Four reasons not to read the Bible literally

It is best read metaphorically rather than literally.

Yme Woensdregt

I’ve written before that the Bible is best read metaphorically rather than literally. Some disagree, and read the Bible in a literal way, best summed up in the slogan, “God Said It. I Believe It. That Settles It.” I don’t believe the Bible was ever intended to be read this way, for four good reasons.

First, the Bible never claims to be inerrant. That’s right. Nowhere in its more than 30,000 verses does the Bible claim that it is factually accurate in terms of history, science, geography and all other matters (the technical definition of inerrancy). “Inerrant” is not found in the Bible itself, nor was it ever known to Christians for most of history. The word was only coined in the mid–19th century.

Most literalists point to 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” But to be inspired is not the same as to be inerrant. We often use the language of inspiration in just this way, describing a painting, a performance of a Beethoven symphony, or even a good lecture as inspired.

I believe the Bible is inspired by the authors’ experience of the living God. But there’s no hint that the authors of the Bible imagined that what they were writing was somehow guaranteed to be factually accurate. Rather, biblical authors wrote to persuade others, hoping that by reading their witness you would come to believe as they did (see John 20:30–31).

Secondly, when we read the Bible literally, we distort its witness. For example, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke record that Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the temple just before he was executed. The Gospel of John, however, places it near the beginning of his ministry. Other similar discrepancies are found throughout the Bible.

Now, if the primary intention of the biblical authors was to record history, we would have a serious problem. But if their intention was not to record history, but to confess faith, then these differences are not troubling inconsistencies to be reconciled. Instead, they are clues to help us understand what the author meant. Rather than ask who got it right, we might instead wonder why John describes these events differently than the other gospels. In this instance, John understands that Jesus is the new Passover lamb, and once he begins his ministry there is no need for Temple sacrifice.

You can try to reconcile these discrepancies in the Bible, of course. Many books have been written with that aim in mind. For example, some have claimed that Jesus chased the moneychangers out of the temple twice … but that is pure speculation, and not found anywhere in the Bible.

Thirdly, reading the Bible literally is a very recent phenomenon. It only began about 150 years ago.  Most Christians throughout history have not read the Bible literally, and many adamantly opposed such a notion. St. Augustine (354–430) resisted Christian faith for many years precisely because he couldn’t believe stories like Jonah spending three days in the belly of the whale literally. Who can blame him? But when Ambrose, bishop of Milan, showed him that stories can point metaphorically to spiritual realities rather than historical facts, Augustine began to take the Bible seriously.

Earlier Christians simply did not imagine that something had to be factually accurate in order for it to be true. That way of viewing reality only began about 300 years ago. Ancients understood that truth is too large to be contained by only one perspective. As Karl Barth, a great 20th century theologian, once said, “I take the Bible too seriously to read it literally.”

Finally, to insist on an inerrantist approach to the Bible undermines one of the main points the Bible itself makes: that God regularly uses ordinary people in ordinary times to accomplish extraordinary things.

Read the Bible even just a little and you’ll soon see that most of the so called “heroes of the faith” are less than ideal: Abraham passes his wife off as his sister in order to save his skin; Moses is a murderer; David sleeps around; Peter denies Jesus. Whatever their accomplishments, they are complicated persons with feet of clay.

Why treat the Bible itself differently? Rather than imagine that the Bible was written by ordinary, fallible people, inerrantists have made the Bible a supernatural document that runs contrary to the biblical affirmation that God chooses ordinary vessels to bear an extraordinary message.

Rather than read the Bible literally, we can embrace Scripture as possessing and confessing a bigger kind of truth, the kind of truth that can actually change your life. More about that next week.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook