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June 24, 2020

Is the Bible Always Literal?

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The word literal is complicated. According to one of the first definitions in the dictionary, literal means: “adhering…to the ordinary construction of primary meaning of a term or expression.”

In other words, being literal can just mean saying what you mean to say, giving primary importance in the moment to what you mean to give primary importance.

Is the Bible Always Literal?

Yes, the Bible is entirely literal. But what does that really mean?

We might mistakenly replace the word literal with some other word. We might assume the Bible is entirely historical. Much of it is primarily historical, but how can Revelation, whose symbol-laden, future-tense prophecies have not yet happened, be historical? And surely we’d be missing much in our reading of the Psalms if we read them in the same way we read a biography.

When I say the Bible is always literal, I mean that it always gives primary importance to what it means to give primary importance. The Bible always and perfectly says exactly what it means to say.

And I want to argue here that the Bible is also more than literal. It is entirely literal, but it is also what I call “literal plus.”

Three Ways the Bible Is “Literal Plus”

The thirteenth-century writer Thomas Aquinas wrote:

Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of [Scripture] is God, who by one act comprehends all things by his intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says, if, even according to the literal sense, one word in [Scripture] should have several senses.1

Essentially, Aquinas is saying that since God understands everything, and in so many deeper ways than we do, isn’t it possible that when he says something simple it can also have a deeper meaning? The deeper meaning would not contradict the first meaning, but would be that which rewards further study. In this way, a single sentence could be enough for a lifetime’s worth of reflection.

Take this sentence from 1 John 4:16: “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (ESV). You could spend an eternity learning more about the riches of this phrase, and in all that time you would never learn something truthful that contradicts the initial lesson it teaches.

And so every Bible passage has the truth it presents to you right away—that’s the literal meaning, and the truth that can be discovered by reflection and study—that’s where the “plus” comes in. Here are three ways the Bible is “literal plus.”

1. Literal Plus Allegorical

Remember, the Bible is entirely literal, and the Bible is also “literal plus.” The “plus” never contradicts the literal. With that said, let’s open to Genesis 1:10–13:

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good… “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” … And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

The literal meaning is that God created the earth and the seas. God created plants and fruit trees. And He created them good. And it was on the third day of creation. That’s the literal meaning, and it is true and trustworthy.

Now let’s turn to Genesis 1:26–27, 29–31:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” …
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.” … And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

The literal meaning is that, on the sixth day of creation, God created mankind, Adam and Eve. He created them in his image, male and female, and he gave them the land as a place to live and govern, and God gave them the plants and fruit trees as food to eat.

But there is more truth to be gained here! And so we can read allegorically. Here the allegorical truth is this: God provides and prepares life for his creation.

Genesis 1 is surely teaching us not only that God created the world in those six days, but he also sustains it even now! As God prepared a place for Adam and Eve three days before they were created, so he prepares and plans our lives for us.

The Bible literally teaches that God created the world, and that’s true and good. It also allegorically teaches us that God’s character is that of a good provider. He cares for the world even now—not just during those six days in Genesis!

2. Literal Plus Moral

Another “literal plus” layer in the abovementioned verses from Genesis is the moral sense. Morality deals with how we ought to live, and so the question here is this: How does Genesis teach us to live?

Of course, when we are grounded faithfully in the literal truth that God created the world, then we can easily see the moral truth as well—we belong to God. God has a claim over our lives because he created us. We ought to live the way he tells us to live. If God were not literally our Creator, then this moral truth would not be accurate.

This “literal plus” layer is particularly helpful in reading the Gospel accounts. For if we just read them literally, we can be tempted to think, “Oh, that’s nice that Jesus lived that way” but never realize that Jesus’ actions are moral imperatives for his followers!

That is precisely why Paul says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1), because he understands the moral sense of the Gospels. Paul understands that Jesus’ life is something we not only cherish but follow.

3. Literal Plus Christological

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life (John 5:39-40).

Jesus teaches that all Scripture points to him. All the books of the Bible “bear witness about [Jesus]”; that means if we read the Scriptures and we miss Jesus, then we’ve missed the point entirely.

This is exactly why we need to read the Bible with a “literal plus” mindset. If we go to the Bible looking for wisdom in Proverbs, comfort in Psalms, teaching in Romans, interesting stories in Acts, or whatever else, we can get all of that on the literal level.

But if we miss how the Scripture always points to Jesus Christ, we will miss out on life itself.

In summary, when you open your Bible next, don’t stop when you catch what the Bible says on the surface. Instead, dig deeper until you also see what it is saying allegorically about the character of God, about the moral obligation of mankind, and, above all, about Jesus Christ our Savior.

1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, ed. R. M. Hutchins, Great Books of the Western World: Vol. 19. Thomas Aquinas I (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), 1.1.10.

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Davis Wetherell

Davis Wetherell (MA in English, Marquette University) is a writer and editor. He recently managed article content for Open the Bible. He has taught college classes on literature, rhetoric, and composition. Davis has a heart for writers and loves to serve them. Check out his blog.
Davis Wetherell (MA in English, Marquette University) is a writer and editor. He recently managed article content for Open the Bible. He has taught college classes on literature, rhetoric, and composition. Davis has a heart for writers and loves to serve them. Check out his blog.