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.