Literal or Metaphorical?
“How is it that we are able to tell what parts of the Bible are being literal or metaphorical? And therefore how we should follow God because of them?”
In 1 Timothy 4:16, we are warned not only to keep a close watch on the way we live but also in regard to what we believe. Lifestyle and conviction share an interdependent relationship, so we commend the question as one worthwhile asking.
However, it cannot be answered by a hasty response. There is no perfect tool or commentary that you can use to immediately measure whether scripture is literal or metaphorical. Instead, the task of interpretation should rightfully be respected as a discipline we should all seek to master. You may be hoping for a comprehensive answer, but in this case, it is difficult to provide one other than to set out some principles for your own study. At the end of this article, we have listed some useful resources we recommend you read which go into greater detail on this question and will assist you as you continue your study.
“For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. It penetrates to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” – Hebrews 4:12. Seeing as it's living and active, we can engage with the Bible and invite the Holy Spirit to teach us what we don’t understand and reveal his truth to us. This is a journey we should all embark on. Commentaries from other people are useful, but they should be secondary to our personal study.
So with this question, the goal of our response is to point you in the right direction so you can form your own view.
2 Peter 1:21 has established that “No prophecy had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit”. This is amazing, because not only does it tell us confidently that God was the author of the Bible, but he used people and human language and style to present his truth. This is a key dynamic to always keep in mind when reading the Bible:
- Because the Bible is the Word of God, it has eternal relevance. Meaning, it has spoken to all of humanity in every age and society – including today. It is the ultimate authority on truth, which you can read more about in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Hebrews 4:12 and Matthew 7:24. We are to listen and obey.
- Because God chose to speak his Word in human language through history, every book is conditioned by the language, time, and culture in which it was originally written. More importantly, the Lord utilised every form of communication to convey his heart. Whether it be a genealogy, chronicle, law, poetry, proverb, prophetic oracle, riddle, drama, biographical sketch, parable, letter, sermon, or apocalypse, it was composed in the intention of drawing mankind near to himself.
Your interpretation must then abide by the eternal relevance of his Word and the call to greater obedience. Whether it is a literal narrative history or a metaphorical parable, the Bible has made it abundantly clear that all of Scripture is intended to train you in righteousness.
Reading verses without understanding the greater truth that is being presented can lead to disastrous errors. For example, some denominations believe that the bread and wine actually turn into the body of Christ because he said “this is my body” in John 6:35. A simple but significant error which has led to idolatry and worship, when Jesus was clearly meaning he was the author and giver of life and that he was presenting symbolism to demonstrate that he is the spiritual fulfillment we hunger for.
Then and Now
To understand how a particular scripture is communicating truth if it is written in a figurative expression, you need Biblical exegesis and hermeneutics. The terminology may seem complicated, but essentially, your first undertaking should be to study the actual words and passages in the Bible for their original definition (exegesis). Your second should be to then interpret the text using the what exegesis has revealed (hermeneutics). The most important law of biblical hermeneutics is that the Bible should be interpreted literally. We are to understand the Bible in its normal or plain meaning, unless the passage is obviously intended to be symbolic or if figures of speech are employed.
A key aspect to interpretation of Scripture is to ensure you do not take verses out of context. In many situations, you will find the answer to one verse in another part of the Bible. For example, in Revelation, many things are mentioned which may at first seem allegorical. However, when you research what Jesus, Daniel, Ezekiel and others said you will discover the answer to those questions.
If you want to read more on the topic, we would recommend a thoughtful piece authored by Brian Edwards of Answers in Genesis, titled ‘Literary Forms and Biblical Interpretation’. We would like to thank the anonymous individual once again for asking a thought-provoking question. Until next time, submit your own inquiry to Ask The Elders and remember to subscribe to our social media. Be blessed.