As a fundamentalist evangelical Protestant I was taught to interpret the Bible literally. But by observation I learned their method was not so literal after all:they interpreted many things figuratively while claiming their interpretations were literal. Eventually I gave up pretending I was using this method and accepted a non-literal method.
Certainly there are verses and passages which clearly are figurative. But this is not without difficulty. In some instances it is not so clear whether the passage is literal. For others there seems to be both a literal and a figurative interpretation.
I do not consider idioms to be figures of speech.
The typical fundamentalist Protestant view of sacrifice is that it was abolished with Christ's sacrifice. They interpret the various New Testament references of sacrifice figuratively rather than literally.
Before sin entered the world through Adam there was no need for sacrifice. Christ's sacrifice of himself on the cross was the final sacrifice and solved the sin problem. But this does not mean there is no longer any sacrifice. Just as the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament were effective because of Christ's yet-future sacrifice of himself, in like manner our sacrifices are effective for the same reason. Offering sacrifice is a form of worship and praise of God.
Examples of sacrifices:
(Romans 12:1) I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.
The phrase "living sacrifice" is typically interpreted to merely mean "actions"; the sacrificial aspects of our actions are ignored.
(Philippians 2:17) Yea, and if I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all.
Paul's offering of his health, comfort, and life was a sacrifice.
(Philippians 4:18) But I have all, and abound: I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God.
Offering financial support for Paul was a sacrificial act.
(Hebrews 13:15) By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name.
(Hebrews 13:16) But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.
Our good deeds are sacrifices.
The phrase "sacrifice of praise" is typically interpreted to mean merely "praise"; the word "sacrifice" is simply ignored. This phrase is from Jeremiah.
(Jeremiah 33:11) The voice of joy, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride, the voice of them that shall say, Praise the LORD of hosts: for the LORD is good; for his mercy endureth for ever: and of them that shall bring the sacrifice of praise into the house of the LORD. For I will cause to return the captivity of the land, as at the first, saith the LORD.
When they bring sacrifices into the temple they will do so with an attitude of praise and worship of God.
(1 Peter 2:5) Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.
People often interpret the phrase "spiritual sacrifice" figuratively. In fact, people often interpret passages containing the word "spiritual" as if this word means "figurative". But the word "spiritual" merely refers to the spiritual realm; the realm inhabited by the souls of humans. Thus, these "spiritual sacrifices" are actions performed by our souls (but all actions of the body are controlled by the soul) acting as priests. The role of a priest is to offer worship to God.
Peter is distinguishing between the animal and other kinds of sacrifices performed by the Jewish priests and the sacrifices performed daily by every Christian in their living of a life of faith.
(1 Corinthians 10:4) And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.
The usual interpretation of this passage is completely figurative. Drink = blessing. Rock = Christ. The meaning is something like: "When they drank the water from the rock they were receiving a blessing from Christ."
According to my philosophy of the soul the spiritual realm is a place where symbols are very real and it contains spiritual bodies and spiritual objects. Thus the souls of these Israelites were actually engaged in drinking living water which came from a spiritual rock. Christ manifests himself in the spiritual realm as various spiritual objects having symbolic meaning.
There is a sacramental aspect to this. Just as we consume Christ in the Eucharist, so these Israelites consumed Christ in drinking the water flowing from the rock. Perhaps the priests led liturgical prayers as the people came forward to receive water; perhaps the priests administered the water.
My interpretation of this verse: Jesus is a rock because he provides a firm foundation for our faith and our life. In consuming the water which miraculously flowed from the rock the Israelites who had a heart of gratitude and love for God were receiving a spiritual as well as physical blessing from God, from Christ. This exchange was an opportunity for them to express their faith in God and love for God. It was an act of worship.
(Romans 7:14) For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.
The law is spiritual, not physical (but it does affect how we interact with the physical world.) The world "carnal" refers to a characteristic of the soul, not to the physical body. Sin is spiritual, not physical.
Paul is distinguishing between various levels of human motivation (from highest to lowest):
During the fall of man, Satan and God entered into a contractual agreement in which humanity was literally sold into sin. Because of this we are tempted to sin, our soul is tainted with sin and concupiscence, and we must struggle to escape. The human condition is that we must choose salvation over destruction.
(1 Corinthians 5:5) To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
The usual fundamentalist Protestant interpretation is that this man will be killed by Satan once he is excommunicated and that this will occur before he loses his salvation. The problem with this interpretation is that the word "flesh" does not refer to the physical body, rather, it refers to that aspect of the soul which is influenced by the evil spiritual beings and which dominates the will and motives. The only way a person in this condition can be saved is by destroying these influences, that is, by repenting of his sins.
This strategy worked because the man later returned to fellowship.
(1 Corinthians 10:21) Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord's table, and of the table of devils.
The phrase "cup of the Lord" literally refers to the cup containing wine which is consumed during communion during the Eucharist. This is contrasted with a similar rite practiced by the pagans.
(1 Timothy 2:12) But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.
(1 Timothy 2:15) Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.
These verses imply that men who teach are saved through their efforts and that women are saved by staying at home and raising children. It is difficult to find another literal meaning and there is no reason to interpret these verses figuratively. A necessary condition for salvation is living a life of faith, charity [love], and holiness.
(Isaiah 8:7) Now therefore, behold, the Lord bringeth up upon them the waters of the river, strong and many, even the king of Assyria, and all his glory: and he shall come up over all his channels, and go over all his banks.
This verse states the Assyrians are a flooding river. I was taught this is a mere figure of speech, a metaphor, but I think it is more than that.
In my view of philosophy, everything living exists in the spiritual realm and in this realm symbols have a real, tangible existence — they are not merely vaporous constructs of the mind. We experience this in dreams when we grapple with the tangible reality of abstract concepts only to awaken and wonder what all the fuss was about as the dream fades. Apparently, the noise and commotion of our senses drowns out the subtle experiences of our soul in the spiritual realm.
In my view, Aristotle's view of Forms was mistaken and the Catholic Church's explanation of what happens in the Eucharist is therefore misguided since the doctrine of transubstantiation is based on the Aristotelian philosophy used by Thomas Aquinas.
The consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist is literally the body and blood of Jesus. We don't notice it because the subtle spiritual realm of ideas and symbols is washed out by the overpowering stimuli of our senses.
Jesus is simultaneously many things: the sacrificial lamb of God, living water, the rock, the true vine. Many teachers refer to these as merely names of Jesus, as metaphors of his attributes. I believe these are literal descriptions of the many forms Jesus takes on in the spiritual realm.
Some passages are clearly figurative even though the images themselves have real existence in the spiritual realm; these symbolic images have meaning outside of the actual images. Some examples:
(Revelation 6:2) And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
(Revelation 6:4) And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.
(Revelation 6:5) And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.
(Revelation 6:8) And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
The horses of the first four seal judgments are figurative. They are based on a prophetic vision from Zechariah:
(Zechariah 6:2) In the first chariot were red horses; and in the second chariot black horses;
(Zechariah 6:3) And in the third chariot white horses; and in the fourth chariot grisled and bay horses.
These visions of Zechariah are not literal events but visions. In like manner, John the apostle uses the same motif in some of his descriptions.