Post Author: Bill Pratt
My seminary professor, Norm Geisler, used to say, “Everything the Bible affirms is literally true, but not true, literally.” What he meant by this is that we cannot read the Bible in a wooden, “literal” way when it is clearly using figurative language.
A good Catholic friend of mine once asked me how I interpreted Bible passages. I answered, “I try to understand what the author’s intended meaning was in the historical context in which he wrote.” She answered, “Oh, well that’s exactly how I interpret the Bible. I thought that evangelicals interpreted everything literally.”
Clearly we have a failure to communicate! There seem to be at least two ways that the word literal is used. First, literal can mean interpreting language in a way that does not allow for any symbolism or figures of speech. If someone said, “I have traveled to the four corners of the earth,” a literalist in this sense would assume that the earth must be a flat, four sided shape, and that I actually did travel to each corner of this geometric shape.
Second, literal can mean interpreting language in the exact way it was intended by the author without unduly introducing symbolism or figurative language where it was never intended. This is what most evangelicals mean when we say that you should interpret the Bible “literally.” We do not mean that there is no use of figurative language in the Bible. There obviously is. As Bill Foster says in his book, Meet the Skeptic, “Informed Christians recognize that the Bible is full of literary devices and figurative language such as metaphor, simile, metonymy, typology, allegory, personification, and so forth.”
The reason conservative Christians tend to emphasize reading the Bible literally is because some readers do tend to interpret passages in the Bible that seem to be written in a non-figurative way as figurative. There are those that claim that the resurrection of Jesus should be taken figuratively, for example. Traditional Christians point out that the authors of the New Testament clearly meant the resurrection accounts to be taken literally, not figuratively. Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead in a physical body.
So, yes, we should read the Bible literally, as long as we agree on what literal means.