When those of us who believe in verbal inspiration make the claim that “the Bible is right,” we are often misunderstood. Unfortunately, many people—believers and unbelievers alike—assume we are affirming that every line of the Bible is to be taken literally. There is wide-spread confusion over the import of the words “literal” and “true.” To illustrate this confusion, consider the three options offered by Gallup pollsters to ascertain America’s view of the Bible. Those responding to the 1993 poll were asked which of the following statements best reflects their understanding:
The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word [35% chose this option].
The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally [48% chose this option].
The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts written by man [14% chose this option] (Newport, 1993, p. A22).
So, almost half of those polled who believe the Bible is from God believe it must be taken literally, word for word. For many people, to suggest otherwise is an attack on the Bible’s reliability and truthfulness.
The problem is, the terms “literal” and “true” are not equivalent. In fact, they make different claims about a statement or literary product. To say a writing is “literal” is to say that it is to be understood as speaking plainly, directly, and without the use of figurative language (see McArthur, 1992, p. 615). But to say a writing is “true,” is to say that it is correct in what it claims—that it is in accord with reality. A writing or statement can be both literal and true, but literalness is no guarantee of truth. For example, imagine a man who says, “I flew from Alabama to California on my own power—I simply flapped my arms and flew.” He clearly intends for his words to be taken literally, though you know from experience that he cannot possibly be making a truthful claim. By the same token, a writing or statement may be both non-literal, and truthful. When John pointed people to Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), he was not being literal; but certainly he was being truthful!
This is a crucial distinction to keep in mind when reading the Bible, since Scripture comes to us through a variety of literary forms. Accurate exegesis (ascertaining the intended meaning of a biblical text) requires that we understand what type/form of literature we are reading. Elizabeth Achtemeier has explained why this is important:
We bring different expectations to different kinds of texts. If a story begins, “Once upon a time,” we know it is a fairy tale, and we expect to read it as such. If a letter begins, “My dearest,” we expect from it affection and intimacy. Expectation makes a lot of difference in the way we read a text, and so it is with the Bible (1989, p. 44).
The Bible is all true—it is not all literal. Some of it is poetry, some historical narrative, some proverbial wisdom, and some of it is written in apocalyptic language that challenges our modern minds. All these literary forms (and there are many others in the Bible; see Fee and Stuart, 1982) are capable of carrying and conveying truth; they just do so in different ways. If we ignore this variety and literalize everything we read, we risk abusing the Bible by making it affirm things that its Author never intended.
If we literalize poems, for instance, we ruin them and often miss their truth-claims. Take Psalm 22:6 as an example. David wrote, “I am a worm, and no man; A reproach of men, and despised by people.” Have we been wrong about David all these years? Have we simply assumed he was a human being when in fact he was an annelid? (No wonder Goliath laughed when David met him on the battlefield—who could keep a straight face in the presence of a worm carrying a slingshot?) Was David literally a worm? Of course not; he was describing the deep despair of feeling apart from God. Was he speaking the truth? Yes, but he conveyed that truth through memorable, figurative language.
Sometimes in otherwise good creationist writings there are instances where the writer has literalized some phrase or line of a psalm (or other equally poetic passages) to argue a factual point in the creation/evolution controversy. This is lamentable. To illustrate this concern, consider the intriguing book, Starlight and Time by D. Russell Humphreys. In this book, Dr. Humphreys presents a fascinating theory from physics to explain why we are able to see stars that are billions of light-years away, even though creation took place less than 10,000 years ago. According to his proposal, space is a material substance that can be “stretched.” To show biblical support for his view, Dr. Humphreys turns to poetic passages like Psalm 102:26, 104:2, Isaiah 13:13, 40:22, and 64:1 that speak of the stretching, tearing, wearing out, and shaking of the heavens. He literalizes these phrases and suggests that God actually stretched the “material” of space until the sixth day, when the creation was completed (1995, pp. 66-67). Although Dr. Humphreys has the highest regard for Scripture, such arbitrary literalizing of isolated words from songs and poems to support a theory about the physics of Creation is inappropriate. The real truth-claim of these passages has to do with the Majesty of God Who, as Creator, is over even the vast hosts of heaven. The beauty and power of these poetic expressions is lost in literalizing, and the intended truth-claim is obscured.
The message of Scripture comes to humanity through virtually every form of literature imaginable. This points us heavenward toward a God Who understands the broad spectrum of human expression, and Who is willing to do whatever it takes to communicate understandably to His Creation. This variety must be respected if we are to Hear the Living God speak through His ever-living Word.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth (1989), Preaching from the Old Testament (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox).
Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart (1982), How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books).
Humphreys, D. Russell (1994), Starlight and Time (Colorado Springs, CO: Master Books).
McArthur, Tom (1992), The Oxford Companion to the English Language (New York: Oxford University Press).
Newport, Frank (1993), “God Created Humankind, Most Believe” The Sunday Oklahoman, p. A-22, September 12.