What Is the Importance of Interpreting the Bible ‘Literally’?

When we consistently interpret the Bible plainly or “literally,” we avoid unneeded confusion. Also, we submit ourselves to God’s Word, seeking to understand what He has said instead of searching for hidden, subjective meanings or pushing our agenda onto the text.

What Is the Importance of Interpreting the Bible ‘Literally’?

All Christians are involved in interpreting the Bible. When we read from Scripture, we interact with and interpret what we read. The problem is that sometimes we want to interpret the Bible to fit what we think and assume.

People approach biblical hermeneutics differently. Some people think that the Bible contains a lot of allegory and symbolism that no one can definitively decipher. Others assert that believers can understand God’s Word when they read it.

Since God gave us 66 books in the Bible, written in human languages, He wants to communicate to us and be understood. The main reason to interpret the Bible “literally” is that God intended that we understand His Word.

What Does it Mean to Interpret Scripture ‘Literally’?

Numerous critics of a “literal” interpretation of the Bible argue that the word “literal” implies taking words at face value while ignoring figures of speech.

For instance, critics often point out that poetic language exists in Scripture and that a “literal” interpretation would lead people to a faulty understanding of a verse.

In Isaiah 55:12, the Bible reads, “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”

Many people would rightly argue that the mountains and hills were not really singing, and the trees were not clapping their hands since this is a figure of speech. However, people who interpret the Bible “literally” would agree.

Those who follow a “literal” interpretation take the Bible plainly and read it normally. Literal interpreters of the Bible recognize that there are different genres in the Bible, such as poetry, epistles, and narratives.

Furthermore, they acknowledge figures of speech in Scripture, like in Isaiah 55:12 or the Book of Psalms.

To avoid confusion, many people who follow a literal interpretation of Scripture prefer to use the term “historical-grammatical” interpretation.

This indicates that their hermeneutical method focuses on understanding verses in their proper historical and grammatical context. Recognizing the cultural and textual context of the verses are also essential components of a “literal” interpretation.

Language and a Literal Interpretation

As Dr. Charles Ryrie said in his book Basic Theology, “It is God who desired to give man His Word. It is God who also gave the gift of language so He could fulfill that desire. He gave us His Word in order to communicate, not confound.” The Lord gave us the Bible and wants us to understand it.

The different books in the Bible are written in three main languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. There were numerous authors who penned the words in Scripture, but they were all carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). God gave us His inerrant, inspired Word through written language that can be translated and understood.

Furthermore, each of the books of the Bible was written by specific authors who had an intended purpose when writing.

God is the ultimate author, but He gave human authors the freedom to write in the forms they chose using specific words and phrases. We need to take the Bible normally and plainly to understand what the biblical authors were trying to convey.

For instance, each of the gospel writers had different purposes for writing, even though they included the same major events of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Understanding the author’s intended purpose for writing helps us to properly interpret biblical passages.

In Luke’s gospel, we can better understand the focus on Gentiles and outcasts in society, such as Zacchaeus the Jewish tax collector, when we know that his emphasis was to show how Jesus came to save everyone (Luke 19:1-10).

Thus, a literal interpretation of the Bible emphasizes that God gave us the Bible in written languages by authors with intended purposes. The reason His Word is revealed in human language is that He wants us to understand Scripture.

Consistency in Interpretation

Although many Christians read the Bible plainly most of the time, there are groups of Christians who believe that some sections of the Bible should be viewed as allegory. These interpreters of Scripture would argue that prophecy is not intended to be taken plainly or “literally.”

However, some believers have also used an inconsistent interpretation of Scripture to argue that other parts of the Bible are allegorical as well, such as when referring to creation, Noah’s ark, or miracles.

The Book of Revelation has often been mislabeled as a book that is full of allegory and difficult to decode. When we consistently apply the historical-grammatical method of taking the Bible plainly, though, we find that Revelation, and other prophetic parts of the Bible, can be understood.

For example, readers commonly recognize that when John the Baptist calls Jesus the “Lamb of God,” he is using a figure of speech (John 1:29). Jesus is not a baby sheep, but He is the one who died for our sins, an image of the sacrificial lamb in the Old Testament.

Likewise, when John the apostle says that he saw a lamb who looked like it had been slain, also referred to as the “Lion of Judah,” we should recognize that he is referring to Jesus (Revelation 5:5-6).

Readers may think the imagery is fantastical, but John is conveying a real scene through these figures of speech.

The question arises as to why we can pick and choose when we read the Bible plainly and when we choose to view sections as allegory.

If we argue that certain sections of Scripture must be taken symbolically or figuratively, then why not the rest of the Bible? Inconsistently interpreting Scripture casts doubt on the truth of God’s Word and the legitimacy of our salvation in Jesus.

Avoiding Confusion

Both the importance of language and consistency point to the main issue of clarity. God gave us the Bible in human language so we may understand it.

Likewise, we need to consistently interpret the Bible “literally” or plainly because then we can understand what the biblical authors have written instead of searching for underlying messages or mystical meanings.

In arguing that certain sections of Scripture are literal while others are not, we are making the Bible inaccessible and incomprehensible. Without a consistent historical-grammatical (literal) hermeneutic, we could end up with interpretations that are subjective, based on our preferences or biases.

Every person comes to the Bible with preconceived ideas, but when we submit ourselves to understanding what God has said in His Word plainly, then we can challenge those assumptions and biases.

An example of this is the Flood in Genesis 6-9. People could approach this account in the Bible from many different viewpoints.

Individuals who are highly influenced by Darwinian evolution would likely see this account as referring to a local flood or as a symbolic story about Noah’s faithfulness. They would not view the flood or Noah’s ark as true events.

If, however, we approach these chapters from a historical-grammatical interpretation, we understand that the flood was worldwide, and Noah and his family, along with the animals of the earth, survived in an ark. A plain reading of the text shows us that Noah’s ark is not a “fairy-tale.”

Furthermore, when we compare Scripture to Scripture (an important part of literal interpretation), we find that Jesus believed Noah was a real person, as did Peter (Luke 17:26; 1 Peter 3:20).

Noah was not a representative of a “race” of people, nor was he a mythical character. He was a real, living man who is one of the few people who the Bible says “walked” with God (Genesis 6:9).

When we consistently interpret the Bible plainly or “literally,” we avoid unneeded confusion. Also, we submit ourselves to God’s Word, seeking to understand what He has said instead of searching for hidden, subjective meanings or pushing our agenda onto the text.

Why Does This Matter?

Because of language, the need for consistency, and clarity, a plain reading of the Bible using the historical-grammatical method is vital.

If we pick and choose what verses we take literally and those we don’t, we risk misunderstanding what God has revealed to us and cast doubt on the truthfulness of the rest of Scripture.

Although the type of interpretation a person uses does not impact their salvation, it is a critical issue to study and discuss with the Lord. The way we interpret the Bible affects various areas of doctrine.

For further reading:

What Resources Are There to Interpret the Bible 'Literally'?

Why Are There So Many Christian Interpretations?

Is the Bible a Fairy Tale?

Why Is Reading the Bible in Context Important?

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Sophia Bricker is a freelance writer who enjoys researching and writing articles on biblical and theological topics. In addition to contributing articles about biblical questions as a contract writer, she has also written for Unlocked devotional. She holds a BA in Ministry, a MA in Ministry, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing to develop her writing craft. As someone who is passionate about the Bible and faith in Jesus, her mission is to help others learn about Christ and glorify Him in her writing. When she isn’t busy studying or writing, Sophia enjoys spending time with family, reading, drawing, and gardening.