topic #2 I’m wrestling with God over: literal vs symbolic interpretation

There are some things that I’m crystal clear on.

This is not one of them.

I’ve been reviewing the issues I don’t quite have worked out.  I’ve been doing this because I’m interested in seeking out others’ counsel, and also because I want to lower the tenor of debate in some miniscule little way.  It seems like we tend to get dug in to our perpsectives, and we pretend that our way of viewing things is perfect, and it doesn’t really accomplish much productive.  I think Jesus calls us to be open in our weakness and with our weakness… But I digress.

An area I don’t have worked out: when is the bible meant to be interpreted literally and when is it meant to be taken figuratively or symbolically.

This doesn’t bother me as much as it might because I’m confident I’m not alone.  I haven’t yet found a very thorough account of criteria for consistently determining how to apply scriptural truth.

There are people who have begun this.  They can point out guidelines which sometimes help.  But there’s nobody that I’ve found with anything close to an exhaustive account.

And most of us have fairly large lists of things we think are literal and things we think are symbolic.  But it seems to me that we can’t generally explain how we came to this list. 

It appears that we do a lot of question-begging.  It seems like maybe we start with a set of beliefs and pick and choose which ones to interpret symbolically and which ones to interpret literally.   The progressives generally take more flack for this, but it seems to me that this is undeserved.  I think the progressives and conservatives tend to have different verses that they focus on taking literally.  But I’m unconvinced that one camp is more conistent than the other.

Are there gray areas between literal and symbolic interpretation?  Madeline L’Engle wrote about icons.  Icons, for her, are symbols which participate in the thing they are symbolizing.  I can almost (but not quite) get my brain around her meaning.  It seems like it might be fruitful to pursue this line of reasoning.

Might God have intended different interpretations for different eras?  I most definitely think so.  Micah Tillman’s blog (see blogroll at right) had some interesting thoughts and links on this topic that helped me clarify this issue. 

When I first ran through the topics that I’m wrestling with God over (about 3 blogs back) I had focused more on the topic of divine inspiration.  As I explore where my beliefs are, it seems like I’m not to concerned with this issue.  I’m clear that the bible is God-breathed.  There’s a few abstractly interesting questions about it, but the real direct focus of my concern is interpretation.

Looking foreward to responses,



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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

6 thoughts on “topic #2 I’m wrestling with God over: literal vs symbolic interpretation”

  1. Hi Jeff,

    I followed you here from Micah Tillman’s blog. I think the Bible needs to be taken literally whenever possible. If we start picking and choosing for ourselves what is literal and what is figurative, I think we end up with too much room for human error and ego to mess things up. That’s my two cents.


  2. Welcome, Casey. Thanks for your comment.
    I totally agree with you that human error is a major problem in interpretation. And I appreciate that you’re trying to find some sort of criteria, that’s really what I’m looking for.
    But I’m not sure that “take it literal whenever possible” is particularly helpful. My fear is that we smuggle in the world’s assumptions in determining what “whenever possible” means. Furthermore, we use human judgement in applying whatever criteria we use… we’re in trouble in a big way if we don’t count on the holy spirit to guide us into truth. (I’m not saying that you’re denying the presence of the holy spirit. I’m simply saying that sometimes people seem to want to make human fallness a bigger problem than God can sort out.)


  3. I’m not sure I understand your objection. When Jesus said, “I am the true vine,” I think it’s fairly obvious that he did not have literal leaves on his body. On the other hand, when the Bible says that Jesus turned water into wine, I think we need to take that to mean that he literally turned water into wine and not that he was simply the life of the party. When a literal interpretation makes sense, I think we need to read it that way. I’m glad that you see the need for the Holy Spirit to guide us, though.


  4. A couple examples of tricky spots:
    #1) When Jesus tells us that we should pluck out our eye if it offens us, most people will take this to be hyperbolic– advice not to be taken literally but exageration intended to make a point. Most Christians I know have all their limbs and eyes, and yet most of have had these body parts cause us to stumble. There have been Christians in Christian history who would say to you and I that we should take this admonishment literally. They engaged in self mutilation. They observe that this literally make sense. They point out that his follow-up observation is quite true– it’s better to lose a body part than to have our entire being damned in hell.
    A second example, closer to our day and age:
    What do we do with the creation account? Are Adam and Eve historical figures? Are the seven days literal 24 hour periods?

    A third example:
    A thousand years ago, we would have taken the biblical account that God stopped the sun from moving at face value (When he extended the day so that the Israelites could continue their victory). Today, we know that to extend the day you have to stop the Earth from spinning.
    Whichever God did, of course, doesn’t impact my faith at all. But it does establish the precedent that we bring assumptions and understands with us when we read scripture; these assumptions and understands will impact which things we should read literally and which we should read figurateively.


  5. #1 The Bible cannot contradict itself. If the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, then it follows that we cannot deliberately destroy it. That means that Jesus’ statement cannot be taken literally. We will also want to look at the surrounding text and the audience to which it was spoken.

    #2 If Jesus was a literal historical figure, then Adam had better have been a historical figure, because Jesus’ ancestry through Joseph is listed in Matthew, and it goes back to Adam. If Adam was only a figurative character, at what point on the genealogy does a figurative person get blessed with a literal child?

    #3 The sun literally stood still in the sky. How such a thing was accomplished is irrelevant.


  6. Thanks for those observations Casey. It seems like we ultimately disagree about how much interpretation it takes to get to the assumptions you make. The assumptions you make all seem pretty reasonable but it seems like you’re doing more than just taking the bible literally whenever you can.
    For example, on the subject of the body as a temple, if I was a pro-mutilation Christian, couldn’t I say “Sometimes, in a temple, you just bulldoze the whole section because it’s become so compromised there is no way to save it. Similarly, you should gouge out your own eye or chop off your own hand if it is troublesome.”
    I think you’re exactly right to say that it’s critical to look at context and who Jesus was talking to… But I think the wider we cast this net, the more we open the issue up to human error.


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