Is Scripture Literal?

Malcolm C. Davis, Leeds, England

When considering the correct interpretation of any part of Scripture, it is of great importance to understand whether its true meaning is according to the literal sense of the words used or only according to some kind of non-literal sense of those words. In this connection it is helpful to remember three basic principles.

First, the words of Scripture are sometimes figurative or symbolical in their manner of expression. For our God has always been pleased to reveal Himself to us His creatures through the medium of created things or people. Otherwise we could never have understood Him. So He has revealed His eternal power and deity in the very wonderful fabric of the universe about us, Rom. 1. 20. And in Colossians chapter 1 verse 19 we are told that it was His good pleasure that the fullest possible revelation of all the essential attributes and characteristics of His deity should come to reside permanently in the perfect Manhood of Christ, His only begotten Son. It is not surprising, therefore, to discover that the God who has communicated His divine life to us through the incarnation of the living Word has communicated the written Word concerning His redemptive purposes in Christ in human language. This includes all its figures of speech, and inspired human authors have been allowed to leave the mark of their own personalities and divinely-ordered experiences on the books which they have contributed to the whole canon of the Scriptures.

It is unintelligent to ignore the fact that Scripture contains many of the ordinary figures of speech which are to be found in all human languages. Some books of the Bible are inspired works of poetry, such as the Book of Psalms and many of the Old Testament prophetical books. Others, siuch as the Book of Daniel and the Revelation of Jesus Christ, are explicitly said to contain many symbols, some of which are explained in the books themselves, while others are not. The figures of speech and symbols contained in Scripture are clearly not to be interpreted according to the literal sense of the words used, but rather according to the ordinary meaning of each figure of speech as it is used in human language, or the real object which each symbol is said to represent. The historical books contain much less that needs to be understood in a non-literal sense. Here, figurative expressions are found chiefly in the way people speak, such as when the Lord Jesus described Himself under the figures of the Good Shepherd, the Bread of Life, or the True Vine. There is usually little difficulty in understanding the real spiritual truth expressed by means of such figurative expressions.

Secondly, the words of Scripture are always literal and historically true in their primary meaning. To deny this is clear evidence of unbelief. It is the mark of an unbelieving student of Scripture not to accept at face-value the plainly-recorded historical facts contained in it, always questioning them simply because they do not conform to what his own mind, reason, and experience in life would indicate as possible or true. He is disinclined to believe any of the miraculous events which are essential parts of God’s dealings with man, whether in creation, redemption, or judgement, and prefers to treat the scriptural statements concerning them in a non-literal way, assuming that they are merely the inventions or illusions of a primitive age. He is rarely prepared to accept any stated fact in Scripture without requiring some confirmation of it from a historical source independent of Scripture. He refuses to accept the possibility of predictive prophecy, and therefore treats these parts of Scripture which contain predictions either as if they were written after the events which they predict, as with the Book of Daniel, or as non-literal in meaning, as with the second coming of Christ, or as falsehoods invented by self-deceived disciples, as with the resurrection of Christ, or as misapplied, as with the Old Testament prophecies of the first coming of Christ.

The believer, on the other hand, because his reasoning does not start simply from the limits of his own mind and experience, but from faith in the eternal God in all His transcendent greatness over His own creation, accepts all these statements of Scripture as true simply because Scripture itself claims to be the Word of God to man. Whilst he may not always understand them, nevertheless he gladly accepts them as true, and has frequently realised their truth in his own daily experience as he has acted in faith founded upon them. Man’s approach has always been similar to that of Thomas, ‘Except I shall see…, I will not believe’, John 20. 25. The Lord’s reply to this unbelieving attitude is, ‘If thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God’, 11. 40, and ‘blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed’, 20. 29. The unbeliever will always submit Scripture to his reason, and never fully accept its verbal inspiration. The believer will always submit himself to Scripture, and accept it without question as God’s inspired Word to him. The only questions which he will need to ask about it are, first, whether the translation which he uses expresses the meaning of the original inspired text accurately, and, secondly, which manuscripts of the original text are the most reliable copies of it.

Therefore, having understood all figurative and symbolical expressions contained in any given passage of Scripture, a believer will interpret it in its most literal sense possible. It is inconsistent with his faith in God either to question the truth of any part of it, or to require confirmation of it from sources outside Scripture itself. However interesting such confirmations may be, faith does not depend upon them, or it is not faith at all. Also, in the light of this fact, we can assert that all schemes of prophetic interpretation which do not rely upon this principle of the literal interpretation of all Scripture alike, must be fundamentally unsound.

In particular, believers should be warned that the so-called Amillennial views regarding the second coming of Christ which are being propounded in many places today have at their root a very unsound principle of interpreting Scripture. This says that prophetic passages of Scripture are to be interpreted according to a different principle from that used for non-prophetic passages, one that does not regard all prophecy as requiring literal fulfilment, but rather fulfilment in only a spiritualised way. But if, as the New Testament proves, the prophecies regarding the first coming of Christ were fulfilled more literally than could possibly have been imagined before the event, and if, as both Testaments indicate to be the case, the second coming of Christ in glory is the natural sequel to His first coming in grace, should we not expect the vast number of prophecies regarding that second coming in glory to be fulfilled just as literally as were those regarding His first coming in grace?

A further paper would be necessary to point out the wider implications of the Amillennial view of Scripture upon both doctrine and practice. Here it must suffice to say that Amillennial views, though held by many true believers in Christ, are shared by many in professing Christendom who have no faith in God or His Word at all, and who therefore do not accept any part of the scriptural record as necessarily literally true. In other words, amillennialism in relation to prophecy is the thin end of a wedge which leads to rank modernism and liberal theology. For, to consider the matter logically, if one set of Scriptures may rightly be treated in a non-literal manner, as amillennialists claim is the case with prophecy, why may not every other part of Scripture, including those concerning the doctrines of Christ and salvation, be treated in a similar non-literal manner? The end of the line of reasoning is surely the overthrowing of faith altogether. No; either Scripture is all literally true in its primary meaning, or it is not worthy of our trust at all.

Thirdly, the words of Scripture are always spiritual in their application and intended effect, even though their primary meaning is always literal and historically true, and their expression sometimes figurative or symbolical. To deny this is unedifying. For 2 Timothy chapter 3 verse 16 asserts that all Scripture is God-breathed, and profitable for every spiritual purpose. This means that even a believing acceptance of the literal historical truth of all the words of Scripture, whilst it is a good and necessary starting-point for Bible study, is not the primary end for which those words were written. Rather, by means of the life-giving words of Scripture, God intended to bring us to the knowledge and experience of His full salvation from sin, and to the full knowledge and experience of Himself. The ministry of the Scriptures should instruct the mind in the truth of God, challenge the conscience with the claims of God, and comfort the heart with the promises of God.

The question remains, therefore, as to how each Scripture should be applied for our edification today. Much Scripture applies to us directly as members of a sinful race, or as members of the Church, but to get the good of some parts of Scripture we need to apply them in spiritual principle rather than directly, bearing in mind the differences between God’s plan for Israel as His earthly people and His plan for the Church as His heavenly people. Therefore what was, or will be, true of Israel in an earthly and material way is to be applied to us as members of the Church in a parallel and spiritual way. 1 Corinthians chapter 10 verse 11 clearly states that Israel’s history in the Old testament is intended to be a type of our experiences as members of the Church today, and to warn us against the sins into which they fell. Likewise, the accounts of the tabernacle and the Levitical offerings, whilst they are a perfectly true historical record, will only profit us spiritually when we accept their value as types of spiritual truth fulfilled in Christ. The New Testament itself contains many examples of such spiritual applications of Old Testament Scriptures and typology relating to Christ, and we are meant to follow similar principles in applying other parts of Scripture for our edification.

In the New Testament, to the Church there are often applied Old Testament verses relating to Israel. It should be clearly understood that this is not a ground for claiming that the Church is the true Israel, that it has replaced Israel in God’s purposes, and has therefore taken over God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament in a spiritualised way. For this is the mistake that has led many sincere Christians to accept the views of amillennialism. Rather, it should be realised that, wherever these quotations occur, we have examples of what has been called ‘the law of double reference’ in interpreting the Old Testament. This says that the Old Testament Scripture in question has, first of all, a primary literal meaning in relation to God’s earthly people Israel, but that it also has a secondary application in spiritual principle to God’s heavenly people today, the Church.

If Bible students were to grasp this principle of interpretation, it would keep them from much misunderstanding both of the Old Testament Scriptures concerned, and of the implications of the New Testament quotations of them. it is supported by the fact that the New Testament itself not only applies Old Testament Scripture to the Church in this spiritualised way, but also speaks clearly in Romans chapters 9-11 of God’s past, present, and future dealings with His earthly people Israel as distinct from the Gentiles and the members of the local church in Rome, to which the words were actually addressed. The Church is therefore not Israel, and its calling and destiny are quite distinct from those of Israel. It is the parallel between them, as both being a people chosen by God, that makes the spiritual application of principles which God used in connection with Israel appropriate in speaking of His dealings with the Church. For although God’s dispensational ways with men have varied through the course of human history, He Himself does not change in His essential character. This means that there are abiding principles in God’s ways with men in whatever age they live, from which we are intended to learn spiritual lessons.

In answer to the question asked in the title of this article, we conclude, therefore, that Scripture is always literal and historically true in its primary meaning, even if sometimes that meaning is conveyed in figurative language of symbolical forms of expression, but that we will still fail to be edified by it unless we learn how to apply every part of it to our lives in spiritual principle.

This article was first published in Precious Seed, Volume 34, No. 1, January-February, 1983, pp. 19-22. The author has made a few corrections to the printed version.