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What is biblical literalism?

Biblical literalism refers to the interpretation of Scripture as literal, with the exception of sections of text that are clearly intended to be allegorical, poetic, or figurative. Through this lens readers' understanding of biblical text is literal and objective. Most evangelical Christian denominations follow this way of interpreting Scripture.

Biblical literalism is supported by Scripture. The Bible speaks of itself as the actual Word of God written by men through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16–17; 2 Peter 1:20–21). In fact, Scripture is often called the Word of God. The Bible is infallible and does not contradict itself (Isaiah 40:8; Revelation 22:18–19). Therefore, biblical literalists believe that the Bible is God's way of communicating truth to us. He has chosen to communicate using human language, so we approach the Bible like we would any other form of human communication through words. Words have objective meanings that we take at face value. Human language also includes things like metaphor and idiom, which we intuitively understand as such based on context. Biblical literalism is essentially extending the literalism we use in every day communication to our understanding of God's Word.

The Bible means what it says. It presents an accurate historical account of events, including miraculous ones. While it does not provide a comprehensive history of the entire world, it does describe events and people that are relevant to God's creation of humans and plan to redeem humanity through salvation in Jesus Christ. In addition, it clearly communicates truth and instruction from God to humans.

Jesus, the disciples, and other important biblical figures took Scripture literally. For this reason, they often quoted Scripture when defending what they believed. For example, Jesus quoted the Old Testament while the Devil was tempting Him in the desert (Luke 4:1–13; Deuteronomy 8:3; 6:13, 16). Steven recounted much of Israel's history described in the Old Testament when he spoke prior to being martyred (Acts 7). The writer of Hebrews similarly recalled Old Testament figures and events when he spoke of faith in Hebrews 11.

As with any piece of literature, we can look at the author's intent, the context of the information, and the style of writing to determine its purpose. In the Old Testament most of the books are written as historical accounts by people who lived during that time period. Therefore, all of the events in the Old Testament, including miracles, should be considered to be factual. The New Testament is comprised of the Gospels, which tell the story of Jesus' life, and letters written by the apostles to communities of Christians. These books provide historical accounts of events and instruction for living a life that honors God based on the teachings of Jesus. Of course, there are some portions of Scripture that are not literal, but they are clearly defined as such. Psalms and Proverbs are written in poetic verse and have the purpose of imparting wisdom and encouragement rather than events. Revelation describes future events, but uses figurative language in places since the actual details are still unknown. Jesus uses parables and other writers use idioms as examples to teach lessons.

If we begin to question the authenticity of one area of Scripture, where do we draw the line? Whose interpretation of the Bible is the most valid? Only God's Word is valid since He is perfect and without sin. When we question whether or not Noah actually built an ark or Moses parted the Red Sea, then we are also questioning the greater miracle of the resurrection of Jesus. We as humans are sinful and live in a sinful world. We needed Jesus to live a perfect life and die on the cross in order to pay the price for our sins. We needed Him to rise from the dead and overcome death so that we can be forgiven and receive eternal life. The apostle Paul sums it up perfectly, "And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:17–19).


Related Truth:

Should the Bible be interpreted literally?

Are Bible miracles literal events?

What are the various forms of biblical literature?

Why is context so important in studying the Bible? What is wrong with looking at verses out of context?

What principles are used in biblical exegesis?


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