Understanding the Bible: Literal vs Figurative

     Some people claim to interpret the Bible literally while others say that they interpret it figuratively.  I say, “Holy Oversimplification, Batman!”  It is absurd to say that one intereprets the etire Bible one way or the other.

     Parts of the Bible are obviously figurative.  Observe:

“I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.”  –John 10:9 (NASB)

     Not only is Jesus not literally a door, but we are not literally sheep.  Besides, if Jesus is the door, then how can he also be the Shepherd?

“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  –John 10:11 (NASB)

     These statements of Jesus are obviously metaphors.  They should be taken metaphorically, not literally.

     When certain Christians say that they interpret the Bible literally, it is shorthand for saying that they believe that the events narrated in the Bible took place in actual history and that the people mentioned as historical figures in the Bible actually existed.

     The tricky part is knowing when to take a passage literally and when to take it figuratively.  Fundamentalists take the cautions, conservative approach and assume that everything in the Bible is literal, unless there is a clear indication that it is not.  Thus, they believe that Jonah was a real man who was actually swallowed by a real fish of some sort.  Liberal Christians take the strictly logical and naturalistic approach that many things in the Bible are not plausible as literal fact.  They can accept that the story of Jonah has value as a story but not as history.  They may even accept the possibility that some details of the story are true–but not all.

     How do you understand the implausible parts of the Bible?  Do you accept all of them as supernatural but real events?  Do you reject all of them as impossible?  Do you accept some but not others?  Do you tentatively accept them but leave room for doubt?

     My own approach is to lean toward accepting everything in the Bible as literally as possible but to be open to the possibility that some passages that I take literally were not meant to be so.  In other words, my faith in God would not be shaken if I found out that some Bible stories were illustrative rather than historical.

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13 responses to “Understanding the Bible: Literal vs Figurative

  1. Sounds good, RG. I’d say that’s pretty much the way I see it, too.

  2. RG

    Other than with a sense or a feeling how do you tell the difference between what might be illustrative, metaphorical, or historical about the bible?

    Is the bible the direct word of “God” or an allusion to the word of “God”?

    How is it possible to form a cohesive community of believers when someone who lives across the street from you disagrees with your interpretations?


  3. There are lots of categories of Biblical interpretation to be considered in this regard.
    For example, to take a hot button issue, consider Genesis. Most believers in Christ will say, obviously, the world was created. And then the tricky part become, how, and when/how long ago.
    Because I can tell you (as someone who is seminary-trained and can actually translate Hebrew) that the reality is that the portions in question are written as poetry, not a science book. It’s written to tell people how they came into being, how God did these things. Doesn’t say how long it took, per se (too many arguments about the usage of yom, which is still somewhat up in the air), or when it happened (the genealogies, alas, usually recorded more important people, and not every last person out there). But, if you bring all of this up, charges of heresy begin flying around. Assuming they don’t question your salvation first, of course.
    Isn’t biblical hermeneutics fun? ;)

  4. “…In other words, my faith in God would not be shaken if I found out that some Bible stories were illustrative rather than historical.”

    I agree. Well said.

  5. Poetman,

    Your questions are excellent, as usual.

    The first one is difficult to answer briefly. Often there are verbal cues that something written in the Bible is figurative rather than literal. Often one can tell by comparing one text to another or by using simple common sense.

    Your second question appears to be provocative, but I’m not sure the result is different whichever way one describes the Bible. At the very least, the Word of God is somehow contained therein. I strongly lean toward the idea that the original text, in all its particulars, was inspired directly by God.

    Neighbors disagreeing? Perish the thought! As you know Christians do not form a single cohesive body and really never had. C’est la vie! The fault is not with the Bible, but with us. As you also know large numbers of Christians do agree and form smaller cohesive bodies. There are a few core beliefs that we have in common (or that we at least view similarly).

  6. Kenneth Conklin, I also know a bit of Hebrew. Isn’t it fascinating?

    You make a great point about the opening chapters of Genesis. An interesting view of that passage was held by Augustine. He couldn’t understand why God took six days to create the world when he could have done it in an instant.

    You won’t be called a heretic here or have your salvation questioned–unless you disbelieve something more fundamental than how long it took God to make the world.

  7. Lacktose Intolerant

    The bible was Literally changed multiple times by multiple writers in multiple languages. There is good word and words that are pure rubbish such as references to killing ot sacrificing your own child.

  8. Mr. Laktose,

    I’m sorry to hear about your digestive problem.

    What is your source for saying that the Bible was changed so many times. Have you seen the original manuscripts? That would be news, indeed!

    The Bible condmens the sacrificing of one’s child. I hope that you agree.

  9. Lord of the Rings is another great figurative story!

  10. Interesting that the story of Jonah was used as a point of deliberation between figurative and literal. What I find interesting is that the crux of the situation is disregarded in discussing if Jonah could have been swallowed by a fish. Jonah was ordered by God to go and tell people about God’s kingdom. He took it upon himself to decide not to do what God commanded; he used his own judgement. The account of God then commanding a whale to swallow Jonah and regurgitate him may have been the author’s way of illustrating that a force beyond Jonah’s control took him to preach. The main idea is, God knows what is best, and we don’t. This is the fundamental argument throughout the Holy Scriptures. So there are literal and figurative interpretations that follow a main idea: “Does God have the right to govern man?” I try to keep this “main idea” in mind when I read any Scripture! It has helped me see the beauty of what God planned for man. I also see the more personal side of God, and I have a better understanding of what “God is love” means.

  11. When encountering someone who says, “oh, that story about.. is just figurative; you can’t believe that” just ask them,ok, what figure of speech. Oftentimes people will just throw around that term ‘figure of speech’ b/c they don’t know how to do proper biblical hermeneutics.

  12. If some Biblical stories were intended to be taken figuratively, could it not be the characters, I.e. God and Jesus, were also metaphorical? Could not all of the Bible be symbolic rather than literal?

    The most implausible thing about the Bible is God himself – surely that would be circled first as figurative?

  13. Turning water into wine is a great METAPHOR which asks how I/we turn my/our water into wine, ie the transformation of myself, someone of value into someone of even MORE value. When I reflect upon the LESSON of this sign, rather than argue about the sign itself, then there is real application

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