Literal vs. Figurative

There are clearly many figurative passages in the Bible. But how are we to know which passages are to be interpreted literally and which figuratively?

The Bible itself uses figurative interpretation. For example, there are many New Testament passages in which the inspired writer interprets an Old Testament passage differently than the Israelites did.We must accept these particular interpretations as apostolic and therefore trustworthy.

Do these apostolic interpretations give us the freedom to apply allegoryas we wish? The following interpretation by Paul is surprising; he equates Hagar with Israel — but what would happen if we were to apply allegory as Paul did?

For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. (Galatians 4:22–26)

We have an example from church history of the result of complete freedom in the use of allegory.The church father Origen claimed allegory was necessary in order to interpret scripture, but using his system renders the Bible unintelligible; he was declared by some as a heretic.

My Approach . . .

I have adopted an ultra-literal approach to biblical interpretationfor several reasons . . .

Once the Bible is rendered untrustworthy, Christianity quickly unravels. I am not interested in a "culturally relevant" Christianity in which the meaning of the Bible is unclear.

My approach has a place for symbolism. I have come to believe that the realm of the soul, the spiritual realm, is a realm in which symbols have a real existence.Many passages seeming to be figurative are actually literal but describe the activities and actions of the soul experiencing these symbols as reality. An example . . .

And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; And did all eat the same spiritual meat; And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:2-4)

The souls of the faithful, believing Israelites were baptized by participating in the Exodus. Their souls ate the Manna and drank the water from the rock (when the body eats and drinks, the soul also eats and drinks). In doing these things their souls were redeemed because Christ was literally present in the spiritual realm in these symbolic actions and objects.

I do not consider idioms to be figures of speech.

Examples . . .

A few examples highlighting why I've chosen an ultra-literal approach to biblical interpretation . . .

  1. Premillennial, pretribulation rapture. They claim this view is based on a literal interpretation of the Old Testament and New Testament, and this is partially true. However, it is easy to find many passages which they interpret figuratively for no good reason.I prefer to interpret all the passages literally.
  2. Young earth creationism. They claim this view is based on a literal reading of Genesis chapters 1 and 2, but this is not the case.There are plenty of literal old earth / old universe interpretations.
  3. Full Preterism. They claim this view is based on a literal reading of certain passages. But many other passages must be interpreted figuratively; for example: those regarding Christ's second coming and the resurrection of believers.
  4. Faith only (Sola Fide). They claim this view is based on a literal reading but many verses must be simply ignored.
  5. Scriptura only (Sola Scriptura). They claim this view is based on a literal reading but the Bible simply doesn't support this.Needless to say, I believe the Bible to be a key ingredient in the Christian faith and that it is the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God (but it is not the only Word of God).
  6. Catholic Revisionism. They claim the various distinctively Catholic doctrines are to be found in a literal reading of the Bible (doctrines such as the papacy, those regarding Mary, transubstantiation of the Eucharist, and apostolic succession) however, the early church fathers certainly did not hold these views.

Arguments Supporting this View . . .

Some passages in the Bible are clearly figurative. I am ignoring these in this discussion.

First, let's follow the natural course of using figurative interpretation. We must arbitrarily decide which passages are figurative and which are literal. Our choice must be determined by some authority outside of the Bible. Depending on our choice of who is the authority, we will arrive at different interpretations. Some examples...

Authority ... Results ...

Bible only

A wide range of interpretations are possible based on biases from outside the Bible. Protestantism is an example of this; there are so many contradictory doctrines.


He used allegoryextensively. The result is doctrinal chaos.

Council of Nicea

At least Biblical interpretations based on this will be orthodox (it excludes such views as Arianism, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Modalism). But there is much the Council of Nicea didn't address.

Catholic Church

All biblical interpretations must support Catholic doctrine.

Early Church

They used allegoryof the Old Testament extensively to support and prove the claims of the gospel. This had two unfortunate side-effects: (1) anti-Jewish (since the Jews supposedly misinterpreted the Old Testament), and (2) planted the seeds for interpreting the New Testament allegorically.

The word "day" in Genesis chapter is a 24 hour day.

Christianity is mocked in our modern scientific era.

Unfulfilled prophecies in the Old Testament will someday be literally fulfilled.

Millennialism(pre-, post-, a-) and the rapture.

Note: I share the view that unfulfilled prophecies in the Old Testament will someday be literally fulfilled but I believe that the 1,000 yearsof Revelation 22 has already occurred.

The book of Revelationis strictly chronological

Modern eschatology is based on this. I reject this view.

The Olivet Discourseis strictly chronological

A cornerstone of Preterism. The passage doesn't seem to naturally support this reading.

The passages about "coming soon" and "in this generation" means that the parousia occurred in 70 A.D.


Martin Luther

Faith only,scripture only.

John Calvin

Calvinismand reformed theology.

The apostles

"Orthodox", apostolic Christianity. The difficulty is knowing what they taught (since their writings must be interpreted).

The early church

There were so many contradictory views of the early church fathers.Some were heretics, some were orthodox. Which views were apostolic and which were not?

For all the above, passages which literally support the teachings of the mentioned authority are interpreted literally and the rest of the passages are interpreted figuratively (and the meaning of the allegoriessupport the teachings of that authority).

Because of all these problems with figurative interpretation, I decided to interpret the Bible as strictly literal (except where obviously figurative). The only difficulty I've found in doing this is that my views are unique; I would expect them to be mainstream. (Why am I the only one who has the correct views?)

Because of this difficulty I am tempted to jump on the bandwagon and join some group. But I have no reason to choose one group over another since all their assumptions of who is the teaching authority are arbitrary. Therefore I accept the following as my authority:

Here's the process I went through (and my conclusions) in determining the view that scripture should be interpreted strictly literally:

  1. I adopted various views (and changed views from time to time) from the table above.
  2. I realized I would have to figure out the answer on my own.
  3. The passage about the temple, Israel, etc. from the final chapters of Ezekiel seems to be literal. Why would an allegorycontain a detailed description of the architectural layout of a building? And how could such an allegory have any meaning? Therefore, this passage must be literal. Since it has not occurred yet, it is yet-future.
  4. There are many Old Testament passages speaking of such magical occurrences as the lion laying down with the lamb, poisonous snakes not biting children, etc. There is no compelling reason to interpret these figuratively since they occur in passages describing then-present literal realties.
  5. Since I reject the view of a yet-future literal 1,000 yearmillennium,there must be another time period in which the occurrences above can occur. The only option is the new heavens and new earth.
  6. More of my visions and ideas.