On what basis should the bible be taken literally?

Christians often argue over how literally to interpret bible passages, especially Genesis 1, but many others too. The little white lie in all of these discussions is that NO Christian takes ALL of the bible literally since he would have chopped off his hands and plucked out his eyes at the first sinful action.

Thus, there must be some basis by which individuals decide what parts of the bible are literal and what parts are not. With regard to the creation account in Genesis 1 this seems like an important issue to deal with.


(i) Is there any evidence that ANY biblical character took Genesis 1 literally? Did Jesus say so? Did Paul? If not, then why do some Christians assume so? Is this simply something they have been taught, or something that they see clearly laid out in the bible?

(ii) Are there any passages of the bible that that you (as a Christian) do NOT take literally? What about the book of Job? Is it a story or a real account of history? What about song of songs? Is it a song/story or did the events described actually happen? What about statements and parables by Jesus? Do you take them all literally? Did the good neighbor actually exist, or not? What about revelation? Are all the strange beasts and events described actual accounts of events that will take place? On what basis do you decide whether something is credible history or a form of literature?

In all fairness Mr. Ned, this post of yours, (in the way that you’ve worded it) seems to be somewhat of a straw man.

Even the most ardent Pentecostal I know of (a die hard, “literal word for word” proponent) agrees that there is a standard that should be adhered to when discerning the actual message of the Bible.i[/i]

We all agree that SOME passages are meant as literal, and SOME are meant as figurative. Fortunately for us all, there are set grammatical rules that we can utilize in order to interpret and correctly understand what we are reading.

Any disagreements we would have over the reading of a particular passage then, can be resolved by an appeal to scientific methods of textual criticism, and proper hermeneutical procedures.

God bless

i[/i] I specifically thought of my friend the Pentecostal, since some of their denominations are well known for their position on the absolute literal interpretation of the text whenever and wherever possible.

I agree. And I’m trying to find out what this standard is, and where it comes from. By the way, I’m a pentecostal! Shock, horror!

Agreed. Although I can think of some people who would disagree. I think these people are simply lying to themselves. But let’s move on since we agree…

So, what grammatical rules do you follow to correctly understand Genesis 1? Or Revelation?

Please explain what rules you use personally and how they help you understand Genesis 1 versus Revelation.

By the way, I agree with a lot of what you’ve said about textual criticism and hermeneutics. Understanding these issues can make some of the discussions about literal interpretation moot. However, it doesn’t quite deal with the wider picture of what kind of literature we are dealing with in certain books. Is Job a story or history? Is Genesis 1 literal or a myth? Is revelation a literal account of the future? It seems that we must look OUTSIDE the bible to get the answers to these questions. For example, interpreting Revelation is a little easier if you are familiar with apocalyptic literature like the book of Enoch.

A quick note here:

I do agree that not all the evidence for the proper interpretation of a passage, is to be found internally.

When we talk about context, we should not only mean the literary context, but also, the socio - political, and historical contexts.

Whatever the method we utilize, we should be willing to take full advantage of all the “data” whether it be internal, or external.

Agreed. So, tell me how you apply this to genesis 1? If one looks outside the bible there are similar creation stories. How does that affect your reading of Genesis 1?

What is YOUR basis for a literal reading of this passage?

Starting from scratch with no preconceived ideas about the Bible, I think you could conclude that it contains self-evident wisdom, historically verifiable events/facts, many monumental contradictions, and not one single supernatural event that has a shred of historic or scientific evidence to support it (rather, all evidence points away from it).

As for Christians and the Bible in today’s world, I think that nearly all (non-evangelical) Christians don’t take it seriously, even though most wouldn’t even admit that to themselves. They dutifully take their Bible to church on Sunday, open to where the preacher says, and when the get back home, they place it back in the nightstand where it stays until the next Sunday they decide to go to church. Evangelicals take it more seriously, but when they open the Bible, there’s two switches that are thrown in their heads: one controlling reasonable thought is turned off, and the other floods their neurons with a big flashing neon sign saying FAITH (meaning blind faith).

I agree with most of what you have said.

Your point about turning off your brain when reading the bible is important, since the whole point of this thread is trying to find out what intelligent processes people might use when approaching the bible.

If, like you say, people don’t their your brain at all, then obviously there’s a danger that people will just believe whatever someone tells them to believe. In that sense, evangelicals could be made to believe almost anything. In fact, if one examines fairly new theological positions such as the famous “rapture idea”, one can see that this is actually happening in evangelical circles. Ideas that are not supported by the bible and have never been believed for the previous 1900 years of Christianity have become so popular that they are accepted as biblical.

Paineful Truth,

Supernatural events by definition can’t be proven by scientific evidence. If a bona fide supernatural event has happened in the past it would have to be established by testimonial evidence and not empirical scientific evidence. Historical testimony is the primary method of determining historical events. You can’t prove the existence of Alexander the Great using empirical scientific evidence. Therefore, I would have to disagree with you that there is not a “shred” of evidence to support supernatural events. There is plenty of testimonial evidence, you are just rejecting the evidence on some grounds, or you’re not familiar with the evidence. You’re overstating your case, which weakens it. As far as “all evidence pointing away from it”, you’re once again grossly exaggerating your case.

In regards to when to interpret the Bible literally, one needs to evaluate the text using all available evidence, internal, external, and especially the context. Is the text clearly making a claim to be reporting a historical event?

While I would agree with your description of some Christians including many Evangelical Christians, it is once again an exaggeration to characterize all Christians as such. As an Evangelical Christian myself, I don’t turn off reasonable thought at any time, and I am more than capable of logically defending what I believe. I would also say in my experience, that most people that make claims such as “there is no evidence”, are being intellectually dishonest because they haven’t really examined the evidence. They apriori reject it based on philosophical prejudices and not based on an honest evaluation of the evidence.

I’m going to give a big ol’ “AMEN” to Mr. Show-Me.

It takes an incredible amount of presuppositional bias to reject miraculous claims.

I say our existance; every particular instant of it, is an instant of a supernatural action. (I have further clarified this position in other posts here.)

Before we let the unbelievers “define out of existance” all possibility of the miraculous, we should challenge their basic presuppositions about “natural.”

This applies to the current thread in that, unbelievers (and many others who are biased against their Creator) approach the act of interpretation with a hostile attitude.

This is clearly seen in the conclusions of such groups as the Jesus Seminar. If their conclusions are accurate, then only 20 percent of the sayings in the four Gospels, (and G.Thom) are actually words Jesus spoke.

The Jesus Seminar approaches its interpretation of the Bible, with the presupposition of naturalism. Consider this quote from the introduction to their study, “The Five Gospels”:

The contemporary religious controversy turns on whether the world view reflected in the Bible can be carried forward into this scientific age and retained as an article of faith . . . . the Christ of creed and dogma . . . can no longer command the assent of those who have seen the heavens through Galileo’s telescope.

They arrive at completely different conclusions about the nature of Christ (than us “real” Christians) because they “start” from biased, (not to mention inconsistent, and foolish) presuppositions.

Did you guy’s notice the very first sentence of Mr. Painful Truths response?

We should “start from scratch” he says. No preconceived ideas he says.

I guarantee you that he doesn’t approach the Bible with the view that it is the word of his almighty Creator, but instead, wants us to accept his worldview of empirical humanistic naturalism as a foundation for “starting from scratch.”

Sorry Mr. Painful Truth, I don’t have blind faith in your heretical religion. I have “knowledgeable” faith in the God of all reality.

There are several things the bible can be literally useful for.

It can make an excellent door stop or paper weight. A small stack of bibles can be used as a stool as well. Also, the many pages of thin paper can be used to start a fire where one has no kindling.

Now, if only it could literally make unbelievers have valid arguments, we’d be set.

So, what is the basis by which you discern what is meant by the author to be taken literally and what metaphorically?

Or make believers literally practice what they preach…


In any philosophy or religious text I have read, I have found that it makes little difference whether the words are allegorical or literal. Understanding is more the issue, and it is how the words fit your life experience - or not. Whether religion or philosophy, it as about finding meaning, and what is meaningful is interpreted through our past experience for the most part. Granted, the stories of the supernatural, the miracles, even the “thou shalt” statements must raise the questions of credibility, but only to the extent that they somehow jibe with your personal experience. Of course this assumes having the ability to question in the first place. The extreme literalists are… well, you know.

I was absolutely amazed the first time I ran across a KJV website declaring all other translations of the bible to be in error. I confess that I didn’t stay long enough to discover what convoluted rationale was behind such a position, but it was obviously a group of literalists at work.

Ultimately each person finds meaning and understanding where they find it. Read the bible 20 times and each time will bring new insights. As a person with Taoist leanings, I have read Tao Te Ching at least a hundred times, and I still haven’t grasped but a fraction of the meaning contained there. I doubt if another lifetime would change that.

I don’t think there is anything particularly surprising that what should or could be literal or allegorical is contested by both different groups and individuals. What is meaning is always a comparison. This a meaningful compared to what? All perspectives are but a tiny slice of the whole, so I see nothing that can resolve the issue.

Unfortunately, none of us can have any idea what Mr. Tentative just meant by any of his statements.

Not exactly. Supernatural events are extra-natural. In the past, all we had to rely on was eye witnesses accounts, which have a notoriously bad record due to our natural limitations, our emotions and the tendency of some to exploit the ignorance of others. But now we have impartial means of recording any unnatural events, say the Sun going nova, swallowing the Earth in flame and then shrinking back to normal leaving the Earth and its inhabitants as before.

Another way to verify the supernatural would be by showing an exact prophesy with one chance against the infinite of being correct. God could go on every TV , radio station, Internet et al and declare that anyone committing an immoral act would be instantly punished by the perp being struck dead by .000001mm perfectly cubical meteorite penetrating to the exact center of the brain. (An eyeopener here would be what acts were punished and which weren’t apparently immoral.) If God didn’t want to make direct contact with the masses, he could just pick someone to be His prophet and hand him a copy of the Wall Street Journal for a month hence. (God would also have to know whether His choice of prophet would see it through and not exploit it.) Or He could just put a signed copy with the scientific explanation of Quantum mechanics on Utube.

Actually archeology is the method for separating legend from fact. But when it comes to verifying the past, nothing beats the good old telescope (optical, x-ray, radio etc.). It can determine historical events back 13 billion years, even to the Big Bang. So far, every time we’ve looked and found evidence or facts, it’s been in favor of natural law–100%. That’s not an overstatement at all. (It is ironic, but I believe that the totally natural universe was created by the first, and last, supernatural act.)The existence of Alexander the Great may or may not be fact, but if he existed or he didn’t, either one or the other is a natural fact. We can’t prove Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, yet, but until we have a verified a supernatural event beyond doubt (not based on [emotional & blind] faith) we have to assume and go with the 100%.

There have been events verified historically, but so far not one of them has been supernatural.

All Christians accept the supernatural events and the God “revealed” theology (the resurrection and Paul’s doctrine of Jesus’ salvific death) on faith and faith alone, but I’m open to any evidence to the contrary you or anyone might have.

You do every time you say you’re a believer that Jesus died to atone for your sins.

As a former very devout Christian (my brother is still an evangelical) who has devoted a good deal of time and effort to study of the Bible, I can only say that you’re wrong. My strong beliefs (note I don’t say knowledge) are based on reason, not pure faith which every honest Christian I’ve come across (eventually) admits is the the basis for their being Christians, and that faith is based on external factors such as family, camaraderie, networking etc., not what the Bible says since most only have a vague idea of what’s in it says anyway. Even preachers go into a tap dance when confronted with the obvious meaning behind the fate of Jephthah’s daughter who mysteriously isn’t even named.

First, I’m not a humanist, and second you quote my “no preconceived ideas”, chide me for how I’ve come to at this point on the false premise that I’m a humanist, and then chides me again for not using his self-described preconceived idea the “the Bible is the view that is the word of his almighty Creator”. You might read my last (previous) post.

Shotgun, :laughing: :laughing: :laughing:

The notion that YOU have no idea what I said isn’t particularly surprising. :laughing: I realize that you may be more comfortable in the shallow end of the pool, but some of the folks here have managed to occasionally swim in deeper water.

And no, I don’t expect you to understand this either.

Since this post didn’t receive acknowledgment in the “Creation confusion” thread, I’ll post here…again:

My now retired pastor gave me the impression he views the interpretation of the Bible in more of a literal sense. I have no problem with that if that is how his faith is based. I don’t judge people’s thought’s on the Bible if that is where their comfort zone lies. There was one time when he and his wife and a couple of church friends had Thanksgiving dinner with us and to promote coversation, I brought up the discussion of dinosaurs. Well, there was some denouncement starting to occur along with some hemming and hawing. The discussion was heading to a vehement stance when my wife interceded and quelled the debate. Needless to say, I didn’t learn much during those short exchanges. You have to realize I regard my pastor in high esteem with an intelligent head on his shoulders. He is a very devout Christian, so I didn’t pursue any other conversations concerning such topics, because I feel people are allowed to believe the Bible however the want.

Regarding Genesis’ storyline, Moses was told in his mind through God’s direction the accounts of those times. Moses transcribed the first few books of the Bible the best he could (in my opinion), plus through King James’ scribes along with interpreters, I feel some of the transcriptions were mistakenly done. It is very possible some descriptions were muddled being translated through several people.

I take some scriptures literally, some metaphorically, some in an allegorical sense and the rest as parables. I have no problem thinking this universe is billions of years old…time has no constraints for God. Dinosaur’s remains have been recovered and I have seen tracks for which I believe to be T-Rex foot prints in hardened riverbed. God gave us minds to reason and if Christians use prayer along with the study of the Bible, then we will use that reason to help us understand in a way that comforts us personally. I have also witnessed anomolies which I feel God was responsible for which there was no scientific way to explain them. Most assuredly I was sober and sound of mind when those incidents occurred.

I have found correlations between the fall of satan and the fall of man. How they closely follow each other in accounts of the Bible. The biggest difference being is the possibility of redemption of man where satan does not. However cruel or harsh it is perceived how God will carry out His plan, is not for man to understand. I feel we are allowed to question in our minds this course God takes, but we will ultimately have to reconcile the fact these things will come to pass. Whether we come to God in a fundamental frame of mind or through a discerning manner, we must hold onto our faith that God acts in our best interest and give thanks for all things in our lives.

For there to be a strictly authorized method of interpreting the bible, it would have to be prescribed in the bible itself or in another authorized book. Authorized by whom is another problem. None of the biblical books exactly do that. However, some of the books allegorize passages from other books. So, figurative interpretation is an intra-biblical practice.

It is possible for ritual practice to precede myth. Thus, for example, imagine a people find themselves keeping a holy day. Maybe they have an oral tradition that says, “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.” So they are remembering it and keeping it every seven days.

Then one day along comes a precocious kid who asks, “Why do we have a sabbath day?” The man in charge becomes perplexed. He never thought about it before. He doesn’t have an answer. It’s just what they have always practiced. He was born into the practice just like the kid.

But the question starts the man thinking, ruminating, reflecting about it. One day it comes to him, maybe in a dream, or a vision. Any how the answer comes to him in a powerful mental image. God created the universe in six days and on the seventh day he rested. That’s why we keep the sabbath! God started the pattern that’s why we keep it. He tells the kid the story. The story resonates. When he grows up, the kid passes the story along with the practice to the next generation. Eventually someone writes it down. The men in charge agree that it is the correct, authorized, sacred answer. But it never was literal.