When Should the Bible Be Taken Literally?

Recently a friend asked me to comment on the Bible in regards to inerrancy, infallibility, inspiration, etc. Emerging from this discussion are the following remarks (paraphrased from the original) concerning whether or not the Bible should be read as literal. I welcome your comments below.

(Friend),

I think you have said some good things here, especially in regards to pressing the issue of what we mean by ‘absolute’ truth. I would summarize my thoughts by saying that I believe the Bible to be “absolutely true in all it affirms.” That does not mean that everything in the Bible is to be taken literally. Obviously, a good deal of the Bible is written as poetry. However, we must be careful that we don’t allow this fact to be exploited, as many do, so that we end up reading critical historical narratives as simply allegory.

For example, so much of the book of Revelation is symbolic. I cannot say for sure exactly what is literal and what is figurative. I believe it is all true, but I suppose there is some room for debate on how it should be interpreted. However, I believe in the historicity of the resurrection, and I am prepared to back that up textually, historically and theologically. I am not willing to chalk the resurrection accounts up to poetry, allegory, or symbolism. Jesus Christ literally rose from the dead bodily. Period. It is up to us to be sharp in how we read and interpret Scripture, and that involves acquainting ourselves with the differences among various translations, the original languages (to an extent), rules of interpretation (otherwise known as hermeneutics), and the church’s historical position on a given text. I think too many people are sloppy in their reading of Scripture, but this is a dangerous practice.

Back to my statement that I believe the Bible to be “absolutely true in all it affirms,” this does not mean that I believe the Bible should be taken literally all the time. By saying “all that it affirms” I have to ask myself with any given text, “what is the Bible saying here?” Good Bible reading requires both discernment as to what is being said and faith to believe that what it is saying it true (even if not literal).

I think we can summarize this approach as reading the Bible “plainly,” i.e. reading it for what it is: literal history is literal history, metaphors are metaphors, poetry is poetry, etc. The Bible is written in many different literary styles and should be read accordingly. This is the basis for what is technically called the historical-grammatical method of interpretation.

Whenever in doubt, I tend to take it literally. In fact, unless something is written in a form that is obviously to be taken as allegorical/poetic/etc., I simply read it as literal. Sometimes this requires me to accept supernatural intervention that supersedes natural laws (like, for instance, the parting of the Red Sea, which I take to be literal and not figurative or explained away by naturalistic explanations), but then again, I believe in a God who created and stands above nature — which is a presupposition and a statement of dogma on my part — therefore it is no great leap for me to do that. But in the end the true task is to ask, “What is the author trying to tell me here,” and, “Am I willing to believe him?”

In sum, here is a nice little equation:

God is true (Romans 3:4) + God breathed out the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16) = The Scriptures are true (John 17:17).

Is that helpful?

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