Should we really interpret the Bible literally when possible?

Posted on 07/26/11 17 Comments

In my previous article I focused on a common hermeneutical principle among fundamentalists. I called it the “literal when possible principle” (henceforth LPP) and I noted an example from it in the writings of John Walvoord, one of the preeminent fundamentalist scholars of the twentieth century. I then presented four arguments against it. Unfortunately a few readers at the Christian Post ignored the four arguments and instead posted snarky attacks against my person. But not all was lost. A few commenters actually were seeking to understand the arguments. One of them was “Abhodim” who commented as follows:

“What method would you prescribe in the interpretation of the Scriptures that you you deem justifiable?  Point blank, what is your hermeneutic principle, stated as positively as you can. In my experience, if I were to try to understand the message from, say, my momma’s latest letter, the tendency is to approach the letter in literal mode unless momma states something out of the norm of literal.  Unless she happens to be Elizabeth Barrett Browning, then all bets off.  Still, the literal remains the primary mode of understanding until something metaphorical or symbolic is established.”

I appreciate Abhodim’s comments for the following reasons. First, they don’t contain any insults (unlike many of the comments from readers at the “Christian” Post); Second, they don’t mindlessly quote scriptures warning against “false teachers” as a sort of trump card; Third, they focus the issues to a fine laser point. In my response I will use male pronouns when referring to Abhodim since, like virtually all the commenters at CP, Abhodim chooses to remain anonymous leaving me in the dark as to gender. (I also wisely decided not to use female pronouns as the default so as not to anger the more patriarchal readers.)

Based on what Abhodim writes in his comment coupled with his assumption that these comments are relevant to the defense of LPP, he must believe the following:

(1) Abhodim’s momma’s letter consists primarily of literal expression with only the occasional divergence into idiomatic expression.

(2) Every statement in Abhodim’s momma’s letter should be interpreted literally if at all possible.

(3) The analogy of reading a letter written by one’s momma in the early 21st century is analogous to reading the Bible such that the same hermeneutical principles which are operative in one would be operative in the other.

Are these defensible assumptions? Let’s consider each of them in turn. Of course, we don’t have Abhodim’s momma’s letter here. So what we will do instead is consider some excerpts from a typical letter written by a momma to her kin whilst assuming, for the sake of argument, that it is a letter written by Abhodim’s momma.

(1) Abhodim’s momma’s letter consists primarily of literal expression with only the occasional divergence into idiomatic expression.

Is this correct? No, this is not true of the typical letter written by a momma. That was my first point in the original article: language does not function with a “literal as default” setting. This is a false and wildly outdated view of language which, as I observed, was already getting tired before the Eiffel Tower had worn off its first coat of paint. (That actually is hyperbolic. The Eiffel Tower was approximately on its fourth coat of paint by the time this view was being widely abandoned, but you get the point.)

The fact is that you don’t need to be “Elizabeth Barrett Browning” to interweave literary tropes seamlessly into your written or spoken communication. Consider this excerpt from the imaginary letter:

“Well Abhodim, my bones ache a fair bit. I’m so tired I could sleep for a week. And the rain isn’t helping. It rained enough this last week to float Noah’s Ark. I saw Pastor Brown yesterday and he said he’ll never forget the brownies you baked for the church picnic last year. They were from heaven!”

In that brief excerpt there are at least five idiomatic expressions. Bones do not literally ache, momma could not literally sleep for a week, there was not literally enough rain to float Noah’s Ark, Pastor Brown will not literally fail to forget the brownies (or at least he can’t guarantee it) and as good as they were they were not literally from heaven. So straight out of the gate the LPP is showing itself to be irrelevant since the literal and non-literal oscillate in our written and spoken expression with a dizzying complexity. (However, they don’t literally oscillate and it isn’t literally dizzying.)

(2) Every statement in Abhodim’s momma’s letter should be interpreted literally if at all possible.

The first point merely sidelines or marginalizes LPP, but it doesn’t outright falsify it. This second point does. Consider the following two sentences from the letter:

“Oh, and your brother Ricky Bobby beat the Smith boy to a pulp outside Smoky Joes. I was so angry I coulda killed him.”

According to LPP we should interpret these sentences literally if at all possible. Is it possible that Ricky Bobby beat the Smith boy so badly that he was literally pulpified? Yes, that is possible. And is it possible that momma could have been so angry that she could have killed her son? That too is possible. But it is quite obvious that the literal reading is not the natural reading because “beat to a pulp” can also be interpreted as a hyperbolic (that is, non-literal) expression. Of course the same applies for momma’s claim that she could have killed her son.

So we do not follow LPP in written or spoken communication for these two reasons: Language is a complex interweaving of literal and non-literal expression which renders LPP useless; and the best (that is, natural) interpretation of many statements or expressions is non-literal, even when a literal interpretation is possible.

(3) The analogy of reading a letter written by one’s momma in the early 21st century is analogous to reading the Bible such that the same hermeneutical principles which are operative in one would be operative in the other.

We now turn to the third assumption. Is it correct that Abhodim’s analogy of reading a letter is relevant to the Bible? In one sense this question is otiose since I have already established that LPP is false with respect to the letter reading case. Nonetheless, the assumption that the analogy is relevant is important to critique because it reveals the flat-footed way that many Christian conservatives read the Bible. In other words, they assume that reading the entire Bible is as straightforward as reading a letter.

But this is false. Let’s begin with the closest biblical analogue for momma’s letter, the New Testament epistles. Even there the analogy is a stretch. An epistle from the ancient Mediterranean basin and momma’s letter are not simply two tokens of the universal type “letter”. While there are similarities — e.g. a formal opening, a body of the letter and a conclusion — there are also striking differences. The picture is complicated additionally since the ancient epistles reflect multiple hermeneutical divergences from the typical twenty-first century letter writer. For example, they reflect unique ways of interpreting the Old Testament and they cite many examples of first century hymnic or credal forms (e.g. Col. 1:15-20; Phil. 2:5-11; 1 Cor. 15:3-5). And never mind the fact that some of Paul’s sentences are paragraph length. (Did you ever try reading Ephesians 1 in the Greek?)

Needless to say, the analogy completely breaks down (but it doesn’t literally break down) when we remember that scripture contains a complex range of genres from the ancient world. Do we interpret the Psalms, a sort of ancient hymnal or liturgical book, literally when possible? Do we do so for the prophetic warnings of the prophets? What about apocalyptic? Parables? Wisdom proverbs? In each of these cases it makes absolutely no sense to interpret the texts in question literally when possible.

So LPP is false and following it leads to all sorts of problems. But then where do we go from here? Ths is how Abhodim put the question: “Point blank, what is your hermeneutic principle, stated as positively as you can.” It is this: your default setting is not the “literal interpretation” but rather the “natural interpretation”. And don’t assume that the natural interpretation is whatever seems natural to you as a denizen of the 21st century reading your favorite English translation. Yes, reading the Bible takes some effort to learn the various genres. But it is worth the investment.

Finally, I cannot help but quote another commenter who responded to my original article by citing a warning from 2 Peter:

2 Peter 2:1-3  / 2 Peter 2 The Rise of False Prophets 1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. 2 Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; 3 and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

I take it that this individual was intending to suggest that I am a “false teacher”. This is typical of the worst use of the Bible, a mindless proof-texting to shut up one’s opponents. How ironic that it is done in the context of my efforts to help Christian conservatives read the Bible with more nuance and faithfulness.

Even so, the text is appropriate. There are many false teachers out there. Many of them trample and marginalize the Bible’s authority with a blind, unthinking flat-footed reading that assumes whatever strikes them as a sensible, natural, literal reading must be exactly what was in the mind of the writers of scripture. And they assume that the biblical writers must have shared their social, nationalist, and political sentiments. With these assumptions they colonize the biblical text and domesticate it for their own purposes.

  • David P

    Do you assume a speaker is being literal or metaphorical by default?…assume there is no evidence in either direction.

    • randal

      There is no “default”. Context guides us as to how to interpret what people are saying.

      • David P

        Exactly. So LPP or MPP are both claims about the way language normally operates in certain contexts.

        What LPP really says is, “unless there is sufficient evidence otherwise, take it literally.” But sufficient evidence often relies on exegesis of other contested passages. So LPP and MPP end up arguing in circles.

        Liberals typically overplay sentence meaning metaphors, but speaker meaning is where it’s at. “The wind knocked me down” is obviously a sentence meaning metaphor, but the speaker meaning is quite literal.

        Many of the examples given on these threads are pointless in my opinion, because they just point out sentence meaning metaphor.

        I doubt that the Biblical authors expressed speaker meaning metaphor as often as you seem to think they do (given your first objection).

  • Jerry Rivard

    I’d like to know your response to the question I asked in the other thread about the distinction between literal and factual interpretations. To apply it to your letter example, Abhodim’s mother is communicating facts to her son, specifically that she’s aching and tired, that it has rained a great deal, that Pastor Brown complimented him on his brownies, that his brother Ricky beat up the Smith boy, and that momma was angry about that. Those conveyed facts are clearly meant to be taken as things that really happened. It’s a letter, not a novel.

    So my question is, when it was written, weren’t the stories told in the bible meant to be taken factually? Does that potentially lead us to a “factual when possible principle” (FPP) which says to believe the facts given in the bible until and unless history proves them wrong? Or is the bible a novel?

    • randal

      “when it was written, weren’t the stories told in the bible meant to be taken factually?”

      They were certainly intended to convey facts, but the question is: which facts? Remember I made two points about reading texts, one relating to individual statements and the second to genre. On the first point we need to ask questions like “Is this ironic?” “Is it hyperbolic?” “Is it rhetorical?” On the second point we need to ask questions like “If this is a historical narrative? If not then what is it?”

      • David P

        My problem is this:

        a) Prior to the Enlightenment, everyone pretty much read the Abraham/Isaac passage literally (right?).

        b) After moral reflection on God’s nature and other things, modern thinkers say the passage should be taken metaphorically. Then they proceed to point out features of the text that support their conclusion.

        Maybe the text does support their conclusion (but what led them to consider the conclusion was not the text itself or the internal textual evidence). But why did God see fit to allow all the pre-Enlightenment readers to take it a different way?

        (What I’m struggling with here is a larger problem for sure)

  • davidstarlingm

    Your default setting is not the “literal interpretation” but rather the “natural interpretation”. And don’t assume that the natural interpretation is whatever seems natural to you as a denizen of the 21st century reading your favorite English translation.

    So you agree with AiG’s “historical-grammatical” approach?

    • randal

      AiG’s “historical-grammatical” approach to scripture (as cited by David): “We try to find the meaning of the words based on an understanding of the historical and cultural settings in which the book was written. We then follow standard rules of grammar, according to the particular genre, to arrive at an interpretation.”

      My first complaint is the atomistic nature of the statement. It is not merely a matter of finding meaning of “words”. We need to find the meaning of texts and that is very different. For example, an ironic sentence can have precisely the opposite meaning of the words.

      Beyond that, reading and interpreting the Bible is much more complex than this simple statement would suggest. For one thing, the writers of the New Testament do not interpret the OT in accord with this “historical-grammatical” approach. AiG assumes that their hermeneutic is trans-cultural. It is not. In addition, we are dealing with a text in which there can be a divergence in the original author’s intended expression and the meaning of the text in the final form of the canon.

      • David P

        Bernard Ramm discusses the “but Paul didn’t use that approach!” objection in Protestant Biblical Hermeneutics if I recall. I’ll see if I can find my copy after work…he said some pretty provocative things if I remember.

  • Tim Bulkeley

    There’s at least another non-literal phrase in her letter:
    “And the rain isn’t helping.”
    If mum intended this literally then she assumes that rain would somehow assist with her aches, presumably by acting as a cure or at least an analgesic. I assume you, Randal, who actually composed the words did not intend this literally!

    My point here is that even the author of language now is not always aware (even when they stop and think to write a blog post on the subject) of all the non literal language they use…

    • David Parker

      Prime example of confusing speaker meaning with sentence meaning.

    • randal

      Hah! Good point. (Point? Where’s the point?)

      • David P

        My point (made above) is that attacking LPP with examples of sentence metaphor is a straw man, since LPP has never been a thesis about the meaning of Biblical sentences. The question is whether or not Biblical speakers meant to convey a metaphor or a literal truth.

        True, our knowledge of Hebrew often gets in the way of knowing if a sentence was intended to be literally expressed. But for the most part, we’re talking about questions of whether Daniel’s vision literally happened, whether John really had his visions, and whether the content of those visions refer to concrete events or just fluffy ideas.

        We are talking about genre…whether the speaker intended to convey literal truth. Not whether he used a sentence which was literally false.

        Maybe I’m missing the boat here…but I don’t see “literally” that way at all among the fundy camp.

  • AFriend

    I feel as though you are setting the stage for a bigger issue. Maybe not, but I do not understand what the point of this post is. I think I agree with what you’ve said (you must read the Bible for what it says, not what we would have it say), but who are you arguing with/against?

  • soulsurvivor

    After going over the bible several hundred times in the last 35 years, something began to become evident. 1st some books had variant translations into english. Some of those translations, like the KJV were used because they were the only place someone could support a fringe doctrine. Some English versions obviously supported the OT as all inspired 2Tim3:16,NIV&NRSV others state “All scripture that is inspired by God is useful for…” What I’m getting at here is that those who take all the OT literally or even NT literally (like Revelation) have done so because they believe it is all inspired; thus if it’s all inspirited than one is force to accept the possibility that even metaphorical language is to be taken literally, because any other view would mean your are changing the meaning and could be perverting the way to salvation. This view is from Kenneth Ham AIG, regarding a literal view of Genesis Creation.

  • Lyndon James

    Dear Professor Rauscher,

    First of all, thank you for posting what I am assuming is the umbrella of your perspective on this topic in both this and the originating article. I first stumbled upon and read “Should we really…” from CP, and then, to fully understand the nature of the ensuing “dust up”, backed up to read “How fundamentalists undermine …”. For me, both offerings read quite clearly and each maintained its own integrity of argument.

    At the risk of insulting your writing style (which is certainly not my intent), might I offer an observation, a brief suggestion, a reflection and pose a request?

    In “Should we …” after acknowledging the graciousness of the request to articulate your recommended hermeneutic approach(es), you proceeded to deconstruct the inadequacies of the maternal letter analogy offered in apprehending your argument. After having done so, you DID answer the question by stating that an initial pursuit of the “natural interpretation” rather than the most “literal” interpretation was what you were advocating. This clarification appeared more than three quarters of the way through the post and, after quickly alluding to the balance of benefits between its relative complexity and rewards, was followed by speculation (which, for the record, I do not believe was inaccurate) upon the intent of another writer’s post and a tactical reframing of the passage in order to assist him/her and, I assume, others vicariously posing the accusation in an application of introspection: a psychic “Back at you!”

    This proportional sequence made it harder, for me at least, to apprehend, focus upon and appreciate what I choose to believe was the honest intent to bring clarity to the exchange.

    Might I suggest that after the opening acknowledgement and statement of intent, that it would have been useful to immediately announce/label your prescriptive alternative, follow it with a brief nod to the relationship between its difficulty but advisable strengths and then use the deconstruction of the provided analogy as an opportunity and relatable framework for laying out comparative examples of what a “natural” interpretive approach would look like in the early twenty-first century when examining text written in the first century. It would be particularly useful for understanding your position when factoring in the impacting differences in language, culture and situational specifics.

    Having, myself, grown up in a particularly fundamentalist evangelical context (for the blessings and challenges of which, with the benefit of elapsed time, I become more equitably thankful) I know that it was a struggle to read scripture with anything other than what you label “LPP” when I needed to step away from that background. I remember struggling for weeks with continuous rereading of the first chapters of Genesis before I could find ways of understanding the text separate from the intricately latticed years of firmly embedded past impressions, instruction and assumptions. And that was just the first of many passages I wrestled with over the next couple years of rediscovering a basis for my faith.

    It was tough, intimidating and frightening work.

    Personally, I believe that study that promises to lead to (re)examination of mind, heart, and resulting action frequently is. And if, not still frightening, it is at least challenging not to become complacent when juggling the necessary time constraints of everyday life. I settle into personally comfortable patterns and various formulas that have worked in the past (e.g. read the passage three times stopping each time to progressively meditate on first impressions, then what the intended audience heard, then what it could be saying to us today, etc.). Instruction from the pulpit may lead me to reexamine and start looking at something a different way, or to ask for leads on other books or commentaries to track down a given stream. But I admit that I am more than tempted to gaze covetously upon my projected imaginings of “how great it must be” for ministers or those occupying positions in seminaries to “pull down salaries” (in my romantic imaginings) freeing up their time to “just read and think about all this stuff”.

    Because – I don’t read Greek. Or Hebrew. And it seems more than time consuming (though rewarding) enough to compare various translations of scripture.

    And so, confronted by the “wall of scholarship” one could potentially encounter/explore, I imagine that contemplation of some more involved – or seemingly amorphous & undefined – approach to exegesis might possibly lead, over time, to frustration and discouragement. And responses to the scriptural admonishment to study and pray might become progressively atrophied. Because, if one constantly needs an instructor or guide to keep from falling to the obvious – aren’t we just back where the laity found itself five hundred years ago? How does one maintain the faithfulness of his/her intent to be on an intentionally informed faith walk?

    And I choose to believe that this will to be faithful is the shared ground of experience of all reading and/or writing on this board. Regardless of background. Or experience. Or current affiliation.

    Or practice.

    I have not yet perused the rest of your blogsite. Therefore, I am as yet unaware whether you have already discussed elsewhere within it concrete examples of various hermeneutic approaches that could point the way as alternatives to the deficiencies you have sought to demonstrate within the LPP approach. I think it is this which is being requested as a positive explanation off your methodology to biblical interpretation instead of merely providing a negative critique of the deficiencies of someone else’s method.

    If you have already addressed this at length, a post introducing us to where to access various aspects of this approach on your site would be most appreciated. (I’m assuming in this that they would occupy more than the content of one article.) If you haven’t already spoken to this, I would find a third entry in this series demonstrating practical leads one might pursue to incorporate or substitute into one’s devotions. For I choose to believe that deep down, regardless of the array of human defensive responses we at times exhibit, we all wish to understand the arguments you are advancing.

    That in coming, we might reason.

    And learn.


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