Posted by The Gospel Coalition by Glenn T. Stanton on October 16.
One of the things I enjoy most in my work at Focus on the Family is the opportunity to speak at secular university campuses and to organizations that are indifferent or opposed to orthodox Christianity. Most of my colleagues are sane enough to avoid such invitations, but I relish them because they allow me to mix with folks who see the world very differently and it’s intellectually and rhetorically stimulating to interact with them in a meaningful way. I also get the opportunity to correct lots of misunderstandings about what Christians actually believe.
One of these common misunderstandings is not even presented as a question, but an assumption. It typically goes something like this: “So Mr. Stanton, taking a literal view of the Bible as you do, please explain to me . . .”
I usually answer my questioner, to their great surprise: “Well no, I don’t take the Bible literally.” I then pause for effect, both for the sake of the non-faithful as well as for the Christians in the audience.
Reading the faces of the cynics in the audience like a book, I see that unmistakable gaze of, “Oh, what a pleasant surprise. He’s not one of those.”
Then I clear up the obvious confusion. “I don’t take the Bible literally, but I do believe everything in the Bible as true.”
Some get this important distinction immediately, while others have one confusion simply replaced by another. But this is a very important point, especially for those who are committed to defending and advocating for the truth and integrity of God’s Word.
First, we must understand that the phrase “take the Bible literally” is primarily a litmus test—and a silly one at that—for “do you really believe the Bible?” This is why so many Christians hold to this myth—they want to be counted among the Bible-believers. But this is not faithful to God’s Word.
I know of no serious, Bible-believing Christian who actually takes the Bible literally. I doubt you do either. And if there were any at our Bible-studies or Sunday schools, all would look at them as either an uninformed simpleton or mentally unstable.
If we open the scriptures to any random page, as I have just done, we will easily find an example to disprove this myth. Here I am at Ecclesiastes 10:2:
The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left.
Besides the interesting political connotations for contemporary Americans reading this text, are we to take literally that my heart—this four-chambered, muscular organ beating in my chest—physically inclines to the left part of my body because I’m a fool? If I take a literal view of scripture it does. But if I take these words seriously and truthfully, they mean my internal self—who I really am—is inclined in a direction exactly opposite of the one who is wise. Scripture’s lesson for me? Being wise or a fool has dramatic and polar opposite consequences.
I randomly flip over a few books and find myself in Psalms 62. I read here, in verse 2 that God is my rock, my salvation and my fortress. This is very good, comforting news.
As we read it seriously and truthfully, we don’t believe that God is literally a rock, much less my rock. If so, how big is He? Is He igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic? God says He’s my fortress. Is he stone or wooden? How tall are his walls? What’s his configuration? Am I being disrespectful to God with such questions? It seems like it. And that’s the point. We dishonor God and much of His Word by trying to take it literally.
But is God literally my salvation? Oh my, YES! And I tremble at the literal truth of it.
You see, these words we just read work as powerful and dramatic symbolism to drive home the literal truth that God is our firm, immovable foundation, our strong, impenetrable protector, and our salvation.
Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep . . . I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.
“Truly I tell you . . .”
Do we believe that Jesus is speaking truly to us here? May we not see it any other way! Everything the Lord says is true.
“I am the gate for the sheep . . .”
Do we think that Jesus is literally a gate, an agricultural device? A gate for sheep? Are his hinges on the top or does he open to the left or right? Maybe he operates more like swinging barn doors. Again, if we take Jesus literally here, these are very appropriate questions for serious students of Jesus. But they are utterly silly questions—if not downright disrespectful—because we know that Jesus is speaking metaphorically about being a sheep gate, but truthfully that he is the way each of us must go, that through Him alone can we pass to life and redemption in Him.
You see, Scripture communicates the truth of God in multiple, beautiful and creative, ways. Faithful readers of Scripture know it speaks:
- Literally – Jesus is God’s Son, physically rose from the dead, bodily ascended to the Father and will return, literally.
- Poetically – As in much of Psalms and Song of Solomon, even in Christ’ teaching.
- Metaphorically – Many of Jesus’ parables and illustrations.
- Rhetorically – Acts 1:18-19. Did all—every last bit—of Judas’ intestines spill out? Did everyone in Jerusalem here about this—to a person? Or is Luke saying the news was widespread, difficult to have missed?
- Descriptively – “Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill these jars with water’ so they filled them to brim.”
This is not mere quibbling. These are important points, because it demonstrates a more serious appreciation and faithful understanding of God’s Word than merely assenting to a flimsy ill-informed belief about scripture merely because of what it implies.
The great Francis Schaeffer gave us a nice example on this important point. A fearless, tireless, and brilliant defender of biblical inerrancy, he said the faithful hold a “full” or “strong, uncompromising view of Scripture.” He never said “literal view” because to say so is literally not true.