When Dad said “I’m going to skin you alive”, was that literally true? Well, yes and no. He might not plan to peel my epidermis off; but, if he meant to cause me some discomfort, would that make his threat literal or not?
The above thought relates to the debate we often hear concerning biblical understanding, i.e. whether the Bible is to be understood literally or not. The point is that the use of language can be a very inexact exercise. What does a literal meaning really imply? Some would say literal means in accordance with common, every day understanding and without exaggeration or embellishment. Whose everyday unembellished understanding is the measure of literalness? 21st Century Americans perhaps? That seems a bit unreasonable since the Bible was addressed to other peoples in other ages who spoke other languages.
In actual fact the Bible is a many-faceted book, not designed for just one level of understanding. When as children we are taught about the Bible, the focus is generally on the historical (literal?) stories in it. The lessons derived are presented very simply. It is an understanding designed for beginners. Later as adults we begin to deal with a broader spectrum of scripture. In this broader, more mature approach many students recognize the use of symbolism, figures of speech, language unique to the cultures surrounding the original manuscripts. This heightened awareness, leaves much room for continuing growth and development of understanding.
To others this recognition of symbolism, this growing realization of the complexity of the Bible, is seen as a threat. An emphasis on spiritual growth and development leads to change which is unacceptable to those who rely on always being right scripturally as the means to gain and maintain God’s favor. If I change, that means I was wrong in the past and may well be wrong again in the future. To be wrong where the Bible is concerned is a dangerous thing if one follows this logic, and the past must be the measure of the future.
Most I believe would accept the fact that some portions of the Bible relate historical fact and that others are not historical. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Bible speaks symbolically and even hyperbolically at times. Christ’s own use of parables would seemingly be evidence of this. The real debate comes in trying to determine historical fact from allegorical discourse.
The argument over literal versus symbolic interpretation generally arises in connection with prophetic passages. The literal versus non-literal approach often leads to a difference in opinion about the timing of fulfillment. Literalists are almost always those who insist that much Bible prophesy is yet unfulfilled. Their interpretative scheme places much emphasis on a fulfillment which is discernible by the human senses in the same way that Christ’s earthly presence in the 1st Century was visible to human eyes. Therefore only human physical discernment is the measure of fulfillment. This requirement for physical discernment can be so unyielding as to ignore the clear time of fulfillment declarations contained in the prophetic passages themselves. More symbolic interpreters, on the other hand, see room for a past fulfillment of many more prophesies.
Many have concluded that prophetic understanding is the key to understanding God and his redemptive work. In effect, it is essential to understanding the Bible. For those who see correct knowledge as necessary for salvation, then prophetic understanding is paramount, and the literal versus non-literal debate becomes a life or death issue. This is the real crux of the debate about a literal interpretation. Does a right interpretative scheme determine my standing before God? If it is, then I have to be right. If not, then I just have to be what God made me.