Bible Genre - Literalism
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Literalism (in Relation to the Various Bible Genres)
[Updated Oct 2010] We've added this section due to some inquiries from readers who were wondering if a literal interpretation of Scripture excludes the various other literary forms expounded upon in this series. In the strictest sense, a literal interpretation is limited to the explicit verbatim meaning of the text and excludes any figurative language. However, the correct definition with respect to interpreting an author’s writings must allow for the inclusion of any legitimate literary device that is being employed by the author. Otherwise, it would be impossible to make a realistic or accurate interpretation of the author’s intended meaning. If we use a non-literal approach to Bible study, we open ourselves up to using subjective standards of interpretation. In worst case scenarios, the authority shifts from the infallible divine Author of the Bible to the fallible human reader.
We hold to the Reformers view of the “literal” sense of Scripture, which was the sense that was intended by the original authors, according to the rules for the type of literary forms used by the author. That is, the literal meaning of a passage is what the author intended it to mean, and if this meaning includes hyperbole, allegories or metaphors, so be it. This is sometimes referred to as the “realistic sense”, or a “plain or normal reading”. In fact, interpreting a passage as a strictly literal statement when the author intended it as allegory would actually violate the intent of the “literal or real sense” of Scripture. For example, in John 10:9, Jesus says “I am the gate” (or door). We obviously would not interpret this to mean that Jesus is literally a gate complete with handle and hinges, but that metaphorically, He is the gateway to heaven, or the only way of salvation.
Thus, the inevitable question becomes, “How do we determine whether or not figurative language is being used by the author in a particular passage?” In many cases, the realistic meaning will be obvious from the context. If not, compare how certain phrases are used elsewhere in the Bible (certain words are used consistently as symbols in multiple places). Since the ultimate goal of a literal interpretation is to determine what the original author meant, we must know as much as possible about the author, his spiritual, cultural and historical circumstances for writing, and his intended audience. Finally, a good rule of thumb is that, if the explicit literal meaning makes good practical sense within the context, it is usually the most likely interpretation. Keep in mind also that many Scriptures may have an immediate explicit meaning, and a deeper figurative spiritual meaning.
A final important point that we must emphasize is that, even when the Bible authors make use of figurative language, they are still describing or representing a real person, place, event etc. To illustrate, an argument can be made for a literal or figurative fire in hell, but in either case, the fire is real, either as literal fire or as a figurative representation of the real wrath of God.
The next two paragraphs have been added based on some exchanged emails with a good friend of mine discussing our article on Biblical Genealogies. In that article, we addressed the difficulty of the genealogy in Ruth 4 (and Matthew 1:5) of Salmon and Rahab being the parents of Boaz (who married Ruth and became an ancestor of the Messiah) since Salmon and Rahab lived about 1400BC and Boaz lived about 300 years later. Part of the solution lies in understanding the original Hebrew and Greek languages, in which the words for “father” and “son” can also mean “ancestor” and “descendant”. Our conclusion was that Salmon and Rahab were ancestors rather than parents of Boaz. My friend had difficulty with this conclusion, stating that “I take the Bible literally”. I also take the Bible literally, but our initial disagreement arose from a slightly different understanding of the term “literal”. His admirable view was that, when the Bible says “Salmon was the father of Boaz”, it means that Salmon was literally the father of Boaz. Now, if the Bible had originally been written in English, he would be absolutely correct; but when we consider the original language, we see that either “father” or “ancestor” can be the literal meaning, and the correct interpretation must be established by context and other factors. His ultra-literal interpretation would be a problem with Mt 1:1 (This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham). So, we see that the original Biblical languages and the context must be taken into account when determining the literal sense of the author’s original meaning.
We can take this one step further by noting that, words in the original language are often used figuratively in the Bible. To give one example, the Hebrew word kābôd literally means “a heavy weight”, but in the 200 occurrences in the Scripture, it is always used figuratively. In over three fourths of its appearances, it is translated as “glory” (or glorious), often referring to God’s glory. On the remaining occasions, kābôd is translated “honor” (or honorable). So, a strict literal interpretation would be that God is heavy, but once again, this would distort the meaning as intended by the original author.
Confusion over the word “literal” also arises when one attempts to apply a non-literary definition rather than a literary one. Recognizing this, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics of 1982 was formulated to clarify language used in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy of 1978. Article 15 of the Biblical Hermeneutics statement reads:
We affirm the necessity of interpreting the Bible
according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal
sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the
meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation
according to the literal sense will take account of all
figures of speech and literary forms found in the text.
We deny the legitimacy of any approach to Scripture that attributes to it meaning which the literal sense does not support.
Theologian Norman Geisler, who holds to the inerrancy of the Bible, comments:
The literal sense of Scripture is strongly affirmed here. To be sure the English word literal carries some problematic connotations with it. Hence the words normal and grammatical-historical are used to explain what is meant. The literal sense is also designated by the more descriptive title grammatical-historical sense. This means the correct interpretation is the one which discovers the meaning of the text in its grammatical forms and in the historical, cultural context in which the text is expressed.
Therefore, we conclude that, instead of being mutually exclusive, the practice of properly interpreting the Scriptures according to the proper literary form used by the author is in harmony with the practice of interpreting the Bible in a “literal sense” when the literary meaning of “literal” is properly understood.
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