What does it mean to interpret the Bible literally?
by Hank Hanegraaff
This article is from , The Complete Bible Answer Book—Collector’s Edition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008)
For more than a decade popular TV personality Bill Maher has made a cottage industry out of ridiculing Christianity. Maher has gone so far as to dogmatically pontificate that the Bible was “written in parables. It’s the idiots today who take it literally.” Even a cursory reading reveals that Scripture is a treasury replete with a wide variety of literary styles ranging from poetry, proverbs, and psalms to historical narratives, didactic epistles, and apocalyptic revelations. To dogmatically assert that the Bible was written in parables and that those who read it literally must be “idiots” is at best an idiosyncratic form of fundamentalism and at worst a serious misunderstanding of the literal principle of biblical interpretation. In order to read the Bible for all its worth, it is crucial that we interpret it just as we would other forms of communication-in its most obvious and natural sense. As such, we must read it as literature, paying close attention to form, figurative language, and fantasy imagery.
First, in order to interpret the Bible literally we must pay special attention to what is known as form or genre. In other words, to interpret the Bible as literature, it is crucial to consider the kind of literature we are interpreting. Just as a legal brief differs in form from a prophetic oracle, so too there
is a difference in genre between Leviticus and Revelation. This is particularly important when considering writings that are difficult to categorize, such as Genesis, which is largely a historical narrative interlaced with symbolism and repetitive poetic structure. If Genesis were reduced to an allegory conveying merely abstract ideas about temptation, sin, and redemption devoid of any correlation with actual events in history, the very foundation of Christianity would be destroyed. If the historical Adam and Eve did not eat the forbidden fruit and descend into a life of habitual sin resulting in death, there is no need for redemption. On the other hand, if we consider Satan to be a slithering snake, we would not only misunderstand the nature of fallen angels but we might also suppose that Jesus triumphed over the work of the devil by stepping on the head of a serpent (Genesis 3:15) rather than through his passion on the cross (Colossians 2:15). A literalistic method of interpretation often does as much violence to the text as does a spiritualized interpretation that empties the text of objective meaning. A “literal-at-all-costs” method of interpretation is particularly troublesome when it comes to books of the Bible in which visionary imagery is the governing genre. For example, in Revelation the apostle John sees an apocalyptic vision in which an angel swinging a sharp sickle gathers grapes into “the great winepress of the wrath of God.” The blood flowing out of the winepress rises as high as “the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs” (Revelation 14:19-20). Interpreting apocalyptic imagery in a woodenly literal sense inevitably leads to absurdity…
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