Reading Scripture Literally

When I come to scripture, I read it literally. I use the word “literally” in the classical, not the modern, sense. That is, to read something “literally” is to understand it in the context of its literary genre.

Literature encompasses many diverse categories – poetry, history, technical writing, science, fiction, biography, law, etc. Each category attempts to portray truth in different ways. For example, poetry will seldom be concerned with conveying scientific facts, since it is a highly subjective form of expression. Does that mean poetry is untrue? No. It simply means that poetry is trying to express truths other than the mathematical and scientific. It is unfair to expect a poem to have the accuracy of a technical paper. Instead, its truths may be emotional, relational, or spiritual in nature.

This is also the way I read scripture. Thus, when Jesus tells a parable about a lost son – I am not concerned with the historical accuracy of the account – the “truth” of the story has nothing to do with historical or biographical facts. However, when Paul declares that God has raised Jesus from the dead – we are dealing with an entirely different situation. What he describes is, in fact, intended to convey something that actually happened within human history.

Sometimes, when people say they read the bible “literally,” what they mean is that they read it “literalistically” – that is, they feel obliged to accept its contents, regardless of literary genre, as historical, scientific, and/or legal in nature. I do not read scripture this way for two reasons: (a) it hampers our ability to hear non-historical/scientific/legal truth and (b) it imposes unfair expectations of historical/scientific/legal truths on texts that were intended to convey other types of truths.

Of course, the difficult thing about reading scripture “literally” is that it forces one to have a hard look at the person who wrote the words. You must understand their language, their culture, their historical setting, their “issues.” This is a much more daunting task than simply picking up a 2000 year-old writing on the assumption that, after a cursory reading, the proper “facts” will simply jump off of the page and into your mind.

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