What people usually mean when they ask “Do you read the Bible literally” is: do you take it seriously? Do you embrace the confusing, offensive, or difficult passages, or do you try to fudge on those? Now, these are good questions to ask. How we approach the Bible – how and to what extent we understand it to be “God’s Word” – is a very important topic. However, I tend to not use the word “literal” in these sorts of conversations because I think it causes more confusion than clarity.
There is a technical sense of the word “literal” that is helpful when talking about how to read the Bible. This technical sense has more to do with trying to determine the original intent of a passage, rather than deciding if a passage is symbolic or not. The problem is that most people don’t know or use the word literal in this sense. This means that there are a lot of Christians running around talking about reading the Bible literally, but not really understanding what that means. This means that when they hear someone talking about symbolism in the Bible, they immediately assume that person is a liberal or a heretic because they aren’t reading the Bible “literally.” There are also many non-Christians running around scratching their heads because they read about things in the Bible like seven-headed beasts coming out of the ocean and wonder how in the world anyway could read that as “literal.”
In truth none of us read the entire Bible “literally” in the everyday sense of the word. What do I mean? Well, let’s give some examples: does anyone think that you literally become a sheep when you become a Christian? Well, the Scriptures say that God is our Shepherd and we are His sheep. Yet we understand that God is using an image familiar to people of the day to describe just how much He cares for and loves us. Another example: do you think that the ideal beauty in ancient Israel was a woman with fruit hanging off the side of her head and baby deer dangling on her torso? Of course not! Yet, this is how Song of Solomon describes a woman’s beauty, in part. Yet to refuse to believe that Christians are really sheep that somehow appear to be human or that women should have fruit trees on their faces to be truly beautiful is not to refuse to take the Bible seriously or embrace those passages as God’s Word, right?
My point is that the term “literal” as many Christians use it isn’t helpful because it doesn’t adequately express to the average hearer (Christian or non-Christian) in our culture the fact that the Bible is written in many different styles of literature. Sometimes the Bible is poetry. Sometimes it’s symbolic apocalyptic prophecy. Sometimes it’s parables or pithy sayings. Sometimes it is meant to be read as a factual account of historical events.
This is why I say that I read the Bible as if it is true and avoid the word “literal.” When I approach any passage of Scripture, I believe that I am truly reading exactly what God wanted me to read when He chose to speak through this particular author and through this particular type of literature. Now you might think that’s a cop out to make the Bible easier to believe, but not so! For example, when I read about the miracles in the Bible, it sure seems to me that they are supposed to be understood as historical events that really took place. I don’t read them symbolically or figuratively because I don’t think that’s what God had in mind when He chose that particularly author or style of writing. Thus, I believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead even as I believe He is figuratively my Shepherd.
When I approach the Bible, I am not interested in making it easier to swallow or believe. I am interested in understanding it correctly. I want to make sure I approach the Bible in a way that means I don’t miss anything God wanted me to understand when He chose to speak … and that I don’t add to, confuse, or abuse anything He said because I’m not approaching the Bible correctly!
That’s why I don’t say that I read the Bible “literally,” because some parts are clearly not meant to be read in the way we usually mean when we say “literally” (though, yes, some parts certainly are). However, the Bible presents itself as something that is true: a faithful, accurate, reliable record of God choosing to speak and act in human history, taking advantage of the full range of human personalities and human literary creativity in the process.
If you want to say you read the Bible “literally,” feel free to do so. Just make sure that both you and the person you are talking to understand exactly what you mean by that term. In some conversations, neither side does!
The Bible is true. It is truly God’s Word. And I mean that literally!