July 05, 2023

How to Interpret the Bible Literally

R.C. Sproul
How to Interpret the Bible Literally

Should we always interpret the Bible literally--even the poetic passages with their rich symbolism? Today, R.C. Sproul explains what it really means to take God at His Word and to interpret Scripture literally.


Now, I hear from people all the time about this business of interpreting the Bible literally. People ask me, “Do you interpret the Bible literally?” In fact, that’s not usually how they ask the question. They usually put it in the form of a statement followed by a question. They say, “R.C., you don’t interpret the Bible literally.” That’s the statement, followed by the question: “Do you?” I mean, like, “I can’t imagine that anybody in the twenty-first century in their right mind, who has gone beyond the third grade, would be so ignorant and foolish to interpret the Bible literally.” So that’s the way it comes. “You don’t interpret the Bible literally, do you?” 

Well, when people say that to me, I never say no; nor do I ever say yes. Well, what do I say? Well, when someone says, “You don’t interpret the Bible literally, do you?” My answer is standard. I always give the same answer. It’s this: “Of course, I interpret the Bible literally.” Like, duh, what other way is there to interpret?

Now, there’s a lot of confusion about what literal interpretation means. When Luther and the Reformers set forth the principle of interpreting the Bible according to the *sensus literalis*, or the “literal sense,” here’s what they meant and what we mean: that to interpret the Bible literally is to interpret the Bible the way it was written. Voilà. So that when you come to the text of Scripture, you have to be able to discern that there are very many varieties of literary genre present in the text. We see that the Bible is written sometimes in the form of letters, sometimes in the form of historical narrative, sometimes in the form of parables, sometimes in the form of proverbs, sometimes in the form of poetry. And there are different rules for interpreting poetry from interpreting historical narrative, for example, and we need to be aware of that. So to interpret the Bible literally means to interpret it according to the way it was written. 

Now, let me tell what that doesn’t mean. No one ever has the right to come to a historical narrative text of Scripture and turn it into some kind of moral symbolism. Nineteenth-century liberals were the past masters of this. I grew up in a church and I wasn’t a believer and the church was exceedingly liberal. Our pastor taught us about the miracles of Jesus. And he taught us that at the wedding feast of Cana, what had happened was those great water jars had mixed with some of the sediment that had contained wine in it, that they were basically water, but the people had drunk so much wine that when they brought out this mixed-up version, people thought it was the best wine of all because they were already in a stupor. Or, he said, they were drinking water and the meaning of the text is this: that after all, water is the best wine.

He borrowed from the German liberals on the idea of the feeding of the five thousand. He gave two different interpretations. One was very crass, that Jesus and His disciples had stored a cache of foodstuffs in a cave with a hidden opening. And like a magician, Jesus stood in this long flowing robe—and you’ve seen magicians on the stage, pulling scarves forever out of their sleeves, or sausages—so there was a bucket brigade of loaves and fishes that the disciples had stored in the cave and they were passing it through this hidden opening through this back sleeve of Jesus. And He’s producing enough food to feed five thousand people. That was one interpretation we learned in church. 

The other one was, well, the real story was about the little boy who stepped forward with his lunch and he was willing to share. And the real meaning of the text is this: some of the people came with their lunches; others failed to provide for themselves. And when the crisis came at noontime and everybody was hungry, Jesus in His masterful style of moral education was able to get those who had brought their lunches to share with those who didn’t. So, it was a miracle of ethics. That’s how I was instructed of the meaning of the miracles. 

Now, ladies and gentlemen, that’s how not to interpret the Bible. That is what we call dishonest exegesis, because those people knew very well that the literary form in which those texts come to us were not symbolic moralisms but that it was presented to us in a genre of historical narrative. Now, you can reject it if you want, but you have no right to twist it to say that it is saying something that it never was saying.