When a writer seems to be communicating facts in a straightforward way, I read them as such. When I encounter obvious figures of speech, I take them that way, too.
I never liked the question, “Do you take the Bible literally?” It comes up with some frequency, and it deserves an answer. But I think it’s confusing, ambiguous, and awkward to answer.
Clearly, even those with a high view of Scripture don’t take everything literally. Jesus is the “door,” but He’s not made of wood. We are the “branches,” but we’re not sprouting leaves.
On the other hand, we do take seriously content others find fanciful and far-fetched: loaves and fishes multiplying miraculously, Adam and Eve, Jonah and the big fish, water walking, resurrections, etc.
A short “yes” or “no” in response to the “Do you take the Bible literally?” question, then, would not be helpful. Neither answer gives the right impression.
I’d like to suggest an alternative response that might result in a productive conversation. Here it is: “I take the Bible in its ordinary sense.”
Now, I realize this response is also ambiguous. Here I think it’s a strength, though. Hopefully, your answer will prompt a request for clarification. This is exactly what you want, as long as you are clear in your own mind on what you mean.
I would clarify what I have in mind by countering with another question. When someone asks for an explanation of my comment, I’d ask, “Do you read the sports page literally?”
I think this question would give anyone pause. Once again, certain factual information is part of every story in the section. On the other hand, no one would be tempted to think that a football team was literally “crushed,” “mangled,” “mutilated,” “pounded,” “stomped,” “shredded,” or “devoured.”
“Literally?” they’d probably respond. “That depends. If the writer seems to be stating a fact—like a score, a location, a player’s name, a description of the plays leading to a touchdown—then I’d take that as fact. If he seems to be using a figure of speech, then I’d take his statements that way.”
This would be a fair way of reading the sports page. It’s also a fair way of reading the Bible and is exactly what I mean when I say, “I take the Bible in its ordinary sense.” When a writer seems to be communicating facts in a straightforward way, I read them as such. When I encounter obvious figures of speech, I take them that way, too.
Even then, though, the purpose of figurative speech—in prose at least—is always to communicate literal truth in a more precise and powerful way than ordinary language would be able to.
Figurative speech is always meant to clarify, not obscure. So, even if you don’t take a phrase “literally,” some literal point is still being made. In that case, it’s always fair to ask what specifically the writer is trying to communicate with his colorful language.
This is the same way we read just about everything. I don’t see any reason the Bible should be different. In fact, even non-Christians read the Bible that way (no one doubts we should take statements like “Love your neighbor” or “Give to the poor” literally), with one exception.
People only balk when they come across controversial claims, something in the Bible that is inconsistent with their own theological or moral fancies. Then, suddenly, they become skeptics and sniff, “You don’t take that literally, do you?” What they really mean is, “You don’t take that seriously, do you?”
When that happens, tell them you take the words in their ordinary sense, the way it seems the author intended you to take them as you read the passage. If they disagree, ask for the reasons they think this passage should be an exception to an otherwise sound rule.
Their answer will tell you if their challenge is intellectually honest, or if they are just trying to dismiss biblical claims they simply don’t like.
I hope this letter gives you a meaningful response to a common challenge that could lead to a productive conversation. We’re also facing a common challenge right now at Stand to Reason.
Financial giving in the first few months after Christmas always starts slow for us, and we plan for that.
In April, we would really like to make up some of the lost ground and get back on track. Could I ask you to be especially generous in your support in the upcoming month, both financially and with prayer? Your gift today will help us reverse the present trend.
I look forward to our continued partnership this year, and to sharing with you the productivity and impact God is giving us every day at STR, equipping and training ambassadors of Christ.
In His care,