What are we claiming when we say that we interpret the Bible literally?
Bill Maher, no fan of evangelicals, has said that the Bible was “written in parables. It’s the idiots today who take it literally.”
Come on now, Bill. That’s not what we mean by “literal.”
As always, definitions matter. So let’s define what we mean by a “literal” interpretation of the Bible. “Literal” does not mean that we ignore the obvious. For example, if we come across a figure of speech – or any other figurative language or non-literal genre – we interpret accordingly. As a matter of fact, we search for those markers so that we can do the best possible job of interpretation. This is God’s Word that we’re studying, after all! And the Bible is filled with all kinds of literary styles. Not just parables, but psalms and proverbs and poetry and historical narratives and didactic letters and apocalyptic revelations and all kinds of other delectable delights. Just like the best food, the Bible is rich, rich, rich!
Since the days of the Protestant Reformation, the “literal” sense of Scripture has everything to do with interpreting according to the original writer’s intention. (I mentioned this briefly last week.) In his introduction to his commentary on Romans, written in 1539, John Calvin put it like this: “The chief excellency of an expounder consists in lucid brevity. And, indeed, since it is almost his only work to lay open the mind of the writer whom he undertakes to explain, the degree in which he leads away his readers from it, in that degree he goes astray from his purpose, and in a manner wanders from his own boundaries.”
Friends, this really matters. We better get this right. You and I must submit to God’s powerful use of language – and praise Him for it – as we never want to eclipse or overrule God’s truth by our own ignorance and pride.
Hank Hanegraaff comments: “If Genesis were reduced to an allegory conveying merely abstract ideas about temptation, sin, and redemption devoid of any correlation with actual events in history, the very foundation of Christianity would be destroyed. If the historical Adam and Eve did not eat the forbidden fruit and descend into a life of habitual sin resulting in death, there is no need for redemption. On the other hand, if we consider Satan to be a slithering snake, we would not only misunderstand the nature of fallen angels but we might also suppose that Jesus triumphed over the work of the devil by stepping on the head of a serpent (Genesis 3:15) rather than through his passion on the cross (Colossians 2:15).”
So, you see, the literal interpreter of Scripture does not search for hidden meanings in the Bible. Rather, he or she looks for the obvious and plain sense of the text. The literal interpreter does not seek to read “in between the lines.” Rather, he or she reads the sacred text in order to determine its plain and simple meaning – in light of the normal meaning of the words, the context, and the commonly accepted rules of grammar. As someone has said: “When the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense, lest it result in nonsense.”
And that makes sense. (I mean that literally.)