Literal or Figurative?
Have you ever been asked “Do you take the Bible literally?” Before answering, you would be well-advised to pause and consider your reply. To the one asking the question it is a simple yes or no answer. If yes, then he will rightly point out verses that, if taken literally, have clearly dangerous results. Take Mark 9:42-48, which tells Christians if their hand or foot causes them to sin, they should “cut it off”, and if their eye were to cause them to sin, they should “pluck it out.” If you were to take this literally you would participate in self-mutilation. On the other hand, if you answer “No” then as a figurative book it is plain to see that any person’s interpretation is as good as anyone else’s. So then, how would you go about answering your friend’s questions?
First let us realize that the answer is not a simple “yes or no” answer; because within sacred writing there are eight forms of literary speech used. Some of these by nature would seem to exclude the possibility of figurative language; these include laws and historic writing. While other methods such as poetic and dramatic (Song of Solomon) use figurative language very frequently. So how can you give a Yes or No answer? You can’t, but you can explain the use of both Literal and Figurative writing within God’s word.
E.W. Bullinger wrote: “whenever and wherever it is possible the words of Scripture are to be understood literally.” The word of God must be translated literally if possible. If not, then move onto figurative language. When God spoke it was in real life situations not in a fairy tale, thus the Bible views itself as a non-fiction book. When the writers cite other persons in Scripture they site them as real. For example, Jesus referred to Jonah in Matthew 12:39 as a sign of His resurrection; the writer of Hebrews lists many great men and women of faith (Hebrews 11) as examples to the believer. Nowhere is the story of Moses or David seen as anything but factual, therefore one writer wrote “the Bible itself gives a witness that it should be taken at face value.” Scripture interprets scripture literally.
But as we have noted there are figurative writings in the Bible; most commonly in four forms. Metaphor, which is a comparison by direct statement, John 5:1, “I am the true vine” Jesus was not a literal vine but he could be compared to one; a Simile, which is a comparison by the use of words “like” or “as” Exodus 24:17, “The glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire…”; a Hyperbole is an exaggeration for emphasis, for example John 21:25, “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I supposed that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” And finally used most commonly in the Old Testament is the figurative writing known as Anthropomorphism, which is attributing to God human characteristics such as in 2 Chronicles 16:9. So as we see the use of figurative language does have its place in scripture, but only when certain factors indicate that the passage in question is not meant to be interpreted literally.
Therefore the correct answer to the question presented to you should be, If possible I take the Bible to be literal, although at times where a literal translation is not possible I then turn to the figurative sense. Because both can be found in the Bible.