Is the Bible to be taken Literally or Figuratively?

There are many parts of the Bible that are meant to be understood literally.  Most of the Bible is a record of historical events that actually happened:

  • the first 5 Books of the Old Testament known as the Law, or the Pentateuch;
  • the Old Testament historical books;
  • the first 4 Books of the New Testament that tell the story of Jesus’ life;
  • the Book of Acts that tells the events of those first generations of Christ-followers after Jesus’ Ascension into heaven.
  • All of these parts of the Bible are meant to be read literally. They describe historical events that actually happened.

literal-vs-figurative-languageThere are a few parts of the Bible, though, that were written in figurative language.  They are poetic or didactic in nature – they are descriptive of God and use allegory to teach us about ultimate reality in Him.  Many of the Psalms and the Book of Revelation for instance – these are full of poetic language that is not meant to be taken literally, but are written to teach us about the realities that cannot be fully explained in words.

streets of goldConsider the Book of Revelation for example, when heaven was revealed to John, he wrote down the best approximation of what he saw, using the best words he could.  But are heaven’s streets literally paved with gold?  They could be – but I don’t think so.  I think John was trying to describe the purity and brilliance of the place, and the best he could do was to say it was like or as if the streets of heaven were paved with gold.  That is to say, the same value that pavement has on earth – we walk on it, we drive on it, some people spit on it, throw their trash on it – that’s the value of gold in heaven.  Y’know, the most valuable thing we have here?  Yeah, they use that stuff to pave the roads in heaven!

It’s descriptive.  It’s poetic.  It’s analogous or metaphorical.

Here’s another example: what was Jesus’ primary teaching method?  Parables.  Are parables based on real, historical events?  No.  But are parables true?  Yes.

When Paul writes that we are the Body of Christ, does he mean that we are literally eyes and ears and toes and shoulders – sometimes I kind-of feel like the arm-pit – no, we are not literally body parts.  But the analogy is still true of us: together, we are the collective “Body” of Christ, with Him as our Head.

If you’re a man, and the Bible says you are the Bride of Christ, is it being literal?  I don’t think so.  But is the teaching of that metaphor still true?  Definitely.

parablesWhen Jesus says that He is the Vine and we are the branches, is He being literal?  No.  But does this analogy describe the truth of our relationship with Jesus?  Absolutely.

So these analogies – these metaphors and parables – they help us understand all of what it means to belong to God, to be loved by God, to be sought-after, cherished, accepted, cared-for by God.

In the next post, I will introduce a declaration from the Bible about our identity in Christ that is not poetic.  It is not a figure-of-speech or a metaphor.  It is literal…

2 responses to “Is the Bible to be taken Literally or Figuratively?

  1. Hi Matthew! Thanks for your comment. I have not read Lennox’s book, but it sounds intriguing. We look forward to seeing you guys this summer!

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