Home > Apologetics, Christianity, Exposition, Living, Questions, Theology > Question: Literal or Metaphoric Interpretations of the Bible?

Question: Literal or Metaphoric Interpretations of the Bible?

I received this question,

When you read the Bible, do you take it metaphorically or literally?

The following is my response:

It should be read as metaphorical where the author intended it to be metaphorical and literal where the author intended it to be literal.

There are two extremes when reading the Bible, and both should be avoided. The first extreme is to read the Bible as literal throughout. This is a fallacious way to read the Bible. I need only point you to a couple of verses to show you this.

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

(Mat 16:18)

Now, is Peter a rock? No. Peter is a human being. Clearly, Jesus was using a figure of speech. That is one metaphoric part of Scripture:  literal metaphors.

“I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father. In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.”

(John 16:25-28)

These are Jesus’ words. Jesus specifically said that at times he spoke in figures of speech, whether that be in the parables (are we actually sheep; are we actually limbs? No, we’re people) or symbolic language. However, he follows this statement by pointing to the clear and literal statements: he is going to the Father, he came from the Father, and he had come into the world. And the disciples understood that he was “now speaking plainly” here. See John 16:29, 30.

Moreover, there are times in the Old Testament where it is important to understand that metaphor is being used, e.g., in the Proverbs (is an adulteress actually a city?) and in the Psalms (are we actually sheep, again?).

Nevertheless, if we begin to say that Scripture is all metaphorical, well, then we’re in trouble. Let’s examine something Paul says and relate the principle to the conversation at hand.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

(1 Corinthians 15:12-19)

If Christians say that Christ has been raised from the dead, but when in reality he hasn’t, then we have a few issues. 1) “Then our preaching is in vain, our faith is in vain and futile, and we are still in our sins.” and 2) “We are even found to be misrepresenting God.”

So, clearly, if Christ has not been literally raised from the dead, then we are without hope, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” In other words, if following Christ helps you get your best life now, why bother? There are other ways to make this life easier without assuming the resurrection of a dead prophet or good man. If Christ has not died and been raised, I will have nothing to do with Christianity. But if he has been actually resurrected from the grave, that changes everything.

“If in Christ we hope in this life only” succinctly sums up the “liberal Christian” position. Christ has not actually died and actually atoned for our sins on the cross and has not actually been raised from the dead. It is only a good story, a moral compass, and helpful to live a good life. The death of Christ has no practical or spiritual importance other than to show us an example to live by, with no metaphysical or life-altering and nature-shaking changes being made.

No matter what they tell you, Christ’s commands and example are of least importance unless the Kingdom of Heaven actually is advancing and Christ’s death actually accomplished something. I point you to this post for more details.

Unrestrained liberal, i.e. metaphorical, interpretations of Scripture lead to those described in 2 Timothy 3,

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.
(2 Timothy 3:1-5)

Liberal interpretations of Scripture lead to a form of godliness; they may look very much Christians, but they deny the power of the gospel. The gospel message itself has done no work in their lives and they see no benefit from it. In Spurgeon’s words, “He who does not hate the false does not love the true; and he to whom it is all the same whether it be God’s word or man’s, is himself unrenewed at heart.” The liberal interpretations give the same credence to other religions as it does to Christianity, valuing each for its moral importance rather than for being an inspired Word of God.

Gill describes them in this way in his commentary,

Having a form of godliness,…. Either a mere external show of religion, pretending great piety and holiness, being outwardly righteous before men, having the mask and visor of godliness; or else a plan of doctrine, a form of sound words, a scheme of truths, which men may have without partaking of the grace of God; and which, with respect to the doctrine of the Trinity, the church of Rome has; or else the Scriptures of truth, which the members of that church have, and profess to hold to, maintain and preserve; and which contains doctrines according to godliness, and tend to a godly life and godly edification:

but denying the power thereof; though in words they profess religion and godliness, the fear of God, and the pure worship of him, yet in works they deny all; and though they may have a set of notions in their heads, yet they feel nothing of the power of them on their hearts; and are strangers to experimental religion, and powerful godliness: or though they profess the Scriptures to be the word of God, yet they deny the use, the power, and efficacy of them; they deny the use of them to the laity, and affirm that they are not a sufficient rule of faith and practice, without their unwritten traditions; and that they are not able to make men wise, or give them a true knowledge of what is to be believed and done, without them; and that the sense of them is not to be understood by private men, but depends upon the infallible judgment of the church or pope:

from such turn away; have no fellowship with them, depart from their communion, withdraw from them, and come out from among them: this passage sufficiently justifies the reformed churches in their separation from the church of Rome.

They deny the principle in John 17:17, wherein Christ prays to the Father concerning the disciples–and by extension for us, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” We are set apart from this world by the Bible–and not by the vain and fleeting philosophies and theologies constructed by man.

In addition, wholly literal interpretations of Scripture lead to a Phariseeical mis-handling of the Word of God, imposing undue burden on believers, as well as ignoring the times in Scripture that call for leniency of interpretation–such as when the adulteress in Proverbs is referred to as a city.

I believe that adequately addresses the two extremes. A wholly literal interpretation is foolish; if the author did not intend a literal interpretation, why would we interpret it that way? In the same way, a wholly metaphoric interpretation is dangerous, for it denies the power of Christ and the metaphysical veracity of the Scriptures.

A maxim:  Understand the passage of Scripture as the author intended it. Know that the Holy Spirit has inspired Scripture in one way, and there is one correct interpretation.

Ignore the extremes and allow the Spirit, proper teaching, and contextual study to lead you into a true understanding of the Word.

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