Bible Believers are so named because they claim to do that very thing—believe the Bible—and that, a specific Bible. The Authorized King James Bible of 1611. They claim to believe what it says, as it says it, without reservation. Your author is among this group. However, some of the brethren are so strict and literal in how one is to believe or approach the Bible that they actually miss some of the truths the Lord is wanting to convey. We call this Hyper-Literalism.
Now as soon as we say believers can be hyper or too literal with some statements in the Scriptures some will puff up and charge us as being "liberal" or even an "unbeliever." This type of reactionary charge is typical. Bible believers as a group have had to deal with true unbelief from Modernism and Liberalism for so long that some over-react and become hyper-literal, even to their own Bible Believing brethren. They insist every passage must be taken strictly literal unless it is absolutely impossible to do so. On the surface this may sound "militant" and "biblical," but problems arise when they force and distort figurative passages to make them "fit" their literalism. In fact, by not allowing obvious figurative language to speak as intended, they hinder or muffle what the Scriptures are actually saying.
In general, that the Bible should be first approached by taking its words literally is a "no brainer." When a person reads the Bible he should assess the words in their plain, normal, natural, obvious sense, much like we would read and understand a newspaper or book. Dr. David Cooper, founder of The Biblical Research Society, is known for his "Golden Rule of Interpretation,"
When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense.
Therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths indicate clearly otherwise.
This rule should be generally followed, but it is not flawless. Scripture uses many literary devices that are not always announced in the immediate context. Devices such as metaphor, allegory, types, hyperbole, idioms, parable, etc. Ethelbert Bullinger wrote a book called "Figures of Speech In the Bible" that details 217 different types of figures. His Companion Bible has many of them marked in the Bible notes.
Cooper's Rule can also be limiting in its scope. He says, "When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense," but many passages in Scripture have more than one sense or a dual (or even multiple) application. If one just takes the local, immediate sense of say, Gen 22:8 where Abraham says, "My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering," and then seeks no other sense, he misses that the passage is not only speaking about God providing Himself a lamb, but He is also MAKING Himself a lamb!
Again, Scripture is to be first taken literally and plainly, and that is the normal way people approach words. When a person sees or hears any words or speech he naturally (and by instinct it seems) assesses the words literally first and only if they cannot sensibly be taken that way does he consider them as figurative. When the Bible says God "created the heaven and the earth," flooded the earth, parted the Red Sea, sent manna every day, etc., it is natural to take the words at face value. The same when it says Jesus was born of a virgin, died on a cross, rose from the dead, is able to save sinners, and will physically return, etc. Those passages are not unclear, ambiguous, or figurative. If one tries to make them figurative or allegorical he is arguing against the natural and plain meaning of the words. All the key and fundamental doctrines of the Bible are clear, plain, and explicit.
Although the words of Scriptures should be first addressed literally, there are many passages and statements in the Scriptures that simply should not be taken that way. A lot of this figurative language is found in the Old Testament, but the New Testament has a significant share also. Here is a clear New Testament example straight from the Lord's mouth.
In Acts 9:5, after Paul fell to the earth from the bright light from heaven, the Lord spoke to him and asked, "... it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks." "Pricks" are sharp goads or spikes carried by men plowing with oxen, and if an ox would kick against the prick, it would hurt and could even wound its legs. Here the question arises, would it be physically possible for Paul to be literally harnessed in an ox yoke, pulling a plow, and kicking against the spikes? Well...yes, it is very possible; people have done stranger things. But is that what really happened? Of course not. Even though it could actually occur, it is so outrageous that everyone rightly sees it as a figure. The Lord was referring to how Paul was battling with his conscience in persecuting His people.
With just this one passage the Hyper-Literal "impossible" argument has been shown to be invalid. Their claim that all passages that can be taken literally must be taken literally just doesn't work. Your author has never heard or read anyone who claimed Paul was literally kicking against literal pricks with his literal feet. Nor does he know of any who claim Paul was actually hitched to a literal ox yoke.
Another figure like this in Acts is where the Jews "gnashed on him (Stephen) with their teeth" in Act 7:54. Did they actually chew his flesh with their mouths? Highly unlikely.
How about when Paul said,
"For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock." (Act 20:29)
Was he talking about literal, canine wolves with four legs or people who seek to devour like wolves? Is a congregation a literal flock of sheep or are sheep a figure of the believer? Likewise when Paul said,
"Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision." (Phi 3:2)
Does he mean German Shepherds and Doberman Pinchers or people who act like dogs? Can you prove it from the context? Is it impossible to beware of literal, four-legged dogs? See the messes the Hyper-Literal make for themselves?
There are many comparison type figures in the Scriptures. When the Lord said He was "water," "bread," a "door," a "stone," and a "vine," etc., these are all obvious figures. More than that there are even figurative actions; actions the Lord promoted that many believers now do not perform literally. One is the action of the Lord washing the disciples feet. Here it is not just a few words or a phrase that are figurative, but the whole process. After the Lord washed their feet he said (John 13:14),
"If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet."
Should this be taken literally? Should believers actually wash one another's feet? That's what the words plainly say, but very few literally practice it. Your author has never been in a Bible Believing church where he saw it practiced. Why do most Bible Believing churches refrain from doing this, even those who are hyper-literal about other things like geocentrism? Its because they see the passage as a metaphor for believers serving each other in general. The inconsistency (and even hypocrisy) is obvious.
Here is a figure of speech of another type. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 4:8, 10,
"Now ye are full, now ye are rich, ye have reigned as kings without us: and I would to God ye did reign, that we also might reign with you...We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised."
Are these statements that should be taken literally at face value? Hardly, Paul is using the literary methods or irony and sarcasm to convey the opposite of what the words actually say! It is a quite common way of speaking. Job did it as well,
"No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you. (Job 12:2)
This type of speech is made "all the time" (another figure) today: "You really did a good job..." (of wrecking your car).
Words of this type could be taken literally very easily, and it is very possible to do so. However, if these passages and phrases are taken strictly literal then the very message the Scriptures are wishing to convey is completely lost! Now think about that a while.
Another very common figure of speech in the Scriptures is the idiom. As another said,
"An idiom is a common way of expressing thoughts by words and phrases having an understood meaning that is different from the literal meaning. The intended meaning cannot be comprehended by inspection of the words alone but also by investigation of ordinary usage. Idioms of one's own native language are difficult to detect because they are simply the way we normally put words together. English is full of idiomatic expressions; examples include "real estate," "give way," "take your time," "come up with an idea," "come down with a cold," "work out," "dead even," "level best," "of course," and "how do you do.
"Idioms are often lost when translating, because they differ from language to language. For example, the way to say "good bye" in German is literally "on again to see." The same is true when the Bible is translated into English or any other language. An actual word-for-word idiom translation is difficult to follow. However, some so-called translations today are considered "thought" translations, which are essentially commentaries more than true translations."
Take, for instance, the American English idiom "He bit the dust." What do the words actually say? A rather filthy thing to do, don't you think? But what do the words really mean? To any American of the last 50 years the words mean someone has died, usually by accident. Notice how the words themselves don't even remotely convey the actual meaning of the phrase. There is no way a person speaking another language could understand the meaning of these words EVEN IF ACCURATELY TRANSLATED! The meaning is not in the individual words but in the colloquial use of the phrase. The phrase has a meaning of its own which is independent of the words. Verbal literalism in cases like this is a hindrance to the truth.
Many of the idioms of the King James Bible have become so accustomed to us that we forget some of them are figures. Take for instance the word "seed." The Bible speaks much about men having "seed," but they really don't. Plants have seed (Gen 1:11), men have descendants or heirs. Isaac and Jesus are of the "seed of Abraham." "Seed" is a Hebrew idiom for human descendants. And, of course, we all know what the biblical "know" means (Gen 5:1). The first part of Jeremiah 4:4 ("Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart") would really be a mess if you tried to make those descriptive words literal. Hebrew is a very expressive language and the King James Bible masterfully translates it into English, idioms and all.
The Bible says Jerusalem is the "apple of his [God's] eye" (Zec 2:8). This is a double idiom of sorts because people do not have apples in their eyes, and if they did, what would it mean? The "apple" is an idiom for the pupil, but what does it mean to say something is the "pupil of mine eye"? That is a idiom stating something is very dear or precious to a person. To take the phrase as literal is meaningless.
Ever read in the parable of the "Good Samaritan" about how the thieves left the man "half dead" (Luke 10:30)? How could that possibly be taken literally? A person is either dead or not. There are "literally" (smile!) thousands of idioms and other figures in the Bible that by their very nature should not be taken literally. Again, to do so is to miss the very intent of the passages the Lord is wanting to convey.
Clearly, the "cut and dried" world of the Hyper-Literal is not so "cut and dried"?
Often the Bible uses parts of the human anatomy as figures of speech. The "heart," for instance, is the most often used. Everyone knows what one's literal heart is. It's the organ that pumps blood through your body. An interesting observation is, to your author's knowledge, out of the 833 times "heart" is found in the Bible, not once does it refer to the physical organ. Instead the term most often figuratively refers to one's inner being: the center of man's thinking, emotions, and will. As the physical heart is in the center of one's body, his spiritual heart is the center of the man himself. As the Way Of Life Encyclopedia states,
"Man thinks in his heart (Ge. 6:5; Pro. 23:7). He understands with his heart (Pro. 2:2). He deviseth his way with his heart (Pr. 16:9). The heart meditates (Psa. 19:14), considers (De. 4:39), purposes (Da. 1:8), takes counsel (Pr. 20:5), reasons (Lk. 5:22), desires (Ro. 10:1), has intents (He. 4:12). From the heart proceed all the actions and motivations of man (Pro. 4:23-27; Mt. 15:18-20). The mind is used as a synonym for the heart (De. 28:65; 1 Sa. 2:35; 1 Ch. 28:9; Da. 5:20; Phil. 4:7; He. 8:10). The heart/mind is the source of the thoughts and imaginations (Gen. 6:5; De. 15:9; 1 Ch. 29:18; Pro. 23:7)."
Even though the term heart is used in several different applications, every time it is used in the Bible it is figurative. Fascinating.
Much the same can be said about the"eye." Although the physical eye is referred to many times (Gen 13:10; Mat 20:34, etc.), the spiritual, inner "eye" is the primary usage of the term. When Adam and Eve's "eyes were opened," it was not their literal, physical eyes, it was their spiritual inner eye or sight that was given. In this case their inner sight could see evil. On the flip side, after Paul's conversion, one of the things the Lord said he would do among the Gentiles was "open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light" (Act 26:18). The eyes are figurative (as is the "darkness" and "light"). Later in Acts 28:27 when the Jews refused to hear Paul's message he said,
"For the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them."
The "heart," "ears," and "eyes" are all figurative uses of human organs. The organs represent the inner spiritual aspects of the human condition. Treating the terms as literal would greatly cloud the intent of the message.
One of the Lord's preferred methods of communication was with "parables" (Mark 4:34), and a parable is the epitome of a figure of speech. The Greek word behind parable ("parabole") is even translated as "figure" in Heb 9:9. By its very design it is not to be taken literally. A parable is generally defined as "a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson," and the story may or may not be actually true. The Lord spoke using a parable around 50 times.
Although most parables could be taken in some sense literally, to do so would wreck its entire message. take for instance the parable of the shepherd and his lost sheep,
And he spake this parable unto them, saying, What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. (Luk 15:3-7)
Notice how unlike some of the other parables this one is personalized to those present, "What man of you...." Does this charge only apply to them? Furthermore, the story only deals with shepherds and sheep. Does that mean that those of us who are not shepherds can ignore it? See how the flow goes? Taking this account as strictly literal, even though it is possible, essentially "guts it" to where it has no meaning. However, when the story is used as it is intended, the meaning is very clear—Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd who gives His life for the sheep (John 10:11). He came to seek us as a sheep who had "gone astray" (Isa 53:6) and to save you (Luke 19:10).
If you want to get into a quagmire, however, start pushing the figures a little harder into doctrine a see the problems that arise. Suppose you make the lost sheep a saved man as the Bible often does in other places (John 10:26-28). How do you explain the shepherd (Christ) loosing one of his sheep, especially when He says, "I give unto them eternal life; and they shall NEVER PERISH, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand" (John 10:28)? If you make the sheep a lost person, the shepherd is said to LEAVE the 99 saved sheep while looking for the lost one! This is the same Shepherd who said "I will NEVER LEAVE THEE, nor forsake thee" (Heb 13:5)! Either way the parable becomes a hindrance to truth rather than an aid when pushed too far.
Ah, the messes some of the brethren make for themselves. Obviously, the parable is not meant to be pushed that hard or read that literal. To do so renders it pretty much meaningless. This is much the same for many other parables.
It may come as a surprise to many, but figurative language is so pervasive in the Scriptures that it is even used between members of the Godhead (or Trinity). Look at Luke 10:21,
"In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight."
Notice how the Lord thanks the Father for revealing truths unto "babes." Does He really mean infants who may not even "know their right hand from the left," or does he mean those who are not considered "wise and prudent" by themselves and the world? Obviously, "babes" is used in the latter sense. Also, Look at John 17:12
"While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name: those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled."
"Son of perdition"? Perdition is a state of being, not a person. Perdition is essentially the opposite of salvation; the state of lostness. It can only have children in a figurative sense.
Of course, Judas is the person in question and it is interesting that when talking about him the Lord and His Father use a description of him instead of his name. Hum...what would your name be?
Saying a person is a "son of" something is a common Hebrew idiom showing a relationship between the person and what he is the "son of" ("sons of the prophets", "son of Belial," etc.)
While in the Garden of Gethsemane the Lord prayed (Matt 26:39),
"O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt."
Was the Lord desiring a literal (wooden, glass, metal, etc.) "cup" pass from Him? Of course not. The cup is a figure of His Father's wrath which He was to bear on the cross. That the members of the Godhead communicate using figures of speech is very interesting. It shows that figures in language are not necessarily a human invention and are used to accommodate man's understanding.
Those who hold to Hyper-Literalism refrain from mentioning the passages where being too literal is not only an error but can even be dangerous. Consider the Christ's words in John 6,
"Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you...Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life...For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed...He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him..." (Joh 6:53-57)
This is the famous passage used by Roman Catholics to "prove" that one must "eat" the actual flesh of Christ to "receive" Him. On the basis of taking this literally the Catholics invented the doctrine of "Transubstantiation" where their priests can magically change normal bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. Lutherans also believe a form of this by claiming "that Christ is in, with and under the forms of bread and wine." Christ's words are quite clear and if taken literally they would mean exactly what they say. They were so clear that many of the disciples He was speaking too became so perplexed they said, "...This is an hard saying; who can hear it?" and eventually left Him.
Passages like this are a bane to the Hyper-Literal Bible Believer. Bible Believers do not teach one must actually eat the flesh of Christ to get eternal life so how are they going to consistently deal with them? They can't. They usually try to bluff their way through by insisting eating Christ's flesh should not to be taken literally because it is impossible, but on the other hand all the passages THEY want to take literal must be treated as such.
The answer to passages like this is to take them the way the Bible presents the subject as a whole. If the language is figurative, deal with it as such. If not, take it literally. Plowing through passages with a fixed mentality, whether taking words literal or allegorical, will lead to error along the way. (The Catholics are in error here because in vs 63 Christ clarifies matters by saying, "It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing...")
Preterism is another heretical view that overemphasizes the "literalness" of certain passages.
"Preterism is a variant of Christian eschatology which holds that some or all of the Biblical prophecies concerning the Last Days (or End Times) refer to events which actually happened in the first century after Christ's birth. The term preterism comes from the Latin praeter, meaning "past." Adherents of Preterism are known as Preterists. Preterists believe that the Second Coming of Christ took place in 70 A.D. and they also believe that the "great tribulation" (Matt. 24:21) took place in or around 70 A.D."
One passage they often quote is Matt 16:28,
"There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom."
They insist this verse must be taken absolutely literally and then use it to "prove" that Christ's second coming had to occur before the disciples died who were present when He spoke. Matthew 24:34; 26:24 and a few more verses are used in a similar manner. If the verse is taken literally in a stand-alone manner it does say what they claim, but if one reads the next chapter where Christ is transfigured before the disciples eyes, he realizes Christ was speaking of that event. The kingdom did not actually arrive but a foretaste of the King's glory was on display which was a figure of His actual coming in the future. A lot can be learned from this passage about how the Lord uses words and His intended meaning with them.
Of Course, another group that gets into a mess by taking certain Bible passages too literal are the above mentioned Open Theists. The primary error of the Open Theists is taking passages literal that should be taken figuratively and on that basis insisting God is subject to time. Remember above where we mentioned the Scriptures using "anthropomorphisms" to describe God's actions? Since in the Scriptures the Lord is speaking to men on earth, He often uses human methods and human attributes to describe Himself. By taking these passages as literal (like a good Hyper-Literal), they actually end up teaching heresy.
From the examples we have mentioned above (and more to follow) it should be quite clear that figurative language is common in the Scriptures. We also demonstrated that to try and force the figurative language into strict or wooden literalism leads to error at the least and heresy at the worst. The way to approach the language of the Scriptures is to simply let them speak in their natural manner. Every word is truth, even the most literal truth, but many of the words only reveal their literal truth when they are not taken absolutely literal themselves. Here is what Ethelbert Bullinger says about figures in Appendix 6 of his Companion Bible (emphasis mine),
A "Figure of speech" relates to the form in which the words are used. It consists in the fact that a word or words are used out of their ordinary sense, or place, or manner, for the purpose of attracting our attention to what is thus said. A Figure of speech is a deigned and legitimate departure from the laws of language, in order to emphasize what is said. Hence in such Figures we have the Holy Spirit's own marking, so to speak, of His own words.
This peculiar form or unusual manner may not be true, or so true, to the literal meaning of the words; but it is more true to their real sense, and truer to truth. Figures are never used but for the sake of emphasis. They can never, therefore, be ignored. Ignorance of Figures of speech has led to the grossest errors, which have been caused either from taking literally what is figurative, or from taking figuratively what is literal.
Here some will complain, "If we allow figurative language in the Bible, then how can we know what is figurative and what isn't?" or "Everyone will have a different idea as to what is figurative and use it to explain away what is actually true, such as creation, the miracles, Christ's resurrection and return, etc."
First, there is almost always no problem for a rational human being who can comprehend natural and normal language to determine the figurative from the literal. Take Matthew 7:15 for instance,
"Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves."
Is there any problem in determining that the "prophets" are literal and the "sheep's clothing" and "ravenous wolves" are figurative? How about Matthew 21:42 where it says,
"...The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner:..."
That whole phrase is figurative. The "stone," "builders," and "corner" do not literally exist, but does anyone have any problem understanding the truth of the words when considered in their context?
Bible prophecy often has figurative symbolism associated with it. Here are a few examples,
|Head of Gold||Nebuchadnezzar||Dan. 2:37-38|
|Rock cut out of mountain||Kingdom of God||Dan. 2:44-45|
|Ten horns of 4th beast||Ten kings||Dan. 7:24|
|Two-horned ram||Medo-Persian kings||Dan. 8:20|
|Woman in bushel||Iniquity of the land||Zech. 5:6|
|Seven stars||Angels of the churches||Rev. 1:20|
|Seven lampstands||Seven churches of Asia||Rev. 1:20|
|Bowls of incense||Prayers of saints||Rev. 5:8|
|Great dragon||Satan, Devil||Rev. 12:9|
|Ten horns of beast||Ten kings||Rev. 17:12|
Often just reading these symbols within their context will clear them up. Usually the Scriptures will specifically state what the figure represents like Satan is called a "dragon" (Rev 12:9). Is he really a reptilian dragon like "Godzilla"? Or is he really a "roaring lion" (1Pet 5:8) from the plains of Africa? No, but those comparisons do effectively describe his characteristics much more than just saying Satan is a "bad guy."
As we mentioned earlier, figures of speech usually present themselves quite obviously, however some can be a little more elusive. When confronted with a passage that the reader may believe contains a figure of speech there are a few guidelines that will help.
First, always try to take the words literally. If it makes little or no sense to apply it literally, then it's probably a figure of speech. As we saw above with the example of Paul kicking against the pricks, using the "impossible test" will often fail. One cannot reliably insist that a passage must be impossible to take literally before it should be taken figuratively.
Once a figure is determined, let the context determine the meaning of the figure.
Then look for what is behind the figure; what the figure represents.
Look for specific points of similarity and difference.
Be careful not to force the figure past the author's intended meaning. Just like the parables, there's a limit to the meaning of any figure of speech.
When one follows these guidelines, much of the Bible's figurative language will easily be understood.