Biblical literalism

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The Bible with annotations by the reader.

Biblical literalism is the belief that the Bible, or at least large portions of it, should be read literally, not allegorically. This means the language should be interpreted as used in everyday writing and speaking. The literal approach is attractive to some believers because it supposedly uncovers the original meaning of documents, while minimising other influences. Arguably, there are less possible interpretations when a literal approach is used.

"WE AFFIRM the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text."

— Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics [1]
"The literal method is the only sane and safe check on the imaginations of man. [2]"

Many Christians do not interpret the Bible in a literal fashion. [3] Since the Bible describes events that are quite unlike those we commonly experience, many believers adopt an allegorical interpretation instead. Even when a literal interpretation is attempted, the extent to which the original meaning is uncovered when modern readers open the Bible is debatable.

"We take the Bible too seriously, to read it all literally. [4]"

Note that literalism does not necessarily assume the text is correct. Skeptics sometimes interpret the Bible literally when criticising its anachronistic laws, inconsistencies and absurdities.


Until the modern period, literal interpretation of holy scriptures was almost unheard of. Holy books generaly originate in oral traditions. Biblical literalism is a modern idea and the concept of reading the Bible as done by the early Christians was formulated only in the late 19th century CE. Printed copies give an unwarranted sense of certainty. [5]

"Before the modern period, Jews, Christians and Muslims all relished highly allegorical interpretations of scripture. The word of God was infinite and could not be tied down to a single interpretation. Preoccupation with literal truth is a product of the scientific revolution, when reason achieved such spectacular results that mythology was no longer regarded as a valid path to knowledge. [5]"

To some extent, literalism is a matter of degree, since not even self-described literalists claim to believe that everything in the Bible is literal. For instance,

"He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in."

Isaiah 40:22 Bible-icon.png

No one believes that this passage means that humans are green and have six legs. Also, Jesus consistently taught in parables, which are clearly not intended to be interpreted literally.

However, literalists do believe that unless there is good reason to suppose otherwise, the Bible is to be taken literally: Genesis and the Gospels are historical documents; Adam and Eve were real human beings, not metaphors, there really was a worldwide flood, and it is a statement of historical fact that Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. Biblical literalism thus stands in contrast to other interpretations of the Bible, e.g., that the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis is an allegory or parable of man's relation to God.

Since a literal interpretation of the Bible leads to absurdities, it is not surprising that more educated theists tend to adhere to different, perhaps more sophisticated interpretations of the Bible. This point is often made when criticizing critiques such as Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, saying that they miss the mark: while it is easy to disprove biblical literalism, hardly anyone believes it any more. In other words, literalism is often seen, even among theists, as crude, unsophisticated, and bad theology. Despite this, at least some believers adhere to a literal interpretation. In 1982, many prominent American evangelicals signed a statement reaffirming their literal interpretation, in a paper referred to as the Chicago Statement. [1]

A series of Gallup polls found that belief in Biblical literalism has been steadily declining in the United States from 37% in 1984, 34% in 2004 to 28% in 2014. [6]

"The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside."

Sam Harris, The End of Faith

Straw man literalism[edit]

It is wrong to suppose that every verse is interpreted literally even by fundamentalists. When defending literalism, apologists sometimes suppose their critics hold this view. [7] This is usually a straw man argument since this is not what is meant by Biblical literalism. Biblical literalism does not imply that every verse is to be interpreted literally.

Arguments for literalism[edit]

  • "If it says it, why not assume it means it?" [8] This is shifting the burden of proof. Before the Bible should be relied on, it should be first established it is reliable and it was intended to have a literal interpretation. Also, other myths exist that are not taken literally.
"Because God isn't trying to trick us, when we're reading Scripture we shouldn't try to "decode" it. Unless there's a compelling reason, we should accept the facts the Bible states at face value and embrace the normal meaning of its truths.[9]"
  • "Historical artifacts have proven a great deal of the Bible time and time again." [8] There are many cases where the Bible is correct on certain trivial facts, but we cannot conclude from this that it is entirely correct. There are historical inaccuracies in the Bible.
  • "It is a normal way of communicating." Majority argument
  • "Plus it was written down by men from God, so it is perfect in every way." [8] This assumes God's existence which has not yet been demonstrated. It also assumes God wrote the Bible, which also has not been shown. Perhaps Satan wrote it.
  • "I believe everyone should follow the Bible more closely and literally, because there would be less problems in this world." [8] Appeal to consequences
  • "This is how a TRUE Christian should think" [8] No true scotsman
  • "The Bible says it is true" Circular argument
  • Makes factual claims and is falsifiable [2]
  • It limits the number of possible interpretations [2] and prevents controversy. Appeal to consequences
  • "It has had the greatest success in opening up the Word of God." [2] Although, "success" is a highly subjective concept in this context.
  • Growing churches tend to have a more literalist interpretation and traditional theology.[10] Appeal to consequences

Counter arguments[edit]

Which Bible?[edit]

There are many different Bible translations and there is no reliable way to distinguish the correct one. There are also apocryphal gospels which are arguably as credible as some of the books that were included in the official Bible. The early church had to subjectively select which books were "divinely inspired" and which were not.

"Scripture did not come with an 'inspired' Table of Contents. [11]"

Indeed, any other holy book seems just as valid.

Arbitrary choice of literalism[edit]

There is no coherent reason why a book should be automatically interpreted literally. There are many other possibly approaches to interpreting a text. Apologists claim that the Bible is special because it is the word of God, but that claim has not been justified (without referring to the Bible, which makes the argument circular).

A literal reading shows the Bible is not inerrant[edit]

A literal interpretation of the Bible makes many claims that are verifiable. However, there are many cases where a literal interpretation would be factually incorrect:

Therefore, one cannot maintain both Biblical literalism and inerrancy. Most Christians actually reject literalism and choose to believe in inerrancy.

"It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation."

St. Augustine (354-430 CE), De Genesi ad literam 1:19.20, Chapt. 19 [408]

St. Augustine also argues that a literal interpretation can be overthrown by progress in human knowledge (God of the gaps):

"In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it."

St. Augustine

Bible is more meaningful when read symbolically[edit]

Many Christians would argue the Bible is richer and more meaningful when read symbolically (i.e. figuratively or allegorically) rather than literally.

"Literal clarity and simplicity, to be sure, offer a kind of security in a world (or Bible) where otherwise issues seem incorrigibly complex, ambiguous and muddy. But it is a false security, a temporary bastion, maintained by dogmatism and misguided loyalty. Literalism pays a high price for the hope of having firm and unbreakable handles attached to reality. [12]"

Selective interpretation of inconvenient sections[edit]

Some sections in the Bible could be read literally and would contradict Christian dogma or command atrocities.

"My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?"

Psalm 22 Bible-icon.png

"They shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear of it and fear."

Deuteronomy 21:20-21 Bible-icon.png

Various verses concerning the nature of God, such as his expression of emotion or admission of error are also reinterpreted as allegories. Many verses in the Old and New Testaments pose problems for most believers. They are treated as allegories by special pleading; this shows the inconsistency and subjectivity of Biblical "literalism".

God works through fallible humans[edit]

God has often worked through Biblical figures, even when they had significant character flaws. Based on this, we might expect God to also communicate through flawed Biblical authors.

Unsupported dogma[edit]

Dogmas such as the Trinity, divine impassibility, divine perfection and original sin have little Biblical support or are flatly contradicted. Based on a literal interpretation, we cannot simply assume any of this is correct. Therefore, a literal interpretation of the Bible would require these dogmas to be abandoned, possibly along with other unsupported dogmas.

Making an idol out of the Bible[edit]

Some Christians are so obsessed with the Bible that they ascribe to it attributes that are normally reserved for God, i.e. perfection, inerrancy, objectivity, etc.

"Part of the problem is historical. The deification of the Bible is a result of the Protestant reformation. [...] But in defending or reclaiming the Bible from papists and then liberals, evangelical Protestants made it the very heart of the faith. Hence the ludicrous situation where many evangelical organisations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, have statements of faith where the first point is the Bible, before any mention of, for example, God. [13]"

Some believers claim that preachers should limit themselves to preaching the Bible (even if God tells them to preach otherwise) Galatians 1:8 Bible-icon.png.

"WE DENY that the preacher has any message from God apart from the text of Scripture. [14]"

A literal interpretation is still subjective[edit]

The Bible is a text. People use a literal interpretation because it supposedly uncovers the original meaning of the text. A literal interpretation still requires a human to use their senses and cognition to read and understand the text. Each person has different personal values, biases and a distinctive understanding of language. For that reason, every person will understand any text in a personal manner i.e. subjectively. Even if the text of the Bible was objectively true, we could never appreciate it as such without the possibility of error or misunderstanding.

"Personal interpretation of the Bible naturally leads to a mire of human doctrines as a result of differing personal opinions. [11]"
"What troubles me is the notion that we can somehow read a sacred text without interpreting it. People say they are just reading the text. That’s not possible. The idea that we can approach a text without bringing our imperfect often greedy often selfish selves to it. It’s crazy to think that anyone is claiming simply to take God at his word.[15]"

Since the Bible is full of metaphors and parables, a subjective interpretation is required to separate figurative from literal sections. The Bible does not usually say if a particular section is to be interpreted as a metaphor. On what basis is the phrase "fishers of men" Mark 1:17 Bible-icon.png to be interpreted as a metaphor? In the end, we can only use personal judgement to interpret it, or use our own judgement to decide if we accept someone else's interpretation Acts 8:30-31 Bible-icon.png. This is liable to error and therefore we cannot treat our personal interpretation of the Bible (or anyone else's) as objectively true.

Interpretation requires divine intervention?[edit]

When discussing Biblical interpretation, some evangelicals claim the Bible cannot be fully "discerned" by natural humans. If the Bible contains a single message, spiritual or not, they admit it cannot be fully appreciated without supernatural assistance. This conclusion agrees with the critics of Biblical literalism when they say humans do not have the capacity to escape from a subjective interpretation.

"But by themselves and by their academic work alone, no men can produce the proper interpretation of the Bible. [16]"
"WE DENY that the natural man is able to discern spiritually the biblical message apart from the Holy Spirit. [1]"

Why the Holy Spirit makes an objective meaning possible for one book and no other books has not been satisfactorily explained, and is therefore special pleading. The existence of the Holy Spirit has also not been demonstrated. The above quote also implies the Bible may be read in a "spiritual" fashion, not only "literally".

Resolving apparent contradictions[edit]

Almost everyone admits that a naive reading of the Bible would encounter some "apparent" contradictions. The way we choose resolve those contradictions is largely a subjective process based on our language, experience, cognitive biases and culture. Our belief in dogma vastly influences the interpretation of gospels, with the modern reader assuming the divinity of Jesus, which is contradicted many times using a plain reading of the text Mark 10:18 Bible-icon.png, as well as many preconceptions such as absolute morality, monotheism (contradicted by polytheistic verse), philosophical idealism, inerrancy, etc. Dogma that is already familiar to the reader is preferred because of confirmation bias. Christians reinterpret all these contradictions as allegories, which shows Biblical literalism is still influenced by external factors.

"One of the greatest challenges for modern readers of the Hebrew Bible [Old Testament] is to allow the text to mean what it says, when what is says flies in the face of doctrines that emerged centuries later from philosophical debates about the abstract category 'God.' [17]"

A single meaning... that listeralists can't agree on[edit]

The wide diversity of Christian denominations, most having a distinctive Biblical interpretation, is strong evidence that a single interpretation cannot be found, even when a "literal" interpretation is attempted. Christians often disagree even within the same denomination. If there was a single message in the Bible, we could expect people to be able to agree on what it is.

"For example over Baptism, some Protestants accept the validity of infant Baptism, while others do not. Some believe in the necessity of Baptism for salvation, citing Mark 16:16 Bible-icon.png, while others disagree by citing John 3:16 Bible-icon.png. They all claim to be Bible-based, but still they disagree over fundamental issues regarding salvation. [11]"

No such thing as a literalist[edit]

Arguably, no Christian is, strictly speaking, a literalist. Any self professed literalists take a different view and stop being literalist when confronted when what the Bible actually contains.

"even Fundamentalist Christians, who claim to hold the loftiest view of the inspiration of all scripture, do not take the Bible literally or with the same degree of authority throughout. [...] If they, therefore, pick and choose those passages they do take literally, which of course they do, over those passages they do not, why do they continue the charade of insisting “all scripture is given by God?” [...] [18]"

Christian arguments[edit]

2 Corinthians 3:2-4,6 Bible-icon.png was taken by many Church fathers, including Origen, Augustine and Jerome[19] to mean the Bible should be read allegorically. (Later Biblical scholars reject this interpretation.)

"You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. [...] He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."

2 Corinthians 3:2-3,6 Bible-icon.png
"[Augustine] made [2 Cor. 3:6] mean that the spiritual or allegorical interpretation was the real meaning of the Bible; the literal interpretation kills.[20]"
"Origen is credited with the view that [in 2 Cor. 3:6] Paul refers to two alternate levels of meaning withing the Old Testament scripture and two alternate levels of meaning within the Old Testament scripture and two corresponding methods of reading and understanding it.[21]"
"[Origen taught that] God placed [logical impossibilities] in Scripture to point the interpreter "to the need for a deeper understanding" which he could only "reach by giving careful attention to context, wording, and parallels." So the literal sense was considered inferior and even misleading. [19]"

See also[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, 1982
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 J.R. Church, Literal Versus Allegorical Interpretation of Scripture
  3. [1]
  4. [2]
  5. 5.0 5.1 [3]
  6. [4]
  7. [5]
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 [6]
  9. David Sanford, Reneé Sanford, How to Read Your Bible
  10. [7]
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Do Christians Need Only the Bible?, CNA
  12. [8]
  13. [9]
  14. [10]
  15. [11]
  16. [12]
  17. [13]
  18. [14]
  19. 19.0 19.1 Randall C. Gleason, Paul's Covenantal Contrasts in 2 Corinthians 3:1-11
  20. Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics
  21. Carol K. Stockhausen, Moses' veil and the glory of the new convenant

External links[edit]