I prefer to interpret the Bible strictly literally.
As a young Christian I was indoctrinated into a system of interpretation claiming to be literal — but it wasn't. The list of supposed literal interpretations that were actually figurative grew and grew (examples below) until I could no longer take their claims seriously.
Many claim to interpret the Bible literally — then launch into wild allegory (sometimes calling it "application" or "typology"), with every other word sometimes a figure of speech. Many amillennialists claim their view is based on non-literal interpretation, but it needn't be. Anyway, I decided to be truly literal to see what would come of it. So far so good.
I rejected young-earth creationism and discovered the literal interpretations supporting old earth and evolution. I adopted amillennialism thinking you need allegorical interpretation (I've since learned you don't — it's literal).
On a whim really, I thought to see if you can interpret the Bible strictly literally and discovered to my surprise that, yes you can!
Various images in the Bible (such as the beasts of Daniel and Revelation) are not symbolic, rather, they are tags to hang ideas and images on. We should not look to discover what these beasts are (are they furry? do they have legs?) but should content ourselves with considering the associated images. Because our mind comprehends them as mental objects, they exist within the spiritual realm.
Examples: Tongue is a fire, Christ is the rock.
The role of allegory, typology, and figures of speech vs. literal interpretation:
The Bible should be interpreted strictly literally. Some implications...
- To assume each verse has some sort of allegorical application is wrong-headed and renders the Bible unintelligible.
- Symbols are real, residing in the spiritual realm, not merely constructs of our mind. Thinking of symbols as mere poetic language renders them as substitutes for meaning, to be replaced with the thing represented; mere placeholders of meaning. This distinction is, I admit, not particularly significant but it does rob the passage of any mystical significance — you can't meditate on mere poetic language and find God there.
- The beasts of Daniel and Revelation are either merely literary tags to hang their meaning upon (symbols), or actual living entities in the spiritual realm. I suspect they are the living spiritual essence of the kingdom which empowers the kings on earth and giving the kingdom its personality.
Some phrases, verses, and passages seem to be figurative. These are...
- Idioms (but idioms are not figures of speech, at least not according to several dictionaries).
- The objects, persons, and action occurs in the spiritual realm, not the physical.
- Similes (like or as).
- The writer states they are figurative or establishes a metaphor.
- They are culturally figurative and this usage can be traced back to earlier times (for example, adultery is used to refer to rejection of God and adopting pagan practices and beliefs).
- We wish they were figurative, but they are not; we must modify our views. An example is that God has a face and wings. Yes, he really has these, but in the spiritual realm.
- Literary devices to assist with memorization or create interest.
- Parables are clearly figurative fiction, but notice this leads to confusion, not clarity.
- Assume the passage is literal
- Look for evidence it is figurative
- Discover whether the action takes place in the spiritual realm
Parables are figurative fiction, but notice this leads to confusion, not clarity.
People come up with all kinds of meanings from the parables, sometimes even ignoring the interpretation given by Jesus.
A fictional story having a lesson...
Just plain bad interpretation
Here are common examples of really bad interpretations, sometimes disguised as "application"...
- That Peter's weak faith in sinking in the water should exhort us to do better, to follow Jesus with every step once we step out in faith following God's call. God will provide a safe path for us step by step (but why didn't he do this for Peter, the only person ever to walk on water?) We should look for stormy water to step out on in faith.
- We are to display our love, service, holiness, and humility for all the world to marvel at just as the queen of Sheba marvelled at Solomon's wisdom. The only problem is that she was marvelling at Solomon's administrative abilities and the grandeur of his kingdom, not his holiness. He had 1,000 wives and concubines and practiced child sacrifice; not exactly a paradigm of virtue! Our treasure is to be spiritual, not material like Solomon's.
- Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians and lay in ruins. This is to mean for us that we should not become comfortable with the ruins caused by sin in our lives but, should rather, rebuild the walls. Are Christians really that devastated by sin that the genocide and captivity of the Babylonians has any relevance at all? I would feel insulted to be spoken to this way in church.
- The prodigal son is supposedly about us, about you and me. Apparently we are to believe we squandered our inheritance in debauchery and hedonism and must finally come back to God pleading for forgiveness. Weird. I don't remember doing this.
- The endless details of Ezekiel's temple all have meanings; each measurement and each object and each room. It shows us Jesus and the Church or a restored Israel or something. Please. In my view it is strictly literal describing the restored temple in the new heavens and new earth.
- Lazarus and the rich man. Some say the great gulf is the Jews' blindness to Jesus as Messiah. The rich man represents the Pharisees who were covetous and the poor man the disciples of Jesus who understood of Jesus from the books of Moses.
Examples of literal not so literal
People claiming to interpret the Bible literally don't interpret these literally (but I do)...
- Revelation 20 — A chain, a key. Are these bronze or iron?
- Revelation 9:7 — Animals are actually modern weapons of war?
- Days of Genesis 1 — Evening and morning = 24 hours? But the 7th day continues yet today. And two verses later the word "day" is not 24 hours.
- Jesus is a rock?
- Wolves don't eat lambs anymore? They can chew grass?
- David's kingdom ended.
- Jesus didn't come soon.
- God has feathers?
- Not saved by faith but by works?
- Not saved by faith only.
- Women are saved by childbearing.
- We are judged based on our works.
- No pain and suffering until Adam sinned. Animals didn't eat each other, mosquitoes didn't suck blood, parasites lived who-knows-how.
- Animals (including saber-tooth tigers) were vegetarian. At the fall of Adam, there was instantaneous evolution and carnivores miraculously grew teeth.
- Women are to wear headcoverings in church. Paul does not say his comments are only for the culture of his day.
- God has a face.
Articles and snippets...
- 1,000 years
- 24–hour day?
- Ezekiel's temple
- New heavens and new earth
- Beasts, Heads, and Horns
- Bad allegory
- The word "all"
- The word "flesh"
- Good allegory
- The Rock is Christ
- Tongue is a fire
- New Testament interprets Old Testament
- Young earth, global flood?
Links to Examples
Certain passages are literal because they refer to events in the spiritual realm. A few...
- From Typology...
- From Allegory...
- Spiritual body...
- Figures of Speech...
- From Eschatology...
- From the Old Testament...
- From the New Testament...
Examples of idioms...
- sharpen the tongue
- 10 times better
- 7 times
- 3 days and 3 nights
- 4 corners of the earth
Examples of literal interpretation...
- As devotional practice
- A mystical reality
- Realities in the spiritual realm
- A literal physical image
- A literal reality in the new heavens and new earth
- The word means more in the Bible than in our modern language
Once we discern what the writer had in mind we can feel free to understand why they wrote it. Perhaps this should be called phase 2 of interpretation. And phase 3 of interpretation can be what we wish to use the writing for; perhaps as a personal prayer, perhaps to aid in understanding our own predicament, perhaps to instruct us in moral truth.
If a writer intends a passage as having a figurative meaning, we should interpret it figuratively. The difficulty is knowing when this is the case.
If a writer writes fiction, we can understand the scene and plot and theme literally. But these don't correspond to truthful reality. Should this be referred to as strictly literal interpretation? And can fiction be inspired, inerrant, and infallible?