The Bible – are we supposed to take it literally?

In what could be the first of a series (I suppose) on hermeneutics (and that depends on whether I find enough time/inspiration springing up to continue on other issues), I thought I’d at least make a little note containing my thoughts on a certain hermeneutic principle which is found to be prevalent especially in the United States and coming particularly in line with (but not exclusively from) Word of Faith ministries.

There is, you see, an understanding ‘out there’ in the world of Bible teaching especially in said areas, wherein we are instructed to take the Bible literally, on its word – what the Bible says, goes. We must completely believe that what it says is what it means – in fact as a principle of interpretation it entails very little requirement for any interpretation at all. That I suppose is a matter to settle in itself – how are we, supposed ‘mere mortals’, to interpret a divinely-authored book?

At this point, a disclaimer and a brief Scriptural statement. First, I believe wholeheartedly, 100%, that the Bible IS a divinely-authored book. From the first page of Genesis to the last page of Revelation God spoke and is still speaking through those words now so wonderfully preserved for us now in almost every language on the planet. The Bible itself instructs that it is a book to be effectively DEVOURED by the reader in order that life may be given and salvation manifest (Psalm 119 is one beautiful example of a psalmist’s adulation of the Word of God). Further clarification of my stance can be made if necessary (and points of it will obviously in this article).

And by way of Scriptural statement. First of all Jesus, we believe, came as the Word of God made flesh (John 1), and so if there is anything that we want to understand about God in the Bible we have to look at Jesus, as He perfectly demonstrates the Father and what He is like. That is our view as Christians. Secondly, Peter makes a very clear case for interpretation of Scripture, when he explains how we are to pay attention to the Word in 2 Peter 1:19-21. In it he says that “no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” In other words the same principle that was involved in the authoring of Scripture – namely that the Holy Spirit was involved – should be the rule for our interpretation of Scripture. That’s why it’s a great idea to pray before you read the Bible, asking the Holy Spirit to come and make it alive to you, to breathe on the words, and to, as it were, interpret them to you.

And so, we have laid the ground for what may now seem like a slightly hardened polemical against this certain hermeneutic principle (and it could seem, against those who adhere to it).

On the basis of the statement above, namely that we are to take the Bible on its word, that it means what it says, that what the Bible says goes – I would be likely to come to certain doctrinal conclusions which the reader may be familiar with: 24-hour 6 day creationism, a literal 7-year tribulation, and the everlasting, conscious torment of those lost to hell. All of these doctrines have, it can be without doubt, been approached using the hermeneutic method of taking statements found in the Bible ‘literally’ – at face value.

A couple of the reasons I think that people like to adhere to this kind of reading of Scripture are:
a) it is simple, ie. there are no complications that would arise out of a reading of a verse. Regardless of the natural offense that my inner witness would have about the injustice of eternal, torturous suffering as the cost of seventy years of sin, I must believe that sinners suffer eternally in hell because of the verses which speak of eternal fire, smoke, darkness, punishment and judgment.
b) This view is not subject to the potential problem of human error in interpretation. This appears helpful on the surface because if you simply ought to believe what the Bible says then you are not in danger of putting your own swing on it and bending the meaning of Scripture to your own will and desires. However it can be subtly destructive and become an unnecessary offense among brethren as one who might question the meaning of ‘eternal judgment’ (perhaps – consider – as opposed to eternal judgING?) would be haughtily reproved and challenged that they should have any desire to find a different (or actual) meaning to Jesus’ words, as there is surely no other principle than that we take it as it is. Now, there will always be whacks who want to bend Scripture to their own will and desires, but this principle throws out the baby with the bath water. Jesus interpreted Scripture (Luke 24:27,45). Peter recommended that we do the same, by the Holy Spirit. Many others are recorded as having ‘explained Scripture’ (eg. Neh 8:7-8; Acts 8: 30-35), and so hopefully by the end of this article, we shall have (if we do not already) the same desire to ‘accurately handle the word of truth’ (2 Tim 2:15).

Now my examples (6-day creationism, elements of eschatology, eternal conscious torment) have obviously shown (what I feel are) the extremes that are reached by using this principle in interpretation. If we step back for a general survey of Scripture I’m sure there would be occasions when it would be logical to simply take what it says as its means and unnecessary or even unwholesome to obscure the text with a different meaning. I believe that Jesus really did die on a cross, as the four Gospels witness, as well as many of the epistles. There is no need for me to (initially) believe that the accounts of Him dying are in any way existential, fictional, poetical or otherwise that would extract them from an account of a literal event which, as it happens, changed world history. I then may come to meditate on WHY He died on the cross, who it was who died and how it related to His claims to be God, what He Himself said about His death, what it meant in light of Jewish history with its sacrificial system etc. That will lead me into meaning, but the immediate narrative makes perfect sense: He died on the cross.

Or some of the promises that we know and love. Take them as they are. If God is for us, who can be against us? Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Straightforward statements such as these from the end of Romans 8 encourage Christians the world over daily. They are easy to understand and mean what they say, clearly.

But in many cases we should and sometimes are required to interpret what is said. Take Jesus Himself. His parables were not understood without explanation and/or revelation, and yet it says that when He spoke in parables He was speaking the WORD [Gr. logos, often used to describe Scriptures] to them (Mark 4:33-34).

We even find occasions in the Gospels where it records that His disciples tried to take Him literally about something and He was trying to speak figuratively. On one such occasion He began speaking about what He called the ‘leaven’ of the Pharisees and Herod, and they began to talk about the fact that they hadn’t brought any bread with them! He sighed and tried to explain that He wasn’t referring to real bread. Therefore ‘leaven’ in this context was MEANT to mean something else.

Similarly in John chapter 11 He speaks of His friend Lazarus sleeping, and it becomes evident that He is trying to infer something by His use of the word ‘sleep’, but when His disciples don’t get it, He has to tell them plainly: “Lazarus is dead.” He didn’t particularly like being taken literally.

You see, we have a problem (forgiveable, but still a problem) when New World American civilisation which has tended to come to view the world rather black-and-white, takes with it across the seas a book written almost exclusively by Jews thousands of years before, a people who were very much more prone to the poetic, the symbolic, and the imagery. Everything about their books cries out that there is meaning and depth to what is described on the surface, and this comes to be no more fully true than when a Man, Jesus Christ, arrives on the scene and unveils a whole new layer, by saying that all the Scriptures testify of Him (John 5:39).

The question we are left with then is, well how do we know what to interpret, and what not to? Surely if we are requiring interpretation of the Scriptures, we are making the job harder for people. I have heard people say, you should just be able to take the Bible as it is, and if some teacher or other comes along saying they want to explain it, that you should be wary of it because they’re trying to have their own way. All the Bible, apparently, should be instantly understandable.

I don’t know why, but this just doesn’t hold up. As we have seen, Jesus Himself, as well as others, explained Scripture. I can understand the worry, but let us not allow fear of the false to keep us from the true. Let us not throw out the baby with the bath water. After all it is true, much of what Jesus said can be understood even by children, which is why He and His message are so wonderful. You get the impression from what He said that it was the children who understood before many of the religious leaders of the day, and that it is those who are like children in this sense, who would be inheritors of the kingdom. But if He indeed spoke in parables and then had to explain them, or if He indeed did not particularly enjoy being taken literally, or if we simply acknowledge how openly pictorial and symbolic so much of Scripture is – I would say we have some work to do. And we do that work, as I have explained above, by the Holy Spirit, the One who inspired the words in the first place.

How does this affect some of our doctrines? One little bone to pick as an example of our less-literalistic reading, on the issue of eternal conscious torment. This is the doctrine of hell which says that those consigned there suffer forever, eternally, without end, and their excruciating torment is experienced consciously, and without relief.

One of the Scriptures commonly referred to, to justify this belief, is found in Mark 9:43-48, where three times it describes, not hell, but literally ‘Gehenna’, as being the place where the sinful are consigned, and where according to the description, “their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched.” I have been told that it would be foolish to take any other reading of this verse than to mean that they suffer eternally. The idea is that those who are in hell are perpetually being eaten by worms and being burned by fire, and I have read in a book that when some flesh is consumed by said worm or fire, it grows back again ready to be consumed once more.

Points I would have to make are:

a) already proponents would have had to have done some interpreting beyond taking it literally as it says it, because ‘Gehenna’ to the Jewish listener would have meant, ‘rubbish tip outside Jerusalem,’ where a constant fire was maintained to incinerate the trash. So if we are to believe this is an inference of hell, we are already interpreting. First clue that Jesus is speaking symbolically.
b) Second clue. Jesus is using definite hyperbole. If you read the passage, He instructs disciples to cut off their hand if it causes them to sin, yet not once do you ever read about any of His followers taking such a drastic action – or with their foot or eye, for that matter. Why, in an immediate context of hyperbole, would He suddenly interpolate a description of hell He intended to be taken literally? It would confuse the listener and reader.
c) Jesus is clearly and directly quoting from the last verse of Isaiah (66:24). There too, the words are intended to describe the absolute and inescapable finality of the transgressors, whose CORPSES (NB dead bodies, not alive ones) will inevitably be consumed by the worm and the fire.

There are further objections to be raised against the doctrine as a whole, on the level of Scripture, philosophy, morality and justice, etc. I hope an article dealing with this particular issue will be online soon!

But as for the matter of literal interpretation of Scripture I hope my points have been clear. I believe it is too simplistic in its approach to the Bible and has led to some obscure and damaging doctrines which unfortunately have been too widely assumed. It is time for us to redress the balance, to be diligent to present ourselves to God as workmen who do not need to be ashamed, because we’re accurately handling the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15).

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