20 October 2021


The word literally has two definitions. And they contradict one another.

Literally 'lɪd.ər.əl.li or ˈlɪt.rəl.li adjective. In a most basic and exact sense, without metaphor, allegory, exaggeration, nor distortion.
2. Used for emphasis or strong feeling, though not precisely true.

I know; plenty of people insist the second definition isn’t the proper definition, and anyone who uses the word this way is wrong. Problem is, words are not absolutes. I know; plenty of people wish they were, and insist they are. (It’s why people still buy the original edition of Noah Webster’s dictionary instead of something up-to-date, with current definitions.)

Words aren’t defined by historical precedent, like laws, treaties, or biblical doctrines. They’re defined, and regularly redefined, by popular use. By popular vote, so to speak. Once enough people use a word “wrong,” the wrong definition becomes a second definition. Case in point: Our word “awful.” Used to mean “full of awe.” Doesn’t anymore; it means terrible. Once the new definition is used far more often than the original definition—and sometimes exclusively; nobody uses the original definition anymore!—the new definition becomes the main definition, and the original definition becomes wrong. “God makes me feel awful,” unless you’re trying to say he struck you with the plague, is wrong.

Yep, this is why we need to keep re-translating the bible. And why, whenever we read the King James Version, we can’t assume it’s using the same definitions for its words that we are. ’Cause too often, and when we least expect it, it’s not.

Anyway. The reason I bring up the evolution of language, is because plenty of Christians insist they interpret the bible “literally.” By which they think they mean the first definition: In its most basic sense.

In reality they mean the second definition: They interpret it seriously. They take it seriously. The bible is full metaphor, allegory, exaggeration, and distortion, and they know this. They’re not such fools as to ignore the bible’s different genres, and insist no, we gotta take metaphorical genres (like, say, the visions in Revelation) as if that’s precisely what has to happen. Well, most of ’em aren’t such fools.

You know there are parts of the bible we don’t interpret literally. Like poetry. Similes. Apocalyptic visions. Prophetic visions. Parables. Teachings where Jesus says, “I’m the good shepherd,” Jn 10.11 and no he doesn’t mean when the students aren’t watching, he runs out to the fields near town and herds sheep. Nor is he literally a sheep gate, Jn 10.7 light, Jn 9.1 bread, Jn 6.35 resurrection, Jn 11.25 nor a grapevine. Jn 15.1 We should know better than to figure Jesus is literally various inanimate objects, plants, or a man with alternate vocations.

And yet… about a billion Christians think Jesus actually transforms the molecules of his body into communion bread and wine every time they gather for worship.

Yeah, literalism regularly comes up in Christianity. So let’s sort out the definition, recognize whether we’re meant to take something literally or seriously, and either way stick to a serious understanding of what the scriptures mean—and how we’re to follow them. Okay?

Those who don’t take bible seriously.

Certain literalists are gonna object to the very idea the bible’s not to be followed literally. Again, they really mean “seriously”; they know better than to think Jesus is the morning star. Rv 22.16 (Especially when they think Lucifer is the morning star.) The main reason they object is because they want people to follow the bible; preferably their interpretations of the bible. And if people don’t take bible seriously, they’re not gonna follow them the bible.

I understand their concerns. I’ve known a number of people who treat the entire bible like it’s pure allegory, and bend the scriptures every which way to back their ideas. There’s nothing they teach which doesn’t take scripture out of context. They claim to take bible seriously—but that’s only because they know Christians take bible seriously, and it’s far easier to get Christians to follow them when they claim they believe as other Christians do. Thing is, if you don’t care about the bible’s context, you don’t actually care about bible. You don’t actually take it seriously. You take its authority seriously… and you’re trying to steal that. But you don’t respect its authority. Nor that of the Holy Spirit who inspired it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people who claim they interpret the bible “literally,” yet believe the most ridiculous things about various bible passages. Song of Songs is a good example. The book is a series of songs about romantic love—about a man and his woman who intend to “get it on,” as Marvin Gaye once put it. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. But throughout Christian history there’ve been various Christians who think there is something wrong with that, and were outraged the bible includes a sex book. But rather than removing it, they reinterpreted it top to bottom: It’s allegory, they insist. It represents God’s love for Israel. Or Christ’s love for his church.

Um… yuck. When you really do apply the allegorical intepretation to Song of Songs, it turns into a creepy apocalyptic nightmare where Jesus is gonna do sex things to his chruch. And I do not wanna imagine Jesus really loving our rounded thighs. Sg 7.1 Although this definitely explains all those Jesus-is-my-boyfriend Christian pop songs.

Another not-as-gross example: The Sermon on the Mount. It answers the question, “How then shall we live?” now that we’ve become Christian. It’s the best expression of Jesus’s worldview. But because many a person looks at it and says, “Well it’s not my worldview, but I’d still like to think I’m Christian,” we Christians have spent the past 1,988 years searching for loopholes which let us ignore it. The most common is, “Jesus is describing a kingdom which isn’t yet here, and therefore we don’t need to worry about it till he returns.”

Don’t like what Jesus’s parables imply? Insist they imply other things. Don’t believe in supernatural gifts? Redefine them till they’re no longer supernatural. Don’t wanna follow any Old Testament commands? Claim they no longer count ’cause we’re under grace. Don’t wanna follow any New Testament commands either? Wannabe “Christians” have invented all sorts of excuses for why they don’t.

Take a Christian who wants to be promiscuous. As you know, the apostles frown on that, Ac 15.29, 21.25 call it a work of the flesh, Ga 5.19 and say it disqualifies Christians from ministry. 1Ti 3.2, 12 But this particular Christian is really horny and doesn’t wanna practice self-control… yet he wants to claim he believes and follows bible. So he invents a bunch of reasons why the New Testament doesn’t really forbid it.

  • Claims the apostles’ instructions were loose guidelines, not commands, ’cause we’re under grace.
  • Claims Paul didn’t really write 1 Timothy; it’s a second-century letter by a Paul impersonator, and therefore doesn’t count as bible.
  • Claims some third-century prude added the Greek word πορνεία/porneía to all the lists of vices; it’s not in the original texts.
  • Claims porneía doesn’t actually mean inappropriate sexual activity of all sorts, but of specific sorts, like the ritual sex practiced in pagan temples… and of course he doesn’t do that. He just has ordinary sex. With lots of women. Maybe an occasional man slipped in there; there would be no way of knowing.

Lastly there are the Christians who use literalism itself as their loophole: They interpret a bible passage so literally, they ignore the entire point of the passage. They’re like those Pharisees who made a point of tithing the very smallest of their produce—the herbs from their gardens. Lk 11.42 Yet the LORD’s point in ordering the Hebrews to tithe was so they’d enjoy their firstfruits, celebrate with their neighbors, and be generous—and too few of the Pharisees were that. Too few of us Christians are either. When we calculate how much we’re gonna give our churches, we’ll calculate the total down to the penny: Exactly 10 percent of our paycheck and no more. Which is not at all what the ancient Christians did in Acts: They gave as they saw need—and didn’t hypocritcally pretend they had no needs, nor didn’t see need.

Obvious non-literal parts of the bible.

POETRY. “The LORD is my shepherd” Ps 23.1 is obviously a metaphor. The psalm’s describing what God is like, but he’s no more a shepherd than we are sheep.

And not for nothing is a lot of biblical prophecy presented in poetry. The prophets used plenty of metaphors and similes for what God thought, or planned to do with his wayward children.

TEACHING METAPHORS. When Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, Jn 1.10 yeah it’s meant to trigger his listeners’ memories of Psalm 23, but like I said, he’s not describing a secret side job. You know that. Likewise when, a minute before, Jesus calls himself the sheep gate. Jn 10.7 Nor light, bread, vine, water, resurrection, nor the figures he uses in his parables which are clearly meant to represent the Son of Man. He’s not a literal shepherd; he’s like a shepherd.

HYPERBOLE. Every so often Jesus uses an exaggeration to help get our attention:

Mark 9.42 KJV
And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.

Anybody planning to drown kids to rescue them from false teachers? Nobody? Good. I’d be worried. Yet when certain interpreters come across such obvious exaggerations—like when David said he could fight an entire troop by himself and leap over a wall, 2Sa 22.30, Ps 18.29 meaning one of those 30-foot city walls—I kid you not, they’ll claim he literally could. Sometimes because they don’t realize how big these walls are; other times because they like to insist the Holy Spirit can supernaturally empower people to do the impossible. But while the Spirit certainly can, did he in this instance? Likely not. Likely David’s just describing a good old-fashioned adrenalin rush with some good old-fashioned poetic hyperbole.

APOCALYPTIC VISIONS. God wants us to know about the future, but doesn’t always want us to know specifics. So he uses memorable visual metaphors. He shows Daniel, Zechariah, John, and prophets today, what the future is like, not what the future is. Future false prophets aren’t gonna literally have frogs come out of their mouths. Rv 16.13 For that matter, Jesus’s millennium likely won’t last a literal thousand years; the scriptures only mean it’ll last a substantially long time. Darbyists are notorious for insisting things’ll look exactly like these apocalypses describe, but that’s pure foolishness on their part.

ORDER OF EVENTS. If you’ve read the gospels, you notice they don’t always sync up in the order of events. Fr’instance Matthew and Luke have a different order for Jesus’s temptations in the desert. For the authors, timeline didn’t necessarily matter. Sometimes they wanted to bunch Jesus’s teachings together. Or bunch his miracles together. Or show how Pharisees were getting more and more peeved at him. To better tell their stories, they moved the individual Jesus-stories around. Not to decieve—although if the timeline is really important to you (as it is to historians), you’re gonna find these alterations irritating. Tough. Deal with it.

How do you interpret your bible?

I put together a quiz to give you a general idea about where you fall when it comes to interpreting bible:

  • CONSERVATIVE means you lean towards a more means-what-it-says, says-what-it-means interpretation of scripture. More literal—in the first sense of the word.
  • PROGRESSIVE means you likewise take the bible seriously, but you believe history is just as important, and you gotta interpret it through that lens. (Yeah, I know; some of you thought it meant “don’t believe the bible at all.” Those would be pagans. Progressives do so believe the bible; they just interpret it differently.)
  • MODERATE means for various reasons you fall between one and the other. Some moderates are big on interpreting the bible historically… but after they do, they wind up with a whole lot of the same conclusions as your average conservative interpreter. (Like me.) Or they’re very conservative in the way they generally see the bible, but man alive do they make a lot of exceptions.

Anywho, pick the button which best reflects your view. The median view, “Meh,” has been pre-selected—and tallies as if you skipped that one. Which you can do, if you’re really hung up, but don’t skip too many. Pick a side, dangit!

Fill it out, then click “Your score is:” for your results.

The bible has no errors. At all. “Inerrancy” is a modern invention. Don’t use it to describe the bible.
The Holy Spirit sovereignly determined every word of the bible.“Inspired” means God was on the authors’ minds… but the bible was written by humans.
The bible’s instructions are timeless, universal, and objective.The bible was written for an ancient culture, and needs adaptation for our day.
We can deduce God’s systematic truth by studying the bible.It’s not about imposing a theological system upon the bible; it’s about following God.
I don’t need study helps for the bible; the Holy Spirit tells me all I need to know.I need to learn the historical context behind every passage.
God took six literal days to create earth.Allegory: Represents God creating earth over time.
God wanted Joshua to wipe out the Canaanites.Myth: Invented to justify genocide.
Elisha made an axehead float.Myth: Cool story though.
Jesus threw demons out of the sick to cure them. Mk 9.25Myth: People thought demons caused illness.
Jesus is returning to earth to physically rule it.Allegory: We all go to heaven and stay there.
Obeying the Ten Commandments.Don’t need to; under grace.
Observing Sabbath. Ex 23.12Don’t need to; under grace.
Kill magicians. Ex 22.17Don’t need to; under grace.
Banning pork. Lv 11.7What are you, crazy? Bacon’s awesome.
Banning homosexuality. Lv 18.22Don’t need to; under grace.
Banning tattoos. Lv 19.28Don’t need to; under grace.
Washing feet. Jn 13.14Jesus never meant it literally.
Don’t eat food with blood in it. Ac 15.29Go ahead and eat it; under grace.
Speaking in tongues. 1Co 12.10Tongues never happened, or ceased back in bible times.
Prophecy. 1Co 14.1Prophecy never happens, or ceased back in bible times.
Please make sure you’ve not selected “Don’t care” or “No idea” for everything. (You’ve gotta care a little.) Once you’ve completed the quiz, hit the “Your score” button and see how you did.

Included in this page is a little bit of code which’ll hack your email, find out what church you go to, and email your results to your pastor. Betcha he’ll be mighty surprised. (KIDDING. Totally kidding. But if you’re profoundly worried about what your pastor might think of your quiz results, you might be in a cult. Just saying.)

If you’re not happy with your results, ’cause you were hoping to “win” some confirmation you’re conservative or progressive: It’s meant to give you a general idea. Not nail you down precisely. You want precision, I suppose I could write a 250-question test, then test it against a whole bunch of academics who consider themselves conservative and progressive, then calculate the margin of error, and there y’go. But nobody’s giving me a research grant, so I’ll pass.

In any event, you gotta admit: None of us interpret the bible all that literally. But hopefully we all take it seriously.