Taking the Bible “Literally”

Plumb LineHave you ever had a conversation with someone who is skeptical about the Bible, and one of the first questions they may ask you is, “Do you take the Bible literally?

Many Christians, upon hearing the question, instinctively go on the defensive and say, “Yes, I do take the Bible literally.” After all, if the Bible is under attack, a believer will want to stand up and say that they take God at His Word. But then you can almost envision the annoyed look on the skeptic’s face when they respond with something like, “Well then, do you hate your family? After all, did not Jesus say that unless you hate your father, mother, wife, children, brothers and sisters, then you can not be a follower of Jesus?” This classic objection from Luke 14:26 often puts the believer back on the defensive again, trying to come up with some way to get around the idea of taking the Bible “literally” without compromising one’s faith.

I can almost see the skeptic stiffen up and say, “Mmmm… I see.. so you don’t really take the Bible literally. So why should I?

When I am asked that first question from a skeptic, I never give a flat response. Instead, I in turn ask a different question, “Well, what do you ‘literally’ mean by ‘literally‘?”

“Literally” Interpreting the Bible “Literally?”

That’s a good question: What do people literally mean when they talk about taking anything literally, including the Bible?

The problem with the concept of taking something literally is that it can be very confusing. The Free Dictionary conveys the usage difficulty rather well. Technically, to understand something literally is to understand it “word for word” or in a very “strict” sense, but this is not always the case. Sometimes, literally is simply used as a modifier to add intensity or emphasis, particularly to figurative language. For example, to literally “understand” something (note the added emphasis) could be literally “stretched” (speaking figuratively) to mean something else! So then, how does one establish the “literal” meaning of anything?

The interpretation of the Bible, as with anything else, is all about context. It is about the context of grammar in a sentence. It is about the immediate context of how a word or words are being used by a speaker or writer. It is about the intended meaning of the author. Sometimes the immediate, or narrow context, is sufficient to understanding something, while at other times it is not. Sometimes an appeal to a wider context is required: the cultural background of the speaker or writer, the type of literature genre or speaking style involved, a consideration of other similar statements made by the speaker or writer, and the history of how words are used.  In other words, context plays a huge role in understanding something literally, and often the problem is that the context is not always well understood or well defined.

As Asbury Seminary and New Testament scholar Ben Witherington likes to say, “a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.” Stick that upon your refrigerator the next time someone tries to tell you what “something in the Bible says” without giving enough attention to context!

If you are not convinced by this, consider this example from contemporary English: Twenty years ago, if I were say something like, “Go google something,” nobody would have had any idea what I was talking about. The word google would be utter nonsense since the word did not even exist. Therefore, since no context even existed for the word, its literal meaning could not be determined twenty years ago. However, if you are reading this blog post, chances are you know exactly what the meaning of google is today. But it is difficult to determine the literal meaning based on the narrow scope of the word since the term google was merely invented by the company’s founders, when Larry Page and Sergey Brin registered the Internet name in 1997. In the wider, cultural context of the Internet, the Google company possesses the world’s most popular computer search engine. Therefore, to “go google something” means to “go search for something on the Internet.” That is about as close as you can get to the “literal” meaning of google in common conversation today. It is the context of the word, depending on its narrow, or when necessary, its wider context that determines the literal meaning of a word.

In the case of Luke 14:26, the context is pretty straight forward. Jesus is not endorsing the idea of hating your family in the technically narrow “literal” sense of utterly despising them. Rather, Jesus is seeking to compare the affections of someone for their family versus their affections for following Jesus as their Lord. Jesus understood the wider historical, cultural context of his first-century, Palestinian listeners who valued family relationships extremely highly, but he wanted to push his original hearers, just as He wants to push us today. Relatively speaking, our love for Jesus needs to be so deep, so uncompromising, and so committed that it makes our affections towards our family members seem like “hate” in comparison. In that same Gospel in Luke 10:27, Jesus speaks of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self, which would include family members. So it would be completely missing the context of Luke’s Gospel to conclude that we should literally “hate” our family members if we are Christians. Appealing to such a narrow context of the simple meaning of the word “hate” is insufficient to establish the meaning intended by Jesus or Luke the Gospel writer. Instead, what Jesus literally has in mind grammatically is a type of hyperbole, using a intensifying word, like “hate,” in order to draw a strong contrast between being “sold out” for Jesus versus putting our love for our family ahead of our love for God.

A confidence in the clear authority of the Bible is necessary for  establishing a “plumb line” for our faith. For the most part, I find that is what some Christians are trying to get at when they insist on “the literal interpretation of the Bible,” so I agree with what they are aiming at. Otherwise, reading our own ideas and thoughts into the text is like fudging around with that “plumb line” so that truth becomes a moving target, and this is not God’s purpose for us when we are studying His Word.

God’s Word is True.

But I believe we only muddy the waters when we insist on “taking the Bible literally” as a defense for the Bible, without clarifying what we mean by the concept of “literally.” Furthermore, Christians among themselves have difficulties in agreeing upon the appropriate context for interpreting some passages in God’s Word. Inevitably, you will find different Christians making an appeal in their disagreements about “taking the Bible literally.” Some Christians will even add emphasis to their belief by saying that they are the ones literally “taking the Bible literally,” while others are not! It is as though one side will inevitably say, “Because I am literally taking the Bible literally, I am taking it more seriously than you do.

In contrast, a true God-honoring humility requires us to distinguish between the Bible itself and our interpretations of the Bible. Without such humility, we will be prone to miscommunicate with one another and misunderstand each other’s perspective on how we approach the Bible.

I am convinced that “taking the Bible literally” is often used as a blunt intellectual weapon against other believers(!!!) who do hold to a high view of Scripture but who do not share a particular interpretation of the Bible. When this happens, well-meaning Christians are not really defending the infallible authority of the Bible as the “plumb line” for the faith, and instead they are merely defending their own interpretation of the Bible, which could indeed be fallible.

For example, Christians have all sorts of ways of “taking the Bible literally” when it comes to how long God took to create the world, such as does the word “day” in Genesis 1 literally mean a 24-hour period or some other possibly much longer length of time, to how God will bring an end to this world, such as whether the millennium is literally a thousand years or whether the Scriptural author literally has some type of metaphorical understanding in mind, etc. It is as though the concept of “literally” sometimes can be literally stretched to mean a lot of different things. This type of abuse of “literally” only creates confusion within the church, and in turn it may provide more ammunition for the skeptic in maintaining their distrust of the Bible. My solution is that we should probably stop talking about “taking the Bible literally,” unless we can carefully define what that means, and instead we should focus on how we approach interpreting the Bible within its appropriate context.

Context is king.

Just remember that.

Additional Resources:

Justin Taylor at the Gospel Coalition has a blog post that really gets to the heart of why we have such a problem in the church with “taking the Bible literally,” drawing from the work of Westminster Seminary’s Vern Poythress on the so-called “literal interpretation of the Bible.” Taylor suggests that perhaps we need to have a moratorium on the confusing use of the word literally.  I, for one, completely agree with him.

Literally 🙂

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

4 responses to “Taking the Bible “Literally”

  • dwwork

    Clark, a great post, I mean that literally :). Too often we take God’s word out of context and then people have justified almost every deed as God sanctioned. Context is essential to understanding the Bible., David

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  • dwwork

    Reblogged this on Reasons For The Hope Blog and commented:
    Literally a great post on taking the Bible literally. Davd

    Like

  • myatheistlife

    So, the entire book is up for interpretation, literally. Since it requires interpretation to understand, whose interpretation should I believe? Once it is up for interpretation everything becomes opinion and yours is no better than anyone else’s. It does not matter what authority the interpreter claims, they cannot know the mind of a god and so their interpretation is nothing more than informed opinion, subject to being wrong.

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    • Clarke Morledge

      Thank you for stopping by Veracity with your comment. However, I am not sure if you are making a serious argument or merely venting.

      If you are saying that the interpretation of any speech, literature, and thus including the Bible, and even your blog comment, is vulnerable to being misinterpreted, then yes, I would agree. This is why understanding context is essential. There is no “interpretation-less” text. But are you then suggesting the opposite that the interpretation of any text is merely in the mind of the reader? There can be no objective meaning that an examination of contextual evidence can ever discover? If so, does this not render any effective communication as being incomprehensible, including your blog comment? Or are you suggesting that the Bible is in some “special” category, that makes it different from anything else?

      I would hope to dialogue with you a bit, but if I am to seriously treat your argument, this might be problematic. So, I will go with a bit of tongue-in-cheek for now.

      Whose interpretation of your comment should I believe? After all, it requires interpretation to understand the comment you posted. Once your comment is up for interpretation, everything becomes opinion and my opinion of what you are saying is no better than anyone else’s. No matter what authority I claim, as a reader of your comment, I cannot know your mind so my interpretation is nothing more than an informed opinion, subject to being wrong.

      In other words, because it is not clear to me what you are “literally” saying, I guess I have no way of knowing for sure what you are saying, right? 😉

      Like

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