Literal or Figurative?

Written by Drew on November 10th, 2005

The Bible is more a library than a single book. It was written over a time period of 1,600 years by about 40 different men. Amazingly, throughout its inspired pages absolute unity is preserved. Not one contradiction can be detected from Genesis to Revelation.

Because the Bible was written in so many different settings by so many different authors, it is comprised of several different types of literature. There are historical books full of interesting stories, and there are books of poetry, which describe profound truths in beautiful terminology. Some of the books are filled with legal terminology; some of them are prophetic in nature. Thus, a Bible student must be careful to identify the type of literature he is reading before interpreting a passage. Is the text in plain language, or is it poetic? Is it literal or figurative?

Unfortunately, certain “ignorant” and “unstable” individuals twist the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:16). A common ploy among these is to label any Scripture refuting their doctrine as “figurative” so they can maintain their falsehood. If you show them that, according to 1 Peter 3:21, baptism is necessary for salvation, they claim that “baptism” in that context is figurative. If you teach them that “fornication” is the only Scriptural grounds for remarriage after a divorce (Mt. 19:9), they say “fornication” is figurative.

One of the primary rules of biblical interpretation suggests that “the language of Scripture may be regarded as figurative, if the literal interpretation will cause one passage to contradict another” (D.R. Dungan, Hermeneutics, p. 196). In other words, unless some absurdity is involved—such as a false prophet with a frog coming out of his mouth (Rev. 16:13), or an infant speaking lies (Ps. 58:3-6)—the passage should be understood in its literal sense. Then, no matter how much it conflicts with our preconceived notions, it ought to be followed to the letter.


Leave a Comment