As a follower of Jesus (and not in the Twitter sense), I’m often in the position of dialoguing with those who take issue with a “literal interpretation” of Scripture.Oftentimes, that phrase is thrown around by people who have a predisposition against the notion of miracles or they just don’t like what the Bible says.  Ultimately, an argument from this position would look something like this, “I don’t believe it (or I don’t like it).  Therefore it’s not true.”  But this is ice cream logic.  It may look good at first but, let it sit, and it turns into liquefied goo.  Allow me to attempt an illustration.

Once upon a time there were two friends named Gary and Pete; both of whom agreed that Albert Einstein was an important scientist.  And because of this man-love for Einstein, they decided that they had to understand his ideas as best they could.  However, both gentlemen wanted to take two different approaches to understanding the famous scientist.  Little Einstein TwelveOn the one hand, Gary read all of Einstein’s writings including Principle of Relativity paying close attention to the context of each paragraph in order to figure out what Einstein was really trying to say.  This style of reading took Gary a little while but, in the end, he believed he had a proper grasp of Einstein’s ideas.

On the other hand, Pete got halfway through the first chapter of Principle of Relativity but Einstein-Boyfound some of what Einstein said troubling.  He, therefore, put down the book and decided to come up with his own understanding of the theory; even reading other books by numerous authors who provided him with alternative interpretations.  These interpretations suggested that, for E=mc2, “e” didn’t necessarily mean “energy” and that “m” meant something other than mass.  “E,” “m,” and “c” were simply allegories for a set of esoteric spiritual principles.  In the end Pete was fascinated with this alternative take and shouted, “I love Einstein even more now!” but he had developed an understanding of Einstein’s ideas, not from studying Einstein seriously, but from developing his own variety of interpretations.

After the two friends concluded their studies, they reconvened and began to discuss all that they had learned about Einstein.  But the chasm between their understandings was enormous.  And frustrated with Gary’s point of view, Pete finally threw out the phrase, “You’re taking Einstein too literally!”  At this point I have a question:  If Gary and Pete were both asked to build an atomic clock or a more accurate model of the universe, which one do you think would be capable?  The one who studied Einstein seriously or the one who didn’t?

The takeaway from this is not whether someone interprets the Bible “literally” but whether someone interprets it correctly. The Bible is not a collection of allegories.  It is a guide to reality and, therefore, should be taken seriously.

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  3. Right. Let’s apply the same test: does (1) literal, (2) allegorical, or (3) mixed (based on careful choice guided by prayer and the Holy Spirit) work best? The measure: for whom does Scripture lead to a holy, pure, Christian life. The evidence: Church Fathers like Augustine, Clement, Ambrose, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus Confessor, John Chysostom… It’s (3) for every one of them. We could find 100 more famous examples more recent. Scripture is not physics. Absolute literalism is a 20th century invention, a symptom of faithlessness. The Holy Spirit uses every talent of the human mind, and every God-given style of literature to convey the vast meaning of Scripture. God isn’t limited to a single style.