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.
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