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The Bible: Reading the “Ordinary” Way

by Greg Koukl

I never like the question “Do you take the Bible literally?” It comes up with some frequency, and it deserves a response. But I think it’s an ambiguous—and, therefore, confusing—question, making it 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 accounts that others find fanciful and far-fetched: a man made from mud (Adam), loaves and fishes miraculously multiplied, vivified corpses rising from graves, etc.

A short “yes” or “no” response to the “Do you take the Bible literally?” question, then, would not be helpful. Neither answer gives the full picture. In fact, I think it’s the wrong question since frequently something else is driving the query.

Taking “Literally” Literally

Let’s start with a definition. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the word “literal” means “taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory, free from exaggeration or distortion.” Why do people balk at this common-sense notion when it comes to the Bible or, more precisely, certain passages in the Bible?

Let’s face it, even non-Christians read the Bible in its “usual or most basic sense” most of the time on points that are not controversial. They readily take statements like “Love your neighbor as yourself” or “Remember the poor” at face value. When citing Jesus’ directive “Do not judge,” they’re not deterred by the challenge “You don’t take the Bible literally, do you?”

No, when critics agree with the point of a passage, they take the words in their ordinary and customary sense. They naturally understand that language works a certain way in everyday communication, and it never occurs to them to think otherwise.

Unless, of course, the details of the text trouble them for some reason…

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The Bible: Reading the “Ordinary” Way

 

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