The Christian Bible Reference Site

Should the Bible Be Interpreted Literally?

Frequently Asked Questions

Historical Background

The Middle Ages and Earlier

Throughout most of the Christian era, Bible reading and Bible interpretation were confined to religious professionals. Until the fifteenth century, the Bible was available only in Latin. Even when the Bible was translated into other languages, the scarcity and high cost of Bibles kept them out of the hands of ordinary people. Availability of Bibles was also restricted by church officials1.

During this era, the Bible was interpreted according to church beliefs and traditions. There was little or no attempt made to determine the original meanings of the Scripture. Difficult passages "were interpreted as having a figurative meaning, so that they convey, through a kind of code, deeper truths about God, the spiritual life, or the church2."

Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries

Christians have always believed the Bible is inspired by God and is authoritative on spiritual, moral and ethical matters. It wasn't until science began to develop in the 16th century that questions and arguments arose about whether the Bible is also authoritative on scientific and historical matters.

The first major conflict was between the Ancient View of the Earth, as reflected in the Bible, and the Copernican theory, which held that the earth and the other planets revolve around the sun. The astronomer Galileo, using his telescope, found evidence to support the Copernican theory and began publishing his results in 1611. Church officials were alarmed because the Copernican theory seemed to contradict the Bible, and in 1616 Pope Paul V ordered Galileo to abandon the Copernican theory3.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Darwin

By the nineteenth century, most Christians had come to accept the Copernican theory of the universe because of overwhelming scientific evidence. But a new crisis arose with the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin proposed that species of plants and animals evolved through a process of natural selection. Darwin observed that there were variations among individual plants and animals. He proposed that, in the struggle to survive, the better adapted individuals would be more likely to survive and reproduce their characteristics in succeeding generations. Thus, over many generations, species would change by a process of evolution. Further, the process was said to work automatically, seemingly leaving little room for Divine guidance or design.

Darwin's theory was seen by some Christians as a direct attack on the story of creation in the Bible book of Genesis (Genesis 1:1-31). It also spawned a number of atheistic movements both within the natural sciences and the social sciences that saw the universe as created and ruled simply by the impersonal forces of nature. "Darwinism" became associated with atheism in the minds of many Christians, and rejection of all of Darwin's theories became almost a creed for some Christians.

Higher Criticism

In the late eighteenth century, scholars began studying the Bible as literature rather than as divine revelation. New techniques of literary analysis, archaeology and linguistics were used to study the Bible. Some in this "Higher Criticism" movement asserted that the Bible stories were little more than mythology, and by the end of the nineteenth century these ideas had become quite popular4.

Fundamentalism

In 1910, in reaction to Higher Criticism and Darwinism, a group of Presbyterian theologians proposed five essential beliefs of Christianity: 1) the inerrancy of Scripture, 2) the virgin birth of Christ, 3) Christ's atonement for our sins on the cross, 4) His bodily resurrection, 5) the objective reality of His miracles. These became known as The Fundamentals. They were widely distributed and formed the basis of the Fundamentalist movement within Christianity5.

Literal Bible Interpretation

Many fundamentalists believed the Holy Spirit dictated the Bible to its human authors word-for-word. They reasoned that "inerrancy of Scripture" meant that everything in the Bible must be absolutely, literally, scientifically and historically true. Anything less would be unworthy of God. According to this view, the Bible, in all its detail, is inerrant on matters of history and science, as well as doctrine. Any apparent conflict between the Bible and another source (science, history, etc.) should be resolved in favor of the Bible because of its Divine origin.

Bible verses such as these are often quoted to support the literal view:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: (KJV, 2nd Timothy 3:16)

But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (NAS, 2nd Peter 1:20-21)

However, interpreting the entire Bible as literal divine revelation poses severe problems for serious Bible study.  Besides some apparent internal contradictions and conflicts with science and history, there is evidence within the Bible itself that it has both human and divine origins. Luke attributed his Gospel to his own research:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (NIV, Luke 1:1-4)

Paul's letters (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, etc.) were originally written as letters to churches he had founded, not as part of Scripture. They dealt not only with divine revelation but also with many mundane matters like disputes among church factions. Paul sometimes stated his own personal opinions:

To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. (NIV, 1 Corinthians 7:12)

There is also evidence within the Bible that portions of it are intended to be interpreted figuratively rather than literally (John 16:25, Galatians 4:24, Revelation 1:20, 17:18, etc.)

Modern Era

Some Christians continue to believe that the Bible should be interpreted completely, or almost completely, literally. But by the mid-twentieth century, a majority of Christians had come to a different view.

Majority View

Nearly all Christians continue to believe the Bible is inspired by God, but the mainstream view of "inspiration" is now along these lines:

God inspired the Bible's human authors to deliver His message to the world, and ensured that they delivered it faithfully. But God left it up to them to express that message in their own words and in literary styles current at the time. He did not give the Bible's authors any supernatural knowledge of future scientific discoveries. There is no conflict between the Bible and science because the Bible is a book of spiritual and moral guidance; it was never intended to be a book of science or history.

Further, most Christians accept scientific and scholarly study of the Bible as legitimate. Christianity is a religion built on truth (John 8:32, Romans 1:18, James 1:17-18) and whatever we can learn about the Bible adds to our ability to understand the truth of the Bible as it was originally intended. Restricting ourselves to a narrow ideological view, such as strict literalism, interferes with our ability to fully understand God's revelation through the Bible.

In the majority view, many of the Bible's stories are historically accurate and should be interpreted literally. But some spiritual truths are revealed through the common literary mechanisms of allegory, parable, simile, metaphor, hyperbole, and irony that were never intended to be taken literally. Such mechanisms serve to "paint a mental picture" of ideas not easily expressed in words. The Bible reveals timeless spiritual truths about God, love, salvation, faith, morals and ethics that transcend the realms of science and history. We can appreciate the beauty of a sunrise whether or not the sun literally "rises" above the earth. In the same way, we can understand and appreciate the lessons of the Bible whether or not all its stories are true in a literal sense.

Hermeneutics

The modern understanding of the Bible came about partly as a result of discoveries in the fields of astronomy, geology and biology, but also as a result of developments in hermeneutics, the science and art of Bible interpretation, which can be summed up as follows:

These four key words-- observation, interpretation, evaluation, and application-- are the heart of all approaches to finding out what the Bible means. They provide the structure of what questions you ask of the text, and when.

Interpreting the Bible correctly is a two-step process. We must first discover what the passage meant in the day and age of the author. Then we must discover its message for us in today's culture. Observation and interpretation apply to the first step; evaluation and application apply to the second6.

Many Christians believe the stories in Genesis Chapters 1-11 serve primarily to establish the spiritual foundation of all that follows. The stories of Creation, the Great Flood and the Tower of Babel reveal the essential nature of God, His power and glory, and His relation to us.

Using the techniques of hermeneutics, the Genesis account of creation (Genesis 1:1-31, 2:1-3) might be analyzed as follows:

Conclusion

Just how much of the Bible should be interpreted literally is one of the hottest debates within Christianity today, and there are many different opinions. Some people believe the Bible must be defended against attacks on its accuracy and Divine origin. But, common literary techniques like parable, metaphor and allegory do not negate the Bible's message, nor do they threaten our faith. The Bible's teachings stand on their own merits, whether or not those teachings are delivered via stories that are intended to be taken literally. The important thing is that we understand what God is telling us through the Bible and that we don't let arguments about the literal truth of the Bible distract us from that goal. Perhaps, with a bit of humility, we can admit that only God has all the answers!

Related article: How to Study the Bible

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1Herbert Lockyer, Sr., ed., Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986, pp. 166-176.
2James L. Mays, ed., Harper's Bible Commentary, Harper, 1988, pp. 8-9.
3Encyclopedia Americana, Americana Corporation, 1971, vol. 12, pp. 240-244
4Karen Armstrong, The Battle of God, Ballantine, 2000, pp. 95, 140.
5ibid., p. 171.
6Lockyer, pp.160-166