If you’ve ever had the pleasure of conversing with or verbally sparring with a theological liberal of either the modern or postmodern variety, chances are you’ve been accused of being a “Bible literalist”. I’ve been accused of this more times than I can count. Each time the accusation was spoken, the liberal I’ve been talking with has acted like her charge that I was a "Bible literalist" was supposed to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was the intellectual equivalent of a one toothed, redneck fresh from the turnip truck. Fact is, merely claiming someone is a "Bible literalist" doesn’t really prove anything because even liberals take some parts of the Bible literally.
So, how should you respond when you’re accused of being a (cue dramatic music) “Bible literalist”? Here is some practical advice and a few things to keep in mind regarding Bible literalism.
1. Explain to the person with whom you are speaking that you don’t approach the scriptures with a “one size fits all” literalistic view. Instead, you pay careful attention to the genre of the Bible passage in question and allow the author’s original intent to govern how a passage should be understood. For example in Matthew 23:37 Jesus says these words:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”
If you were to take a “one-size fits all” literalistic approach to all of scripture then you would have no choice but to conclude that Jesus was in reality a big chicken man and probably moonlighted as the mascot for El Pollo Loco. That’s not what Jesus was trying to say. Therefore, you can reasonably conclude that Jesus was speaking figuratively just like everyone else speaks figuratively from time to time. The fact that there are no ancient depictions of Jesus as a big chicken also prove that even the early Christians, despite the fact that they didn’t have access to modern science and the internet were more than capable of discerning the fact that Jesus was speaking figuratively in this passage.
That being said, it is important to also note that the overall genre of the Gospel of Matthew is historical biography. Therefore, we must understand that Matthew intended to convey literal history about the life of Jesus and meant for us to literally believe that Jesus did in fact say these words.
2. Point out the fact that many liberals and emergents take Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount literally and believe that Jesus’ command to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ is to be understood literally. After you point that out, ask them, “Would it be fair of me to disparage you and dismiss what you are saying because you are a literalist regarding those sections of scripture?”
3. The authors intent, not our presuppositions determine whether a passage of scripture is to be understood literally or figuratively. The Bible contains many different writing genre’s. A good rule of thumb is to consider the genre of the passage in question to help determine whether it is to be understood literally or figuratively.
Historical Narrative is to be understood as literal history, miracles and all.
Poetry provides poetic language that many times reveals literal truth regarding the One True God. Pay close attention to the word picture that is being painted by the author.
Parables convey eternal truths but they are clothed in symbolic story. Many times the key to understanding them lies in a proper distinction of Law and Gospel and salvation as a free gift from God by grace and faith alone. In other words, the good news of the free forgiveness of sins won by Christ’s death on the cross is the single most important interpretive key to the scriptures and many of Christ’s parables.
Apocalyptic Literature is very difficult to unravel. This is intentional. Oftentimes, the truth that is revealed in these sections of scripture are locked up in highly symbolic language. Good scholarly commentaries are often useful. But, it is generally a good idea to avoid any books written by “end of the world” prognosticators who claim to have unraveled the “secrets” of that section of scripture.
When in doubt, adopt the view of the passage that Jesus had. Jesus believed that the Genesis account of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel was literal history. Jesus believed that the story of Noah and the world wide flood was literal history. Jesus believed that the story of Jonah and the big fish was literal history.
In short, you should strive to have no opinion of scripture that contradicts or conflicts with Jesus’ view of scripture. When you adopt that position you’ll be in good company. That was exactly the same view of scripture that Jesus’ disciples who later became the Apostles took. As you read their letters in the New Testament over and again you will see that they never attacked or criticized the scriptures nor expressed skepticism or contempt for the miraculous stories in either the Old Testament or their own biographical accounts of the life of Jesus. Time after time after time the Apostles refer back to the historical narratives of the Old Testament and treat them as literal history. So determine now that you will take no view of scripture that conflicts with the view that Jesus and His Apostles held and you will be well on your way toward properly understanding the Bible and avoiding the silly charge that you are just an unintelligent backwoods hick ‘Bible Literalist’.
For more reading on this subject I recommend these articles: