A few weeks ago I posted a blog presenting the three main Christian views on hell. One of the things I found interesting in the responses to the blog was the repeated theme of taking the Bible literally. Comments were made such as:
“Jesus makes it pretty clear in Luke 16:27–30 that we all have sufficient warning about the reality of hell.”
“Is it possible that the traditional view is correct even when we don’t like or understand it fully, or do we put our personal views ahead of the literal words of the Bible?”
“Do you really believe that the Bible is the literal and authoritative word of God and that He is trustworthy outside of our understanding?”
“The end result of constantly watered down and a less literal view of scripture is a church that looks very different to the early church in Acts.”
“I implore leaders to keep the Bible literal and simplistic.”
And the all-time doozy, “The Bible clearly teaches that …”
Now I want to state upfront that I believe the entire Bible to be the inspired Word of God. But that does not mean everything in the Bible is to be taken literally and it certainly doesn’t mean that everything in it is clearly taught (2 Peter 3:16). If the entire Bible was clear there wouldn’t be lots of different views on lots of different topics, and there wouldn’t have been heated discussions, debates and councils over the centuries in order to work through doctrinal issues.
So, should the Bible be taken literally? Well yes, some of it clearly should be (love the Lord your God, love your neighbour as yourself, love your enemies – they are literal statements) but other parts of the Bible do not favour a literal understanding.
When you’re reading and studying the Bible one of the first things you need to ask yourself is, “what type of literature am I reading?” The Bible is full of various kinds of language. There’s poetry, history, promises, commands, stories, songs, rhetoric, logic, proverbs, history, hyperbole, wisdom, irony, parables, figures of speech, apocalyptic and metaphorical language. So, when you’re reading Scripture ask yourself, how should this be understood – literally, figuratively or in some other way?
For example, poetry affirms truth in a different way to history. When you’re reading Psalms you’re reading Hebrew poetry that was at one time set to music and sung as songs. Even today songs and poems use a literary device called poetic license and it defined as “The liberty taken by an artist or a writer in deviating from conventional form or fact to achieve a desired effect” (Free Dictionary). The Psalms are full of this kind of non-literal writing. Consider Psalm 139 in which David sings of how God “created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Two verses later he sings, “My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.” It’s obvious that a literal reading is not warranted. God doesn’t knit babies in wombs or weave them together underground. If this is taken literally then these verses contradict each other. Where exactly does God do His knitting or weaving?
Also in the poetry books are Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. Proverbs are not promises; they are wise sayings that are generally true. Consider Proverbs 12:11 as an example: “Those who work their land will have abundant food, but those who chase fantasies have no sense.” This proverb is contrasting a good work ethic with people who pursue fanciful hopes. The general truth is that hard work reaps good rewards, and so the proverb is generally true, but there are plenty of people – including farmers – who have worked hard but also been hit hard by adverse circumstances beyond their control – famine, drought, financial downturns and so on. For them, at times, the proverb is not true.
The story of Job (that Lord Tennyson called, “the greatest poem of ancient and modern times”) is Hebrew poetry that is set out as a play. It may be a story about real peoples, but it could just as easily be a drama with fictitious characters that communicate powerful truths – our attitude towards unavoidable suffering; the question of human tragedy, why the righteous suffer and, ultimately, the true success that comes by fleeing evil and trusting God. There are many statements in Job that are not true and shouldn’t be taken literally. God Himself does a lot of correcting at the end of the drama.
Ecclesiastes was written by King Solomon in his old age and gives an account of the part of his life when he tried to find meaning in life separate from God. There are statements in this book of poetry that are just plain wrong and should not be quoted as truth. Consider Ecclesiastes 7:16-17, “Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise—why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool—why die before your time?” The wise reader of the Bible will realise why Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes and understand it as a result – that all of life is absurd without a relationship with God, “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” The wise reader will also not isolate verses in Ecclesiastes and take them literally.
The length of a blog doesn’t allow me to fully explore this subject but consider the following obviously non-literal statements from Jesus: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life … If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away … If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.” The apostle Paul confessed to robbing churches (2 Corinthians 11:8), there’s a seven-headed, ten-horned beast coming out of the sea (Revelation 13:1) – this is the same beast that is cast into a lake of fire (Revelation 19:20), and Jesus rides a white horse through heaven to destroy his enemies while wearing many crowns on His head (Revelation 19:11-16). Joshua commands the sun to stand still – even though the sun doesn’t move and, if the earth stopped rotating the planet would be destroyed (Joshua 10).
It appears to me that literalists want to take the Bible literally when it literally suits them! Consider Jesus’ command in John 13:14-15, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” And how about Luke 14:33, “In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” There’s not much wiggle room there but I don’t find literalists taking either of these commands from Jesus literally. Why not?
In conclusion, when reading the Bible ask yourself what sort of language you’re reading and prayerfully consider what truth is being conveyed. What did the author want to communicate to the original recipients? What principles applied to them? How do those principles apply to us today? How does what I’m reading apply to the here and now – to me personally, to the community of faith I belong to and, through us to the world at large? How does this truth bring about “Your kingdom come”?
We need a literate view rather than a literal view of the Bible except where the literal sense makes the most sense.
Counterpoint: Five Views On Biblical Inerrancy (Zondervan)
New Testament Chronological Devotions
Old Testament 101 series