Are You REALLY Interpreting the Bible Literally?


Stephen Altrogge:

Interpreting the Bible literally can be a good thing. It probably means that you want to know exactly what God says and obey his words.

It means you don’t want to play Bible roulette with which verses you obey. It means you’re willing to obey all the commands of the Bible, even the painful ones.

It means you’re in less danger of drifting into the post-modernism, the Bible is Jello interpretations.

But, interpreting the Bible literally can also get you into a lot of trouble. Harold Camping thought he was interpreting the Bible literally, which in turn led him to mispredict the end of the world…twice.

Pinstripe wearing, silk handkerchief mopping, prosperity preaching pastors think they’re interpreting the Bible literally, which leads them to teach that God never wills illness.

Heck, the hellfire, hate-throwing folks at Westboro Baptist Church probably think they are interpreting the Bible literally.

Today there is a total solar eclipse. There are definitely some tin-foil wearing nut jobs coming up with “literal” interpretations.

So what does it mean to truly interpet the Bible literally? How can we be sure that our “literal” interpretation of the Bible isn’t actually a theological hack job? Here are some simple questions to help you truly interpret the Bible literally.

What Was The Original Intent?

The first question to ask when reading the Bible should not be, “What does this mean to me?” In fact, that question should be pretty far down the list.

The first question always must be, “What was the original author trying to say to the original audience?” Ask questions like:

  • Was the author seeking to encourage the exiled people of Israel?
  • Was the author seeking to convince the Jewish people that Jesus was the Messiah?
  • Was the author seeking to correct a theological error in the church?
  • Was the author seeking to encourage Christians in the midst of persecution?

Understanding the original intent of the passage guards us from reading a modern meaning back into scripture. Does it take work and study and thinking to wrestle the original meaning from the text? You bet. But it’s valuable, necessary work.

Why do so many people end up twisting scripture? Because they infuse their modern, “enlightened” sensibilities into the text, taking it far away from what the author originally meant.

What Type Of Writing Is This?

The Psalms are primarily poetry, which means we should expect word pictures, similes, and metaphors. When the Psalmist says God will shelter us under his wings, he doesn’t literally mean that God has wings. It’s poetry.

The epistles of Paul are letters, which means we should expect a relatively straightforward, logical progression. Paul is very logical with his letters we should expect logical arguments.

The gospels are narratives, which means we should expect all the elements of an eyewitness story to be in place. Revelation is apocalyptic in nature, which means we should expect highly symbolic language.

We can’t interpret the Psalms in the same way we interpret the epistles of Paul. We can’t interpret the gospels in the same way we interpret Proverbs. Each scripture must interpreted in light of its literary genre. We get into trouble when we start mixing up our genres.

Where Does This Scripture Fall In Salvation History?

All of scripture must be interpreted through the lens of God’s plan of salvation. When reading the Old Testament, ask yourself, “How do these stories, commands, or prophecies point to Jesus, and how are they fulfilled by Jesus?”

When the risen Christ was clearing up confusion about himself while walking Emmaus road, this was his approach to scripture:

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)

Jesus said that all of the law and the prophets spoke about him. We get into theological trouble when we start applying Old Testament commands, stories, and prophecies without first looking at them through the lens of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return.

In the story of Daniel and the lion’s den, Daniel doesn’t primarily represent me. He foreshadows Christ, who would obey God and not be spared from death.

What Is God’s Intended Outcome For This Section of Scripture?

In other words, how does God want me to respond to this command, promise, warning, or rebuke? Should I worship? Should I repent? Should I take courage? Should I marvel?

God’s word is not meant to be read and dissected like a chemistry textbook. It is living and active. God speaks to us when we read his word. He wants us to respond to his word, to obey his word, to live by his word. We are to be doers of the word, not hearers only.

How Does This Passage Fit In With The Rest of Scripture?

A general rule of thumb for Bible interpretation is that clear passages always interpret unclear passages. So, when James says that we are justified by our works, we interpret that passage in light of all the Bible says about justification by faith.

When Paul says that women must stay silent in church, we interpret that in light of Paul’s teaching that both men and women can publicly prophecy in church. We get into trouble when we isolate passages of scriptures.

Scripture always interprets itself. Clear passages shine a light on those that, initially, seem confusing.

Massive books have been written on the subject of scripture interpretation. Obviously, I can’t cover all my bases in one short blog post. These are general rules of thumb and need to be applied with wisdom. If you’re looking for a good book on the subject, I recommend How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth by Gordon Fee.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.