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How Literally Should You Read the Bible?

by Dr. Eitan Bar
3 minutes read

Many Christian Fundamentalists (often Calvinists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, etc.) argue that the Bible must be read literally. For instance, in the Popular Calvinistic website, it stated:

“Not only can we take the Bible literally, but we must take the Bible literally. This is the only way to determine what God really is trying to communicate to us.”1

Interpreting everything in the Bible literally can be problematic because it often ignores the symbolism, metaphors, figure of speech, hyperbolism, allegories, and other linguistic methods that are very often in use, as well as the historical, cultural, and literary contexts of the scriptures, leading to misinterpretations or conclusions that are nonsensical or bizarre. The Bible is a complex collection of various literary genres, including poetry, metaphor, allegory, and parable, each requiring careful and contextual interpretation.

For instance, in the Old Testament:

  1. Psalm 91:4 – “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge”: Literally, this would imply God has feathers and wings, but it’s a metaphor for protection.
  2. Proverbs 23:7 – “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he”: Taken literally, this could imply that people’s brains are in their hearts and the people are physically what they think, which is absurd.
  3. Ecclesiastes 1:5 – “The sun rises and the sun goes down”: A literal interpretation would support an outdated view of the solar system, contradicting modern astronomy, as the sun does not go down but the earth is turning.
  4. Psalm 98:8 – “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy”: Rivers and mountains can’t literally clap or sing; it’s poetic imagery.

In the New Testament:

  1. Matthew 17:20 – “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move”: This is likely hyperbole to illustrate the power of faith, not a literal directive to move mountains.
  2. John 6:53 – “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”: This, taken literally, suggests cannibalism, which is forbidden in the Torah.
  3. Matthew 5:29 – “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away”: A literal application would lead to self-mutilation, and leave us all blind.
  4. Revelation 13:1 – “And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea”: A literal beast rising from the sea is fantastical; it’s more likely symbolic of evil or chaos.
  5. 1 Corinthians 15:29 – “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead”: Taken literally, this practice seems peculiar and is not practiced or advocated elsewhere in Christian teachings.

The irony in the debate surrounding Bible translation and interpretation is striking, particularly when considering the preferences of those who advocate for a literal approach to Scripture. Many who insist on taking the Bible “as it is” frequently rely on translations like the NIV, ESV, NASB, NKJV, and CSB. These versions are often influenced by particular theological perspectives, such as Calvinism, which can shape the translation process from the selection of manuscripts to the choice of words and phrases. For example, choices in translation can subtly shift meanings that align more closely with certain doctrinal views, such as predestination and sovereignty, that are emphasized in Calvinist theology. This presents a significant paradox: the pursuit of a ‘literal’ interpretation of the Scriptures is mediated by texts that themselves are not strictly neutral or literal but are instead interpretative to some degree. The consequence is that individuals seeking to read the Bible without the “interference” of interpretative layers are, in fact, engaging with the text through a lens crafted by specific doctrinal biases. This layered interpretation, hidden under the guise of a ‘literal’ translation, highlights the complex interplay between reading strategies and theological influences, underscoring the challenge of achieving a truly neutral approach to the biblical text.

In summary, a literal interpretation of the entire Bible would lead to absurd or contradictory conclusions. Understanding the Bible requires recognizing its varied literary forms and the historical and cultural contexts in which it was written.

  1. “Can/should we interpret the Bible literally?” 4 Jan 2022, GotQuestions, a popular Calvinist website. โ†ฉ๏ธŽ

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist