Q. I was discussing something with a family member and they said ‘You just can’t interpret the Bible literally because so many people argue over what the literal interpretation of that verse is.’ He makes a good point. In what way should we go about finding the ‘literal’ interpretation of a verse? And another question, when do we know when to not interpret a passage of Scripture literally?
A. There’s only one true literal interpretation a verse or passage, so only one can be correct. Read it just as it was written giving every word its normal meaning. Then ask yourself who it was written to and what was it written about. This is called taking the context of the passage into consideration. According to the dictionary the context is the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular passage. You can usually discover the context of a particular verse by looking at the surrounding verses that influence its meaning or effect. Most arguments over the interpretation of Scripture have more to do with context than anything else.
We know we shouldn’t interpret a passage literally when the Bible tells us not to. For instance parables and other obviously symbolic passages are not meant to be understood literally. A good rule of thumb is that if the literal interpretation of a passage makes sense, then we shouldn’t try to take it any other way.
In Romans 15:4 Paul wrote, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.”
How can we expect to learn from the Bible if we can’t decide what it means?