Christians are sometimes asked if we believe the Bible is literally true.
After all, whether eating Christ’s flesh and drinking His blood is a plunge into cannibalism, or a figurative expression of full devotion, depends on how we understand the language of Scripture.
In one sense, we might say the Bible is divinely inspired literature through which God speaks to human beings in our own language. This naturally includes a range of literary devices, from narrative to hyperbole.
So, what does it mean to take the Bible “literally”?
It means applying a natural reading as the author or speaker intended, with a goal of grasping the writer’s message. This requires context and may include approximations, analogies, metaphors, quotations, parables, apocalyptic language, etc.
In contrast, taking the Bible “literalistically” means adhering to a rigid understanding of the primary meaning of words, without allowing for figurative language or a possible range of meanings.
An example may help clarify this. In John 10:9, Jesus states, “I am the door.” A literalistic rendering of this passage means that Jesus is calling himself an actual wooden piece of hardware, which either is absurd, or communicates a failed grasp of reality for the One who claims to be our only hope of everlasting life.
A literal understanding of this verse, however, considers the figurative language of Jesus’ words and the context in which He speaks. In other words, Jesus is the one true hope of everlasting life.
Let’s consider this another way. As Christians, we may tell our friends that we read the Bible according to the same literary rules needed to understand a magazine article or a textbook. Working through quotations, fictional anecdotes, exaggerations, and so on — and recognizing them for what they are — we appreciate the author’s literary tools and come to understand what he or she is trying to say.
There can be more than one natural reading of a word or phrase. In Genesis 1, for example, the word “earth” is first used for the planet, and then later for the dry land, which stands apart from the sea. Both times, the word “earth” is meant literally, but the context makes different meanings clear.
The Bible is more than merely a book. It is a divinely inspired collection of 66 books, written by 40 human authors over a period of 1,500 years. While it is remarkably unified in its over-arching story of creation, fall, and redemption, it’s also incredibly diverse in its genres.
Some parts of the Bible are history. Others are poetry, narrative, and apocalyptic in nature. So, understanding the genre of the text is a good first step.
Second, discerning what the human author (and the Spirit who inspired the author) was saying to his immediate audience goes a long way in helping us, today, grasp the context and then apply the message to our lives.
The good shepherd
Let’s consider an example. Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11). As far as we know, Jesus is a carpenter and itinerant evangelist who never moonlights as a herder of wooly critters. So, what does He mean?
People in His day are quite familiar with sheep and the people who lead them. A good keeper of sheep nourishes them, protects them from harm, leads them to lush pastures and cool waters, and calls them by name.
In comparison, Jesus is saying that, like a good shepherd, He is the ultimate keeper of our souls — one who even lays down His life for His sheep. Thus, He may be trusted completely with our lives — and our everlasting destinies.
John Lennox writes about the value of biblical language in Seven Days that Divide the World: “It would be a pity if, in a desire (rightly) to treat the Bible as more than a book, we ended up treating it as less than a book by not permitting it the range and use of language, order, and figures of speech that are (or ought to be) familiar to us from our ordinary experience of conversation and reading.”
In saying we believe the Bible is literally true, it’s important to avoid two extremes. The first is to interpret Scripture with a wooden, literalistic mindset, thus giving God the Father nostrils, making the Son a wooden door, and seeing the Holy Spirit as an out-of-control wildfire.
The other extreme, however, is equally troubling: taking liberties with the text and bending its meaning to our own purposes — or worse, stripping it of any meaning whatsoever.
God has spoken clearly in a rich tapestry of literary genres. We should value the Word He had given us, and be driven to love the Author even more.