In Defense of an “Ultra-Literal” Reading of the Bible

In a recent conversation concerning how we ought to approach the Bible, I heard a compelling defense for adopting a literal approach. It will be loosely paraphrased since I don’t remember the exact quote. It went something like this…

God is a good author. He knows how to write. He invented words. He knows how to use them to communicate. He doesn’t try to communicate things—He does communicate things.

I would not mind so much standing before God and finding out that I had tried to take Him at His word and had missed the boat on a few things.

I would mind standing before God and finding out that He had meant exactly what He said in His word, and I decided I knew what He “really meant,” or what He was “actually trying to communicate.”

This is especially true if I am teaching others. God has never looked kindly on people who speak for Him and put words in His mouth. He seems to take it personal (Jer 23:31-32). That’s not a place I want to find myself.

Now, I understand about literary genre. Figurative language and hyperbole show up in poetry. A literal reading does not demand that we believe Solomon’s beloved really had teeth that look like sheep (S S 6:6) Likewise, there is a good deal of symbolism in prophecy—but that sort of language differs greatly from normal descriptive language. Often symbolic language is interpreted right in the text (Dan 7; Rev 17). Unless it is demanded by context and common sense, I do not think we reserve the right to decide that God can’t mean what the words He chose literally mean.

Insofar as we can determine what the original audience would have understood God to be saying, it seems to me that we ought to assume that is exactly what God meant to communicate to them and to us.

If the written word is the instrument God chose to reveal Himself to mankind, shouldn’t we just believe what He says about Himself—and maybe question a system of theology that demands that statements He makes about Himself  actually mean something else.

Does your approach to scripture allow God to say and mean…

Exodus 32:14 (NASB)
14 So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.

Jonah 3:10 (NASB)
10 When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.

Was God deceiving and manipulating those people to coerce the desired response? But elsewhere Scripture explicitly states that God does not lie (i.e. Titus 1:2). Does truth have a different definition when we apply it to God? If a person says they are going to do something they never intend to do, it is considered deceit. Isn’t it possible that God responded to people and changed His mind just like the Word says?

If we cannot accept that possibility, is it because of a conflict with the Word of God or because a theological system tells us God can’t mean that?

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6 thoughts on “In Defense of an “Ultra-Literal” Reading of the Bible”

  1. Concerning the two texts you mentioned, there is always an element of condition underlying threats of judgment. I think many Christians become uneasy when we read/speak of God “changing his mind” because of our own notions of divine decree. Oftentimes it seems we think that once God delivers a threat of judgment that there is no hope; yet, hope pervades judgment speeches and they are given as opportunities for repentance.

    Concerning literal readings of scripture, the challenge is always to discern, as best we’re able, when things should be read literally and when figuratively. O the frustrating joys of interpretation!

  2. We agree! Warning of judgment is often permeated with pleas for repentance and even when it’s not, God’s revealed character would tell us that repentance and restoration are His desire.

    Admittedly, I am bucking against the inevitable “excusing” of such passages because of the tension with the conclusions of certain systematic theologies.

    In the view of many, God cannot change His mind or truly respond. From this perspective it would be impossible for God to truly issue a conditional decree.

    In the above passages, He has to be pretending that He would do the thing He did not do. And amazingly, that’s pretty much how it is explained (only with fancier vocabulary)!

  3. There are many reasons why I don’t interpret many things in the Old Testament literally. One reason is the feeling of guilt and the fear that God won’t accept someone who examines or doubts, or in other words does not interpret things literally. There are many common Christian speculations that arise out of the literal interpretation. One of them is that the world in 6,000 years old. This I absolutely do not believe. And I don’t believe that God put dinosaurs and man on the earth at the same time. Would our loving God expose his children to Tyrannosaurus and velociraptors and thousands of other flesh-eating dinosaurs? I don’t think so! I know that many people in this case refer back to the “leviathan” which could have been any number of huge animals in the sea, or crocodiles, etc. On the other hand, I absolutely believe in the message of salvation through Jesus Christ, and I interpret that literally in every sense.

  4. I agree that there are problems when one approaches the scripture literally without common sense, but there also huge difficulties with a symbolic or allegorical approach. It is pretty subjective when the allegory/symbol card will be pulled. (i.e. When does OT “narrative” stop being allegory, and begin being historical narrative?)

    We can just pluck out the deeper “spiritual” meaning at whim and ignore the simple truth.

    You would be among many who disagree with me, but I still find it makes the most sense to interpret literally unless I have a very compelling reason not to. Guilt’s got nothing’ to do with it. 🙂 I know I get plenty wrong – and I might feel a little silly and sheepish about it when I get to heaven. But if we’re condemned for theological errors, we’re all in trouble! 🙂

  5. I agree that when teaching little children and/or adults who have a tendency to grab hold of a concept just because someone they respect said so, it is better to teach the Bible as written in the Old Testament so as not to cause doubts or confusion about the truth in both the old and new testaments. But I do think that fear and guilt are passed down from generation to generation to those who venture to examine Old Testament writing with a critical thought process, or in other words, in a non-literal way. I have great respect for many people who do read the Old Testament literally, and would not want to live without the positive reinforcement I receive from them.

  6. Well, maybe that’s why my literalism doesn’t have to do with guilt – I guess it wouldn’t have been passed down from you! 🙂

    I do take issue with non-literal and critical being synonymous. It is possible to have a primarily literal approach and still think critically. (Just starting with a very different presupposition about the nature of the Bible)

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