Literally Interpreting the Bible: It’s Not What You Think

Every field of study, whether it be theology or medicine, has an array of phrases to describe certain elements of that particular study.  Many of these phrases are quite common to the “insiders” of a specific field.  To these insiders the full spectrum of what is intended by a word or phrase is better understood than those who have a cursory interest or education in the topic at hand.  Things can really become confusing when everyday words are used to describe something that is much more nuanced than what might be conveyed by the phrase itself.  This is the case for the concept of “biblical literalism.”

I am a biblical literalist.  For many who are not part of the “insider language” of biblical interpretation, the combination of these two words seems to yield a fairly obvious meaning – I believe the Bible to be literal in all its teaching.  It is not quite so simple.  To be labeled a biblical literalist in many circles of religious thought is to be labeled a Fundamental, mindless, ignorant KJV only conservative Christian who refuses to believe anything other than a literal 6-day creation account and an actual throne sitting in heaven based on Revelation 4.  I don’t fault those who are not privy to the real use of the phrase biblical literalism and who understand it to mean what I suggested above.  I am more annoyed with folks who know better but are so put off with conservative evangelicals that they spur on an erroneous picture of what it really means to be a biblical literalist.  Perhaps this article can shed some light on the meaning of that phrase.

Biblical literalism is a method of interpreting Scripture that puts great weight on authorial intent, words the authors of Scripture used to convey that intent, and the reading of the text as propositional truth.  Unless the context of Scripture in a particular passage points toward a varying literary aspect or genre, such as allegory, poetry, apocalyptic, etc, the text is best read as straight-forward and literal.  This, of course, does not mean all biblical literalists interpret Scripture the same way.  Sometimes defining what is and is not allegorical can be tricky.  Although I believe very strongly that the Genesis account of creation tells the story of six 24-hour days, I have several friends who consider themselves committed biblical literalists who disagree with me and believe the creation days in Genesis mean something else.  Therefore, just because they do not read that particular portion of Scripture literally does not mean they necessarily deny biblical literalism.  Having said that, most biblical literalists do, in fact, read Genesis as 6 actual days because there is not a clear indication in the text that we should read it any other way, not mention a host of other problems that accompany denying 24 hour days.  But the point is that a literal reading of the Bible does not eliminate differences of interpretation or that every single aspect of Scripture is taken as “literal.”

Adding to the discussion is something called the “Grammatical-Historical” approach to interpreting Scripture.  In essence, this is the same thing as being a “biblical literalist” but avoids the confusion of using the word “literal.”  Famous Christian apologist Norman Geisler provides a helpful statement on the use of the word “literal.”  He says, “To be sure the English word literal carries some problematic connotations with it. Hence the words normal and grammatical-historical are used to explain what is meant. The literal sense is also designated by the more descriptive title grammatical-historical sense. This means the correct interpretation is the one which discovers the meaning of the text in its grammatical forms and in the historical, cultural context in which the text is expressed.”  What I find helpful about the grammatical-historical approach to interpretation is that it provides a needed balance in several areas.  One the one hand, it affirms that words and sentences are important and speak truth.  On the other hand, it does not allow those words and sentences to be divorced from their cultural context.  It also supports the clarity of Scripture, something its counterpart, the “historical-critical” method tends to deny.

Personally, a lesson I want to learn for my own life and ministry is to avoid making sweeping assumptions and accusations about folks.  I am learning more and more than I need to form opinions on my brothers and sisters based on what they actually believe and say and not based on a label they might invoke or deny.  This is true for so many words in faith discussions.  Inerrancy, fundamentalist, moderate, Calvinist, Arminian, literalist, seeker, and on and on.  Who we are and what we believe matters.  But sometimes it is more complicated than a phrase or label.  And sometimes we don’t have a good understanding of what that label means in the first place.  


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2 Replies to “Literally Interpreting the Bible: It’s Not What You Think”

  1. Excellent post, Philip. I would add one thought. You note that some folks like to equate biblical literalists with non-thinking fundamentalists and you are of course right about the tendency of people on all sides to want to stereotype and pigeon-hole the positions of other folks. I think there is another problem, though, which is the tendency of some who count themselves biblical literalists to think that only a simple, extremely literal reading of the Bible that does not allow for the possibility of symbolism or allegory is a correct reading. People who take such a position are not nearly as irenic as you on the subject of the “days” of Genesis 1, for example. Again, though–very good post. Blessings in your new place of ministry….

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