Interpreting the Bible literally can be a good thing. It probably means that you want to know exactly what God says and obey his words. It means you don’t want to play Bible roulette with which verses you obey. It means you’re willing to obey all the commands of the Bible, even the painful ones.
But interpreting the Bible literally can also get you into a lot of trouble. Harold Camping thought he was interpreting the Bible literally, which in turn led him to mispredict the end of the world…twice. Pinstripe wearing prosperity preachers think they are interpreting the Bible literally, which leads them to teach that God never wills illness. Heck, the hellfire, hate-throwing folks at Westboro Baptist Church probably think they are interpreting the Bible literally.
So what does it mean to truly interpret the Bible literally? How can we be sure that our “literal” interpretation of the Bible isn’t actually a theological hack job? Here are some simple questions to help you truly interpret the Bible literally.
What did the original author intend to convey to the original audience?
The first question to ask when reading the Bible should not be, “What does this mean to me?” The first question always must be, “What was the original author trying to say to the original audience?” Ask questions like:
- Was the author seeking to encourage the exiled people of Israel?
- Was the author seeking to convince the Jewish people that Jesus was the Messiah?
- Was the author seeking to correct theological error in the church?
- Was the author seeking to encourage Christians in the midst of persecution?
Understanding the original intent of the passage guards us from reading a modern meaning back into Scripture. Does it take work and study and thinking to wrestle the original meaning from the text? You bet. But it’s valuable, necessary work.
What writing style is used for this section of Scripture?
The Psalms are primarily poetry, which means we should expect word pictures, similes, and metaphors. The epistles of Paul are letters, which means we should expect a relatively straightforward, logical progression. The gospels are narratives, which means we should expect all the elements of an eyewitness story to be in place. Revelation is apocalyptic in nature, which means we should expect highly symbolic language. We can’t interpret the Psalms in the same way we interpret the espistles of Paul. We can’t interpret the gospels in the same way we interpret Proverbs. Each scripture must interpreted in light of its literary genre. We get into trouble when we start mixing up our genres.
Where does this section of Scripture fall in light of salvation history?
All of Scripture must be interpreted through the lens of God’s plan of salvation. When reading the Old Testament, ask yourself, “How do these stories, commands, or prophecies point to Jesus, and how are they fulfilled by Jesus?” After all, Jesus said that all of the law and the prophets spoke about him. We get into theological trouble when we start applying Old Testament commands, stories, and prophecies without first looking at them through the lens of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return.
What is God’s intended outcome for this section of Scripture?
In other words, how does God want me to respond to this command, promise, warning, or rebuke? Should I worship? Should I repent? Should I take courage? Should I marvel? God’s word is not meant to be read and dissected like a chemistry textbook. It is living and active. God speaks to us when we read his word. He wants us to respond to his word, to obey his word, to live by his word. We are to be doers of the word, not hearers only.
How does this passage line up with the rest of the Bible?
A general rule of thumb for Bible interpretation is that clear passages always interpret unclear passages. So, when James says that we are justified by our works, we interpret that passage in light of all the Bible says about justification by faith. When Paul says that women must stay silent in church, we interpret that in light of Paul’s teaching that both men and women can publicly prophesy in church. We get into trouble when we isolate passages of Scripture.
Massive books have been written on the subject of scripture interpretation. Obviously I can’t cover all my bases in one short blog post. These are general rules of thumb, and need to be applied with wisdom. If you’re looking for a good book on the subject, I recommend How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth by Gordon Fee.