23 February 2009

Bible interpretation dodge #2 — the parts I don't like are figurative (NEXT! #5)

by Dan Phillips

Challenge: I don't take the Bible literally.

Response: ...and you mean that figuratively, of course?

(Proverbs 21:22)

Dan Phillips's signature


DJP said...

Now, before you get started, I know that this is such a lame dodge that there are many good responses. I could probably do 3-4 Next!'s on it, alone.

But how could you use this to re-boot and re-position the conversation, turning it back on the dodge-er? Where is it coming from?

(Reminder: if you don't understand the "Next!" series, click on the word and read the first post.)

Johnny Dialectic said...

But if the Bible is written words, how can you say you don't take it "literally"? You must mean something else entirely, like, say, "figures" cannot cannot contain and point to objective truth.

Or, you think that propositions are to be taken "figuratively", which, of course, is an opinion you must justify.

Which is it?

Preston G. Scrape said...

>>I don't take the Bible literally.

...And you mean that figuratively, of course?

>>What? No, obviously I meant it literally.

You mean you wanted to convey meaningful information, and the most direct way to do so was with a literal statement? And it would be utterly mistaken to interpret your statement figuratively--because had it been intended figuratively you would have indicated such?

>>Well, I suppose so.

Are you aware you're inconsistently applying different interpretive criteria to your statements against the Bible's without any real justification for doing so? The Biblical authors were men just like you who intended to convey meaningful information just like you.


Fred Butler said...

You see, now all you have done is gone and agitated the reformed folks.

DJP said...

Fred, be nice.

DJP said...

Actually, to be completely transparent, I have in mind unbelievers and liberals (if that isn't hendiadys) who do this with anything from Genesis to John 14:6 — anything that would really put their autonomy toe to toe with the Godhood of God.

Johnny Dialectic said...

As if Gen. 1, written in an elevated style, for that reason cannot at the same time convey factual truth.


Rick Frueh said...

Literally - you keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.

BTW - So you believe the Bible is literally figurative? So when the Bible says "do not lie", what is it really saying?

Oh, you mean parts are figurative while other parts are literal, right? That's exactly what I believe also! Great, let's pursue that line together!!

Julie said...


Help me. "Hendiadys"?

I know you're not talking about chickens.

Redundant? or?


DJP said...

Using two terms to say one thing.

Jugulum said...

Eh? I realize you're going for a "turn it back on them and make them think" sort of thing, but I don't quite get the punch of this one.

Challenge: I don't take the Bible literally.

Response: ...and you mean that figuratively, of course?

C: No, I meant that literally. I didn't say that nothing is ever meant literally--I said I don't take the Bible literally. What was your point?

R: ________


You said there are many good responses. I might go with the following, but they lack the "turn it back on them", "NEXT" style.

Challenge: I don't take the Bible literally.

Response: How about taking it at face value, for what the speakers & authors seemed to intend?


Response: Have you ever met anyone who takes "I am the door" literally?


Response: How about taking it seriously?

Fred Butler said...

Waiting eagerly for the first commenter to ask, "So are you telling me that's a "literal" ten headed beast in Revelation like Godzilla?"

in 1,2,3...

DJP said...

Try this for bkgrd to mine, Jug:

1. Why do they have the right to expect to be taken literally, but deny that to the writers of the Bible?

2. Mine will at least derail the facile "I take the Bible figuratively," and get is to the "How do you tell?" Pretty invariably... it's just what my title says.

NoLongerBlind said...

Response: "Assuming you mean what you said literally, I agree that there are certain texts in Scripture that are intended in a figurative sense; the key question is 'What criteria do you use to determine when the passage is intended literally or figuratively?'"

This probably opens up too much leeway for rabbit trails....

DJP said...

If they do, Butler, I'm blaming you and sending them to your web site. Or something.

DJP said...

The beauty of mine over that, NLB, is that 99.9% will have no deeper criterion than that in the post-title.

NoLongerBlind said...

Response: "Assuming you mean that literally, you most likely are referring to the verses that cause your conscience to burn, or that don't seem fair to you; that simply shows that you are in fact - literally - still rebelling against the God who authored the Bible."

Stefan said...

Given the same challenge:

"I don't take the Bible literally"

Here's another possible response—less Proverbs 21:22, more zeroing in on the challenger's Achilles' heal:

"So you don't take Jesus' command to love your neighbour as yourself literally, or His command to do unto others as you would have them do unto you?"

Frank Turk said...

I don't even know anymore what people mean when they say they don't take the Bible "literally". I mean: does anyone really think that all that ever happened to Abraham is summed up in Genesis?

So what's there -- what's left?

It seems to me that we can say (for example) that it really happened that Abraham tood Isaac up the mountain under the order of God, intending to sacrifice the boy, and a ram was given to replace the lad by God who was now satisfied by Abraham's faith and not have to get all bent out of shape over whether this is "literally" what happened. It's what happened historically, and it is told by this piece of literature.

So maybe -- and I say this to really agree with Dan, not deny his point at all -- we should talk about reading the Bible literately and not literally. A literate reading of the Bible is far more devastating to liberal/skeptical views than the demands for "literal" this or that.

One man's opinion, which is sure to drum up the fundies.

Stefan said...


Those are good points.

But of course, we have to be careful in enunciating what we mean by that, because there's a point at which, mishandled, "reading the Bible literately" can morph into "reading 90% of the Bible as symbolic allegory."

DJP said...

NLB, all true, but again I do like our Lord's method of asking questions. They can force the attacker to expose his corrupt premises and get right to the heart — including showing when a conversation is pointless.

I did just that with our troll NiftyDrewFifty right here. One question, one follow-up, and he was exposed and undone.

But others since (right now, at another blog) have just gone 'round and 'round and 'round, as if they're having real conversations with a real questioner. Which they're not.

That's a beauty of this approach.

DJP said...

Frank et al, it's all in my title. Virtually all the time the "don't take the Bible literally" dodge is used, the speaker has no idea what he is saying. What he means is "I have a gnawing sensation that there are truckloads of things in the Bible that I don't want to take seriously. But it sounds a lot more weighty and sophisticated to say that they're 'not literal.' So that's how I avoid thinking seriously about them."

My way of responding is a bluff-caller, designed to make our dodger honest, and turn a pointless dance into a real conversation.

donsands said...

"Is that New Testament & Old?"

I love when people who never read the Bible say, it's not literal. Amazing that they will take the word of someone they heard literal, but not the most ancient authentic piece of literature in the world.

"There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament."-FF Bruce

Solameanie said...

This would have been an opportunity for some fun with eschatology, but snark it all, there you go restricting it to liberals and unbelievers.

I'm taking my toys home to sulk. (Just kidding)

DJP said...

I get into eschatology, Phil and Frank vote me off the island.

I don't want that. Do you want that?

Solameanie said...

Yikes...no, we don't want that. I don't mind an occasional melee, but I don't want anything messing with the Pyro "troika" as currently constituted (no disrespect intended to Pecadillo -- from whom we'd love to see a brief hiya)

Jugulum said...


"1. Why do they have the right to expect to be taken literally, but deny that to the writers of the Bible?"


"2. Mine will at least derail the facile "I take the Bible figuratively," and get is to the "How do you tell?" Pretty invariably... it's just what my title says."

OK, I see the importance of having that kind of conversation with a dodger. It's a major factor.

However... It's not the only key issue at play. We need to think about how to handle both--and if we can approach both at the same time, all the better. (Not quite sure what that looks like, though.)

So, the other key issue:

"How does the dodger know when to take the Bible figuratively?" is the wrong question. They're not taking it figuratively! I want to kick dodgers and Christians out of the mode of thinking it's about literal vs figurative. Conservatives don't take the Bible "literally", and others don't take it "figuratively". (OK, some of the disputes come down to literal vs figurative, but not all of them.)

I like Frank's "literately" comment. It begs to be teased out. And it hits skeptics right in the middle of their prejudices--their "conservatives are uneducated rubes, unlike us" assumptions.

Jugulum said...

Or in other words:

I don't want to accept the premise of the challenge.

Stefan said...

So a discussion of eschatology would mean the end of this blog—or the return of Pecadillo?

DJP said...

For my part, I hope never to find out, unless it's because I've been taken up in a fulltime ministry of the Word that is so fruitful, absorbing, and demanding that I just can't blog anymore.

Strong Tower said...

Challenge: I don't take the Bible literally.

Response: So can you tell me literally what it figuratively means?

Julie said...


Challenge: I don't take the Bible literally.

Response: Why should I believe you?

philness said...

Here's a couple-

Challenge: I don't take the Bible literally.

Response: Then you literally have more faith than me.

Response: Is this because you have a fear of a literal Hell? And that you would expect God to literally see you as merely figurative? Well, that is definitely understandable but literally the biggest gamble you'll ever take.

Response: Really? I once got a ticket for breaking the law and pleaded ignorance of the law, too.

Strong Tower said...

Well that figures...

Literally counting thou shalt not do. Figurative only shalt thou count. The number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, nor either count thou two excepting that then thou proceed to three.

EGC said...

Five is right out!

Stefan said...

Four evangelists,
Three Persons of the Trinity,
Two Testaments,
One God.

Strong Tower said...

And a Zacchaeus in a sycamore tree.

DJP said...

< taps ruler sharply on lectern >


Christiant2.0 said...

question: Is hell literal?

response: Yes.

question(s): So, being literal, shouldn't it be in Gehenna (Matthew 5)? Gehenna was the dump outside the walls of Jerusalem. Or was Jesus just being figurative in his use of the word Gehenna to literally describe hell?

Julie said...

Oh good grief - from the Three Amigos to Monty Python. :0)

Julie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie said...

Oops. Princess Bride (inconceivable) not Three Amigos (plethora).



EGC said...

Dan – Sorry for the frivolity, it’s been a long day :-)

Christian 2.0 – Following your rabbit trail for a few steps: Are you saying that a literal understanding of hell is unbiblical? Yes, Jesus’ use of Gehenna was symbolic, but it was symbolic of the reality of hell. I read the Bible the same way I read the sports page. If I read that the Cubs murdered the Braves last night, I wouldn’t expect to find CSI investigating Wrigley Field. Figures of speech are still figures of something real.

I checked out your profile and blog and noted that, while Dan's profile has a clear and concise statement of what he believes, your's does not. It's easy to be against something, when you decline to say what it is that you are for.

Dan - sorry if I'm feeding the trolls :-)

Susan said...

Sounds like Stefan and ST are missing Christmas already!

Susan said...

(And EGC, too.)

Stefan said...


I repent in dust and ashes (figuratively).

I would regret my comment, but it was worth it for Strong Tower's punchline.

Josh said...

Q. "I don't take the Bible literally."

A. "That's because you don't take sin seriously."

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Frank Turk said...

Stefan --

I disagree with your statement about being literate leveraging out the historical implications of the Bible.

Listen: unless something is a transcript, the truth is that it is written from an authorial perspective, using literary tools, for the purpose of conveying some specific point. A bare transcript actually does far less than this because it is a bare representation of the facts. It would be the ultimate in rationalist literature, I am sure, to only represent exactly what was said in some circumstance, but that doesn't hardly do the even a single whit of justice.

Instead, we have the Bible, which is above all things literature and not merely transcription. This is why exegesis and exposition are the primary modes of true preaching: the richness of literature requires that it be considered deeply and broadly.

Those who would use this fact to create their own graduate seminar on the fanciful reinterpretations of Scripture to mean something which the author never intended are, frankly, illiterate readers. If you read Huck Finn and interpret it as an allegory of tyhe current banking crisis, you are a fraud -- because Clemens couldn't have possibly meant that. And if you interpret Paul or Luke or Jesus or Peter to mean something allegorical which they never meant, you are equally a fraud.

Reading literately doesn't mean "reading as if you were intended to revise the author's point to suit you". It means "reading what was written for your benefit, as it was intended to benefit you".

Everything else is complete rubbish.

Anonymous said...

1. "I don't take the Bible literally"

2. "Meaning you don't believe it?"

1. "What? How dare you you pharisee!"

lol, so many possibilities for how this would play out....we should have a contest!

Anonymous said...

Okay, I get it. This is why this series is not my mostest favoritest at Pyro. Sorry Dan, you know I love ya. But, I hate all this philosophy jabber.

No one was ever debated/argued into the kingdom.

Jugulum said...



Keep in mind, though, that no one was ever anything-ed into the Kingdom, apart from the work of the Spirit. But the Spirit has brought many people into the kingdom by various means, including:

-- Demonstrated Christ-like service & love. (a la John 13:35)
-- Rational discussion/argumentation. (1 Peter 3:15, 2 Corinthians 10:3-5)
-- Simple presentation of the gospel. (1 Corinthians 1:21-25)

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Everyday Mommy: "No one was ever debated/argued into the kingdom."

Not true. I met an astronomer Ph.D. who said he was argued into the Kingdom of God through the work of Josh McDowell. (I think it was his "Evidence Demands a Verdict).

Strong Tower said...

literaturetive- the requirement that the richness of literature be considered deeply and broadly.

Anonymous said...

Jugulum & TUD: Thanks, guys. I appreciate your comments.

Christiant2.0 said...


I do believe that the best interpretation of scriptures is that the descriptions given of hell and heaven are not literal, but figurative.

I don't think we'll get to heaven and walk through gates made of giant pearls. I believe we'll get there and it it'll be beyond our understanding of beauty and good, and the authors of the Bible tried as best they could to convey this idea. Same with hell, it will be beyond our understanding of sadness, pain, and despair.

This isn't an issue to wring each others necks over. I believe in heaven and hell, we may just differ in our interpretation of what it will be like.

As for a statement of faith. I hadn't really considered putting one online, but it might not be a bad idea. I appreciate the response and suggestion.

DJP said...

If the lake of fire isn't an actual lake of actual fire, I'd have to:

1. Ask what words would have communicated the fact better?

2. Insist that the reality is even more terrifying than literal eternal fire would be.

Christiant2.0 said...


I'm assuming you are a proponent of literal hell/heaven.

But I'm confused with your most recent response. Here is how I would answer your questions based on what they appear to be asking.

1. I don't know of any words that could have painted a better picture
2. "insist that reality is even more terrifying than literal hell" I have no problem believing that. I think we have come up short in our ability to describe the majesty awaiting us in heaven. I also believe we have come up short in our ability to describe the terror in hell.

DJP said...

I don't know what you're confused about, but that's about as far from the topic of the post as I'm willing to wander.

Christiant2.0 said...

I was confused because you seemed to be in agreement with me. So I figured I wasn't understanding you well.

I understand, like I said earlier, this is nothing more than a debate. Neither of us are denying the authority, authenticity, or accuracy of Scripture (which would be cause for real concern). We aren't denying the existence of hell. We are just simply disagreeing on whether certain aspects were written as fact statements or as illustrations.

I don't blame you for wanting to move on with things.

Stefan said...


Your points are taken. Literally.