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Photo Courtesy of Craig L. Adams
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Illustration Courtesy of John Meunier
Origen advocated that the Bible be read only symbolically or metaphorically for its spiritual meaning.
I keep hoping people will stop using the word “literal” to describe the Bible — as in: “take the Bible literally” “literal interpretation of the Bible” and so forth. The reason I keep hoping for this is the fact that the term is over-used, wrongly used, and abused.
What does it mean to take the Bible “literally”?
What does the word “literal” mean? It seems to be used rather loosely. I understand it to be the opposite of words like “symbolic” “figurative,” or “allegorical.” To take a thing literally is to take it at face value.
It’s not that difficult a concept. Yet, the way the word is used would make you think otherwise.
I was reminded of this problem by a couple of posts I saw recently on the Internet. This one by Roger Wolsey illustrates the problem I’m talking about: 16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible. Throughout this post, I am unclear what Wolsey means by “literally.” He says, for example, “All Christians pick and choose which portions of the Bible [they take] literally, progressive Christians simply admit this and share how we discern.” I don’t think he is using the term “literally” correctly. He seems to be saying something along these lines: ‘All Christians pick and choose which portions of the Bible [they take] to have teaching authority in the Church, progressive Christians simply admit this and share how we discern.” But, if that is what he means to say, why doesn’t he say that? It seems to me that Wolsey is confused and thinks that conservative Christians commonly think the Bible was dictated by God — whereas such a view is simply a naive view, held by some who don’t understand the Bible very well. But, when Wolsey says: “We take the Bible too seriously, to read it all literally” I think he’s once again confused. He takes the Bible so seriously he doesn’t take it for what it means to say? No, I think he means that many parts of the Bible do not have teaching authority or relevance for him. Or: some parts of the Bible are inspired and some aren’t and its up to him to decide which — I don’t know. But, I do think he is using the word “literal” incorrectly.
Then, I ran across another post by a blogger who does understand what the word “literally” means. Over at The Unlikely Theologian, Lawrence Garcia writes: Stop Using “Literalist” for Genesis 1 Creationists: No Seriously, Stop It. Larry does understand what the word “literal” is supposed to mean in relation to Biblical interpretation. His point is this: the literal interpretation of the Bible is the interpretation that takes the Bible for what it actually means to say (taken in its own historical and literary context). Since it appears that Genesis chapter 1 was intended as a symbolic-functional account of the origins of the universe, taking it as a concrete description of the material origins of the universe is not to take it “literally” — it is to completely misread it.
Again, what does the word “literal” mean? It is the opposite of words like “symbolic” “figurative,” or “allegorical.” To take a thing literally is to take it at face value. As Lawrence Garcia quotes N. T. Wright: “the “literal” sense actually means “the sense of the letter”; and if the “letter”—the actual words used by the original authors or editors—is metaphorical, so be it.”
This is the sense in which the word “literal” has been used in the history of Biblical interpretation.
Historically, not everyone has taken the Bible at face value. In fact, Origen, long ago, suggested that the Bible’s texts should not be taken at face value. Their literal meaning was not their spiritual meaning. He suggested the method of allegorical interpretation. Every text, he argued, had a figurative and symbolic level of meaning, as well as its literal and historical meaning. For the life of faith, he felt that the figurative meaning was what was most significant.
To a large extent, the Church has rejected this approach. All of our advances in understanding the scriptures since the time of Origen have been the result of the rejection of this allegorical method.
Particularly in Protestantism, it has been argued that the important level of meaning in the scriptures is the literal and historical level of meaning. This is seen in Martin Luther’s doctrine of the clarity of scripture. Luther argued against the idea of various levels of meaning. He said, instead, that the meaning of a scripture text is its plain sense, when interpreted according to sound principles. In a similar way, John Wesley frequently spoke of the “plain sense” of scripture.
However, it is precisely this insistence on literal and historical understanding that led to the historical-critical approach to the Bible. Wolfhart Pannenburg states this rather well in one of his early essays:
“For what is today called historical-critical exegesis is, according to its goal, simply the endeavor to understand the biblical writings — the intention and content of their statements — out of themselves. The doctrine of the clarity of scripture necessarily led to the demand that each theological statement should be based on the historical-critical exposition of scripture.” — Basic Questions in Theology (Volume 1).
Historical-critical study has led to questioning whether Scripture is a “literal” history. But, this is healthy questioning. It is still the result of the attempt to understand the Scriptures for what they actually are — in their form and content. If a person takes a TV “docudrama” as actual history is one being literal or just confused? If a person takes stories which have been repeated and recorded as the basis for faith and life-values to be only pious fabrications — is one being openly critical or dangerously biased? The Bible should be taken seriously, and respected for what it is. But, the Bible should not be taken for something it is not.
The scriptures ought to be interpreted according to their original intent and their actual form. To understand them otherwise is to proceed from mistaken assumptions. Should such an approach be dignified with the word “literal”? Literal meaning should not be seen as something other than the actual historical meaning.
It is the person who understands the Bible historically who is taking it literally. Someone who takes a symbolic passage of the Bible as a concrete description is simply confused.
It is precisely the critical scholar who takes the Bible literally. Rather than seeking to make everything in the Bible conform to some preconceived idea of its nature and inspiration, the critical method seeks to understand. At best, the critical approach is an attempt to inductively discover the nature and meaning of the scriptures from themselves and their own history; rather than imposing on the scriptures an a priori theology.
It seems odd to me that anyone would think that the literal meaning of the scriptures is something other than its historical-critical meaning. The alternatives have been misconstrued.
• to take the Bible literally should mean to take it at face value;
• to take the Bible literally should mean to take it figuratively and symbolically when it seeks to communicate in that way;
• to take the Bible literally means to take it for what it claims to be (and no more than that!);
• to take the Bible literally should mean to take an historical and critical approach to the task of interpretation.
If this is what we mean by taking the Bible “literally” then I’m glad to say I do.
I think this is also what John Wesley meant by “literal.”
“But it is a stated rule in interpreting Scripture, never to depart from the plain, literal sense, unless it implies an absurdity.” — Sermon 74. “Of the Church”.
If “literal” means taking the Bible as dictated by God then I certainly do not take it that way. The Bible doesn’t make this claim for itself anyway. Human beings wrote under the inspiration of God.
It is time for the theological disciplines of the scholars to be related to the vital tasks of the proclamation, defense and explanation of the Christian faith. It is time for words like “faithful,” “orthodox,” and “evangelical” to take their places beside words like “critical,” “modern,” and “liberal.” The false dilemmas of the past will leave us still paralyzed in the face of a world that needs to hear anew the claims of Jesus Christ.
Craig L. Adams is a retired United Methodist pastor in Michigan. He blogs at Commonplace Holiness.