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What Does It Mean to Take the Bible Literally?

Bible+handI keep hoping people will stop using the word “literal” to describe the Bible — as in: “take the Bible literally” “literal interpretation of the Bible” and so forth. The reason I keep hoping for this is the fact that the term is over-used, wrongly used, and abused.

What does it mean to take the Bible “literally”?

What does the word “literal” mean? It seems to be used rather loosely. I understand it to be the opposite of words like “symbolic” “figurative,” or “allegorical.” To take a thing literally is to take it at face value.

It’s not that difficult a concept. Yet, the way the word is used would make you think otherwise.

I was reminded of this problem by a couple of posts I saw recently on the Internet. This one by Roger Wolsey illustrates the problem I’m talking about: 16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible. Throughout this post, I am unclear what Wolsey means by “literally.” He says, for example, “All Christians pick and choose which portions of the Bible [they take] literally, progressive Christians simply admit this and share how we discern.” I don’t think he is using the term “literally” correctly. He seems to be saying something along these lines: ‘All Christians pick and choose which portions of the Bible [they take] to have teaching authority in the Church, progressive Christians simply admit this and share how we discern.” But, if that is what he means to say, why doesn’t he say that? It seems to me that Wolsey is confused and thinks that conservative Christians commonly think the Bible was dictated by God — whereas such a view is simply a naive view, held by some who don’t understand the Bible very well. But, when Wolsey says: “We take the Bible too seriously, to read it all literally” I think he’s once again confused. He takes the Bible so seriously he doesn’t take it for what it means to say? No, I think he means that many parts of the Bible do not have teaching authority or relevance for him. Or: some parts of the Bible are inspired and some aren’t and its up to him to decide which — I don’t know. But, I do think he is using the word “literal” incorrectly.

Then, I ran across another post by a blogger who does understand what the word “literally” means. Over at The Unlikely Theologian, Lawrence Garcia writes: Stop Using “Literalist” for Genesis 1 Creationists: No Seriously, Stop It. Larry does understand what the word “literal” is supposed to mean in relation to Biblical interpretation. His point is this: the literal interpretation of the Bible is the interpretation that takes the Bible for what it actually means to say (taken in its own historical and literary context). Since it appears that Genesis chapter 1 was intended as a symbolic-functional account of the origins of the universe, taking it as a concrete description of the material origins of the universe is not to take it “literally” — it is to completely misread it.

Again, what does the word “literal” mean? It is the opposite of words like “symbolic” “figurative,” or “allegorical.” To take a thing literally is to take it at face value. As Lawrence Garcia quotes N. T. Wright: “the “literal” sense actually means “the sense of the letter”; and if the “letter”—the actual words used by the original authors or editors—is metaphorical, so be it.”

This is the sense in which the word “literal” has been used in the history of Biblical interpretation.



Historically, not everyone has taken the Bible at face value. In fact, Origen, long ago, suggested that the Bible’s texts should not be taken at face value. Their literal meaning was not their spiritual meaning. He suggested the method of allegorical interpretation. Every text, he argued, had a figurative and symbolic level of meaning, as well as its literal and historical meaning. For the life of faith, he felt that the figurative meaning was what was most significant.

To a large extent, the Church has rejected this approach. All of our advances in understanding the scriptures since the time of Origen have been the result of the rejection of this allegorical method.

Particularly in Protestantism, it has been argued that the important level of meaning in the scriptures is the literal and historical level of meaning. This is seen in Martin Luther’s doctrine of the clarity of scripture. Luther argued against the idea of various levels of meaning. He said, instead, that the meaning of a scripture text is its plain sense, when interpreted according to sound principles. In a similar way, John Wesley frequently spoke of the “plain sense” of scripture.

Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014)

However, it is precisely this insistence on literal and historical understanding that led to the historical-critical approach to the Bible. Wolfhart Pannenburg states this rather well in one of his early essays:

“For what is today called historical-critical exegesis is, according to its goal, simply the endeavor to understand the biblical writings — the intention and content of their statements — out of themselves. The doctrine of the clarity of scripture necessarily led to the demand that each theological statement should be based on the historical-critical exposition of scripture.” — Basic Questions in Theology (Volume 1).

Historical-critical study has led to questioning whether Scripture is a “literal” history. But, this is healthy questioning. It is still the result of the attempt to understand the Scriptures for what they actually are — in their form and content. If a person takes a TV “docudrama” as actual history is one being literal or just confused? If a person takes stories which have been repeated and recorded as the basis for faith and life-values to be only pious fabrications — is one being openly critical or dangerously biased? The Bible should be taken seriously, and respected for what it is. But, the Bible should not be taken for something it is not.

The scriptures ought to be interpreted according to their original intent and their actual form. To understand them otherwise is to proceed from mistaken assumptions. Should such an approach be dignified with the word “literal”? Literal meaning should not be seen as something other than the actual historical meaning.

It is the person who understands the Bible historically who is taking it literally. Someone who takes a symbolic passage of the Bible as a concrete description is simply confused.

It is precisely the critical scholar who takes the Bible literally. Rather than seeking to make everything in the Bible conform to some preconceived idea of its nature and inspiration, the critical method seeks to understand. At best, the critical approach is an attempt to inductively discover the nature and meaning of the scriptures from themselves and their own history; rather than imposing on the scriptures an a priori theology.

It seems odd to me that anyone would think that the literal meaning of the scriptures is something other than its historical-critical meaning. The alternatives have been misconstrued.

Simply stated:

•    to take the Bible literally should mean to take it at face value;
•    to take the Bible literally should mean to take it figuratively and symbolically when it seeks to communicate in that way;
•    to take the Bible literally means to take it for what it claims to be (and no more than that!);
•    to take the Bible literally should mean to take an historical and critical approach to the task of interpretation.

If this is what we mean by taking the Bible “literally” then I’m glad to say I do.

jwesley-48rcblueI think this is also what John Wesley meant by “literal.”

“But it is a stated rule in interpreting Scripture, never to depart from the plain, literal sense, unless it implies an absurdity.” — Sermon 74. “Of the Church”.

If “literal” means taking the Bible as dictated by God then I certainly do not take it that way. The Bible doesn’t make this claim for itself anyway. Human beings wrote under the inspiration of God.

It is time for the theological disciplines of the scholars to be related to the vital tasks of the proclamation, defense and explanation of the Christian faith. It is time for words like “faithful,” “orthodox,” and “evangelical” to take their places beside words like “critical,” “modern,” and “liberal.” The false dilemmas of the past will leave us still paralyzed in the face of a world that needs to hear anew the claims of Jesus Christ.


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15 Responses

  1. Laura January 31, 2014 / 6:46 pm

    Excellent post. It has been on “my list” to write on this issue as well. Yes, i think literal came in to use to emphasize being opposed to allegorical. That was so long ago, and now literal is so mis-used and mis-understood.

    • Craig L. Adams January 31, 2014 / 6:50 pm

      Thanks, Laura. I sometimes think Christians should take a moratorium on the words “literal” and “literally” until they can use them correctly — but then who would enforce it? 🙂

  2. Alastair Roberts January 31, 2014 / 8:07 pm

    I think that both Origen’s understanding of the ‘literal’ reading of the text and the Church’s historical use of allegory (which I am much in favour of in principle) are easily misrepresented or misunderstood. I recommend something such as Henri de Lubac’s Medieval Exegesis: Volume 2 for an exceedingly thorough and well-researched treatment of this subject. The sharp distinction between typology and allegory that many argue for doesn’t apply in church history either. While theologians such as Jean Daniélou or Geoffrey Lampe may have been pushing this distinction a couple of generations ago, most church historians are more circumspect now. Andrew Louth has a good treatment of this in Discerning the Mystery that I read recently.

    Origen’s exegesis wasn’t driven by some abstract pseudo-Gnostic or Platonic approach to allegorical interpretation, but by the biblical conviction that all of the Scriptures speak about Christ (something that contemporary historians are increasingly grasping). Origen took Jesus and Paul as his models, not Plato or Philo. Brevard Childs actually has a superb treatment of Origen in his commentary on Isaiah that I read recently. It wasn’t about a hermeneutical method, but about the fact that Jesus told us that the Scriptures speak about him throughout. Consequently, like Paul, who can find deeper meaning in the two sons of Abraham (Galatians 4) or the Exodus from Egypt (1 Corinthians 10), we ought to see Christ, his work, and his people throughout the Old Testament.

    When we read the story of Samson bringing down the temple of Dagon we should recognize Jesus on the cross. When we read the story of the ark being captured and going into exile, we should recognize that Jesus is the ark of God that goes into exile for his people, winning a great victory in apparent weakness and returning with spoils. When we read about Elijah’s ascension, we should see Christ’s ascension and the church’s Pentecost receiving of the Spirit as akin to Elisha. When we read about the Passover lamb, we should see Christ. God’s history has repeating patterns, patterns that are perfected in Christ. We don’t need to reject or abandon the ostensive referents and meaning of the text (the plain, literal sense) to recognize that the meaning of Scripture goes deeper than the surface meaning.

    So, as a fan of the grammatical historical meaning of the text and the allegorical meaning, and someone convinced that Origen (for all of his very tenuous readings) deserves fairer treatment than he has received over most of the last few hundred years, I take issue with the claim: ‘To a large extent, the Church has rejected this approach. All of our advances in understanding the scriptures since the time of Origen have been the result of the rejection of this allegorical method.’

    • Craig L. Adams February 1, 2014 / 8:23 am

      Thanks for the very thoughtful and interesting comment. I appreciate the rebuttal, and your defense of Origen’s method. However, the allegorical method that you are advocating builds upon the historical-critical and grammatical interpretation. The Reformers did emphasize (to use an over-used and abused word) literal meaning — and this Protestant principle leads directly to the historical critical method as we know it. So, on that basis, I stand by my statement (which you found objectionable).

      On the other hand, rehabilitating dear old Origen’s image is, in general, a noble task. Carry on, Alastair.

    • John Meunier February 1, 2014 / 9:55 am

      Got here through Craig’s follow up post. Thank you for this.

      I am reminded in reading your post of all the pastors I have heard who teach their congregations that all the Scriptures point to Christ. My Old Testament professor scoffed openly at that idea.

      • Craig L. Adams February 1, 2014 / 10:21 am

        And, this definitely illustrates the value of the point that Alastair is making. The early Christians thought all Scripture pointed to Christ, as well.

  3. Cynthia Astle February 4, 2014 / 3:14 pm

    Excellent, thoughtful post, Craig. I’d like your permission to reprint on United Methodist Insight. OK?

  4. David Beddow February 10, 2014 / 7:25 pm

    I like how well your argument is put together. It’s refreshing.

    I am at a loss for a word to describe the Christianity I believe in. “Progressive” used to work until the “Progressive Christians” came along as I happen to believe when Jesus said nobody comes to the Father other than through Him that He actually meant it literally – in that there is absolutely no other route to God outside accepting His sacrifice.

    I used to be an “evangelical”, but the word no longer means what it did and is now synonymous with bigotry and condemnation to many people.

    I looked at “inclusive” and “catholic” (small “c” meaning “all encompassing”) but ruled them out for the same reasons.

    I’ve even considered “regressive” but explaining to people what I mean – that I’d like to go back to the way the Church worked in the initial 150 years after Jesus before politics and dogma got involved – became so tiring I couldn’t keep it up.

    Even “literal” doesn’t work. I don’t believe God took 144 hours to create everything 6000 years ago (by the Genesis timeline) then, clearly exhausted by this He put His feet up.

    So I’m at a loss.

    I believe there is allegory and historical fact woven in the Holy Spirit inspired (not dictated) pages of the Bible as we know it – 66 books as I’m protestant! But mostly what I believe is there are some “absolute” and unchangable words in there. “Sexual immorality”, “greed”, “murder”. These are absolutes referred to in Old and New Testament alike. The scripture describes marriage as the union of man and woman, something from a “church” perspective we must recognise, and that any form of sexual activity involving another person (not sure about “alone” time) falls under the general heading of “immorality”. The same can be seen for all the sins referred to in the Old Testament. They are moral absolutes.


    We don’t live in a Theocracy. We live in a secular world where “Human Rights” need to be observed. As such I will defend LGBT desires to have their relationships considered under national laws and recognised by secular courts to the hilt. But in a church setting, shouldn’t what the Bible is understood by the leadership team to say be the compass that guides?

    Again, I stress I am only using this particular issues as an example because of it’s current prominence in international news. Greed, coveting, and all the rest are as offensive to me.

    Where do we draw the line on a “literal” understanding of morality – in any situation – and immorality? If God is the same yesterday, today and for ever; and Jesus was meaning us to take Him 100% literally when He said not a single jot or tittle would be removed from the Law without the creation ceasing to exist, then if it was sin 4000 years ago, surely murder, coveting, sexual immorality of any kind or any othe of the hundreds of examples listed are still sin today in God’s eyes?

    And if they are, shouldn’t they still be in ours?

    I’d love to hear an opinion on this from you, Craig. Even if you don’t publish this post, I would truly value your response.

    • Craig L. Adams February 10, 2014 / 9:06 pm

      Thanks for your interesting and thoughtful comments. I am at a loss how to respond. 🙂

      (1.) Labels are a problem for me as well. “Progressive” has now been ruined — since it is now just another label for “liberal — and “evangelical” is widely misunderstood (as you note). Dictation theories of inspiration I reject, but I still want to hold to the authority of Scripture in a way that is as congruent as intellectually possible with the beliefs of the early Church. And, then, theologically I’m something like a metho-pente–liberal-evanglical heavily influenced by John Wesley and Wolfhart Pannenberg. That might not seem like it goes together — but, for me, at least, it does.

      (2.) I strongly believe in the learning from science as well as from the Bible. These sources of knowledge should not be played off against each other. From my point of view, many themes in Christian theology laid the groundwork for the emergence of the empirical sciences, in the first place. This is why I am so appreciative of thinkers like Wolfhart Pannenberg and John Polkinghorne.

      (3.) I’m not sure I want to pursue the homosexual issue in this particular comment thread. I’m not opposed to discussing this — but maybe not in this thread. All I want to say right now is this: if I were a same-gender attracted person and I had the Christian convictions that I have now, I would feel that I had to choose celibacy. So, because of this, I feel that this is the group I most need to support in their spiritual journey. But, I also think that if I were a same-gender attracted person in the evangelical church, I might not experience as much support and understanding as I might need. Much of the church is consumed in a culture war, and I think it would work against me. (Mostly, same-gender attraction does not change, though it may in a few cases, and it may get modified a bit in others. I would have to consider holiness the goal, not change.)

      But, anyway, I’m not, and I find myself in a frankly uncomfortable position of commending celibacy for others when I am a happily married heterosexual man myself. Ouch.

      (4.) I am strictly moderating comments because this site is being pretty heavily spammed right now — and also because of some experiences in the past. Respectful comments and rebuttal are appreciated, but, since this is my web site I do also feel some responsibility for the content that appears here. I cannot predict whether my comment policy will change or not.

      I am hoping, David, that we will have the opportunity to explore some of these issues that you raise later on, because I will certainly be posting on the various issues that you raise.

      • David Beddow February 11, 2014 / 8:18 am

        Thanks, Craig. I wasn’t intending to open up a sexuality thread here, just to try – albeit haphazardly – to say that sin is sin, irrespective of which one it is. All sin separates us from God be it sexual immorality or envying the neighbour’s new car. Anything that gets in the way is a problem.

        To that end, your comment about pursuing Holiness is right on what I was trying to say.

        I think I’d love it if Christians could just return to the Acts description of the word – Imitators of Christ of “Little anointed ones” as my grandfather used to put it. He and my grandmother were Salvation Army officers and their Faith was passionate. There was little they saw eye to eye about in worldly affairs, but Spiritually they were so in tune that when she passed away in the middle of preparing notes for a sermon she’d been asked to give at the local Methodist church in their village three days later, he was able to simply pick up the notes and deliver the message himself.

        I too believe that science is vital to our understanding of the world around us, but I also believe there needs to be recognition that there is a difference between a scientific “fact” and a Spiritual “Truth”. Too often the “facts” are presented as “Truth” by the scientific community with no embarrassment that the previous day the “facts” were the polar opposite of what they just discovered.

        I’m not saying the planet is only 6000 years old like some Young Earth Creationist may do, but I have wondered where the classical images of dragons came from in western cultures (and oriental for that matter), when especially in Europe there were no lizards of that kind of size. When I visited the Natural History Museum in London as a child and saw the dinosaur skeletons, imagined the beasts with flesh, then suddenly it sparked the thought of “why not?” It’s a question that isn’t necessarily essential to Salvation, but one I’ve pondered for over 30 years now.

        Again, the only serious issue is the question of Sin and it’s need for atonement.

        I must explore the writings of Pannenburg and Polkinghorne as I’d not come across them in the past. I enjoy stretching my mind and expanding my understanding, so thank you for the introduction.

        I’m delighted to have found this page and look forward to much reading in the future!

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