Whether the Bible should be read and interpreted literally seems to be an open question in the 21st Century. Some Christians, and many people who criticize Christians, seem to think the Bible must be read in a literal, wooden fashion, and it must stand or fall based on what people say is “the literal interpretation” – the Bible is either literally true or literally false, and there is no third position.
So, let me put this out there – do we approach other literature that way?
We don’t. We read literature and determine from reading it, from its internal clues, whether it is fiction or nonfiction. We read literature that weaves fiction into nonfiction and other literature that weaves nonfiction into fiction. Writers use literary devices to convey different messages. A writer is not concerned about technical accuracy, grammar, or factual details in a poem. Poetry, poetic prose, narrative and similar genres are different from technical, textbook, journalistic, historical and other fact-orientated genres in the same respect.
A story can be factual. A story can be based upon fact, and be “true” to the spirit of an event or character without being factual in all of its details. Some stories are meant to convey truisms through the vehicle of pure fiction. There are many ways that “truth” can be delivered. We have to be sensitive to the way a writing is being delivered to know which genre the writing fits.
The Bible claims for itself a certain authenticity. Paul said in 2nd Timothy that all of scripture is “inspired” (literally “breathed out”) by God (2 Timothy 3:16). Does that mean that God literally breathed the Bible? Does God even breathe? The language is flowery and poetic and meant to convey an idea. It isn’t technical language meant to describe the actual action that God took.
The Bible reveals God to be timeless and immaterial, omniscient and omnipotent. God is not like a person in the sense of a human being, but we don’t have a way to describe God without reference to our human experience. We have to use what we know to describe things that we don’t know.
Our language, vocabulary and experience limit our ability to receive, understand, process and communicate who God is – even when God is inspiring the communication. Our descriptions are, necessarily, imperfect, based on and processed through our finite understandings. Now “we see through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face!”
How does a perfect, eternal, timeless, immaterial and uncreated God reveal himself to an imperfect, finite, temporal and created being who is “made from dust”?
To begin with, unless the created being is made with sufficient attributes that are like God, it would be hopeless. Because we are created in God’s image, we have sufficient attributes to know Him and understand Him, albeit “through a glass darkly”.
Such a God would have to reveal Himself in a way that we could understand and grasp, using language, images, concepts, etc. that are familiar to us.
Think about the complexity of the universe. Think about how much we have learned in the last 500 years, 100 years, 50 years, even 5 years! God who created all of that is far more complex than the world He created. Any revelation from God to people 4000 years ago, 3000 years ago, or 2000 years ago could not be overly technical because they would not have understood it.
God has chosen to reveal himself through the vehicle of people who He created – finite, imperfect beings lacking in the ability to understand God completely – yet, remarkably, we are able to grasp the idea of an infinite, eternal, timeless, omniscient, immaterial, and omnipotent God without having very much frame of reference from where we stand.
Anyone who comes to the Bible insisting that it be taken literally is imposing a standard on the Bible that is arbitrary. When we do that, we are imposing our own standard on the Bible and insisting that it talk to us in the way we have we have determined it should.
That isn’t how God works. We don’t impose the rules on God and define how God communicates to us. This is the wrong approach, and we are certain to stumble over it if we approach the Bible that way.
The way to approach the Bible is to let the Bible speak for itself and let it communicate to us. For the unbeliever, who has an open mind, one should approach the Bible to see if there is truth in it, to see if God might talk through it, to see what it has to say. A believer should approach the Bible in the same way, humbly, open, looking for the Bible to communicate on its own terms – and not insisting that it be taken literally or any other way.
Some will say that, since “God wrote the Bible”, it must be taken literally and be literally true. Well why is that?
Did God “write the Bible” anyway? Paul told Timothy that God inspired scripture (He “breathed” it). This isn’t the same idea as Allah dictating the Quran to Mohammed. God inspired the scripture, and men wrote down the revelation that God inspired. They wrote it in their own languages, through the vehicle of their own minds, filtered by their personal experiences and understanding of what God was revealing to them.
And they conveyed these things in their own ways. Some of them wrote letters. Some wrote songs (Psalms). Some wrote narratives, and poetry and other types of literature to convey the inspired revelation they received.
We shouldn’t begin to think that we must take all of those writings literally in every respect. We must, however, respect those words and the truth that is in those words. In Hebrews, we read that the word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, capable of dividing joints and marrow and discerning the thoughts and the intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12) I have found this to be true. People interact with the word of God from whatever position they might be in, and the word of God accomplishes its purpose. As the prophet, Isaiah, says, God’s word does not go out and come back void. (Isaiah 55:11) It accomplishes its purpose.
If we approach the Bible from the standpoint of demanding that it be literal, and if we are an unbeliever, we will come away convinced that we are right and scoff at it. This accomplishes God’s purpose. The Bible has discerned the thoughts and the intents of that person’s heart.
If a person approaches the Bible humbly, seeking God, a person can find God through the scripture. This is my experience. This is the experience of countless other people who have approached the Bible seeking God and seeking to know him. In this way, again, the scripture exposes the thoughts and intents of the heart
When I first approached the Bible I was not a believer. I came to the Bible without any relationship with God, never having submitted myself to God and being alienated from Him. When I first read the Bible, I found it to be harsh, like reality can be harsh. It exposed the thoughts and intents of my heart. I recognized that something was going on, though I didn’t know what it was, and I couldn’t define it.
Years later, I look back and I see that the Bible was exposing the sin in me and exposing myself as a sinner in relationship to God. That was not comfortable, but it was accurate, and I understood that much. The Scripture has led me to repentance and to faith (trust) in the death and resurrection of Jesus – 1) death in our place as a propitiation for our sins, to redeem us from sin, and 2) resurrection demonstrating to us that He is capable of delivering us from sin and death into life, making the way for our acceptance by God the Father as His children.
The Bible has “changed” for me over the years – rather, I have changed in respect to the Bible as the Bible has changed me. I have found it to be exactly what Paul says it is: “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness….” (2 Timothy 3:16) It can’t be taken literally in all respects, but it can and is meant to be taken seriously. The Bible is the very word of life for all who believe.