This is a question which not only many Christians ask, but is one which is also used as an objection by those who are critics of Christianity. But whatever the reasons for raising such a question, it is an important issue, and deserves a careful response.
The subject in fact is rather complex, and a short article like this can hardly do the topic full justice. But a brief overview can at least be attempted here. And to alleviate any possible suspense, let me now provide the answer to my question: yes and no.
An easy answer, but it is in the teasing out of this response that things become a bit tricky. But let’s have a shot at it. Of course many Christians pride themselves in taking the Bible literally. Or at least they think they do. But the hard truth is, none of us take the Bible literally 100 per cent of the time.
In fact, most of us practice selective literalism when it comes to Scripture. That is, we all tend to pick and choose those parts of Scripture which we think should be taken literally. Consider just a few obvious examples.
In 1 Timothy 2:8 Paul says this: “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing”. While charismatics and Pentecostals will have no problems with the raised hands bit, I suspect most other Christians routinely ignore this altogether or at least downplay it.
Or take another passage from 1 Timothy: “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes” (2:9). Yikes, if we were to take this verse literally, there would be plenty of Christian women who would have to have a major wardrobe change. Hairstyles and jewelry choices would also have to be reconsidered big time.
Indeed, as many Christian men seeking to maintain sexual purity will attest, there unfortunately seems to be many women in the churches today whose dress – or lack thereof – can scarcely be described as modest, decent, and appropriate. But that is worth another article in itself!
Of course it can rightly be argued that these two examples do not so much have to do with taking Scripture literally, as to do with whether or not we really want to obey Scripture. That too is another matter. But the point is, no one fully takes the Bible literally all the time.
All this means that we need to read the Bible the same way that we read other literature. We must take it literally where the context allows, while recognizing that there are plenty of figures of speech, and so on. So as in the reading of any other book, we learn to recognize when figurative language is being used, and how it is being used.
And it must be stressed that figurative does not mean unreal or imaginary. A very real thing can be described with figurative language. Most of us can recognize when words are obviously being used as figures of speech. Think of what Paul wrote about in Phil 3:2 when he said “beware of dogs”.
We all know – or should know – that he is not giving us a warning about avoiding particularly nasty canines, such as pit bull terriers. He is referring to false teachers, and is using a rather harsh figure of speech to describe them. Of course such figures of speech are not always apparent to modern readers, so that is where some basic Bible reference tools come into play.
A good Bible dictionary or commentary will help us to understand various figures of speech being used in Scripture, and what they mean. Consider also John 6:48 where Jesus says, “I am the bread of life”. I am not aware of anyone who thinks Jesus means he is a loaf of rye bread, or pumpernickel.
But again, to use metaphorical language is not to deny the reality of what is being asserted. In this particular figure of speech Jesus is saying something very real and factual about himself, even though he is willing to use a metaphor to do so.
Consider also this figure of speech as found in a book full of symbolic and metaphorical language. Rev 17:9 says, “This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits”. Now either these are some very small hills, or this woman has a strangely shaped bottom! But recognizing figurative language relieves us of such concerns.
And remember that a word may be used literally or non-literally, depending on the context. The word “crown” usually refers to an actual headpiece on a king. But we can also use the word figuratively, as when we say: “if you do that again, I’ll crown you”.
It is clearly being used in a symbolic sense in places like Rev 12:1: “A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head”. In most cases the reader can detect when a word is meant to be understood literally, and when it is not.
Of course sometimes it is not fully clear how we should understand a word or a phrase, or a whole concept. In Rev 20 for example we find the term “a thousand years” mentioned quite often. How should we understand this? Is it literal or figurative? Having just written on this passage, see my thoughts here: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/11/30/on-the-millennium-part-one/
Sometimes we are clearly told in Scripture what a figure of speech means, as in Dan 7:17: “The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth”. Similarly, John 2:19-21: “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ The Jews replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ But the temple he had spoken of was his body.”
As mentioned, we can take something as literal even if figures of speech are involved. That is, even hard, cold facts can be expressed metaphorically. We all say, for example, “I’m dog tired”. Here a metaphor is used to describe an actual, literal thing or condition.
We can even literally describe something that is fictitious. For example, Santa Claus is five foot, eight and weighs 185 pounds. So just because figurative language is used in a passage, that does not mean (as the theological liberals claim) that the passage is non-literal or non-historical.
For example, the birth narratives and the resurrection narratives both employ metaphors, but that does not mean the accounts are not to be taken literally. We read that the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary (Luke 1:35). Obviously the Holy Spirit does not cast shadows. But we are nonetheless reading about a real, historical event.
And sometimes a passage is clear in its literal meaning, but we need to contextualise it, or find out the cultural equivalent for our day and age. Paul in Romans 16:16 says: “Greet one another with a holy kiss”. Very few of us in the West do this today. Are we therefore disobeying God? Obviously a handshake is the appropriate cultural equivalent today.
This article has only just scratched the surface of what can be quite a deep and engrossing discussion. But it reveals that in one sense the Bible is just like any other book, and we therefore need to apply to it the same hermeneutical rules that we use with any other book or work of literature.
Of course the Bible is more than just a human book. It is actually a human and divine book, but that is also the stuff of another article.