Should the Bible be interpreted literally?

Some people argue that the Bible cannot and should not be interpreted literally. The response to that argument is “Then how should you interpret it? What other possible way to interpret the Bible than to do it literally?” The idea of “literal interpretation” is an idea associated with people who are backwards in their mentality, who are anti-intellectual or anti-academic. In most situations, when we say the Bible should be interpreted literally, and when others say it shouldn’t, we are not talking about the same thing. When we say that the Bible must be interpreted literally, there is something very specific in our mind. This involves a systematic method that is linked to the grammatical historical method of interpretation. One of the most significant advances of biblical scholarship during the Reformation was gained as a result of Luther’s militant advocacy of the second rule of hermeneutics that the Bible should be interpreted according to its literal sense.

The purpose of hermeneutics is to establish guidelines and rules for interpretation. It is a well-developed science that can become technical and complex. Any written document is subject to misinterpretation, and thus there are rules developed to safeguard us from such misunderstanding.

Analogy of faith
The primary rule of hermeneutics was called the “analogy of faith.” The analogy of faith is the rule that Scripture is to interpret Scripture: ‘Sacra Scriptura sui interpres’ (Sacred Scripture is its own interpreter). This means, quite simply, that no part of Scripture can be interpreted in such a way as to render it in conflict with what is clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture. For example, if a given verse is capable of two renditions or variant interpretations and one of those interpretations goes against the rest of Scripture while the other is in harmony with it, then the latter interpretation must be used.

This principle rests on the prior confidence in the Bible as the inspired Word of God. It is, therefore, consistent and coherent. Since it is assumed that God would never contradict himself, it is thought slanderous to the Holy Spirit to choose an alternate interpretation that would unnecessarily bring the Bible in conflict with itself.

Literal sense
The second rule of hermeneutics is that the Bible should be interpreted according to its literal sense. To interpret the Bible literally is to interpret it as literature. That is, the natural meaning of a passage is to be interpreted according to the normal rules of grammar, speech, syntax and context. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text.

The Bible may be a very special book, being uniquely inspired by the Holy Spirit, but that inspiration does not transform the letters of the words or the sentences of the passages into magical phrases. There is no spiritualistic interpretation of the Scripture; there shouldn’t be any mystical approach interpreting scriptures. (Unfortunately, many Christians use the Bible as some kind of superstitious tool, Ouija board in their life applications). The Holy Ghost inspiration doesn’t change nouns to verbs and verbs to nouns. There is no such thing as “Holy Ghost Greek”.

Under inspiration a noun remains a noun and a verb remains a verb. Questions do not become exclamations, and historical narratives do not become allegories. To be accurate interpreters of the Bible we need to know the rules of grammar, and above all we must be carefully involved in what is called genre analysis.

Genre analysis involves the study of such things as literary forms, figures of speech and style. We distinguish between lyric poetry and legal briefs, between newspaper accounts of current events and epic poems. We distinguish between the style of historical narratives and sermons, between realistic graphic description and hyperbole (exaggeration). There are different rules interpreting different types of literary forms. Failure to make these distinctions when dealing with the Bible can lead to a host of problems with interpretation. Literary analysis is crucial to accurate interpretation.

Both the analogy of faith and the principle of seeking the literal sense are necessary safeguards against unbridled speculation and subjectivistic interpretation.

The grammatical-historical method
Closely related to the analogy of faith and the literal sense of Scripture is the method of interpretation called the grammatical-historical method. This method focuses attention not only on literary forms but on grammatical constructions and historical contexts out of which the Scriptures were written. Not only is it important to know English grammar but it is helpful to know some of the peculiarities of Hebrew and Greek grammar. [If, for example, the people had a thorough knowledge of Greek grammar, the Jehovah Witnesses would have a much more difficult time selling their interpretation of the first chapter of the Gospel of John, by which the Witnesses deny the deity of Christ.]

In summary, the three primary principles of interpretation aids to our personal enrichment:

  • The analogy of faith keeps the whole Bible in view lest we suffer from the effects of exaggerating one part of Scripture to the exclusion of others.
  • The literal sense offers a restraint from letting our imaginations run away in fanciful interpretation and invites us to examine closely the literary forms of Scripture.
  • The grammatical-historical method focuses our attention on the original meaning of the text lest we “read into Scripture” our own ideas drawn from the present.

Additional Reading:
Dr. R. C. Sproul – Knowing Scripture
Robert L. Thomas, Professor of New Testament, master’s seminary – The Principle of Single Meaning