Should We Interpret the Entire Bible Literally?

July 05, 2012

According to a 2007 Pew Research Center survey, 59% of U.S. Evangelicals believe that the Bible is the Word of God, and is to be taken literally, word for word. While I whole-heartedly agree that the Bible is the Word of God and should be taken seriously, I fear that the emphasis on interpreting it literally is an oversimplification that will make it impossible for us to correctly interpret God’s Word.

For example, how should we interpret the beginning of John 16, where Jesus states,

“I have said these things to you in figures of speech.”

Obviously, if we interpret this passage literally (as I believe we should), we have to interpret some of Jesus’ preceding statements figuratively, which leads us to a contradiction if we are trying to interpret every statement in the Bible literally.

Therefore it is literally impossible to take every statement in the Bible literally. And I think everyone knows this. Not even the strictest literalist believes that when John said “Behold, the Lamb of God,” he meant that Jesus was literally a quadrupedal, ruminant mammal useful for making sweaters and shawarma out of. He was using the phrase “Lamb of God” metaphorically—to communicate that all of the sacrifices of lambs throughout Israel’s history pointed forward towards Jesus and God’s sacrifice of him on the Cross.

Why Isn’t the Bible More Straightforward?

©2012 Luci Fonseca

The problem is that language, by its very nature, is composed of generalizations. Each word represents an abstract group of similar things, ignoring their differences in order to emphasize their commonalities. Consequently, the more simple a word is, the broader its range of meaning.

Take the word animal, for instance. An elephant is obviously very different in many ways from a snake or a butterfly, but when we say animal we are using just one word to mean millions of species, and trillions of individual creatures.

It is always possible to be more specific and more elaborate in any description, but at a certain point being overly descriptive distracts from the overall message one is trying to convey. We all have friends who tend to dwell a bit too long on the details of their stories and take forever to get to the point. In addition to trying our patience, an overabundance of specificity makes it difficult to hold the whole story in our head.

Take an ordinary map, for instance. The purpose of a map is to allow you to gain an overview of the layout of a given area. As you increase the size of a map, you gain detail, but at a certain point you begin to lose usefulness, until you reach the level of absurdity that Lewis Carroll once wrote about where the map was “the scale of a mile to a mile”. In the same way, language is only useful to describe a real object or concept as long as it is able to reduce the complexity of that object to a much more manageable group of familiar terms and ideas. These words serve as representations of objects and concepts, but they hold only a fraction of the complexity of that which they represent.

However necessary it is in focusing us on the core message, through this process of compression a great deal of information is lost. We can do our best to recover its meaning through historical and cultural context, but at the end of the day, there is no way to be sure based solely on the text.

The Gift of Metaphor

And this is where metaphor comes in. Metaphor is one of the most powerful features of language and therefore one of the most important gifts God has given us for understanding his word.

Whereas generalization allows us to reduce many similar things we are familiar with into a single core concept, metaphor allows us to draw connections between otherwise dissimilar objects or concepts, so that we can think and communicate more clearly about ideas that would otherwise be too large and complex for our relatively tiny brains to hold. For example, our invisible, omniscient, and eternal Creator.

Because of its potential to expand the boundaries of our mind beyond what we can see and touch, metaphor is the primary mental gateway between our tangible, finite world and God’s infinite eternal reality.

Hence, Jesus makes extensive use of metaphor in his teachings. Here are just some of the metaphors Jesus uses to describe himself in the New Testament:

Jesus is not literally any of these things. He is using the power of metaphor to allow us to relate to things that we could not otherwise see or understand. Certain characteristics of these things are like him in important and illustrative ways. When God created the world, he knew that one day Jesus would use these things to teach the disciples about himself.

And of course, Jesus is famous for his use of parables, which are extended metaphors used to teach moral lessons. By applying metaphors to spiritual truths and grounding them in things we are already familiar with and can relate to, Jesus allows us to develop an intuitive understanding of otherwise abstract concepts. Just as Jesus represents the physical entrance of God into the story of humanity, the parables are the incarnation of God’s truth into the stories of our lives.

Metaphor is therefore an essential tool for expanding our minds to comprehend ideas and things much greater than ourselves. It is not by any means a hindrance or obstacle—it is, in fact, a wonderful gift graciously given to us by God in order that we might have the ability to know him. We cannot merely use generalization to understand God, because God cannot simply be grouped in with other similar things.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made… (Romans 1:20, NIV)

In fact, I believe that everything in this world has been created in order that we might understand some aspect of who he is. God has created this world as an expression of himself, and I believe that he has intentionally filled it with things that reflect various aspects of his nature.

Two Dangers

So if metaphor is so important to understanding God, why is there even a debate about it? The problem is that people who choose to interpret the Bible metaphorically often use it as an excuse to dance around parts of the Bible that make them uncomfortable.

It is an easy thing to do, and if we are honest with ourselves, we all have a tendency to do it to some extent. On the other hand, those who consider themselves literalists fall into a similar trap: people who like to think they are interpreting the Bible literally are pridefully assuming their interpretation of God’s word is the correct interpretation.

Since there is no such thing as a purely literal interpretation of the Bible, anyone who thinks they have one is deluding themselves, mistaking their interpretation of God’s Word for God’s actual Word, and deafening themselves from hearing God’s correction. This is why Jesus called the Pharisees “the blind lead[ing] the blind” (Matthew 15:14)—the Pharisees had a strict interpretation of what they thought the Bible meant and refused to hear any other opinions on the matter, even when the Author came to give a Q&A session.

In different but similar ways, both sides are avoiding the corrective, transformative work of God’s Spirit by interpreting the Bible in a closed-minded fashion. Both have come to the Bible already having decided what it should say rather than coming with an open mind to learn what it truly says.

The flaw common to both types of misinterpretation is pride, which is why above all we need to approach and interpret the Bible with humility.

Interpreting the Bible with Humility

So how do we interpret the Bible with humility? I’m definitely no expert in this department, but I’m happy to share a few things I’ve learned over the years that have been helpful for me (in addition to of course, the lesson that the penitent man kneels before God).

This is all very much a work in progress for me, and I expect for all of us, which is why it is important for us to help each other along the way. I would love to hear from any of you lessons God has taught you about how to approach his Word with humility.