The question of whether the Bible should be interpreted literally is an important one for Christians seeking to properly understand God’s Word. There are various viewpoints on this issue within Christianity. While some believe the entire Bible should be taken literally, others advocate a mix of literal and figurative interpretations. There are good arguments on both sides of this debate, and mature Christians should thoughtfully study what the Bible says about itself and handle Scripture with care.
The Bible contains different types of literature – history, poetry, prophecy, letters, and apocalyptic writings – which affect how they are interpreted. Portions of Scripture were intended to be taken literally while other parts employ symbolic language. However, there are principles from Scripture we can follow to guide our interpretation and discern what the biblical authors meant. While the Bible should be read through the lens of its historical and cultural context, Scripture also has a divine Author Who inspired and preserved it for future generations. Prayerful study is required to understand and apply God’s unchanging truth to our lives.
Those advocating a fully literal approach make several arguments. God’s Word is true (John 17:17), and the prophets and apostles recorded actual historical events they witnessed. Much biblical prophecy has been literally fulfilled just as predicted. Jesus and the apostles often quoted the Old Testament as historical truth and affirmed traditional authorship. A literal Adam and Eve present a coherent explanation for the entrance of sin and death into the world (Romans 5:12-21). Taking the Bible at face value guards against subjectively explaining away difficult passages or doubting God’s Word.
However, even literalists acknowledge parts of the Bible are poetic and symbolic. Apocalyptic literature in Daniel and Revelation contains many symbols requiring interpretation. Jesus employed parables to figuratively illustrate spiritual truths. Sayings like “I am the door” (John 10:9) have a metaphorical meaning. Psalms contains vivid poetic imagery praising God. Figures of speech are woven throughout Scripture. The context and genre indicate when a passage should not be taken literally.
Those advocating a mixed literal-figurative approach point to features throughout the Bible favoring this view. Even in historical narrative, rhetorical hyperbole is sometimes employed for emphasis rather than precision. Anthropomorphic language ascribes human features to God (like having nostrils or a strong right arm) when He is spirit. Estimated numbers like “500 witnesses” may be general approximations. The presence of symbolism, metaphors and other literary devices shows biblical authors flexibly used language to accurately convey theological truth to their audience. This suggests reading the Bible “according to its nature” as the Reformers proposed.
For example, Genesis 1-3 teaches theological truths regarding creation, humanity’s fall into sin, and God’s curse on the serpent. But the creation account may employ a literary framework with some symbolic elements rather than give a precise material timeline. Other Old Testament examples such as predictive prophecy given in visions and dreams likely contain symbolic imagery that found partial fulfillment in history but await ultimate fulfillment in Christ (Acts 2:17). Exodus 15:8 speaks poetically of God’s “nostrils” but clearly God does not have a nose. Passages must be considered in context to determine if they should be read literally or not.
Principles such as interpreting clearer passages to understand more obscure ones, studying the grammar, historical context and genre, and letting Scripture interpret itself guide us. While the Bible is inerrant and fully true, discernment is needed. Word studies and cross-referencing related verses sheds light on the author’s intent. Comparing multiple translations also helps identify where translators took some license in rendering the text versus a more literal reading. Simply reading the English translation may fail to convey nuances of the original language. Consulting commentaries can provide historical insights that illuminate puzzling passages.
Additionally, the Holy Spirit guides believers into truth as we study Scripture. Illumination from the Spirit is vital along with sound interpretive principles. Submission to God through prayer opens our minds to receive His wisdom and understand His Word aright. Though challenges remain due to our finite minds, God intends His Word to be understood and promises the Spirit will lead us into truth.
In summary, responsible biblical interpretation requires recognizing different genres present in Scripture and how this affects reading various passages literally or figuratively. While the Bible presents historical people and actual events that should be taken at face value, it also contains symbolism, metaphors and other literary devices that require discernment to properly interpret. Examining the grammar, historical context, related verses and genres sheds light on the author’s intent. The illumination of the Holy Spirit guides the process. Though some ambiguity remains in difficult texts, God desires us to accurately handle His Word and grow in our knowledge of biblical truth through diligent study.