Should We Interpret the Bible Literally?

Should We Interpret the Bible Literally?

I remember reading a liberal theologian who argued that he takes the Bible “seriously” but not literally. Although this theologian was a bright fellow, I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. Whenever I hear folks criticize those who take the Bible literally, my mind often goes to the arguments about how to interpret our Constitution.

During the past couple of confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justices (Gorsuch and Kavanaugh), I’ve been struck by the similarity between the arguments for defending a liberal view of the Constitution and a liberal view of the Bible. The traditional view of interpreting the Constitution is called textualism. This argues that we must pay attention to the original words, grammar and intent of authors. That the text is what drives our interpretation, not the modern reader. Textualism argues that there is one intended meaning, and it is our job to discover and apply it accordingly. This is also the historic view of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) that has existed in the church for 2,000 years.

This stands in contrast to the modern progressivist view of interpreting the Bible or the Constitution, which is the belief that the Bible or the Constitution is a “living/evolving” document, and cannot be interpreted simply by looking at the words and grammar. Progressivists tell us that historic documents must be allowed to have elasticity in order to apply in contemporary situations. In short, the reader determines the meaning of the text, not the words themselves. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein describes the US Constitution as a living, evolving document. She says that she is very disturbed by the view of textualism and the idea that there is one meaning intended in the text. The obvious problem is this: who then is the final arbitrator of what the text means? A progressivist hermeneutic leads us into the weeds. It is dangerous and reckless. It leads to ontological solipsism. There is no way to decide who is right! This applies when referring to both the Constitution and to the Bible.

2 Peter 1:20 says, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things.” In other words, there is only one meaning in a biblical text—the one God intended. Meaning is also to be found in the words and grammar of the text. It’s fascinating to note how much emphasis the Bible puts on words as the primary vehicles to convey absolute truth. Deuteronomy 18:18 is a very typical passage to this end when God says of Moses, “I will put My words in his mouth.” Many verses like these can be found throughout the Bible; the book of Jeremiah is just one example. The reason there can only be one meaning for a text—whether in the Bible or the US Constitution—is because words have meaning. They have meaning only in context. Dislodge them from their context and you’ve launched into a sea of relativism and confusion, which is exactly where a progressivist hermeneutic takes us, both with the Bible and with the Constitution.