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Taking the Bible literally or how

Published 10:24am Monday, December 10, 2012

A reader raised a valid concern about my having asserted that to understand the Bible, one needs to take the entire Bible into account — take the Bible as the Bible (Oct 16).

He asks, “How much of the Bible should we take literally?” I answer that we use the same hermeneutical principles we do (however unconsciously) in reading this newspaper. We take literally what is written to be taken literally, and we read figuratively what is written in figures of speech.

We read news accounts as factual and objective, because they are meant to be factual and objective. In contrast we read the comics as cartoons of truth but not literally true. Good poetry is layered so that more is communicated than what is made explicit.

We take letters-to-the-editor as the personal opinion of their writers without any necessary knowledge or competence to write on the subject. How literally are we to take what this letter says? Well, it depends upon whether the writer knows what he’s talking about. Let’s see.

From the Bible, we take “In the year that King Uzziah died…” as literal, because the prophet Isaiah meant to date his vision according to official chronology. When he goes on to say, “I saw Yahweh sitting upon a throne,” we accept his report of the vision he indicates it to be. When he later says, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low,” it is utterly unreasonable to presume he is talking about topographical variations or seismic disruptions. We recognize this because he had identified his subject as “the way of Yahweh” to bring peace. This is a poetic description. We further recognize this, because the English text is laid out in meter.

So far as the historical narratives in the Old Testament, we take the basic and general data as being historically accurate. Some scholars, trying very hard to fault the Bible’s accuracy on some point, have referred to the lack of corroborate from external sources to mean the Bible is in error. Time after time, however, newly discovered data (often from archaeological excavation of previously lost sources) have indisputably confirmed the historical accuracy of the Bible’s account. Nonetheless, sound historiography recognizes the Old Testament prophets recorded historical events with less interest in how than in who.

On the other hand, when Luke took in hand to write the history of Christianity (Luke-Acts), the account is remarkably accurate even from the perspective of empirical historiography.

Some proverbs directly contradict themselves when taken literally. But we have come to understand them as a literary genre that often gives general description of probability without giving specific stipulation of any promise. They are true is various ways, depending upon varying conditions, occasions and contexts.

None of this, mind you, is to assert that every passage in the Bible is either clearly to be taken either literally or figuratively. Many have been argued over for centuries by people who know the Bible well. It is to say, however, that those portions of most importance are clear to those willing to read them critically and to respond to them appropriately.

Finally, I did not write (except now for the sake of argument) — because I am careful not to — we should take the Bible literally or even that there are portions of the Bible we must take literally. This term has been so misunderstood and misused, it retains little value for biblical interpretation. What I have said here is that we must take the Bible as having been written forthrightly. What is “literal” (direct fact) can be recognized, as can what is meant figuratively.

The Bible was not written to be tricky or even difficult, but to be understood and obeyed.

The heading given to this letter was “Bible not cut and dry.” (The correct expression is “cut and dried”; This, of course, is the work of the editors.) The letter writer did not say this, but by his subjective selectivity he proves my point.

When the letter writer tears isolated statements out of their historical and literary contexts, he makes the Bible sound as if it teaches something the Bible actually teaches against. One will not understand the Bible until one has read the (whole) Bible and reads it the way it was meant to be read.

The Bible is true, and the Bible is reliable. When understood in its entirely and put into practice as directed, it works.


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