Not Taking the Bible Literally

From a historic Christian perspective we do take the Bible literally. The story of the flood is not a made-up legend. Goliath really was an incredibly tall man whom young David killed with a stone. We didn’t make up the episodes where Jesus miraculously healed people and even brought them back from the dead. The stories in Scripture are true accounts of real happenings in history.

At the same time, we in the historic Christian tradition do not take all parts of the Bible literally. It’s neither proper nor biblical to interpret all Scripture with an equal literalness. We have to be careful to explain rightly what we mean if we say we take the Bible literally. There is poetry in Scripture and there is also symbolism, metaphor, simile, and other figures of speech. Jesus is not literally a lamb (John 1:29). The Holy Spirit is not literally a dove (Luke 3:22). God does not literally have a mouth, ears, eyes, arms, and so on (e.g. Ps. 116:1). When Scripture says that God has eyes or ears, for example, they are figures of speech called anthropomorphism. On that, here’s a good article from the New Dictionary of Theology:

Anthropomorphism refers to descriptions of God’s being, actions and emotions (more properly, anthropopathism) in human terms. God is invisible, infinite and without a body, but human characteristics are frequently ascribed to God in order to communicate information about his nature or acts.

Illustrations abound in Scripture. Though God is without a body, his acts are said to be the result of ‘his mighty arm’ (Exod. 15:16). Though God is without gender, he is characterized in masculine (father, shepherd, king), and occasionally feminine (compassionate mother) terms. Besides an arm, God is pictured as having a face (Ps. 27:8), hand (Pss 10:12; 88:5), finger (Deut. 9:10) and back (Exod. 33:23). God talks, walks, laughs, weeps; he is jealous, furious and caring.

Anthropomorphisms are poetic symbols or, more particularly, metaphors for divine attributes which would otherwise be indescribable. The Scriptures utilize anthropomorphic language, condescending to the limited abilities of men and women to understand God’s nature and ways.

Danger enters when anthropomorphisms are taken literally rather than metaphorically, and people attribute a body to the invisible Creator (e.g. the Audians of the fourth and fifth centuries). On the other hand, rejection of anthropomorphic language leads to skepticism and agnosticism, since God cannot be otherwise discussed. Other misconceptions stem from the belief that biblical anthropomorphisms are an expression of a primitive religion or that biblical religion conceived of God in man’s image (so Feuerbach).

The Bible provides divine justification for anthropomorphic language. It is full of such language, though it recognizes the limitations of anthropomorphisms (Isa. 40:18; 57:15; John 1:8). The propriety of anthropomorphic language is supported further by the recognition that man is made in the image of God and that God himself took on human form in the person of Jesus Christ.

The above article is found in, Davie, M. ; Grass, T. ; Holmes, S. R. ; McDowell, J. ; Noble, T. A. (eds.). New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic. InterVarsity Press, 2016

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

3 Replies to “Not Taking the Bible Literally”

  1. Good reminder Shane. However, I think you should state instead that God
    the Son is not… and God the Holy Spirit is not……instead of

    “Jesus is not literally a lamb (John 1:29). The Holy Spirit is not
    literally a dove (Luke 3:22). God does not literally have a mouth, ears,
    eyes, arms, and so on (e.g. Ps. 116:1).” Otherwise it sounds like Jesus
    and the Holy Spirit are not also God.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sam: Thanks for the comment. I wrote those phrases after clearly referencing historic Christianity which of course strongly affirms the doctrine of the Trinity (as do other posts on this blog). But yes, I do agree with what you wrote for sure! Clarity is good. Thanks again, Shane


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