What is literal interpretation?

Image result for picture early church father reading scroll

(Saint Ignatius of Antioch Hand-Paint – courtesy Pinterest)

By Spencer D Gear PhD

You wouldn’t believe the confusion some Christians get into with their distorted views of the meaning of ‘literal’ interpretation. Let’s pick up a few examples that I gathered from a forum on the Internet.

  • The discussion was on, ‘Can you trust the Muslims?’[1] One fellow asked, ‘Which Muslims? Are they all the same?’[2] A reply was, ‘If they all take that book of theirs literally yes’.[3]
  • A retort was, ‘Your answer is not clear. You said “IF they all take it literally”. I doubt that ALL of them (100%) take it literally so that would be a “no” answer, but I’m not sure that’s what you meant’.[4]

Moderate Muslims and literal interpretation

The above examples provided an opportunity for me to investigate how to consider ‘moderate’ Muslims and their interpretations of the Quran.[5]

Recep Tayyip Erdogan.PNG (Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 12th president of Turkey, photo courtesy Wikipedia)


Let’s check on a supposed ‘moderate’ Muslim country such as Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the former Prime Minister and from 2014 he has been the President of Turkey for the AKP Party (source). When he was mayor of Istanbul in the late 1990s, he stated, ‘Thank God, I am for Sharia’ and ‘one cannot be a secularist and a Muslim at the same time’. He added, ‘For us, democracy is a means to an end’ (cited in Yavuz 2009). BBC News reported of Erdogan in 2002:

‘His pro-Islamist sympathies earned him a conviction in 1998 for inciting religious hatred.

He had publicly read an Islamic poem including the lines: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers…”

He was sentenced to 10 months in jail, but was freed after four’ (BBC News 2002).

For Erdogan, democracy was like a streetcar which you ride ‘until you arrive at your destination, then you step off’ (Yavuz 2009:100, n. 40). Concerning ‘moderate’ Islam, Erdogan, a Muslim, does not believe there is such a thing. His view was that ‘these descriptions are very ugly. It is offensive and an insult to our religion. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam and that’s it’ (cited in Carol 2015). Or, is Erdogan a voice for the extremist Muslim, even the terrorists?

See the ‘Answering-Islam’ Christian website and the article, ‘Moderate Muslims & Moderate Islam’ by Jacob Thomas.

So where do you think the ‘moderate’ Muslims are heading with their present approach of not taking the Quran seriously or literally? Are they like Erdogan and are on the streetcar of democracy until its time is right to get off and implement Sharia?

Troubles over ‘literal’ continue

Obtaining an understanding of the meaning of ‘literal interpretation’ seems to elude some Christians. These are further examples:

  • ‘If they [Muslims] take their book 100% literally the way i take Gods word 100% literally, is that better?’[6]
  • This kind of response could be expected to that last comment: ‘Not really. I do not know how you “take God’s word 100% literally.” I would hope you recognize that the Bible contains metaphors, parables, and every other literary device which are definitely NOT to be taken literally. It also contains apocalyptic literature which is, essentially, the best effort of the writer to put into human language the astonishing and often incomprehensible visions he has seen’.[7]

A way forward with literal interpretation

The Malmesbury Bible (Bible, image courtesy Wikipedia)


How does one clear up the meaning of literal hermeneutics? I began to explain:[8]

When I was in seminary way back when, we used A Berkeley Mickelsen’s text on hermeneutics, Interpreting the Bible (1963 Eerdmans). There he stated that for the School of Antioch, it used historical interpretation as not referring to wooden literalism as this included the full use of typology:

“Literal” here 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).?

Therefore, ‘by literal meaning the writer refers to the usual or customary sense conveyed by words or expressions‘. The contrasting meaning is that of figurative: ‘By figurative meaning the writer has in mind the representation of one concept in terms of another because the nature of the two things compared allows such an analogy to be drawn‘ (Mickelsen 1963:179, emphasis in original).

So when I read my local newspaper online, I assume that metaphors and similies are included in the literal meaning. This has been the case throughout my life. However, this is changing with postmodern, reader-response impositions on texts. Literal meaning of a text has often been thrown out the window by preachers who engage in allegorical preaching – thus destroying the literal meaning of a text. Allegorical preachers are close to the postmodern preachers of today who make a text mean whatever they want it to mean – and the more spiritual sounding the better.

This thoughtful response came to the above information:

There are a variety of ways to understand what is meant by the word “literally” as you have pointed out.

Unfortunately, many people who imagine themselves to be competent to interpret scripture tend to impose what they think is a literal meaning on a passage when, in fact, they are forcing the meaning of a modern English word into the Jacobean translation of an ancient Koine Greek, Hebrew or Chaldean word. Along with their modern English word they insert the modern English context of of a western, scientific, culture. So the go to their Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary and assume it is a great source for understanding what Isiah had in mind. (sigh)

By rights they should be taken out and hung for the cold blooded murder of the English Tongue.” (Rex Harrison as Prof. Higgins in the screen version of Shaw’s “Pygmalion”, “My Fair Lady.)[9]

Tough theological nuts to crack

I’m not talking about a person’s mental state. Some folks are hard heads with their lack of responsiveness to additional information. They are tough nuts to crack with getting beyond their limited understanding of the meaning of literal interpretation. Here is an unusual response from a tough nut:

Jim, I for one will tell you I take the scriptures literally, period. I can say that and be serious about it because in the Parables there are very literal lessons. Most of us here, that were here before you arrived, agree with the statement I just made. This community is built on faith and because it is we do trust God to mean what He has said and we will not quetion (sic) it,, even and especially if it sounds or seems foolish to men.[10]

So the deal is: I take the Scriptures literally, no question, full stop, period. In parables there are ‘literal lessons’. What on earth has that to do with literal interpretation of a parable? In addition, Bill and others came to the forum before Jim, so they have the high ground on biblical interpretation and we/they will agree with Bill’s analysis. This elitist view of ‘our community is built on faith, trust in God, and we know what he means literally and we will not question God’s view. That is nothing more than expression of Christian snobbery.

Problems with elitism and biblical interpretation

That’s a red herring logical fallacy.[11] The issue of whether who was on this forum first, second or later is irrelevant to deciding on the meaning of literal interpretation.

I see that you have modified the meaning of parables to arrive at ‘very literal lessons’ from them. That does not get around the fact that the nature of parables is that they are similitudes, i.e. extended similies.
Some examples may help to understand the differences.[12]

3d-red-star-small A simile: ‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth’ (Acts 8:32 ESV, emphasis added). The eunuch is quoting from Isa 53:7 (ESV) but it is a figure of speech known as a simile.

3d-red-star-small A metaphor: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29 ESV, emphasis added).

3d-red-star-smallWe have an example of a similitude, i.e. parable, in the story of the lost sheep in Luke 15:4-7 (ESV), ‘What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?’ (Luke 15:4 ESV) In this same context of Luke 15 (ESV) Luke tells us the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11-32 ESV).

3d-red-star-small There is an example of an allegory of the door for the sheep and the good shepherd in John 10:1-16 (ESV). ‘I am the door of the sheep…. I am the good shepherd’ (John 10:7 ESV; John 10:11 ESV).

All of these are examples of the sheep, lamb or shepherd but different figures of speech are used.

I take the Scriptures literally but this does not exempt me from understanding the use of figures of speech in that literal language – figures of speech such as simile, metaphor, similitude/parable and allegory.

This is why it is so important to explain what ‘literal interpretation’ means. From the examples I’ve given here, it does not mean an acceptance of dead letterism that does not include figures of speech. Letterism ‘is a wooden, thin interpretation that fails to go beyond the standard meanings of words and expressions … or to discern the manner in which an author attends to these meanings…. Hence literalism short-circuits the literal sense insofar as it fails to appreciate the author’s intention to give his or her utterance a certain kind of force’ (Vanhoozer 1998:311).

This is probably not what this person wanted to hear, but I’ve gained these examples directly from Scripture. Scripture supports the use of figures of speech in literal hermeneutics.

Extreme literalism and Mormonism

The Mormon view of God is that ‘we are created in His image (Genesis 1:27). He has a body that looks like ours, but God’s body is immortal, perfected, and has a glory that words can’t describe’. Matthew Lino added, ‘He has a body of flesh and bone. We were created in His image, therefore, he clearly is not simply a Spirit’ (What do Mormons believe about the nature of God? mormons.org.au).

This is a view that is contrary to the Scriptures which state, ‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth’ (John 4:24 ESV).

So what does Gen 1:27 mean, ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them’ (ESV)? See my explanation under the heading, ‘Responding to God having a body’, in my article Does God have a physical body?

Three verses clarify this:

  •  John 1:18 (NIV) states: ‘No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known’.
  • Scripture tells us in John 4:24: ‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth’.
  • Jesus, after his resurrection, is recorded as saying in Luke 24:39, ‘See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have’. (ESV).

Mormons are not the only ones who believe God has a body. I struck it with a fellow in the thread, ‘God’s likeness’, on Christianity Board.[13]


There was confusion over literal interpretation meaning letterism among some on a Christian forum. It was shown by others that literal interpretation includes the use of figures of speech, including simile, metaphor, parable and allegory.

Examples of extreme literalism were seen among the Mormons and those who claim that God has a literal, physical body of flesh and blood.

This is a call for all Christians to be careful interprets of Scripture, taking into consideration the grammar, linguistics, context and culture.

Works consulted

BBC News 2002. Turkey’s charismatic pro-Islamic leader. World edition (online), 4 November. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/2270642.stm (Accessed 26 November 2015).

Carol, S 2015. Understanding the Volatile and Dangerous Middle East: A Comprehensive Analysis. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse.

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

Vanhoozer, K J 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text? Leicester, England: Apollos (an imprint of Inter-Varsity Press).

Yavuz, M H 2009. Secularism and Muslim Democracy in Turkey. Cambridge Middle East Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (introduction available online at: http://assets.cambridge.org/97805218/88783/excerpt/9780521888783_excerpt.pdf (Accessed 26 November 2015).


[1] Christian Forums.net, 2015. ‘Can you trust the Muslims?’ Gnostic#1. Available at: http://christianforums.net/Fellowship/index.php?threads/can-we-trust-the-muslims.62206/ (Accessed 6 November 2015).

[2] Ibid., Jim Parker#5.

[3] Ibid., turnorburn#6.

[4] Ibid., Jim Parker#10.

[5] Ibid., OzSpen#16. This was a piece I copied from my article, Is Islam a religion of peace at its core?

[6] Christian Forums.net, ibid., turnorburn#21.

[7] Ibid., Jim Parker#27.

[8] Ibid., OzSpen#33.

[9] Ibid., Jim Parker#35.

[10] Ibid., th1.taylor#42.

[11] This is my response at ibid., OzSpen#44.

[12] These examples are taken from Mickelsen (1963:212-213).

[13] The promoter of God’s having a body was ewq1938. I interact on this forum as OzSpen.


Copyright © 2015 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 11 July 2018.