Has anyone ever looked at you, with a smirk on his face perhaps, and asked, "Do you take the Bible literally?" Before answering, you would be well advised to pause and consider your reply.
The skeptic believes that you will answer "Yes" or "No" to the question. If you say "Yes," then he will, quite rightly, point out various biblical statements or verses that, if taken literally, have a clearly dangerous or even absurd result. Take Mark 9:42-48, which tells Christians if their hand or foot "offends" them, they should "cut it off," and if their eye "offends" them, they should "pluck it out." If you take this literally, you would engage in self-mutilation.
Clearly, this interpretation is nonsensical!
On the other hand, if the believer says he does not take the Bible literally, then the skeptic will retort that the believer has implied that the Bible means whatever the believer wants it to mean. Hence, any person’s interpretation is as good — or poor — as anyone else’s.
"Sometimes people make statements, meant to be taken literally, and sometimes they use figurative language, which should be taken figuratively."
So where does that leave us? Should you take the Bible literally?
Ask yourself (setting aside the Bible for a moment), "Do I take whatever anyone says or writes literally?" For example, when your friends speak, or when you read the newspaper, see a movie, go to the theater, read the encyclopedia, or hear a traffic cop bark out an order at an intersection, do you interpret them literally?
Literal or figurative?
When the question is put this way, most of us know that the answer is not a simple "Yes" or "No." However, most people still don’t know why the answer is not a simple yes or no, and need to have it explained, as this article will now do.
Suppose your friend just bought a sports car and tells you, "I drove my sports car down the road at 90 miles per hour." Would you take his statement literally? Unless you believe he is a liar, the correct way to interpret his remark is to conclude he drove at 90 miles per hour. It is difficult, if not impossible, to arrive at any other meaning.
On the other hand, let’s suppose he says, "I was flying down the road!" Unless you believe his car actually left the ground and became aloft like an airplane, you do not take him literally. You do understand what he is saying, though. You know your friend was driving fast! He is telling you this by "speaking figuratively," not literally.
People who study language know that humans communicate verbally through words in more than one way. Sometimes they make literal statements, which should be taken literally, and sometimes they use "figurative language," which should be taken "figuratively." Dictionaries tell us that figurative language is language used in a non-literal way in order to add emphasis.
Numerous types of figurative (i.e., non-literal) expressions exist, such as the metaphor, simile, personification, and antithesis. While it is not critical to know and understand the definitions of all such figures of speech to interpret everyday conversation, it can help. It is also important to know that the Bible uses many figures of speech. One study Bible, the Companion Bible, lists about 180 figures of speech in the Bible, and explains how each figure is to be understood.
Making the correct interpretation
Usually we discern the difference between literal and figurative speech automatically, without even thinking about it. Often this is because a literal interpretation doesn’t make sense, so we switch to a figurative interpretation. When your friend said he was "flying down the road" in his car, you were not tempted to take him literally, because 1) doing so didn’t really make sense (you know cars don’t fly), and 2) you have heard others use the same expression as a synonym for "fast."
Another way to avoid misunderstanding and ensure you correctly interpret someone’s statement is to ask for clarification. Of course, in the case of the Bible, the authors are all dead and cannot be questioned nor give clarifications, so we must use other methods to interpret what they meant.
What are those "other methods"? Are we free to pick whatever meaning we wish to believe, as the skeptic charges in regards to the Bible? Well, of course not.
Everyone knows that in such a case you must perform a careful inquiry and objective analysis to learn what the writer or speaker meant. What everyone does not seem to know, especially Bible skeptics, is that a method exists to try to ascertain the speakers/writer’s intended meaning — it is called hermeneutics. Hermeneutics can be defined as, "The theory and methodology of interpretation [of statements], especially of scriptural text" (American Heritage Dictionary). One essential tenet of hermeneutics is that figures of speech are not licenses to insert whatever meaning one wants. They are, instead, linguistic devices that are known and understood by linguists to convey truths in a certain way once one has learned about them.
Even with this explanation, we should not conclude that everyone will agree on the exact meaning of every single statement the Bible makes. But people don’t agree on the meaning of every single statement of Shakespeare, the President of the United States, or even the meaning of federal and state laws (and laws are virtually always made to be crystal clear and understood literally!). Nor will they ever all agree on the meaning of every single scripture. Furthermore, even if they did agree on the meaning of every scripture, they would not agree on every single doctrine, because scriptures must often be combined to understand a single doctrine.
But just because people will never agree unanimously on the correct interpretation of every single statement made by another, or every single biblical statement, does not mean we are free to throw up our hands and make up whatever meaning we want. Such a view is nonsense, and it is seen by everyone to be nonsense, even by Bible skeptics when they speak of the meaning of anything except Scripture (in which case they adopt the nonsensical view).
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So, again, regarding non-biblical statements, ask yourself: "Do I take whatever anyone says or writes literally?" The correct answer is: "I take the literal statements literally, and the figurative statements figuratively. I use my common sense, my experience, and my knowledge of language and grammar to know the difference and to determine what the figures of speech mean."
And, likewise, what if someone asks you, "Do you take the Bible literally?" The correct answer is: "I take the literal parts literally, the figurative parts figuratively, and I use common sense, my experience, my knowledge of language and grammar, and the techniques of hermeneutics to know the difference and help me interpret the statements."
And, if you want to put in a final "dig" into the skeptics (figuratively, not literally), you can add …"just like you do any time you hear or read any statement by anyone about anything."