What is biblical literalism?Question: "What is biblical literalism?"
Answer: Biblical literalism is the method of interpreting Scripture that holds that, except in places where the text is obviously allegorical, poetic, or figurative, it should be taken literally. Biblical literalism is the position of most evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists. It is the position of Got Questions Ministries as well. (See “Can/Should we interpret the Bible as literal?”)
Biblical literalism goes hand-in-hand with regarding the Word of God as inerrant and inspired. If we believe in the doctrine of biblical inspiration—that the books of the Bible were written by men under the influence of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16–17; 2 Peter 1:20–21) to the extent that everything they wrote was exactly what God wanted to say—then a belief in biblical literalism is simply an acknowledgement that God wants to communicate to us via human language. The rules of human language then become the rules of interpreting Scripture. Words have objective meaning, and God has spoken through words.
Biblical literalism is an extension of the literalism that we all use in everyday communication. If someone enters a room and says, “The building is on fire,” we don’t start searching for figurative meanings; we start evacuating. No one stops to ponder whether the reference to “fire” is metaphorical or if the “building” is an oblique reference to 21st-century socio-economic theories. Similarly, when we open the Bible and read, “The Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left” (Exodus 14:22), we shouldn’t look for figurative meanings for sea, dry ground, or wall of water; we should believe the miracle.
If we deny biblical literalism and try to interpret Scripture figuratively, how are the figures to be interpreted? And who decides what is and is not a figure? Were Adam and Eve real people? What about Cain and Abel? If they are figurative, where in Genesis can we start saying the people are literal individuals? Any dividing line between figurative and literal in the genealogies is arbitrary. Or take a New Testament example: did Jesus really say to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44)? Did He say it on a mountain? Was Jesus even real? Without a commitment to biblical literalism, we might as well throw out the whole Bible.
If biblical literalism is discarded, language becomes meaningless. If “five smooth stones” in 1 Samuel 17:40 doesn’t refer to five aerodynamic rocks, then what in the world did David pick out of the stream? More importantly, if words can mean anything we assign to them, there are no genuine promises in the Bible. The “place” that Jesus said He is preparing for us (John 14:3) needs to be literal, or else He is speaking nonsense. The “cross” that Jesus died on needs to be a literal cross, and His death needs to be a literal death in order for us to have salvation. Hell needs to be a literal place—as does heaven—if we are to have anything to be saved from. Jesus’ literal resurrection from a literal tomb is as equally important (1 Corinthians 15:17).
To be clear, biblical literalism does not ignore the dispensations. Commands given to Israel in the theocracy do not necessarily apply to the New Testament church. Also, biblical literalism does not require that every passage be concrete and not figurative. Idioms, metaphors, and illustrations are all a natural part of language and should be recognized as such. So, when Jesus speaks of His flesh being “food” in John 6: 55, we know He is speaking figuratively—“food” is an obvious metaphor. We follow the rules of language. We are alert to metaphors and the signals of similes, like and as. But unless a text is clearly intended to be figurative, we take it literally. God’s Word was designed to communicate, and communication requires a literal understanding of the words used.
Recommended Resource: Basic Bible Interpretation by Roy Zuck
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