Photo by Randy Tarampi on Unsplash

How to Take the Bible Literally

Cabe Matthews

“We aren’t supposed to take the Bible literally,” I recently heard a church leader (who should know better) claim.

I find this to be a fascinating statement, if incredibly unnuanced and misleading.

On the one hand, in a great many cases it is obviously true. But in these cases it is so obviously true as to be an uninteresting observation. In Luke 10:30, Jesus begins, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers.” What follows is one of Jesus’s most famous parables, the Good Samaritan. I can certainly imagine a world where college students stay up late into the night arguing about what year this historical journey Jesus tells us about took place, and where scholars write book-length treatises attempting to uncover the identity of the historical Good Samaritan.

I can imagine such a world, but it does take some imagination. Because such a reading of the passage in question is patently ridiculous. I have come across a great many crazy things on the Internet (and, for that matter, in seminary classrooms), but I have yet to meet a single soul who thinks that Jesus’s Good Samaritan is intended to narrate an historical event.

There are plenty of other examples of passages in the Bible that are clearly and uncontroversially not to be taken literally. Virtually no one takes these bits of the Bible literally. And we virtually all agree this is the best way to take them seriously.

On the other hand are passages that are more controversial. Augustine didn’t think the creation story of Genesis 1 was talking about seven literal 24 hour days, and a less well known church father, Eusebius, thought people who take the imagery of Revelation literally are missing the point. I tend to agree with both of these assessments, but there are plenty of well meaning Christians of a certain bent that would beg to differ. In fact, American Evangelicalism has spawned a whole publishing industry around vehement disagreement with both of these allegorizing projects.

Perhaps this is all that is meant when Biblical literalism is decried. If so, I would suggest stating this view with much more nuance.

But I doubt this is what’s going on. My hunch is that the real quarry here is usually of more doctrinal or moral significance.

Take the Resurrection. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 suggests that we need to be realists here - if Christ is not raised our faith is in vain. But that hasn’t stopped practitioners of modern liberal theology from bringing their allegories to bear here. Christ wasn’t raised from the dead - that’s impossible - (so the argument goes) the disciples had some kind of feeling or experience of the divine that they couldn’t help but describe in terms of a resurrection. Such a psychologized resurrection of Jesus, one that left his body in the tomb but that had him somehow figuratively living on in his followers hearts, might be an interpretive option as a way to read the New Testament, but it is a decidedly un-Christian one.

To turn to moral issues, I have heard it suggested that Christians are hypocrites who don’t take their Bibles seriously because they eat bacon and oysters, mix types of cloth, and do other things condemned in the book of Leviticus. Christians don’t take these commands literally, so isn’t it arbitrary to take some others literally?

Of course this way of thinking naively misunderstands the kind of thing the Bible is (a topic for another day), and further ignores a surprisingly broad consensus on which Old Testament laws continued to be taken seriously among Jesus’ followers. Since the days of the church fathers we’ve understood there are three types of laws in the Old Testament: those concerning purity, those concerning the sacrificial system, and those concerning morality. Christians believe that Jesus made us pure through his sacrifice, and so laws concerning purity and sacrifice are no longer needed, but the moral law is still in place. Hold the New Testament in one hand and Leviticus in the other, then have a blast allegorizing the sacrificial and purity systems. But when it comes to loving your neighbor, you’d better take that one literally.

The most (in)famous early Christian allegorizer, Origen of Alexandria, still thought the literal sense of any Biblical text was crucial, and that you couldn’t come up with a good interpretation of Scripture at all if you didn’t first tend to the literal meaning of the passage. But I think sometimes the truth is that people who complain about literal interpreters of the Bible just don’t like what the Bible says and are trying to shift the conversation by hiding behind their literal Bible complaints. At least in the cases where there is such broad and ancient consensus about what the Bible says and what it means by it, in my view it would be better to simply say that one disagrees with the Bible at this point. Because one way to describe the mainstream of the Christian theological tradition is as a discussion, not about whether to take the Bible literally, but when and where to do so.

Because we do take the Bible literally. Like, literally all the time.

Which reminds me of another problem that might be mixed in with this one: the fact that our culture plays fast and loose with the word “literally” itself. A great many people, it seems, don’t even take “literally” literally. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us when we have problems taking other things literally too.