Worldviews, Worship, and Wineskins

The Gospel at Work in Every Context

Why Christians Shouldn’t Take the Bible Literally

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Maybe you’ve heard this comment or something like it before:

“The Bible is a good book, but you just can’t take it literally.”

Many Christians protest.  “We take the Bible literally!”  We say.  Then passages such as Numbers 22 with Balaam and the talking donkey, or the book of Jonah and his dramatic experience inside the fish are commonly used as ammunition to discredit the reliability of the Bible.  Can any rational person be expected to believe these tales?  Aren’t they just metaphors with moral underpinnings?

Yes.  Rational people CAN (and do) take these accounts at face value.  If we accept the existence of God (which most people do), there is no reason to reject the historical accuracy of miraculous accounts, as long as they are contained in otherwise historically accurate writings.  BUT…we shouldn’t take the Bible literally.

Before you stop reading and label me an apostate, let me explain.  Let’s dig through some basic rules of human communication and grow in our understanding of how to understand and explain the natural way to interpret the Bible.

First and foremost, no one interprets the Bible literally.  As in the WHOLE Bible.  The protestant Bible is made up of 66 books written in 3 different languages on 3 different continents over thousands of years by dozens of authors from every walk of life.  Remarkably, all of that material points to the same person who inspired it (the God of the ancient Hebrews), but it is NOT all literal!  Take, for instance, these lines that Solomon wrote about his bride:

“Your eyes are doves behind your veil.  Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead.  Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them has lost its young.”  

This passage is obviously poetic and contains figures of speech: metaphors and similes.  If we were to stand on our claim that the Bible should be taken literally, we would have to say that Solomon’s bride had birds for eyes!  Obviously that isn’t what he meant.  Which is what we, as readers of the Bible are looking for: what did the author mean to say?

If the author is writing historical narrative (like the gospels or the first eighteen books of the Old Testament), it’s safe to say he meant for us to interpret his material literally.  Jesus himself interpreted miraculous accounts literally: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matt 12.40).  If the passage is poetic, it contains an overwhelming majority of figurative language.  If it is prophetic, the prophet generally lets the reader know whether he is using symbolism and figures of speech.

Here are three of rules of thumb that will never steer you wrong:

1: Context is king!  The author of the text usually gives you pretty clear indications of his intentions.  Let the text speak for itself, don’t take small passages out of their literary context. Jesus is called the “Lamb of God” in several new Testament books.  Do we believe that he was literally a juvenile farm animal?  No, that would be a pretty violent interpretive maneuver.  We understand that we shouldn’t read modern newspapers as though they were poetry.  We know that modern love ballads contain hyperbole.  Figures of speech are common tools in human communication, we have to interpret them the way they were meant to be interpreted.  If there is confusion about the author’s intended meaning in a specific passage, back up a few verses or a couple of chapters and pick up his train of thought.  The surrounding context will generally clear up the meaning of most of the individual verses in the Bible!

2. Ask yourself, “What is the author trying to convey?”  Ultimately, the author controls the meaning of the text, NOT the reader.  What would Steven Spielberg say if someone wrote a review of “Saving Private Ryan” that claimed it was an extended allegory about politics in the 1990s?  My guess is he would say something like “No, you doofus.  That’s not what the film means.”  If we let the text speak for itself, a large majority of interpretation is simple.  Yes, some passages are difficult, but even if we were to exclude them *gasp!* the Gospel message is clear.

3.  “I take the Bible at face value.  It is what it appears to be.  It means what it says.”  These phrase can be very helpful in conversations with those who toss out the “L” word (literally).  We can agree with them and say “No, you’re right.  I don’t take the Bible literally either.  At least not the whole thing.”  This is a good way to find common ground with people who might have never considered normal rules of human communication apply…even to the Bible.

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