Is the Bible Literal?

I guess I have studied words all my life. I am not so great with numbers but I have always been fascinated with words.

Sometimes I hear a Christian ask another Christian “Do you take the Bible literally?” Sometimes I hear a nonbeliever ask the same question of the believer.  As Paul Little says, any way you answer this question you have problems.  If you say no, it calls into question your devotion to the Bible.  If you answer yes, it can lead to harder questions from the nonbeliever like “Did the trees literally clap their hands” in Isaiah 55:12?”  How do you defend your literal stance to a questioner like that?

How are we supposed to respond to the person who believes that the Bible is literal or the unbeliever who is “laying a trap”?

Well for me it goes back to the nature of words and before we go too far here, let me tell you that my knowledge of words does not get in the way of my belief in the inspired Word of God.

But what is a word?

A word is a symbol used to communicate a message [if you are reading this right now, you have a lot of symbols on your screen, of course].  What is a symbol?  Something used for or regarded as representing something else.

The Bible is full of words and consequently, full of symbols.

Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near so I can touch you my son to know whether you really are my son Esau or not” [Genesis 27: 21]. The whole sentence is a collection of symbols.

The writer [many attribute the author as Moses] writes the symbols in this manner to convey the interaction between Isaac and Jacob along with the idea of touching and the reason why Isaac wants Jacob to come near and be touched.

How “literal” is this passage?

I guess to the extent that the symbols call up specific images in the reader’s brain, the message is literal.  The writer hopes the images are the correct images that they intended to covey with their symbols.

If you are a student of words, you know that some words call up more images than others. Connotative words are common in language and they call forth more of a feeling response from the reader.  For example, the word “blood” makes most readers associate some blood-letting episode from their past and maybe even feelings associated with that event.  Language has its share of denotative words such as chair, which can summon up images of a thing to sit in.  The word has less feelings associated with it usually so the meaning is maybe more clear.

We have concrete words like axe, cup and ink pen. These words are specific and if I said to you “I picked up an axe” I think you could pretty clearly see my precise meaning.  We also have abstract words.  Jesus talks so much about love but have you ever thought about the imprecise abstract nature of love?  Love is what we call an abstract term.  Ask someone to give you a pound of love or go to the store to buy you a loaf of love.  Send the next door neighbor some love and you will get a strange look.  Why, because the word is abstract.  The definition of abstract is “expressing a quality or characteristic apart from any specific object or instance.”

Would our language be as effective without denotative and connotative words? Probably not.  Would we be able to get along without concrete and abstract words?  I guess so but we appreciate preciseness at times and if you have ever been around a tedious, detailed, descriptive person, abstraction is very nice at times.

Did the writers of God’s Word use these types of words? Of course they did.  Hebrew was the language of a lot of the Old Testament with Aramaic mixed in as Hebrew began to be used less around 200 BC.  Of course Greek was the primary language of the New Testament.  All languages use these types of words.

How are we to feel about the nature of words and the Bible as the Word of God?

I know that God spoke the Word to man. Man had to write it down.  In the New Testament, God spoke through Jesus and man had to record what Jesus said and did.

God inspired it all.

The big question is, “Is God’s inspiration just limited to the Scripture writers?” I don’t think so.  God is capable of inspiring me as a Scripture reader.

Depending on the ability of your brain and heart to comprehend the meaning of God’s Word, you are understanding God’s thought. Can some respond better to God’s Word than others?  Of course they can.  They have larger vocabularies, more experience as a Christian, more experience as a Bible reader and student of the Bible. Can one get better at understanding God’s Word over time?  Of course they can.

As we circle back to our original concern, the Christian who asks another Christian if they believe the Bible is the literal Word of God, the answer should be no, based on a good understanding of the word literal and a thorough understanding of how words work. It is not necessary for God’s Word to be literal.  It is almost like we are trying to put God in a box for the convenience of our own limited cognitive ability.  God can speak to us on many levels of language.

For the unbeliever who is trying to “lay a trap” for you to fall into with his question about literal interpretation, he probably knows how language works and he is wanting you to show your limited knowledge of how language works.

Don’t fall into that trap. Paul Little has an excellent response: “We believe that the Bible is to be interpreted in the sense in which the authors intended it to be received by readers….we need not insist on the historicity of Biblical events and records to enjoy and realize the truth they convey.”

The Bible does not have to be literal for it to be God’s Word.

This gives some “wiggle room” for God and His writers and it gives us growth room for our reading skills and for the development of sensitivity to God and God’s Word [also known as the ongoing development of Christian maturity].

And folks, that is a good thing.


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