One of the biggest debates among Christians is how to interpret the Bible. Liberals accuse conservatives of taking the Bible too literally. Conservatives accuse liberals of not taking the Bible seriously enough, often by declaring controversial sections to be figurative. That seems to be a handy way to avoid passages that teach what you don’t want to believe.
But even conservative Christians divide over the issue of literal verses figurative. For example, Dispensationalists often accuse the Reformed of spiritualizing certain sections of Scripture, and the Reformed frequently fault Dispensationalists for their “wooden literalism” by awkwardly forcing literal interpretations upon passages that are intended to be figurative.
Dispensationalists charge the Reformed with “Replacement Theology,” which means interpreting Old Testament prophecies made to Israel as fulfilled in the New Testament Church, and the Reformed return the favor by charging Dispensationalists with interpretive myopia; focusing too narrowly upon the immediate context, and failing to see the forest for the trees.
Nobody takes it all literally.
The plain truth is, nobody takes the entire Bible literally. The liberal taunt, that fundamentalists take the whole Bible literally is just not true. Entire sections of Scripture are clearly written in figuratively language, and it is impossible for anyone to take it all literally. It cannot be done, and I don’t know anyone who tries. The big question is not are some parts of the Bible figurative, but rather which parts are figurative and which are literal, and how do we decide?
The big word for this issue is “hermeneutics,” which is shorthand for “rules of interpretation.” It would be nice if God had written a Forward to the Bible in which He issued rules of interpretation, but He didn’t. There is no heaven-sent list of interpretational guidelines, which means we have to work them out for ourselves, deriving them from our study of Scripture. Principles of interpretation can be inferred from Scripture, but the Bible nowhere spells them out. Dispensationalists, who favor a more literal approach, usually emphasize a rule that states in essence, “Literal whenever possible.” Accordingly, every passage should be understood in the most literal manner possible. Only when a literal interpretation appears impossible should a figurative interpretation be considered.
At first glance, that sounds reasonable, perhaps even unquestionable. But with additional consideration, it requires some thoughtful development. Who decides what is possible? Isn’t that largely subjective? What seems possible to one may seem impossible to another. The subjective element is why there are a wide variety of interpretations of books such as Revelation, even among Dispensationalists who are all attempting to faithfully apply this rule. Something that clearly looks symbolic to one is often deemed literal by another. There is also the question of how New Testament writers understand Old Testament passages. Sections from the OT that seem literal enough within their immediate context, appear to be understood figuratively by NT writers who do not seem to be employing the literal-whenever-possible rule.
A simple example
What did Paul mean by the word “rod” when he said, “What do you want? Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Corinthians 4:21) Was Paul literally threatening the Corinthians with corporal punishment? Most would say no, but why not? Applying the literal-whenever-possible rule, shouldn’t we conclude that’s what he meant? Is it impossible for him to intend a literal rod? If we read something like that in the Quran, would we assume that “rod” could not be understood literally? Or would we instead probably conclude that this constitutes a genuine threat to beat somebody black and blue?
Context shapes our interpretive conclusions. Most Bible students agree that Paul did not intend to use a literal rod, but again, why not? Is it not because that seems out of character with what we know about Paul? Taking the bigger picture we conclude that the statement is symbolic, that Paul uses “rod” to mean harsh demeanor and verbal chastisement. In many ways, this seems like common sense, but common sense can be quite subjective. In the “rod” text, what we have done is employ another rule of interpretation called “the analogy of Scripture,” which says that you interpret each individual passage in light of the whole. That’s easier said than done, but this is an important principle too. If the Bible is God’s Word, it cannot contradict itself, so every individual statement must harmonize with the entire Bible.
Because of everything we know about Paul, we conclude that he did not mean a literal rod. The text considered in isolation could be understood literally, but the life and words of Paul, taken as a whole, preclude our understanding “rod” literally as a wooden instrument of corporal punishment.
A unifying principle
It would be helpful if competing schools of interpretation would keep the “rod” example in mind. Instead of concluding that our brethren are compromisers who are bending Scripture to fit their theological pigeonholes, perhaps we should consider that their understanding of the analogy of Scripture forces them to take figuratively what others take literally. Yes, that particular statement, considered by itself, looks like it could be interpreted literally. But considered in light of the whole Bible, literal just doesn’t seem possible.
I think it would be accurate to say that nearly every conservative Bible student agrees with the rule, “literal whenever possible.” But another rule, the “analogy of Scripture” limits what is possible in some situations. Literal-whenever-possible is an important rule, and necessary to avoid the kind of allegorical nonsense that turns every Bible verse into an imaginative fancy that bears no resemblance to the intended meaning of the author.
But literal-whenever-possible does not always yield the same result in every situation. The analogy of Scripture means that equally serious and spiritually minded students may draw different conclusions about what is possible. What seems possible to someone who works within a particular framework of information, seems entirely impossible to another who is focusing upon a different field of information. Instead of accusing our brethren of being devious or unfaithful, perhaps it would help to try to understand why someone does not believe a particular passage should be understood in its most literal sense. We may never agree completely, but a charitable respect for one another would surely manifest Christian love.
(Written originally ten years ago. Revised and submitted to Sharper Iron, December, 2019)
G. N. Barkman received his BA and MA from BJU and later founded Beacon Baptist Church in Burlington, NC where has pastored since 1973. In addition, Pastor Barkman airs the Beacon Broadcast on twenty radio stations. He and his wife, Marti, have been blessed with four daughters and nine grandchildren.