Why do some people in the church say not to take the Bible literally?


Clarify Share Report Asked June 21 2013 Fanny 035 Fanny Essamuah

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Stringio Colin Wong Supporter Founder, eBible.com
The Bible is a compilation of text written across hundreds of years; the earliest text being as early as 3,500 years ago; the latest text (Book of Revelation) being about 1,949 years ago (94 AD). As you can imagine, this text spans across different cultural beliefs, and language.

All this makes for a very challenging problem of translation and interpretation to English and other languages. There are two approaches to biblical translation today.

You have the word-for-word Bibles, whereby the translators attempt to faithfully convert every Hebrew/Greek word to an English equivalent. The challenges faced here are that some words in one language does not exist in the other. Or that the closest word does not convey the best nuance of what the original meant. Examples would be the KJV, NASB, and ESV.

Then you have the other side, the thought-for-thought Bibles. The translators attempt to translate an equivalent sentence in English to have the closest meaning, but not necessarily using the original words. This is easier to understand for most of us, but is biased by the translator's interpretation. Examples would be the MSG and NLT. The MSG in particular may change one verse into several, or combine several verses into one verse, or change the order of the verses to convey a more forceful interpretation.

Somewhere in between are translations such as the NIV and HCSB.

All translations are good, so long as you understand the philosophy behind the translation, to aid you in your interpretation. Always refer to the translator's footnotes to better understand the decisions that were made.

When someone says not to take the Bible literally, it can mean one of two things:

1) They are not literate in the Bible and chose to accept only parts that agree with their beliefs, treating the rest as outdated or irrelevant.


2) They are very literate in the Bible and really meant to tell you to understand the Bible by taking into account the cultural beliefs, language translation biases, and context.

Context is very important. For example, if you came into the middle of a conversation between two people, and you heard one person say, 

"Samaria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword; their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open." (Hosea 13:16)

You might be inclined to belief that this person just cursed Samaria and asked God to kill babies and pregnant women.

But if you took the time to read the whole book (Hosea) and also the rest of the Old Testament, you would understand Israel's disobedience and rebellion against God time and time again, across hundreds of years, led to the Lord withdrawing his protection and blessing, enabling their enemies (the Assyrians) to come in and destroy Israel.

Understanding the Bible is not simply a matter of literal vs. Dynamic interpretation. It is using context to understand God's intention. This requires deeper study of the whole Bible. 

The Bible is like a piece of legal contract. It can make statements. Then a few pages later, it can have a section for exceptions to the statements. Then a few pages after that it can include amendments (new covenants) to early statements. If you read only one page, you will not see the whole picture of what the Bible has revealed to us today. 

It's not a matter of reading the Bible literally. It's a matter of reading the Bible in context, completion and a leading through the Holy Spirit for interpretation and truth.

June 22 2013 7 responses Vote Up Share Report

Mini Pam Johnson
Because they don't want to obey it and have little faith in believing all God has said. I would pray for the people who have difficulty taking God at his word to pray for a deeper faith, that God would show them His truth, and the grace for them to accept it. Are many things in the Bible unbelievable? Yes, to the person who either doesn't house the Holy Spirit within them or to the person trying to combine earth theology with God's theology (i.e. evolution vs. creationism). Did God literally create all we have here on earth in 6 days and then rest on the 7th day. Yes. Why? Because he did this as a model for humans. He knows us better than we could ever know ourselves and He wants us to seek Him and understand Him. It will take heaven and a new body to fully complete this since He so unimaginably all knowing and all powerful. But God is into us connecting with Him and knowing Him and His ways. What he said in his word is easy to understand and accept as truth to the person who yields their spirit to the truth and accepts what God shows him/her. When it's imagery, God will tell you. When it's to be taken literally,,,God will tell you. Most of the Bible is to be taken at face value.....literally!

June 28 2013 2 responses Vote Up Share Report

Mini Rodney Brown
Because of figurative and symbolic language people don't want to work at understanding, it's sad but true, they'd rather be told by someone else than work at understanding the fullness themselves.
So that's their cop-out, it's almost atheistic.

It's also why Christians are so ignorant of the faith they claim, but when one applies the parable or storey to ones own experiences the teaching is illuminated to the mind and acted upon in life.

So don't use it as an excuse not to study.

July 01 2013 1 response Vote Up Share Report

Mini Ezekiel Kimosop - Pastor & Bible Scholar
The Bible interpretation is a science and art that requires both scholarly skill and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. There are many dimensions to consider in interpretation including genre of the passage whether it is poetry, historical account of prophetic.The guiding principle here is that the correct interpretation of a passage must be consistent with the historical-cultural background of the passage. Here are a few examples that illustrate this dimension.

i)	Each passage must be understood in a manner which is consistent with its historical and cultural background. If an interpretation is inconsistent with or inconceivable in the historical cultural background of the passage, it will be an incorrect interpretation. Any symbolism must have been clear to the recipients though this may not be clear to us at the outset. Never forget that we are not the original recipients. For example Rev. 3:14-22 God condemns the church at Laodicea as being lukewarm and wished that they were either hot or cold. The common interpretation of this passage is that believers should either be cold spiritually than spiritually lukewarm. Archeology has shown that Laodicea had access to both hot springs used for hot bath as well as a cold stream which was useful for drinking. Both uses are desirable. The spiritual state of the Laodicea church was like lukewarm water which flowed in the Laodicean pipes. This water stank and made one sick. It was useless water. This now brings to our minds the idea that Christ had about this church and how the Laodicean church understood the message. This church in its present state was not spiritually useful to the Master because its spiritual condition was detestable. The use of the Laodicean water systems for an illustration was understood by the readers as the worst kind of rebuke. The spiritual condition of this church was repulsive to Christ and its effectiveness as a ministry was lost. Yet despite its sore state, Christ had not given up on them. The use of the Greek word mello suggests that he was about to spit them out. He is giving them an opportunity to make up for their lost glory and return to its useful former state.  But this warning carries its timeliness and if they persisted in this state, they will be spat out and down the sewer they would go. What a timely warning for those who play church but have lost their intimacy with Christ. 

ii)	Understand the impact on the original audience. Unless we put ourselves in the shoes of the original audience we may never understand the context in which the communication was being conveyed. A Jew reading an Old Testament historical account had the benefit of more information than the modern reader about the circumstances in which the book was written. 

Lets just take a few examples to drive the point home:

a)	Let us examine the Old Testament example on the account recording the call of Prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 6:1 “In the year of King Uzziah's death, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple” This verse has often been popularly interpreted to mean that King Uzziah had to die in order for God’s revelation to be available to the Prophet and many sermons have been preached under the title “Uzziah must die”. The inference is often made that because of Isaiah’s relationship with this long serving king, he was less sensitive to the calling of God and this was made possible only when King Uzziah died. However, a careful examination of the historical context of this book reveals that Isaiah was writing to a Jewish audience which was familiar with the long and prosperous reign of King Uzziah who ruled in Jerusalem for 52 years but spent his final years under the curse of leprosy for his sacrilege in the temple (2 Chron. 26:16-20). During Uzziah’s famous reign, an earthquake was reported to have occurred (Zech 14:5). It is also instructive to note that Uzziah’s reign was largely a godly reign save for his disobedience in burning incense  in the Temple against the Mosaic Law, an act of pride because of his great royal and military successes (2Chronicles 26:16-20). Notice the declaration of the Chronicler in 2 Chronicles 26:4 “And he did right in the sight of the LORD according to all that his father Amaziah had done.” This suggests that Uzziah was largely a righteous King and his reign compared well with that of his Father King Amaziah. These historical facts therefore strongly refute the wrongful interpretation that Uzziah was so evil that only in his death was God’s revelation made possible to his people.  The mention of Uzziah’s death was a just a historical fact which enabled the recipient of the Prophet’s writing to estimate the period of Isaiah’s encounter with God. 

b)	Jesus Calling Herod a Fox 
In the NT we see Jesus refer to Herod as a fox (Luke 13:32). Many have considered this reference as a demonstration of the cunning and clever character of Herod. However if one considers that the imagery of a fox was far different from that understood by an American, then we begin to doubt this assumption. The Jews regarded a fox as the lowest and mangiest of animals and hence Jesus reference to Herod as a fox was in fact understood by his Jewish audience as a derogatory term! Jesus was evidently angered by an unsolicited advice from the Pharisees that he leaves the city because Herod sought to kill him. 

iii)	We need to look for ways in which to express biblical truth in our language and culture that most closely corresponds to the idea in a biblical culture. There are biblical expressions that need to be harmonized with their cultural equivalent of modern bible readers and with regard to their context. 

a)	Greeting with a Holy Kiss
For instance when Paul concludes his letters with the words “Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss” (1 Thessalonians 5:26. cf also Romans 6:16b; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Peter 5:14). Does this imply that Christians are to kiss one another? Some Christians have gotten into sexual temptations and even fallen into sin while purportedly complying with the Apostle’s command! 

b)	Women should keep busy at home
What about Titus 2:5 where Paul instructs that young women should be busy at home. Some have implied that Christian women should be home keepers and should not take up professional careers! This interpretation is farfetched and utterly wrong because the context suggests that Paul was addressing Gentile women in the Island of Crete whose culture was similar to African culture. They were meant to manage the home and had no other cultural means of living was open to women of this time. The context was that women should avoid idle chatting and gossiping and be diligent with their domestic responsibilities. It is certainly not permitting women to drop from jobs or careers as some have wrongly construed.

October 21 2013 1 response Vote Up Share Report

Mini Michael Milverton
The bible provides it's own answer. Paul instructs Timothy to "rightly divide" or "handle" the word in 2 Timothy 2:15. If it was always straightforward it wouldn't need dividing or correct handling. Jesus instructed his disciples in no uncertain terms to "eat his flesh and drink his blood" (John 6:53). They didn't drain his blood and then chop him up and eat him so I guess they didn't take it literally. In John 6:51 he says that he is the "living bread from heaven", freshly baked I guess. Basically take the plain and completely unambiguous statements literally as you would in english and use these passages to unlock the things that are "hard to understand" (2 Peter 3:15-16)

July 01 2013 0 responses Vote Up Share Report

Raccoo Bob Johnson Layperson. Self Educated Theologically - see full bio
Earlier I said we should read the Bible literally (or not) depending on what the word "literal" means.  One additional comment:  I do believe we should read the Bible literally.  That is, we should read it, first of all, according to the type of literature (related to the word literal) it is.  Some passages are historical.  Some passages are poetry, prophetic or apocryphal.  Some passages are parabolic (like parables).  In each case you need to know how to read that type of literature to get the meaning.  In other words, you need to have a proper and thorough biblical education to be able to interpret passages properly.  At the same time, the basic message in the Bible about salvation is simple and easily understood, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  But that brings up another point:  Beware of people (especially TV preachers) who say something like:  "The Spirit told me today what this passage really means."  That is a way of them backing up what they say (usually error).  At that point we need to know our Bible well enough to be like the Bereans and verify the Word of God against what any preacher says and not be taken away by every whim of doctrine.

October 21 2013 0 responses Vote Up Share Report

Doktor D W Supporter
If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense. When one shifts to allegory and the use of metaphors and similar the Bible in most cases becomes non-productive. Error is the result.

October 21 2013 2 responses Vote Up Share Report

Stringio Vincent Mercado Supporter Skeptic turned believer, Catholic, father of 3
The Bible can be understood using the four senses: Literal, Allegorical, Moral, and Anagogical. 

The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ's victory and also of Christian Baptism.

The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written "for our instruction".

The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, "leading"). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.

A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses: "The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith; The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny."

It would be unwise to simply interpret the Bible using the literal sense only. The interpretation may be true on the surface - but lacks depth.

October 21 2013 0 responses Vote Up Share Report

Photo Anthony Clinton Teacher in China
An observation I have made through the years is that there are many who are so sold out on a doctrine they thought was sound literal truth and irrefutable, they are unwilling to face the facts and be honest when it has been put to the sword. Such doctrines as the pre-tribulation Rapture for an example. It is absolutely literal fact that the Rapture is the same time as the resurrection of the righteous dead and that happens at the end of the world according to 1Corinthians 15, and The Parable of the Wheat and Tares in Matthew 13. If this was not taken to be literally true we would find a world of ideas to make it mean what we want and the whole Bible would become like mist on a mountain that floats around and can never be grasped. 
When evidence emerges that one's own pet doctrines that they've held throughout the ages have met with obvious truth that they had not seen, and instead of yielding to the Scriptural truth, they fight on holding to what they had always believed, and kangaroo hopping over the contradictions.

This is also the case with the popular idea that a millennium reign of Christ is spoken of from Isaiah 11:1-9, So they see a day when snakes will be harmless and wild beasts will be harmless pets in a future millennium on earth that happens after the second coming. But they forgot to study the context by looking at the following verse which places the time frame in the era of Paul's ministry to the Gentiles. 

Isa 11:10 And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious. 
Rom 15:12 And again, Esaias saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust. 

So bang goes the Millennium theory from that chapter. Thus the language would have to be figurative and I personally believe it is related to the descriptive nature of people who symbolized those creatures. Let's take the apostle Paul for a prime example. Here is a classic case where figurative language can be applied to literal truth. The point made by those creatures becoming harmless was to show that God's holy mountain shall be a place of harmless peace. Before his conversion Paul might have been well portrayed as a ferocious lion as he went about ravaging the Church. After being converted Paul once a lion could be led by Ananias a gentle child of God and thus the language spoken of here might apply to the effective transformation of the gospel.

The term "in that day" places that fulfillment in the time of Paul's ministry. 
The Holy Spirit gives individuals in the Church, doctrines as described in 1Corinthians 14:26, or a revelation.
When the Holy Spirit guides us the Doctrine will be sound and proven true from the scriptures. It becomes irrefutable literal truth.

What is very sad is when people are confronted with literal truth, they ignore it, and some refuse to let truth guide them. There are many places that speak in figurative language but they are always applied to literal truth. If the Bible could not be taken as literal truth then we are left open to make our own ideas for its meaning and reject the absolutes that are throughout the Bible. 
To say it is not to be taken literally would give the impression that it cannot be interpreted in our day but the fact is it does have a literal interpretation and can be translated that way. 
The important thing is not having your own private interpretation.

2Pe 1:20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.

December 20 2013 10 responses Vote Up Share Report

Raccoo Bob Johnson Layperson. Self Educated Theologically - see full bio
It depends on how you define the word "literal"...

What does the sentence I just wrote, above, mean?

Does "literal" mean that we should read the Bible in the plain sense of the words because the Holy Spirit inspired every word? No. You can't do that because it depends on how you interpret the words you read. And the Holy Spirit did not inspire the text in English.

Or does "literal" mean that we should read the bible according to the literary form it is written in. Hebrew, for example, sometimes duplicates or triplicates phrases for emphasis. English hearers of many passages instantly lose the importance of many texts. So, by "literal form" it could mean the kind of literature the passage is written in. 

Is the passage historical narrative, or is it in a Hebrew poetic form, or is it prophetic or apocalyptic (which really can't be read "literally" in many senses of the word)? Many years of study are needed to determine such things, and even then not all interpreters are agreed. Define Historic Narrative. Hebrew poetry. How do you interpret Hebrew or Aramaic idioms?

The Bible says Jesus is the door. Is he a wooden, metal, or storm door? That's an obvious one. Pretend you are from Nairobi and you are speaking to a native and you say, "The day I left America it was raining cats and dogs." He will have absolutely no understanding of what you just said. We are in the same boat as he is, for example, when we read symbolic/apocalyptic literature, like in the book of Revelation. What are the locusts of Rev 9? We have no clue.

This past year I was in a study and a person in the class said: "Look at the 2nd sentence of a certain passage. It says "you", meaning only the person Jesus was talking to at that moment." She was wrong. She was led to a really bad assumptions and bad theology and bad interpretation. In that particular passage the word "you" wasn't even there and most interpreters did not take the meaning that way.

English translations are pretty good, especially the ESV, NASB, NIV, and NLT (probably in that order). BUT none of them are the original language. If we were all Greek or Hebrew we would be so much further ahead. KJV many times is horrid, even tho it is such beautiful language and phraseology. 

So, no, we should not read the Bible "literally".... depending on what the word "Literal" means...

June 27 2013 4 responses Vote Up Share Report

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