Should We Take The Bible Literally?
I can't tell you how many time I've heard someone ask me, or ask a fellow Christian "Do you take The Bible literally?" I'm never really sure what the questioner intends by his question. What does he mean by "literally"? Does he mean do I read every single sentence from Genesis to Revelation as a literal statement? In that case, I would have to say "No." In fact, I don't know of anyone who reads everything in The Bible literally. On the other hand, I don't read everything in The Bible as a metaphor either. Some things I take literally, and others I take to be metaphors.
So if anyone ever asks you "Do you take The Bible literally?" you should respond "Only the places where I think the author meant for us to take him literally." Of course, this raises another question: How do we go about determining what should be read as literal and what should be read as metaphorical?
Common Sense Can Often Alert Us To The Non-Literal Nature Of A Passage
More often than not, you don't need to be a highly trained exegete to know when a passage of scripture isn't meant to be taken literally. Sometimes just using the brain that God gave you will do the trick. For example, when Jesus says "I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture." (John 10:9, ESV), we don't immediately think that Jesus is a large wooden rectangle with a knob and hinges. This is because we know that Jesus is God (John 1:1-3, Hebrews 1, Collosians 1:15-16, John 10:30) and we know that Jesus is human (John 1:14, Philippians 2:5-8), and we're aware that Jesus cannot be a door if He's God Incarnate. Not only that, but we know that doors are inanimate objects and ergo cannot be itinerant preachers. Common sense immediately leads us to the conclusion that Jesus is not literally a door. He's calling Himself a door in a metaphorical sense. He is "the door" in the sense that just as you can enter a room only through the door, so you can enter the Kindgom of Heaven only through Jesus (c.f John 14:6).
Or again, when we read Galatians 2:20, in which Paul says "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (ESV), we don't think that Paul was literally nailed to a cross next to Jesus. This is obvious in that if Paul were literally crucified, he would be dead, and therefore would not be able to write this epistle to the Galatians. Once again, common sense tells us that this passage is not meant to be read literally. What Paul obviously means is that the person he used to be is no more. He died when he met Christ. His old nature has died, and his new regenerate nature has come to life.
Knowing The Genre Of The Book Helps
Sometimes knowing what genre the book you're reading is can help you track down metaphors that aren't so obvious as the previous 2 that I mentioned above. The Bible is comprised of 66 documents (books and letters) and not all of them are in the same genre of literature. Some books are historical (e.g Genesis, Exodus, Numbers,... the 4 gospels, Acts, etc.), others are books of poetry (i.e The Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song Of Solomon, and some would include Job), others are apocalyptic literature (e.g Daniel, Revelations), and so on.
Knowing the genre of the book can help you pinpoint which statements are literal and which books are metaphorical. For example, if you're reading a history book like Matthew or Acts, then you can take a lot of things far more literally than you could in a poetry book like Psalms, though as we've seen, even the history books in The Bible can contain metaphorical statements here and there, but with a historical book, they're bound to be fewer than in a poetry book like Psalms. In a book like the Psalms, you're bound to find metaphorical statements everywhere, since metaphor is a prominent feature in poetic literature, both ancient and modern. With apocalyptic literature like Revelations, pretty much the vast majority of the text is going to be metaphorical. I'm hesitant to take anything from that book literally. This is because symbolism is a key feature of the apocalyptic genre.
Be On The Lookout For Similes.
A simile is a figure of speech. A simile is an explicitly stated comparison using the words "like" or "as". Whenever you read a statement containing the words "like" or "as", you're reading a simile. Statements like these would be found in verses like 1 Peter 1:24, for example. 1 Peter 1:24 says "For, 'All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall,'" (NIV). Here, we see Peter quoting an Old Testament verse that says that people are "like" grass, and their glory is "like" the flowers of the field, and what that means is that just as grass is beautiful and green at one point, but withers and fades later, so people are young and vibrant, but they grow old and die later. The verse is clearly not saying that people are grass, but that people are like grass in this particular aspect.
Another example of simile would be found in Luke 10:3. In this verse, Jesus said to his disciples "Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves." (ESV). Jesus used simile here. He said that he was sending them out "as" lambs among wolves.
Keep The Text In Its Context
Ripping Bible verses out of context may be the number 1 heremenutical error that people make when interpreting The Bible. Sometimes a verse may seem to be speaking literally, but when you look at the passage in its context, you see that this isn't the case. And by the way, I don't just mean the immediate context of the preceding and proceeding verses and chapters within the book that the verse is in, but this even means the context of The Bible as a whole.
For example, several passages express features of God which some take to be literal statements (e.g Mormons), but when you look at all of the biblical data on God's attributes, taking these statements literally would cause The Bible to contradict itself. For example, Psalm 17:8 says "Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings," (NIV), Isaiah 59:1 says "Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear." (NIV), Proverbs 15:3 says "The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good." According to these verses, God has eyes, ears, and arms. Some sects like the Mormons interpret these as literal statements and conclude that God has a physical body. However, if you interpret these verses literally, you run into problems, for we are also told in scripture that "God is spirit" (John 4:24), and that God "...lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see." (1 Timothy 6:16). If God is a spirit, then it follows that He's immaterial, since that's what a spirit is; an immaterial, unembodied consciousness. If that's the case, then He cannot literally have eyes, ears, and arms, since these are physical organisms. Moreover, according to 1 Timothy 6:16 which I just quoted, not only has no ever seen God, no one is even capable of seeing God. Why is this? If God had a physical body, of course you'd be able to see Him, since He'd be reflecting photons. If God is an immaterial spirit on the other hand, it would make sense why this verse says that no one can see God. God does not have a body. These verses are metaphors for God's knowledge of what's going on in the world (His "eyes"), His attentiveness to His people (His "ears"), and His omnipotence (His "arm").
And yes, I know that Jesus is God and Jesus had a body, but we need to keep 2 things in mind. For one thing, these verses were written before the incarnation occurred. Secondly, by "God", I'm referring to the entire triune divine being, not simply one person of the Godhead like the Father or Jesus. The Trinity never became incarnate, only the Son did, so it is still the case that God -- defined as the entire Godhead -- still does not have a body, even though the second person of The Trinity has been embodied since the first century.
So, one needs to interpret scripture verses in light of the context, both the immediate context as well as the context of The Bible as a whole. In the latter case, you're letting scripture interpret scripture.
This blog post is by no means exhaustive on the ways to discern metaphors from literal statements, but these are a few of the basic hermenuetical principles one needs to apply when reading scripture. Should we interpret The Bible literally? We should only interpret some passages literally and others metaphorically, and applying these hermenuetical principles will help you know what's literal and what's a metaphor.