-intuitive way of using the word literal.  The opposite of literal is not “we don’t think this actually reflects God’s thinking on this issue”; the opposite of literal is figurative. In this case, the question we should be asking is this: “Is God really being portrayed in Deuteronomy 7 as commanding the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites?” The issue of whether or not he actually did command the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites is a separate issue and has nothing to do with whether or not this passage should be taken literally. We should be able to separate how we evaluate the text on a theological level from how we evaluate it on a historical or literary level.  We should be able to say that we believe that an author mean x, y, or z without necessarily saying that we agree with it.  But to say that you don’t take a passage literally because you don’t agree with what it says is a real stretch of what the word literal normally means.

3. The third way that people use the word literal has to do with whether or not they believe that a particular event recorded in the Bible actually happened in history.

Take, for example, the story of Moses parting the waters of Red Sea (yes, I’m aware that in Hebrew it actually says the Sea of Reeds). There are many non-conservatives who say that the events recorded in this story simply did not happen. But instead of saying that the events recorded in the story simply did not happen, very often they will say that they don’t think that the story should be taken literally.

Now we have to be careful here because there are some stories in the Bible that were never meant to be understood to reflect events that actually happened in history. Think about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. As far as I know, I don’t think anyone would argue that the author of the Gospel of Luke believed that the events recorded in the Parable of the Good Samaritan actually happened. And that’s not because they don’t believe that the events recorded in the story are realistic – it’s because the Parable of the Good Samaritan is a parable and, based on the genre, we shouldn’t expect the details of the story to represent events that actually happened in history. But that doesn’t mean that the moral or theological truths told in the story aren’t true.

But even here the use of the word literal is somewhat problematic.  Let’s take a fairly controversial example: the creation story in Genesis 1.  There are many people who say that they don’t take the creation story in Genesis 1 literally.  In other words, they don’t believe that the earth was actually created in six days with a day of rest on the seventh day.  But what if the author of the text actually believed that the earth was created in six days?  In this case, a literal reading would say that the author believed that the earth was created in six days.  But even if the author didn’t believe that the earth was created in six days, a literal reading could still say that the author is presenting the creation of the earth as though it happened in six days.  In both cases, the word literal would be a literary evaluation rather than a historical or factual evaluation.  Using the word literal to refer to how the details of the text correspond to actual history is both imprecise and confusing.

4. The fourth way that people use the word literal has to do with whether or not the language used in a particular passage of scripture should be understood in a figurative or a non-figurative way according to what the author of the text intended.

This is the most straightforward way of understanding the word literal. The opposite of the word literal in this case is figurative, metaphorical, or symbolic. There should be no disagreement about the fact that there are certain portions of the Bible that should not be taken literally when the word literal is used in this sense. When Jesus refers to false prophets as wolves in sheep’s clothing, he doesn’t literally mean that the prophets are wolves or that they are literally dressed up in sheep’s clothing. He is using this language to illustrate something about the natural of false prophets and how destructive they can be to unsuspecting people.

So when people say, for example, that they don’t take the Bible’s teaching about divorce literally, it can be a little bit confusing because the Bible doesn’t really use figurative language when it talks about divorce.  What they mean is that they don’t think that the Bible’s teaching on divorce s applicable for today.  But, again, we need to keep in mind that the opposite of literal is not “I don’t think it is applicable for today”; the opposite of literal is figurative.

5. The final way that people use the word literal is that the literal level of interpretation has to do with what the human author of the biblical text was attempting to communicate in his own historical context as opposed to any additional meaning that might have been intended by the Holy Spirit.

This is the meaning that most reflects the way that the word literal has been understood in the history of interpretation. The literal meaning of the text is the plain-sense meaning of the text, the meaning that was intended by the human author of the biblical text, as opposed to some kind of deeper meaning that was intended by the Holy Spirit. For example, a literal reading of the Song of Solomon takes into account the fact that there are certain parts of the text that need to be understood in a non-literal (i.e. figurative way) but recognizes that the Song of Solomon is essentially an example of ancient Israelite love poetry. A non-literal reading would the plain-sense meaning of the text as a code for something deeper like the love that Christ has for the church or the love that God has for Israel, even though that doesn’t seem to be what the human author was intending.

In this case, using the word literal makes sense if we understand how the word literal has been used in the history of interpretation. However, since the normal meaning of the word literal has to do with non-figurative language, using the word literal in this sense could be confusing. Someone might think that a person doing a literal reading of the Song of Solomon is ignoring the tremendous amount of figurative language that is used in the book, even though this type of literal reading would take into account an author’s use of figurative language.  Using the word literal in this sense is clearly a recipe for misunderstanding.

Concluding Thoughts

Based on the vastly different ways that people used the word literal in biblical interpretation, my suggestion would be that we simply avoid using the word literal as much as we possibly can. Instead of using the word literal, we should simply explain what we mean without having to resort to a word that could be easily misunderstood.

So, for conservatives, instead of saying that you believe that the Bible should be understood literally, you should say (a) we believe that everything that the Bible affirms to be true ultimately comes from God; (b) we believe that events portrayed in the Bible as actually happening history did, in fact, actually happen in history; and (c)  when the Bible gives its final word in a particular subject, it is authoritative for both the beliefs and lifestyle of believers.

For people on the more progressive side of things, instead of saying that you don’t take much of the Bible literally, simply say (a) that there are certain events recorded as history in the Bible that you don’t believe actually happened in history; (b) that there are certain theological statements in the Bible that you don’t think are actually true; and (c) that there are certain moral teachings in the Bible that you don’t think actually come from God.

If we have to use the word literal, we should limit ourselves to the way that people normally understand the word literal today. In other words, we should stick with the fourth definition given above – namely that the word literal refers to something that should be understood in a straightforward, non-figurative, way in terms of how the material is being presented in the text. Statements about the truthfulness of the text, the historicity of the text, or its applicability for today should be expressed in language that does not use the word literal, otherwise we are just asking for our language to be misunderstood.  We need to make sure that we are more precise and more self-aware when it comes to the language that we use in biblical interpretation.

Mark Steven Francois





Five Strategies for Explaining Away Passages in the Bible We Don’t Like

Five Strategies for Explaining Away Passages in the Bible We Don't Like

One of the things that I find very interesting is that when people find something in the Bible that they’re not very comfortable with, they usually won’t just come out and say, “I simply disagree with what the Bible has to say here.” Now for most people I think this has to do with their belief in the inspiration and authority of scripture. For others it has to do with cultural residue that, for some reason, still makes people want the Bible to be right on certain issues, especially when it comes to moral issues.

So when people encounter something in the Bible that they don’t like, they usually won’t say that the Bible is wrong; they will often try to come up with some very elaborate arguments to try to show that the Bible isn’t actually saying what people think it is saying.   Sometimes this is done for apologetic reasons (i.e. to defend the Bible from its critics), which, by the way, is no excuse.  At other times it’s because they have an agenda for something that they are trying to push for the church today.  But very often it is simply because we have a hard time accepting that the Bible might actually disagree with some of the beliefs or values that we have today.

In this post, I want to deal with five common strategies that people often use to try to explain away passages in the Bible they don’t like.  Now obviously I’m not recommending these strategies because I don’t think they usually lead to a credible readings of the biblical text.  But the more we are aware of these strategies, the easier it will be to spot them and the less likely we will be to use them.

So here are the strategies:

 Strategy #1 – Cast as much doubt as you possibly can on the meaning of key words in the text that you’re dealing with – even if the context or a little bit of research will make the meaning of the word clear.

Now it’s definitely true that there some cases in the Bible where we’re not entirely sure what a particular word or a particular phrase means. Usually it’s because the word or phrase only appears once or twice in the Bible and because it isn’t found in literature outside of the Bible.

And it’s definitely true that there have been some words that have been translated incorrectly in our English Bibles. That’s one of the reasons why it’s important for both biblical scholars and pastors to know the biblical languages and be familiar enough with linguistic theory to properly use them.

That being said, one of the main strategies that people use to undermine the traditional teaching of scripture is to cast serious doubt on the meaning of key words that are found in the passages they are dealing with. This is the case with תּוֹעֵבָה in Leviticus 18:22, ἀρσενοκοίτης in 1 Corinthians 6:9, and αὐθεντέω in 1 Timothy 2:12.  The idea is that if you can cast enough doubt on what those words have been traditionally understood to mean, even if the alternatives that you come up with aren’t very convincing, then you can proceed to say that these passages don’t really teach what they seem to teach on the surface.

Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that there can’t be a legitimate debate about what these words mean. But when you’ve seen this strategy used enough times – and it always happens to be by people who have a vested interest in the passage not meaning what it has traditionally been understood to mean – it’s pretty easy to see this strategy for what it really is. If we can’t lay aside our desire to have the text say what we want it to say, it’s going to be very difficult for us to give a credible reading of that text.

Strategy#2: Do some “background” research, construct a narrative based on that “background” research, and use that narrative to completely contradict what the text actually says.

The reason why I use the word “background” in quotation marks is because very often the background material that people bring to the text is either not real (i.e. based on false information or the  faulty interpretation of that information) or not very relevant to the text.

Let me just give two quick examples. First, it is sometimes said that Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2:12 should be read in light of the worship of Artemis in the city of Ephesus, where Timothy was ministering when this letter was written. The problem with this is that even though this background material is real, it doesn’t seem to be very relevant for understanding 1 Timothy 2:12. Regardless of how we think 1 Timothy 2:12 should be applied today, the way that Paul words his instructions in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and the instructions he gives about overseers in the following chapter make it seem as though this was his normal teaching regardless of what city he was referring to. An even more important consideration is this: Paul never mentions or even alludes to Artemis worship anywhere in this letter. When Paul mentions false teaching in Ephesus, his main concern seems to be with some form of proto-Gnosticism (1 Tim. 6:20-21), extreme asceticism (1 Tim. 4:1-8), and/or some kind of false teaching that had to do with Jewish law (1 Tim. 1:3-11). Regardless of what kind of false teaching lies in the background of 1 Timothy, which might not even be relevant for applying  1 Timothy 2:12, Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2:12 doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the worship of Artemis.

Another example – and this one is really controversial today – has to do with what Paul has to say about same-sex sexual practice in Romans 1:26-27. This is often explained today in terms of the Greco-Roman practice of pederasty, temple prostitution, or the sexual exploitation of slaves. But what’s interesting about Romans 1:26-27 is that Paul’s concern doesn’t seem to be the age difference between the partners in the relationship; his concern doesn’t seem to be that this activity might be carried out in the context of idol worship, which doesn’t even seem to be on Paul’s radar despite the mention of idolatry in the previous verses; and his concern doesn’t seem to be with sexual exploitation, even though I’m sure he would say this is wrong as well. His problem seems to be that he doesn’t think that men should be having sexual relationships with other men, which makes sense given Paul’s Jewish background. What Paul has to say about lesbian sexual relationships in 1:26 would seem to confirm this but this can be left for another time.

The point is this: when we use “background” material to help us interpret the text, that background material needs to be both real and relevant. There needs to be very strong reasons in the text itself to show that this background material really is relevant. We also need to make sure that we don’t use “background” material to overrule what the text seems to be saying when taken on its own terms. We can disagree with what Paul had to say (obviously not if you believe in the inspiration and authority of scripture) – but we shouldn’t make him say something he never meant to say.

Strategy #3 – Blame the Greeks.

This is something that happens quite a bit. Simply blame the Greeks. The idea here is that there are certain elements of traditional Christian theology that can’t be found in the Bible but are actually based on the influence of Greek philosophy, which seeped into Christian theology in the formative centuries of early Christianity.

Let me just give one example. People who believe in conditional immortality will often argue that the idea of an eternal hell is based on the Greek concept of the immortality of the soul rather than on categories that can actually be found in the Bible. If we want to understand what the Bible has to say on this issue, according to them, we need to get rid of any influence from Greek philosophy and read the Bible on its own terms.

While this sounds very good in principle, in many cases it simply doesn’t work. Now, of course, we do need to accept the possibility that some of the things we believe as Christians or the way we formulate things theologically are due more to the categories of Greek philosophy than the Bible, but saying so doesn’t always make it the case. Going back to the example of conditional immortality, if the Bible actually does teach something similar to the immortality of the soul, which I think is a priori likely given both Egyptian and Mesopotamian beliefs about the afterlife (I also think it is found in the Bible too!), then it doesn’t matter if some of the early theologians of the church were influenced by the ideas or language of Greek philosophy that fell along the same lines. When early theologians went too far in this regard, like Origen’s beliefs about the eternality of the soul and the descent of souls, it was very often filtered out by the tradition, which itself was ruled and guided by the categories of scriptures.

So if we’re going to blame the Greeks for something we see in scripture, we need to make sure that it isn’t simply the case that the Greeks sometimes agreed with scripture.

Strategy #4 – Find another passage that, in reality, could easily be harmonized with the teaching you are trying to undermine but use it to overthrow the clear teaching of passages you don’t like.

 One of the best examples of this is when people use 1 John 4:8, which says that God is love, to cancel out any passage that, for them, seems incompatible with saying that God is love.

Another example is when people use Galatians 3:28, which says, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” (NIV) to overthrow everything else that Paul has to say about gender. Sticking with this last example, it is interesting to note that the same Paul who said that there is neither slave nor free in Galatians 3:28 also told Christian slaves to obey their masters and never told Christian masters to set their slaves free: clearly he didn’t think that being “one in Christ” erased these distinctions.  We can deal with the issue of Paul’s attitude toward slavery in another post.

I even heard one theologian say on a program on the BBC that Matthew 7:21 teaches that people will be judged exclusively by the good they do in this world and that what they believe about Jesus will have zero relevance on the Day of Judgment. Now that clearly doesn’t match up with the overall teaching of scripture and, I would argue, doesn’t match up with the theology of Matthew either.

I could give many more examples. The problem in each of these cases is that the interpreter is drawing conclusions from these verses that the authors themselves would not have drawn and, in some cases, that go against what the author explicitly teaches elsewhere. We can’t simply pick and choose the passages that we like, draw whatever conclusions we want from them, and then use them to overthrow what the Bible teaches in other passages of scripture.

Strategy #5 – Find as many reasons as you possibly can for why the text doesn’t mean what people usually think it means – even if those reasons aren’t compatible with each other.

I’ve seen this one quite a bit. Simply list as many arguments as you possibly can, even if these arguments are mutually incompatible, and try to overwhelm people with the amount of arguments you can find. Chances are most people won’t even realize that these arguments are mutually incompatible anyway – but who cares because the whole point is to win the argument, right?

Let me just give one example. In one blog post I reviewed awhile back, they said that in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul was only giving a temporary injunction against women teaching and having authority over men in the church. But in that same post they also said that the word that is normally translated as “have authority” or something along those lines really means “to domineer” with violent overtones. So which one is it? Is Paul only giving a temporary injunction against women domineering men in a violent way? Will that somehow be acceptable in the future? Both arguments can’t be right and it is very misleading to present these arguments as though they can actually work together.

Well, our main goal when it comes to interpreting a text shouldn’t be to win an argument. The main point should be to be honest with the text and to be honest with the evidence. We should be honest enough to point out when the arguments we are using are incompatible with each other so that we won’t give the false impression that there are ten cumulative arguments in favour of our position rather than maybe one or two. Pick the argument you think is right and then stick with it. But don’t present arguments that are incompatible with each other and make it seem like they help your case.


In the end, regardless of what theological position we come from and regardless of where we might want to come out on certain issues, we need to be honest with what the text says. If we have to do some kind of crazy interpretive gymnastics to get out of what the text seems to be saying, we might need to consider the possibility that the text is actually saying exactly what we think it is saying.  And if at the end of the day we don’t agree with what the text says, we should have the courage to say that we don’t agree with it, rather than trying to make the text say something that it doesn’t.

But if we do believe in the inspiration and authority of scripture, we need to have the kind of attitude that is reflected in Isaiah 66:2b.  In Isaiah 66:2b, God says:

Isaiah 66:2b – This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. (NIV)

This is the kind of attitude we need to have when it comes to scripture, especially if we find something in it that we might naturally want to disagree with. We shouldn’t be trying to find loopholes or use whatever strategy we can find to try to get out of what the Bible is saying.  When we’ve done all of our hard work in interpreting the text and we’re convinced that we understand the Bible’s final teaching on a subject, we need to make sure that we listen to what it says.  And that begins with being honest with the text.

Mark Steven Francois



Sermon Prep Sheets – Narrative

Sermon Preparation Sheets - Narrative

I have just posted a sermon prep sheet for preparing sermons/studies on biblical narrative (https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/exegesis-study-sheets/).  This is an example of the kind of sermon prep sheet that I use pretty much every week when I’m preparing a message.  These sheets help you to slow down, pay attention to the original meaning of the text, think carefully about how you apply the text, and help you plan out how you are going to present the message.  Eventually I will post sheets for each major genre in the Bible.

The sheets are designed primarily for sermon preparation.  However, they are also very useful for personal Bible Study.  Each sheet has three parts: (1) The original meaning of the text; (2) Applying the text; and (3) Putting the message together.  If you are using these sheets for personal study, simply ignore the “Putting the message together” section and simply print the first two sections.

In the future (if I have time!) I’ll make some videos explaining how to use these sheets and I’ll give some practical tips about how to interpret and apply the Bible in a responsible way.

Mark Steven Francois