What is the meaning of the literal interpretation of the Bible?


(image courtesy Wikipedia: A Bible handwritten in Latin, on display in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England)

By Spencer D Gear

When I affirm that I support the literal interpretation of any document, whether that is the reading  of my local newspaper, the Brisbane Times, Shakespeare’s King Henry the Fourth (which I studied in high school), or the Bible, it is not uncommon to get the following kind of reaction. It normally comes when I support a literal understanding of my reading of the Bible. Here goes with an example from an online forum where I contribute:

So you take EVERYTHING in the Bible literally? Balaam’s donkey really talked? Really? Really? REALLY??

Why Does Nearly Every Culture Have a Tradition of a Global Flood?clip_image001[1]

[2]With this kind of statement, she has told me a great deal of what she thinks ‘literal’ means but she has created a straw man fallacy in respect to my views. Her understanding is a far cry from my view.

What is a literal meaning of a text?

When I was an MA student in Ashland Theological Seminary, I used A Berkeley Mickelsen’s (1963) text in hermeneutics (biblical interpretation). Mickelsen provided this definition:

‘Literal’ … means the customarily acknowledged meaning of an expression in its particular context. For example, when Christ declared that he was the door, the metaphorical meaning of ‘door’ in that context would be obvious. Although metaphorical, this obvious meaning is included in the literal meaning (Mickelsen 1963:33).

This is the method of interpretation that I use to read her post (and all posts on that Christian forum) and the Bible.

Bernard Ramm, another promoter of orthodox, historical, cultural and literal biblical hermeneutics,  wrote:

We use the word “literal” in its dictionary sense: “. . . the natural or usual construction and implication of a writing or expression; following the ordinary and apparent sense of words; not allegorical or metaphorical” (Webster’s New International Dictionary). We also use it in its historical sense, specifically, the priority that Luther and Calvin gave to literal, grammatical, or philological exegesis of Scripture in contrast to the Four Fold Theory of the Roman Catholic scholars (historical meaning, moral meaning, allegorical meaning, eschatological meaning) developed during the Middle Ages and historically derived from Augustine’s Three Fold Theory. It was particularly the allegorical use of the Old Testament that the Reformers objected to, and the manner in which Roman Catholic dogma was re-enforced by allegorical interpretation. Hence the “literal” directly opposes the “allegorical”….

The accusation so frequent in current theological literature that Fundamentalism is a literalism is not at all what we have in mind when we use the word “literal.” The word is ambiguous. To some scholars the word “literal” means “letterism” and this is really what they mean when they say Fundamentalists are literalists. Ordinarily we think that the word “bear” means an animal in its literal sense; and that a speculator in the stock market who is called a “bear” is a bear by metaphor. But if the population uses the word “bear” three times more frequently for the stock speculator than for the animal then the literal meaning of “bear” is the stock speculator….

When we assert that the literal meaning of a word or a sentence is the basic, customary, socially designated meaning we do not underestimate the complexity of language…. The spiritual, mystical, allegorical, or metaphorical usages of language reflect layers of meaning built on top of the literal meanings of a language. To interpret Scripture literally is not to be committed to a “wooden literalism,” nor to a “letterism,” nor to a neglect of the nuances that defy any “mechanical” understanding of language. Rather, it is to commit oneself to a starting point and that starting point is to understand a document the best one can in the context of the normal, usual, customary, tradition range of designation which includes “tacit” understanding (Ramm 1970:119-121)

Bernard Ramm cited Thomas Hartwell Horne (AD 1780–1862),[3] British theologian and researcher, who wrote what Ramm described as ‘a very excellent definition of what is meant by literal in literal interpretation’ (Ramm 1970:121, emphasis in original). Horne’s words about literal interpretation were:

Although in every language, there are very many words which admit of several meanings, yet in common parlance, there is only one true sense attached to any word; which sense is indicated by the connection and series of the discourse, by its subject-matter, by the design of the speaker or writer, or by some other adjuncts, unless any ambiguity be purposely intended. That the same usage obtains in the Sacred Writings there is no doubt whatever. In fact, the perspicuity of the Scriptures requires this unity and simplicity of sense in order to render intelligible to man the design of their Great Author, which could never be comprehended if a multiplicity of senses were permitted. In all other writings, indeed, besides the Scriptures, before we sit down to study them, we expect to find one single determinate sense and meaning attached to the words; from which we may be satisfied that we have attained their true meaning, and what the authors intended to say. Further, in common life, no prudent and conscientious person, who commits his sentiments to writing or utters anything, intends that a diversity of meanings should be attached to what he writes or says; and, consequently, neither his readers, nor those who hear him, affix to it any other than the true and obvious sense. Now, if such be the practice in all fair and upright intercourse between man and man, is it for a moment to be supposed that God, who has graciously vouchsafed to employ the ministry of men in order to make known his will to mankind, should have departed from this way of simplicity and truth? Few persons, we apprehend, will be found in this enlightened age, sufficiently hardy to maintain the affirmative (Horne 1841:322; emphasis in original).

Then Horne defined the literal sense as it applied to Scripture:

The Literal Sense of any place of Scripture is that which the words signify, or require, in their natural and proper acceptation, without any trope [a figure of speech], metaphor, or figure, and abstracted from mystic meaning…. The literal sense has been called the Historical Sense, as conveying the meaning of the words and phrases used by the writer at a certain time….

Interpreters now speak of the true sense of a passage, by calling it the Grammatico-Historical Sense…. The object in using this compound name is, to show that both grammatical and historical considerations are employed in making out the sense of a word or passage (Horne 1841:323; emphasis in original).

We have similar meanings for understanding a literal meaning of Scripture from Thomas Horne in the early nineteenth century, Mickelsen in 1963, Ramm in 1970 and with a contemporary promoter of a literal interpretation of Scriptures in Mal Couch who wrote:

A normal reading of Scripture is synonymous with a consistent literal, grammatico-historical hermeneutic.  When a literal hermeneutic is applied to the interpretation of Scripture, every word written in Scripture is given the normal meaning it would have in its normal usage.  Proponents of a consistent, literal reading of Scripture prefer the phrase a normal reading of Scripture to establish the difference between literalism and letterism (Crouch 2000:33, emphasis in original). 

J I Packer related hermeneutics and theological perspective:

J. I. Packer

J I Packer (photo courtesy InterVarsity Press)

The truth is that ever since Karl Barth linked his version of Reformation teaching on biblical authority with a method of interpretation that at key points led away from Reformation beliefs, hermeneutics has been the real heart of the ongoing debate about Scripture. Barth was always clear that every theology stands or falls as a hermeneutic and every hermeneutic stands or falls as a theology (Packer 1992:325).

However, Packer does see an interaction taking place between the interpreter and the text. It is not that of postmodern deconstruction, but he acknowledged that for both evangelicals and liberals, the text and interpreter have mutual impact on each other. He wrote:

A major insight is focused by what Gadamer, following Heidegger, says of horizons[4] . The insight is that at the heart of the hermeneutical process there is between the text and the interpreter a kind of interaction in which their respective panoramic views of things, angled and limited as these are, ‘engage’ or ‘intersect’ – in other words, appear as challenging each other in some way. What this means is that as the student questions the text he becomes aware that the text is also questioning him, showing him an alternative to what he took for granted, forcing him to rethink at fundamental level and make fresh decisions as to how he will act henceforth, not that he has realized that some do, and he himself could, approach things differently. Every interpreter needs to realize that he himself stands in a given historical context and tradition, just as his text does, and that only as he becomes aware of this can he avoid reading into the text assumptions from his own background that would deafen him to what the text itself has to say to him (Packer 1992:338-339; emphasis in original).

Melissa has imposed on my understanding of a post that I made to the Forum, a wooden literalism that really is a false view of my view of hermeneutics of the Bible. Thus she has used a straw man logical fallacy in presenting a false perspective of my approach to biblical interpretation. I suggest that it would have been better to pursue my view of hermeneutics, asking questions of me regarding definition and exposition of hermeneutics, rather than imposing what she thought I meant.

J I Packer has a realistic explanation of my view inThe Interpretation of Scripture‘. The plain, normal meaning of the text, whether it be reading Shakespeare, the Brisbane Times, or the Bible is what I use and Melissa’s words want to attribute a wooden literalism to my understanding. This is a false view.

What about the talking donkey? Isn’t that an ass of an idea?

(photo courtesy Wikipedia)

What about Balaam’s donkey talking? Isn’t that a stupid, ridiculous, nincompoop idea that Christians support and promote? That’s what some have said to me and in even more blasphemous, profane, anti-God sentiments!

But doesn’t this get down to one’s view of God?

Since the Lord God who created the universe out of nothing and raised Jesus from the dead, is the God of absolute omnipotence perfectly capable of doing what he chooses to do that is consistent with his nature? Therefore, we need to seriously consider what the Scriptures state. If one has an anti-supernaturalist perspective (presupposition), there is no way that you will want to consider the speaking donkey as one of God’s supernatural miracles.

This is what the Scripture says concerning Balaam and the speaking donkey – for a detailed description of the incident with Balaam’s donkey talking, see Numbers 22:22-41 (ESV). The specifics of the speaking donkey are:

26 Then the angel of the Lord went ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. 27 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam. And Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. 28 Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” 29 And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.” 30 And the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?” And he said, “No.”

31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. And he bowed down and fell on his face. 32 And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to oppose you because your way is perverse[a] before me. 33 The donkey saw me and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let her live.” 34 Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood in the road against me. Now therefore, if it is evil in your sight, I will turn back.” 35 And the angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only the word that I tell you.” So Balaam went on with the princes of Balak (Numbers 22:26-35 ESV).

Ronald Allen has noted in his commentary on Numbers 22:21-28,

We see the prophet Balaam as a blind seer, seeing less than the dumb animal. In this graphic representation of Balaam pitted against the donkey, we also see a more important contrast, as Goldberg avers, the contrast of Balaam and Moses. The long shadow of Moses falls across the pages of the Balaam story even though Moses is never named once. Moses spoke face to face with God [see Numbers chapter 12]. Balaam does not even know that God is near—but his donkey does!

This section is the ultimate in polemics against paganism. It is well known that the ass has been depicted from the earliest times as a subject of stupidity and contrariness. Yet here the “stupid” ass sees the angel of the Lord and attempts to protect her rider from God’s drawn sword. Three times the hapless Balaam beat his donkey.

Then the donkey spoke (v.28). Some have imagined too much here. The donkey did not give a prophetic oracle; she merely said what a mistreated animal might say to an abusive master if given the chance. There was no preaching from the donkey! Others have stumbled at the improbability of an animal speaking, for such is the stuff of fairy tales. What keeps this story from the genre of legend or fairy tale is the clear factor that the animal did not speak of its own accord but as it was given the power to do so by the Lord. Only an exceedingly limited view of God would deny him the ability to open the mouth of a dumb animal; such an objection should lead one to a rereading of Job 40 – 41.

Noth observes that the speaking of the ass is not particularly stressed but is an integral part of the story and is attributed to a miracle on the part of the Lord, “which indicates how directly and unusually Yahweh acted in this affair of blessing or curse for Israel” (p. 179). The speaking of the donkey is affirmed by the NT (2 Peter 2:16), a genuine element in the righteous acts of the Lord. It is not that this miracle is the focus of the text; it is not. It is just an amazingly humorous way to humiliate the prophet Balaam. Before the Lord revealed himself to Balaam, he first “got his attention” in this dramatic fashion. Balaam had to learn from a donkey before he could learn from God. This is one of the most amusing stories in the Bible (Allen 1990:891-892, emphasis added).

Therefore, the answer to the doubting Melissa and all others who doubt the credibility and authenticity of God’s using a speaking donkey to get through to Balaam, is: It is your extraordinarily low view of God that causes you to deny God, the Omnipotent One’s, ability to speak through a dumb animal – and an ass at that.

I invite you to read carefully Job 40-41.

Melissa is imposing on Scripture her anaemic understanding of God who cannot perform supernatural events – including speaking through an ass!

Works consulted

Allen, R B 1990. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 2, 655-1008. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Regency Reference Library (Zondervan Publishing House).

Couch, M 2000 (gen ed). An introduction to classical evangelical hermeneutics: A guide to the history and practice of biblical interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.

Farrar, A S & Lardner, N 2009-2010. Horne, Thomas Hartwell (online), Library of historical apologetics. Available at: http://historicalapologetics.org/horne-thomas-hartwell/ (Accessed 23 September 2013).

Horne, T H 1841.[5] An introduction to the critical study and knowledge of the Holy Scriptures (online), 8th edn, vol 1. Philadelphia: J Whetham & Son. Part of it is available as a Google Book HERE  (Accessed 23 September 2013).

Mickelsen, A B 1963. Interpreting the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Packer, J I 1992. Infallible Scripture and the role of hermeneutics, in Carson, D A & Woodbridge, J D (eds) Scripture and truth, 321-356, 412-419. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books / Carlisle, Cumbria, United Kingdom: Paternoster Press.

Ramm, B 1970. Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics, 3rd rev ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.


[1] Melissa #71, Christian Fellowship Forum, The Fellowship Hall, ‘Dumb Dr. Lyn’, available at: http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?tsn=71&nav=messages&webtag=ws-fellowship&tid=122328 (Accessed 19 September 2013). I had supplied Melissa with this link to an article by creationist, John Morris, on flood stories.

[2] This is my response as ozspen #72, ibid.

[3] Thomas Horne’s lifespan dates and other biographical details are from Farrar & Lardner (2009-2010).

[4] Packer footnotes his edition of Gadamer as pp. 217ff (Packer 1992:415, n. 44). However, a discussion of Gadamer’s understanding of the concept of ‘horizon’ is in my edition of Gadamer (2004:301-305).

[5] Volume 1 of this writing was first published in 1818 and the last and eighth edition was published in 1840-1841 (Farrar & Lardner 2009-2010).


Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 21 May 2016.