By Spencer D Gear
Gutenberg Bible (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
It is not uncommon to be in discussion with evangelical Christians who state that the Bible should not be read literally and that it should be read allegorically or figuratively. Some have even interacted with me and said that when we consider the customs of the first century, we know that these shouldn’t be applied to the 21st century. How should we respond?
We need to investigate the meaning of “literal” interpretation. Does a literal understanding include the use of figures of speech or should we adopt another view of hermeneutics?
I’m a graduate of an evangelical theological college and seminary in the 1970s and 1980s. My courses in hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) made it very clear what “literal interpretation” meant and it is not what Max was accusing evangelicals of believing.
We need to understand that there was a differentiation of meaning in the early church between the School of Alexandria and the School of Antioch. The Alexandrian School did not include metaphorical meaning while the School of Antioch insisted that the literal meaning cannot exclude metaphor. This difference was there in the early days of the church. There’s no need to blame it on the evangelicals. In fact I’ve been to quite a few liberal churches where allegorical interpretation was alive and well.
However, the Antiochian School, which was the one followed in the seminary I attended, used A. Berkeley Mickelsen’s text Interpreting the Bible (1963. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company). Here the definition of Antiochian literal interpretation is that it
means the customarily acknowledged meaning of an expression in its particular context. For example, when Christ declared that he was the door, the metaphorical meaning of “door” in that context would be obvious. Although metaphorical, this obvious meaning is included in the literal meaning (p. 33).
Therefore, Mickelsen rightly states that literal interpretation means that “the writer refers to the usual or customary sense conveyed by words or expressions (p. 179).
Therefore, the true meaning of literal interpretation is that it incorporates metaphor, simile, hyperbole, any figure of speech. That’s what I mean by literal interpretation and I’m an evangelical. But don’t blame it on the evangelicals. The distinction was alive and well in the early church. Too often the concept of “letterism” is used as a synonym for literal interpretation. Letterism means.
What does letterism mean? Don Closson provides this definition:
“While often ignoring context, historical and cultural setting, and even grammatical structure, letterism takes each word as an isolated truth. A problem with this method is that it fails to take into account the different literary genre, or types, in the Bible. The Hebrew poetry of the Psalms is not to be interpreted in the same way as is the logical discourse of Romans. Letterism tends to lead to legalism because of its inability to distinguish between literary types. All passages tend to become equally binding on current believers”.
My college text in hermeneutics was Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation. Ramm rightly states that “literal” interpretation uses literal in its dictionary sense,
The natural or usual construction and implication of a writing or expression; following the ordinary apparent sense of words; not allegorical or metaphorical (Webster’s New International Dictionary).
By contrast, “letterism … fails to recognize nuances, plays on words, hidden metaphors, figures of speech, lamination of meanings in a word”.
It seems to me that there is some confusion about an evangelical literal interpretation of Scripture versus a wooden letterism which some evangelicals could use. It is not unusual for this to happen by those from the liberal stream of theology, but it is a false characterisation as I’ve explained above.
The literal method of interpretation is what I use when I read my local newspaper, when I used to read Shakespeare when in high school, and when I read the Bible. You may have met some evangelicals who do not follow what I’ve outlined above, but it certainly is not what was taught in the evangelical institutions I attended.
Don Closson’s conclusion is pointed:
[Martin] Luther argued that a proper understanding of what a passage teaches comes from a literal interpretation. This means that the reader must consider the historical context and the grammatical structure of each passage, and strive to maintain contextual consistency. This method was a result of Luther’s belief that the Scriptures are clear, in opposition to the medieval church’s position that they are so obscure that only the church can uncover their true meaning.
 Don Closson, Hermeneutics, Probe Ministries, available at: http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/hermen.html (Accessed 18 August 2011).
Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 21 May 2016.