Do We Take the Bible Literally?

By Stephen B. Clark

Fundamentalist, creation, literal, Bible

The term “Fundamentalist” has at worst become a term of abuse and at times a term to designate someone who takes traditional religious beliefs, including moral stands, seriously (e.g., those who nowadays consider that homosexual actions are immoral because of what the Scripture says about them are regularly described as Fundamentalists). This latter understanding is vague to the point of confusion, because it would include all orthodox Christians. When discussing scriptural interpretation, people most commonly characterize Fundamentalists as people who “take Scripture literally.” Such a view can likewise be misleading, but it does highlight the key underlying issue.

The Fundamentalists probably got their reputation for being literalists because of the way they approached the historical nature of certain texts in Scripture. Perhaps the most noteworthy example was Genesis 1. Many of them—although by no means all—held that God created the world in six “literal” days, and that he made human beings on the sixth. Many also held that if you did not accept that, you could not uphold the authority of the Scripture as the Word of God, because you would be saying that the text was erroneous. Other orthodox Christians did not want to defend such a view, and it became common to describe such a position as “taking the Bible literally” or taking a particular part of the Bible literally.

The idea of taking the Bible literally is not very clear. It has at least three possible meanings. First of all, we do not take it literally when we recognize that some of the assertions in the Scripture are figurative, that is, not standard or normal or plain speech. When you read that Cain killed Abel and think it means that afterwards there was a dead body, you are reading the story literally. If you think it means that Cain told Abel a joke and afterwards Abel “died laughing,” you are not taking it literally, because the literal meaning of the words “kill” or “die” have to do with the ending of life. That is the standard or normal or plain meaning of those words. To use them to describe laughing is to understand them in a figurative or metaphorical way. Of course the story of Cain and Abel is to be read literally and not figuratively. Any Scripture scholar would say that.

The second meaning of taking the Bible literally is somewhat similar. We do not take the Bible literally when we recognize that some text is speaking about an event in an extended or analogical sense. In Genesis 3:7 it says, “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” Human nakedness is something seen by human eyes, but the text is not speaking about the simple registering of a physical sensation. Rather it is speaking about knowing something about what is seen, in this case the recognition of the significance of being without clothes. Or in Genesis 6:8, it says, “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.” Not only does the Lord not have eyes, but the reference is not to physical sighting but to personal approval.

If someone says, for instance, that he “sees” that a geometrical proof is true, he is speaking analogically. The normal or standard or plain meaning of the word “see” has to do with seeing by means of our physical eyes. When we see a chair is green, we are literally seeing that that is the case. When we “see” the truth of a geometric proof, we are not using our physical eyes but our minds (intellects), and we are inclined to describe that as “seeing,” because in both instances we are recognizing the truth of something. Using our minds and using our eyes for the acquisition of knowledge are somewhat similar and therefore using the word “seeing” for understanding is an analogical usage. Many statements in Scripture are worded in an analogical way.

The third meaning of taking the Bible literally is more relevant to our topic here. We decide not to take something literally when we judge that the literary genre of some narrative is not intended to convey historical events. Suppose we say that Gollum (Sméagol) in Tolkien’s novel The Lord of the Rings killed his relative Déagol. When you read it literally, as you should, you presume that afterwards Déagol was no longer alive and his dead body was in the ground. And you would be correct. But you do not think you could go back in time and observe it happening. It is only a story in a novel.

On the other hand, if you read that Marcus Junius Brutus was one of those who killed Julius Caesar, you can have a reasonable confidence that you could go back to 44 B.C. and observe it actually happening. You would be able to check to see that Brutus was one of the ones stabbing Caesar, and that Caesar was dead afterwards. The difference between the two situations is the literary status of the referents of the words. In one case you understand them as referring to an event in a fictional story, in another you understand them as referring to what we would call an historical fact, an event that actually occurred in the past the way it is described. We might also speak about this by saying that the referent refers to something real, not imaginary as in the murder of Déagol.

Scholars would describe the correct understanding of these accounts in regard to the historical facticity of what they describe as in large part a matter of literary form or genre. We know that the account of Déagol’s death is not an historical fact, because it occurs in a novel or a “fantasy,” a genre of writing that does not narrate historical events. We would not even consider entering it in Langer’s Encyclopedia. Caesar’s death, however, is there.


Stephen B. Clark is the former president of Sword of the Spirit and is currently a regional missionary coordinator, lecturer, and author. His book The Old Testament in the Light of the New: The Stages of God’s Plan provides a comprehensive look at how Christians should read the Bible.