Sometimes Reading the Bible Literally Is Literally Wrong

Sometimes Reading the Bible Literally Is Literally Wrong July 18, 2017

literally bible wrong pangea

For most of my life the goal of reading Scripture was information in, transformation out.
It was almost as if the Bible was an archive of knowledge that could be mastered by the most devoted disciple.

And often I still notice this trend playing itself out in one way or another. In other words, Christian character is often measured by how many verses someone can whip out in a freestyle theological debate.

But 2 Chonicles 2.7 says…. and then Revelation 24.2 says (oops, that’s not in my Bible at least)… and of course Jesus says in John 7.7….


(And usually, that “thus” leads to how right the verse slinger is in his or her opinion about a theological matter.)

Unfortunately, this pick and choose method, although for some can be evidence of a passion for God and the Bible, is problematic in many ways.

And, being able to pull out chapter and verse on a dime isn’t a sign of transformation that the Bible itself usually emphasizes. A better starting point is the “fruit of the Spirit” or the virtues Jesus advocates in the Sermon on the Mount.

Beyond this mismeasure of character formation, is the way that the Bible gets used in these sorts of situations.

Many of us were trained to take the whole Bible literally.

We were literally taught to literally take the whole thing literally.

Here’s the deal: when you tell people that the whole Bible can be understood by trusting the meaning of the “plain sense” of the text (what it means to the reader from their vantage point), then the picking and choosing method of theological interpretation becomes a natural way to work it out on the ground.

But the Bible isn’t designed to be an archive of isolated sayings and stories that we can pull from to make synthesized arguments for our various opinions about God and the church.

It is a library.
It is a set of books.
It has multiple voices with varied vantage points.
It speaks of God differently depending on its setting.

And if we believe that this library we call the Bible is actually inspired by God, we do right by it when we take it on its own terms: not our own.

The Bible isn’t something we can extract into literal wooden principles or minimize to one genre.

We can’t make the Bible too simple: when we do, we squelch the voice of the text to mimic our voice a bit too much.

That can be dangerous, or just a bummer. The Bible offers so much more than plain sense readings!

Depending on your background, what I’m about to say will probably be: 1) review, 2) brand new and helpful, 3) brand new and intimidating.

I want to give a simple but important grid for approaching anything we read in the Bible.
I realize that not everyone who reads Scripture as an act of devotion will have time to do all of these steps, but all of us have access to quality resources that do some of the heavy lifting for us.

Let others do the heavy lifting! No shame in that! Especially if you are not a professional scholar.

You can engage scholarship by utilizing tools and methods at your own pace. 😎

This is why I write here at Patheos and Theology Curator: I want to remove as many barriers as possible that get in the way of engaging the Scriptures (which ultimately point us to Jesus) with intelligent and humanizing lenses.

Author’s intent.

  • Before reading a passage as something to be interpreted, we always want to ask: What was the author trying to convey here? The Scriptures are always conditioned within a real situation. Yes, God speaks through the Bible! But, so do the human authors. We start with the human intent to clearly discern the Divine intent. Getting this backways leads to weird places. But, this is a fundamental concern that we will have to circle back to multiple times as we engage the whole process through. The author’s intent, if we can discern it well enough, will get us closer to the Divine intent.


  • Knowing the type of literature we are dealing with is as important as asking what the author may have been communicating!!!! In fact, this is one of the places where interpreting “literally” can lead to problems. For instance, Genesis 1 is likely a ‘poetic narrative’ or a liturgy. That shapes what we should expect from the text. Taking every line as ‘literally how it happened’ could compromise what the text is actually trying to convey! That’s one example of many. We need to take poetry as poetry, narrative as narrative, parable as parable, letters as letters, imagery as imagery, etc.

Words & rhetoric.

  • The Bible is written in multiple languages. We need to notice: 1) which language is being used (in the New Testament, it’s all Greek, for instance), 2) which words are being used and how they would be understood to the particular audience, and 3) which rhetorical devices are being used in that language and how that shapes the meaning and intent. Words matter. For instance, as Mark Nanos argues in The Irony of Galatians, the words and rhetoric Paul uses clearly mimics Greco-Roman methods of ironic rebuke (more on this another day!). Or when in Mark 13 Jesus uses cosmic language of destruction that he has in mind the rhetorical strategies involving hyperbole (exaggeration) that often point toward an earth shattering event with political ramifications–not the literal destruction of the cosmos. Both the words authors choose and the rhetoric they utilize matter.

Cultural context.

  • The Scriptures are embedded in culture! This is so important. We need to learn about geography, religions, empires, customs, recent history, cultural assumptions, and so much more. For instance, as is a theme in my own work, the Roman Empire plays such an important role in the shaping of the New Testament. Why was it subversive to say “Jesus is Lord?” Well, because we know that this was a central claim of the Caesar’s about their own Lordship. Why was it subversive to say “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?” Because this likely extended beyond frustrating neighbors to the Roman soldiers that treated the Jewish people as second-class humans. Context shapes everything and it is in the story world of a text that we start to really uncover the author’s intent: to get us closer to Divine intent.

Narrative flow of a passage.

  • Where does the passage at hand fit within the larger parameters of the book? How does Mark 13 fit into Mark’s overall narrative strategy? What did James say immediately before and after he said “Faith without works is dead”? Within any book of the Bible, knowing the flow of that book is important so we can keep the whole story in mind.
Now that we’ve done our historical/biblical studies work (yep, you can be a scholar!), we now can move into theology (where we do the work of integrating what one part of the Bible says with the rest of it).
This step is a decisively “Christian step.”
For those of you who aren’t followers of Jesus, but enjoy biblical scholarship, the above steps are likely where you will stop.
For those of us who believe that the whole Bible is inspired, we need to move into these final two stages of the interpretive process.

Biblical narrative.

  • After doing the above work, hopefully we’ve gained some insights into what the author of the text was trying to say. Genre, words, rhetoric, and culture are all the means through which we discern. Up to this point we’ve been historians mostly. But when it comes to discussing how a passage fits into the broader biblical narrative (from Genesis to Revelation), we have made a choice that it actually matters. So, how does Mark 13 speak to the apocalyptic images in Revelation (in some forms of literalist readings of Scripture, they work together to create a future 7 year tribulation)? How does what Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel compare to Leviticus?

Redemptive movement.

  • This last step that I’m proposing complements the previous theological move. But now was ask: Where is the storyline of the Bible headed? A great example of this is how the Hebrew Scriptures teach–Don’t kill–but the New Testament goes as far to teach–Don’t use violence. Or where the Hebrew Scriptures (to be way to generalizing) basically say–Treat slaves nicely compared to neighboring cultures–Paul can say– Treat slaves as brothers! The Scriptures move somewhere redemptive. Ultimately, this redemptive movement will end up at a renewed creation.

I hope this gives you something to sit with about how we read the Bible.
Literal interpretations can be helpful when we are meant to read things literally. No doubt!
But we need to notice that it isn’t as simple as reading something and making meaning out of what it seems to say on the surface.

The Bible is too important of a book for that! In fact, it is a library that points us to a God of love!

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  • dcsloan

    1) The Bible was not written in English.
    2) The Bible was not written for us, to us, or about us.
    3) The Bible can be understood only with scholarship – either personal or the scholarship of others or both.
    4) Verses are not magic bullets. In fact, there are no chapters and verses. Chapter and verse numbering did not appear until the 13th century.

    • John Purssey

      Nor are section headings.
      I read “The prodigal son” as “The Disgruntled Brother” and
      “Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem” as nothing of the sort as the line about triumphant entry in the OT quote is omitted.

  • Ed Senter

    Why would your starting point or opening premise be “God of love”? Seems to me that Paul summed it up best with “God’s purpose is to bring all of creation together with Christ as head”.

  • billwald

    It took me 60 years to realize that much of the Bible makes better sense as koan.

  • Steve03

    I don’t think Genesis 1 is a liturgy or a poetic narrative. It’s a rebuttal — maybe even a parody — of the Babylonian creation myth. The Enuma Elish would have been all-to-familiar to the Israelites who were in or had just returned from Babylonian exile at the time the Torah was being compiled and redacted.

    • Steve. I agree. I was talking about its form. Functionally it is a meaning making document. I’ve written quite a bit on this point over the years. Good stuff!

      KURT WILLEMS, M.Div.

      Lead Pastor, Pangea Church (Seattle, Wa.)

  • DuckyShades

    Unfortunately, while that may help people read with a little more perspectice, none of these approaches touches the psychological problems created by man made sola scriptura, infallability, innerancy, and authority doctrines. The right approach to reading the text is surface cream against rooted foundational assumptions.

  • John Purssey

    Eucharist liturgies miss the gospel account where halfway through the disciples get into an argument over who among them is the greatest. That probably reflects a situation in some churches, but is probably too uncomfortable to confront when what is wanted is a comforting rite.

  • John Purssey

    What is your view on systematic theology?
    The bible is not systematic, though perhaps Romans can be seen as a systematising effort, after a first start with Galations.
    Systematics seems to presume a uniformity in propositional theology in the bible and misses its diversity. That seems to be an inherent weakness.

  • Robert Landbeck

    The fact that there has never been a universally accepted interpretation of the Bible, Gospel or ‘Truth’ tells us something about both the Bible and ourselves. We know that prior to an institutional church forming, there were at least twenty competing narratives. There is no record of any specific ‘revelation’ being passed on from Christ or his apostles. Neither Christ nor his apostles required notes,what we call a Bible. Probably because the original teaching was passed on as an oral tradition. When a theological ‘orthodoxy’ finally emerged in the fourth century, as much as possible of what was deemed ‘none canonical scriptures’ were destroyed to enforce uniformity. The rest of religious history, founded upon an all too human theological process was written in division, disagreement, schism and blood continuing even today. In short the God question has done more to divide humanity in conflict than to unify in peace.

    So the question I ask is if those material called the Bible or Scripture were even meant to be ‘interpreted’ by mere mortality? And if not, then the intellectual attempt to comprehend the mind of God has been nothing more than a vanity and maybe even a trap. “how then should it be possible for mortals in a corruptible world to understand the ways of the incorruptible?” “As God in his wisdom ordained, the world failed to find me by its wisdom” “Thou art powerless to discover my judgement” “He traps the wise in their own cunning” He traps the crafty in the snare of their own shrewdness, turns subtle counsellors to idiots”. [for when I send them my Messiah] “They will understand to what extent they have wandered astray, they and their forefathers”

    I have to suspect that when the event of a second coming takes place, is will not be, as expected by many, to affirm any faith tradition, but to expose and correct our understanding of the Father. And that is the basis for judgement.

  • soter phile

    Despite this classic internet meme on literalism, I have yet to meet the biblical conservative who doesn’t consider the author’s intent, genre, etc.

    Relevant: so-called “literalist” churches are doing something progressives are not… growing

    • Soter…. I’m an evangelical. You labeled me wrong. Well, perhaps progressive evangelical. And I can say that although certain conservative scholars pay attention to context, they are often unwilling to apply it consistently. I don’t judge them for this and love people who approach the Bible differently from me. I simply think it can end up being problematic.

      KURT WILLEMS, M.Div.

      Lead Pastor, Pangea Church (Seattle, Wa.)

  • Ronald Slyderink

    I study the Scriptures a lot, reading and perusing over it more than any other texts. I am ever mindful of my need to be open to the Spirit of God who inspired it, and for me to be taught by him, it becomes a very personal walk. I have come to believe that the best way to know God and his Son Jesus Christ, is to seek earnestly, listening and trying to obey what is being said in the pages of the Bible by God through the various authors and witnessing of/for God. My understanding and response depends on my background and experiences, my journey, and my willingness to, this is the biggest factor I believe, to DO and think and say what Jesus, the Word of God has said, in short, I am his witness and testify to who he is and what he has said. It is quite simple, just opening up myself and letting God do his work in me and through me, changing me and growing me in the process.

    • Soter…. I’m an evangelical. You labeled me wrong. Well, perhaps progressive evangelical. And I can say that although certain conservative scholars pay attention to context, they are often unwilling to apply it consistently. I don’t judge them for this and love people who approach the Bible differently from me. I simply think it can end up being problematic.

      KURT WILLEMS, M.Div.

      Lead Pastor, Pangea Church (Seattle, Wa.)

      • Ronald Slyderink

        Hi Kurt, Did I label you? I didn’t think so, I just made a comment on how I approach Scriptures. I don’t discount the value of ‘context’ both then and today, culturally, and all that goes with it. My biggest context if I can put it this way is the Spirit of God ministering to an earnest seeking soul that wants more of God in his life, to praise and let him live in and grow in me, by his grace and love. Shalom my brother.

        • Ronald… I was replying to “Soter” not you. This was a comment via email error. Sorry for any confusion!!!

          • Ronald Slyderink

            Thanks for clarifying that Kurt. God bless you.

  • The Mouse Avenger

    All I have to say is this: You are absolutely right, & your article makes so much sense to me. 😀 Thanks ever so much for sharing! ^_^

  • Steven Waling

    Yes to almost all of this except possibly “the intent of the author”: we can’t really work out was in the mind of the author.