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How to read the Bible – ‘literally’ or ‘naturally’?

This article, ‘Taking the Bible Literally“, is great. Here are some highlights.


Do you take the Bible literally?

I never like the question, “Do you take the Bible literally?” It comes up with some frequency, and it deserves a response. But I think it’s an ambiguous—and, therefore, confusing—question, making it awkward to answer.

Clearly, even those of us with a high view of Scripture don’t take everything literally. Jesus is the “door,” but He’s not made of wood. We are the “branches,” but we’re not sprouting leaves.

On the other hand, we do take seriously accounts others find fanciful and far-fetched: a man made from mud (Adam), loaves and fishes miraculously multiplied, vivified corpses rising from graves, etc.

A short “yes” or “no” response to the “Do you take the Bible literally?” question, then, would not be helpful. Neither answer gives the full picture. In fact, I think it’s the wrong question since frequently something else is driving the query.

The Most Important Thing

Do I take the Bible literally? I try to I take it at its plain meaning unless I have some good reason to do otherwise. This is the basic rule we apply to everything we read: novels, newspapers, periodicals, and poems. I don’t see why the Bible should be any different.

If there was one bit of wisdom, one rule of thumb, one useful tip I could offer to help you solve the riddle of Scriptural meaning, it’s this: Never read a Bible verse. That’s right, never read a Bible verse. Instead, always read a paragraph—at least.

On the radio I use this simple rule to help me answer the majority of Bible questions I’m asked, even when I’m not familiar with the particular passage. When I quickly survey the paragraph containing the verse in question, the larger context almost always provides the information I need to help me understand what’s going on.

This works because of a basic rule of all communication: Meaning flows from the top down, from the larger units to the smaller units. The key to the meaning of any verse comes from the paragraph, not just from the individual words.

Here’s how it works. First, get the big picture. Look at the broader context of the book. What type of writing is it—history, poetry, proverb, letter? Different genres have different rules for reading them.

Next, stand back from the verse and look for breaks in the passage that identify major units of thought. Then ask yourself, “What in this paragraph or group of paragraphs gives any clue to the meaning of the verse in question? In general, what idea is being developed? What is the flow of thought?”

With the larger context now in view, you can narrow your focus and speculate on the meaning of the verse itself. When you come up with something that seems right, sum it up in your own words. Finally—and this step is critical— see if your paraphrase—your summary—makes sense when inserted in place of the verse in the passage.

Literal vs. Lateral

In the Law of Moses, homosexual activity was punishable by death (Lev. 18:22-23 and 20:13). Therefore (the charge goes), any Christian who takes the Bible literally must advocate the execution of homosexuals.

Of course, the strategy with this move is obvious: If we don’t promote executing homosexuals, we can’t legitimately condemn their behavior, since both details are in the Bible. If we don’t take the Bible literally in the first case, we shouldn’t in the second case, either. That’s being inconsistent.

How do we escape the horns of this dilemma? By using care and precision with our definitions, that’s how.

Here’s our first question: When Moses wrote the Law, did he expect the Jewish people to take those regulations literally? If you’re not sure how to answer, let me ask it another way. When an ordinance is passed in your local state (California, in my case), do you think the legislators intend its citizens to understand the words of the regulations “in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory, free from exaggeration or distortion”?

Of course they do. Legal codes are not written in figurative language allowing each citizen to get creative with the meaning. The same would be true for the Mosaic Law. Moses meant it the way he wrote it.

But now, it seems, we’re stuck on the other horn of the dilemma. To be consistent, shouldn’t we currently campaign for the death penalty for homosexuals? For that matter, aren’t we obliged to promote execution for disobedient children and Sabbath-breakers, both capital crimes under the Law?

The simple answer is no. Here’s why. Just because a biblical command is intended to be understood literally, does not mean it is intended to be applied laterally, that is, universally across the board to all peoples at all times in all places.

Consider this situation. Jesus told Peter to cast his net in deep water (Luke 5:4). That’s exactly what Peter did because he took Jesus’ command literally, in its ordinary sense. He had no reason to think otherwise. However, because Jesus’ command to Peter was literal does not mean the same command applies laterally to everyone else. We’re not obliged to cast nets into deep water just because Peter was.

Here’s another way of looking at it. No matter what state you live in, the California legal codes are to be read literally, but don’t have lateral application to all states. They only apply to those in California.

In the same way, the words of the Mosaic Law, like those of all laws, are to be taken at face value by anyone who reads them. Yet only those under its jurisdiction are obliged to obey its precepts.

Reading the Ordinary [or natural] Way

Here’s how I would lay the groundwork for an answer. If I’m asked if I take the Bible literally, I would say I think that’s the wrong question. I’d say instead that I take the Bible in its ordinary sense, that is, I try to take the things recorded there with the precision I think the writer intended.

I realize this reply might also be a bit ambiguous, but here, I think, that’s a strength. Hopefully, my comment will prompt a request for clarification. This is exactly what I want. I’d clarify by countering with a question: “Do you read the sports page literally?”

If I asked you this question, I think you’d pause because there is a sense in which everyone reads the sports page in a straightforward way. Certain factual information is part of every story in that section. However, you wouldn’t take everything written in a woodenly literal way that ignores the conventions of the craft.

“Literally?” you might respond. “That depends. If the writer seems to be stating a fact—like a score, a location, a player’s name, a description of the plays leading to a touchdown—then I’d take that as literal. If he seems to be using a figure of speech, then I’d read his statement that way, figuratively, not literally.”

Exactly. Sportswriters use a particular style to communicate the details of athletic contests clearly. They choose precise (and sometimes imaginative) words and phrases to convey a solid sense of the particulars in an entertaining way.

Sportswriters routinely use words like “annihilated,” “crushed,” “mangled,” “mutilated,” “stomped,” and “pounded,” yet no one speculates about literal meanings. Readers don’t scratch their heads wondering if cannibalism was involved when they read “the Anaheim Angels devoured the St. Louis Cardinals.”

We recognize such constructions as figures of speech used to communicate in colorful ways events that actually (“literally”) took place. In fact, we never give those details a second thought because we understand how language works.


“Taking the Bible Seriously” ©2013 Gregory Koukl

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