I’ve been asked this question a number of times and it’s a tricky one to answer as it all depends on what the questioner means. If they mean ‘Do you take the Bible seriously as the authoritative word of God?’ then the answer is yes. But if they mean ‘Do you think that every piece of writing in the Bible is literal description?’ then no.
Let me explain. The Bible is a library of 66 books written over a period spanning about 1370 years by 35 different people, for different purposes. There are many different types of writing including biography, poetry, narrative, teaching, apocalyptic, prophecy, letter and genealogy. Each style of writing uses particular literary devices - like metaphor, simile, idiom, hyperbole – and each needs to be understood and interpreted according to its genre.
Let’s examine one particular literary device – the metaphor. Here are a couple of examples:
But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!” —Romeo & Juliet, William Shakespeare
'Cause baby you're a firework / Come on show 'em what your worth / Make 'em go "Oh, oh, oh!" / As you shoot across the sky-y-y — “Firework,” Katy Perry
Do we really think that Juliet is the hot ball of glowing gasses at the centre of our solar system, or that Katy Perry is singing about someone who is filled with gunpowder and shouldn’t be allowed too near the gas hob? Of course not!
When it comes to the Bible, we find the same thing. Many books are rich in metaphor and symbolism which isn’t meant to be taken literally. The book called Song of Songs is a beautiful (and racy) love poem which is full of non-literal descriptions of the lovers (“Your eyes behind your veil are doves.” and “You are a garden fountain.” for example.)
Idiom is something else that we’re very used to in daily life, but we sometimes fail to take into account when we read Scripture. When an English person says “It’s raining cats and dogs”, nobody thinks that it means that dachshunds and tabbys are falling out of the sky. But if we’re from another country or culture, we might be thoroughly perplexed! Many of our idioms actually come from the Bible (‘A fly in the ointment’, ‘the blind leading the blind’, ‘the skin of your teeth’, ‘go the extra mile’, ‘thorn in your side’, ‘writing on the wall’ etc.) but there are many more that we need some cultural and contextual appreciation to understand. We need to approach the Bible in the same way that we’d approach other text – with an appreciation of its style and an understanding of how language is being used.
So my answer to the question ‘Do you take the Bible literally?’ might have to be ‘Yes, except the parts that are metaphorical.’
Posted by Anne Witton. Posted In : Bible study