Let me say something unequivocally about what it means to interpret something ‘literally:’
It is probably fair to say that, when it comes to Bible interpretation … there is no such thing as a ‘literalist'!
This is a curious notion really, and many fail to give this any serious reflection. This is especially true in light of the question I hear frequently from my unbelieving friends: “You don’t interpret the Bible literally do you?” My answer is usually that I take it literally, depending on the context.
So as not to appear to let my theological predisposition taint the discussion, (as if to assume that Amillennialists might have a better grasp on the definition than Dispensationalists), here is a quote defining literal interpretation from J. Dwight Pentecost, a solid Dispensational Premillennialist from Dallas Theological Seminary, from his book, Things to Come 'A Study in Biblical Eschatology':
“The literal method of interpretation is that method that gives to each word the same exact basic meaning it would have in normal, ordinary, customary usage, whether employed in writing, speaking or thinking.”
This concern for interpreting the Bible literally is not just an issue that comes up between unbelievers and believers. First, let's think about what it means to say that we want to "give each word the same basic meaning it would normally have" in interpretation, and then I’ll examine more closely other problem areas that occur in our literal interpretation of Scripture.
The Problem with Interpreting the Word All Literally
It shouldn't be surprising that this issue of literal interpretation finds its way into the heart of the ongoing interpretative debate between Calvinists and Arminians, as depicted in this comment:
The Calvinistic effort to limit this word [all] to “all the elect” constitutes one of the saddest chapters in exegesis. The Scriptures shine with the “all” of universality, but Calvinists do not see it. Their one effort is to find something that would justify them to reduce “all” to “some.” Calvin himself says that all = all kinds, all classes, rich and poor, high and low, rejecting no class, taking some of each, but not all in the sense of every individual. [R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians, (Minnesota: Augsbury Publishing House, 1963), 1029].
No wonder there are so many issues with interpretation! Christians can’t even agree what the words all and many mean. If we say we want to interpret these words consistently or normally or ordinarily, and not contextually, in order to get at the literal sense, we run into all kinds of trouble.
Looking closely at the use of these two words in just two verses of Romans chapter 5, we find that Paul used each of the terms all and many to mean both ‘each and every individual’, and ‘some individuals,’ depending entirely upon the contextual usage and not by interpreting it normally, ordinarily, consistently or literally.
NKJ Romans 5:18-19 Therefore, as through one man's offense judgment came to all men [every existing individual], resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man's righteous act the free gift came to all men [all who believe], resulting in justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many [every existing individual] were made sinners, so also by one Man's obedience many [all who believe] will be made righteous.
Clearly, Lenski's comment that Calvinists fail to interpret the word all in its ordinary, consistent and normal use is surprising. Would he suggest that Christ's obedience made every individual person righteous before God, even the unbeliever?
What is the Literal Interpretation of Prophesy?
This problem of interpretation also exists between Amillennialists and Dispensationalists.
Almost all of the problems associated with why there are different views of the book of Revelation are buried beneath the question of literal interpretation. And using words like normal and plain for the basis of our understanding from the definition above, depends radically on context; and not just context of the verse. When we interpret any passage anywhere in the Bible, we need to consider:
The particular words being used; the verse the words appear in; the paragraph the verse is in; the chapter the paragraph is in; the book the chapter is in; the Testament the book is in; and the entirety of Scripture, in order to get the meaning in each context.
Even more importantly however is that no matter how plain or how literal we think we are in our interpretation, if we do not arrive at what the author intended to say, no degree of plainness or literalness will help us arrive at a correct interpretation.
What the author (being moved by the Spirit) meant the verse to mean is what it literally means, regardless of whether or not we interpret it in a literal or figurative sense. And we must concede up front, that the author had one specific intended meaning when he wrote. Whether or not we think we have the literal or plain meaning is not the issue it seems to me.
Naturally, there are certain liabilities to using the words literal and plain to describe how we understand certain Scriptures. Claiming to and adhering to a literal translation in all cases of prophesy, for example, as most every Dispensationalist is prone to do, would make for some untrue interpretations, would it not? Daniel 9:26 is a good example:
“...And the people of the prince who is to come
Shall destroy the city and the sanctuary.
The end of it shall be with a flood.”
First, we need to be sure about which period of time this occurs in: is this prophesy referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (as most commentators agree that it was)? If so, did Daniel not rather speak spiritually or figuratively here by using the word 'flood' and mean that the city would be flooded with the soldiers of Titus? Wouldn’t interpreting the passage literally and in the normal and plain use of the word 'flood' make that prophesy untrue?
What about the promise of God to Abraham that his descendants would possess the land from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates (Gen. 15:18)? Some Dispensationalists suggest that this prophesy has yet to be fulfilled and will be fulfilled at some time in the future.
NKJ Genesis 15:18-21 On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: "To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates the Kenites, the Kenezzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites."
According to my reading of the Bible, this promise was fulfilled under the leadership of Joshua 600 years after the promise was given to Abraham! Read Joshua 11:23. Every major version of Scripture says "whole land." Deuteronomy 1:8 says that "you are to go in and possess the land which Jehovah swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to give to them and to their seed after them." Read Joshua 21:43-45. All versions are similarly interpreted: “Not a word failed of any good thing which the LORD had spoken to the house of Israel.” Those verses seem to me to sum up that the promises of the land have been fulfilled.
What is the Literal Interpretation of the Everlastingness of God’s Promises?
Understanding the everlastingness of God's promises presents us with another example of the difficulty of interpreting passages literally: What about the aspect of 'everlastingness' in the promises God made? Is there an obligation on God's part to fulfill what were clearly 'everlasting' promises? Does our fascination with literalness bind us to making God have to deal with Israel in a particular way in the distant future because God still needs to keep His 'everlasting' promises to Israel?
Can an Old Testament promise be said to be eternal, yet cease to be in effect? Apparently so. The Old Testament use of the word "eternal" must be interpreted according to the radius of time being dealt with. For instance, each example listed below was instituted and pronounced by God Himself to be an eternal promise given to Israel. I've given you the verses so you can read for yourself that these are eternal promises:
Sabbath- Exodus 31:13-16; Ezekiel 20:12ff
Circumcision- Genesis 17:11-13
Priesthood- Exodus 40:15; Numbers 25:13
Perpetuity of Solomon's house- 2 Chronicles 7:16
There are a couple of preliminary issues to keep in the back of our minds as we proceed here: One is whether the word eternal means something like 'completed in the distant-and-as-yet-unknown-future' only? Or does the word eternal mean 'without ceasing from the moment I give the promise until time ceases'? Or does eternal mean 'until the fulfillment of the promise as God deems fit' comes, regardless of whether or not human beings think that that fulfillment has taken place?
I would suggest the following ways to pursue evaluating these difficulties:
(1) Though the Sabbath was an eternal promise given to the people of Israel, they repeatedly profaned it. For those who would suggest that the giving of and the literal keeping of the Sabbath are meant to be observed by Israel perpetually, regardless of what the Church deems proper, and regardless of how Israel responded centuries ago, Calvin suggested that Sabbath keeping was never intended by God to be perfected in Israel's practice of keeping one day set aside to observe God's rest.
The Sabbath would never be perfected until the Last Day should come. For we here begin our blessed rest in Him … it will not be consummated until … God shall be 'all in all' [1 Corinthians 15:28]... It would seem that the Lord [was trying to] make them aspire to this perfection by unceasing meditation upon the Sabbath throughout life ... There is no doubt that the ceremonial part of this commandment was abolished … [Sabbath keeping] is not confined within a single day but [is intended to] extend through the whole course of our life … Christians ought therefore to shun completely the superstitious observance of days [2.8.30-31].
(2) Circumcision, according to Calvin, was likewise intended to be fulfilled in Christ.
… [circumcision] was a token and a reminder to confirm [to Israel] the promise given to Abraham of the blessed seed in which all nations of the earth were to be blessed [Genesis 22:18]… Now that saving seed (as we are taught by Paul) was Christ [Galatians 3:16], in whom alone they trusted … circumcision was the same thing to them as in Paul's teaching it was to Abraham, namely, a sign of the righteousness of faith [Romans 4:11] [4.14.21].
(3) An eternal priestly promise was in effect just as long as the Levitical priesthood existed for the time God intended it to remain in use. The high priest was
… a mediator between God and men, to make satisfaction to God by the shedding of blood and by the offering of a sacrifice that would suffice for the forgiveness of sins. This high priest was Christ [Hebrews 4:14; 5;5; 9:11]; he poured out his own blood; he himself was the sacrificial victim; he offered himself, obedient unto death, to the father [Philippians 2:8] [4.14.22].
In addition to this, we have the New Testament declaration that we Christians who have come to Christ are considered a 'holy priesthood … through Jesus Christ' [1 Peter 2:5].
(4) 2 Chronicles 7:16 says God promised to live in Solomon's house forever. Yet that house was destroyed and does not exist today. Did the God of eternal promises break His promise? Or did "forever" mean not 'from the time I instituted the promise till the end of time,' but "for as long as the house stood"? Or should the literal interpretation of these promises be to interpret them according to the radius of time in which they were issued and intended?
Promise with reference to the temple was binding upon God until the very second the temple ceased to exist; an eternal promise under the old covenant was in effect only during the life of that old covenant. To say the least, theological pandemonium has blossomed out of the attempt to make promises made under the law binding upon God long after the initial intent of the promise has served its purpose in God's program.
A legal eternal promise was in effect only as long as the ceremonial and civil law was in effect; an eternal promise to national Israel was in effect only as long as God dealt with Israel as a nation (and here there is quite a discrepancy, as the dispensationalist says God is till is waiting to finish dealing with Israel, and the Amillennialist says that there is no distinction between true Israel and the church; but again, it is a matter of one's hermeneutic).
It is theological pandemonium to attempt to take an "either-or" approach to all of Scripture, and as long as all of us are willing to admit that we are not unequivocally certain on every point as to which approach is the one the author intended, we are headed in the right direction. But let's not pick and choose either when it's convenient for us to do so, while not allowing someone else to do the same. Let's be intellectually honest in the process. My point is that all of us at one time or another interpret some passages of the Bible figuratively or in a "spiritual" manner, and some we interpret as literal.
The objective in Biblical interpretation should be to determine what the author intended the passage to mean when he wrote it. That is our only objective, not trying to determine whether or not a passage should be understood literally or symbolically by the degree of absurdity we believe the passage contains either. One blog I read tried to establish this type of methodology: "Does it possess a degree of absurdity when taken literally? Example: Isaiah 55:12 “the trees of the fields will clap their hands.” Aside from the fact that this is not a great example, this type of approach is entirely subjective. Perhaps a more pertinent example might be "For if God … cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness to be reserved for judgment [2 Peter 2:4]. Should chains of darkness be considered an absurdity here? I'm not sure that anyone knows.
This same blogger wrote, "a symbolic view of 1000 years does not possess a degree of clarity," yet they fail to see the humor in this comment! If the author was concerned that that particular symbolism led to a lack of clarity, and his one focus was to be clear in the passage, wouldn't he have chosen some other form of expression so to avoid the confusion? Furthermore, who is confused? The author or the reader? Again, we are to determine not whether or not the author was clear in his language by our subjective considerations, but rather attempting to fathom, using the language that he used, what the author meant? This is especially the case in light of the fact that he could have used other language if he thought lack of clarity would be a problem. Perhaps the writer used '1000 years' with the intention of being purposefully unclear, meaning something like "a heck of a long time." Then again, maybe he meant exactly 1000 years to the day, and not 1000 years and 1 day!