Bible Interpretation Part 2: The Literalistic Objection

Rick Mattson Bible Leave a Comment

In my prior post I replied to the naturalistic objection to Bible interpretation.

In this post I’d like to respond to the literalistic objection, which goes something like this:

The Bible is the inerrant Word of God and must be read literally, “as is.” You don’t “interpret” Scripture, you just read it and apply it to your life.

I agree with the good intent of reading the Bible plainly, but not its conclusion — that somehow we can avoid the process of interpretation.

Three replies, then:

1. Translations: We’ve already accepted a measure of “interpretation” of the Bible when we read modern translations given us by scholars, such as the KJV, NIV, ESV, NLT, etc. There’s really no such thing as not interpreting the Bible.

2. Community: The “no interpretation” view tends to go solo. It says the Bible is so plain to understand that other readers and interpreters (even commentaries) are not needed.

But it seems to me approaching the Bible without the guardrails of community is a form of individualism, perhaps arrogance.

3. Literalism a true oddity: Pure literalism is never something the Bible itself calls for. In fact, the Bible uses many forms of non-literal communication to get its message across:

It refers to God as a “rock,” who has “eyes” and “ears” and “hands.” Isaiah 11 refers to the “rod of his mouth,” Psalm 91 to God’s “feathers.”

Jesus taught in fictional parables, and is referred to as a “shepherd” and a “gate.” And the Bible is loaded with various genres of literature that speak to the broad spectrum of its readers.

* * * * *

I think the thing to avoid is not interpretation per se, but bad interpretation. Thus we need to submit our own readings of Scripture to the wisdom of the body of Christ, which is rightly called the interpretive community.*

Next time, I’ll respond to the “pluralistic objection.”


*  See Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth,  Introduction.

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