What criteria should I use to know which scriptures should be understood literally?

What criteria should I use to know which scriptures should be understood literally?

literal: "Love one another as I have loved you," versus non-literal, "You must call no one on earth your father, since you have only one Father, and he is in heaven."

Or is it a sin to call your biological male parent your father?

What about, "Go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." (Mat 19:21). Literal or not?

How do we know which are supposed to be read literally and which aren't?

16 Answers

  • Favorite Answer

    Luther translated the Bible into German. He was convinced that anyone who actually read the Bible would agree with him. His great disappointment was that this didn't happen at all. Within his lifetime there were not just Lutherans and Catholics, but also Calvinists, Zwinglians, Baptists, etc.

    It turns out that meaning is not just in what you read, but also in who reads it.

    Personally, as a non-religious person, I'm amazed how people seem to think that all the texts in the Bible are supposed to have an eternal message. Paul wrote letters to certain churches. I can see how some parts of it might be relevant or interesting in a certain situation, but that's different as believing that it's a divine message to everyone. A quote from the epistles always strikes me as disingenious by definition if it's taken to be some kind of commandment. And as to whether it's the word of God: did God tell Paul to ask Timothy for his coat?

    2 Timothy 4:13 "When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments."

    This is obviously neither an eternal and universal message, nor the word of God. So presumably there are more parts that shouldn't be taken as such. Or indeed as God's word, but as a metaphor. Which parts? Well, everyone has their own opinion on this. Props to the Catholic Church in that sense, for recognizing that interpretation and tradition are vital to how you use the Bible.

    • Login to reply the answers
  • David
    Lv 7
    1 decade ago

    First off, let me state that literalism is not the same as fundamentalism. True classical literalism means discerning what the writer meant. Of course it is no sin to call your male parent a father. In the case of Matthew 19:21, Jesus was telling the rich young ruler to give up not his possessions, but himself.

    As another example, when the Bible says that Solomon's men built the Temple, it is obvious that it means that Solomon's men built the temple. That is literally and factually true. When Jesus said "Destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days" it is metaphor, but metaphor is also a form of truth.

    That being said, the two most reliable guides to the truth are the Ho;y Spirit and your own common sense. There is also a lot to be said for spending some time reading some of the early Fathers, especially Augustine.

    • Login to reply the answers
  • John S
    Lv 7
    1 decade ago

    Jon M - As a Catholic, you can obviously look back at the Catholic church and see how it interprets things.

    The Church came first, THEN the canon of the Christian bible, ergo the Church has more authority to interpret, not the other way around.

    The church sets the basic boundaries of HOW or WHAT one should do. We are free to move around the circle and use our own mind, but we should always cross-check how our personal interpretation fits within the boundaries the Church has created.


    However, to anyone, I think the following criteria helps to establish the correct context.

    1) How has this verse been classically interpreted, that is, does my interpretation jive with how others in past centuries have taken it? Often times there is a very obvious way in which these verses have been traditionally interpreted.

    2) What is the over all POINT of Focus of that author? Is he known to focus on sexual immorality? faith verses action, action verses faith, love verses fighting? - WHAT? Knowing this, allows you to infer what the author INTENDED.

    3) The bible is a compiled text, assembled and put together. One must always remember this. One verse can not contradict another, because WHY then.. do we have the other verses? Therefore, IF you interpretation seems out of synch with the other messages in the bible.. chances are you are taking it too literal OR too liberally.

    4) Cross Check - cross check your interpretation with a well known authority. Some authoritative source outside of your own self.. to ensure your own biases aren't reading into it. It could be your Church, it could be your local Pastor, it could be a family member you trust.

    5) Literary Devices - Realize that language back then was less literal. Like Shakepeare, it was more colorful and poetic. There was less focus on documentation, more on creating a "Sense" of scripture. For instance, an eye for an eye is not literal. Jesus saying "better to enter heaven with 1 hand then hell with both" is meant to impress upon the listeners a certain POINT. Many of the authors use various literary devices to make their points. The most obvious is hyperbole or over emphasizing the point. Like "No man is righteous, not one seeks the Lord" -- well obviously we know that SOME men are righteous.. Elijiah, Abraham, Moses. to name a few.

    6) Language - understand the language, Greek or Hebrew. What was happening at that time in history, what fears the people had. If, like 99.99% of us in the English speaking world, you don't know Koine Greek or Hebrew, then rely on an authority which DOES.. and which clearly takes history into account. The bible was not written specifically for us.. it was written for the people back then. It still applies today and contains a lot of good information.. but we'd be misinterpreting things to NOT take into account the events and people back then.


    IF, you can do all these things... then you can be pretty certain you are interpreting things correctly.

    IF you think that sounds over whelming.. THEN you realize WHY we need religion in our lives. WHY we need Priests, theologians, Pastors, Vicars, Bishops, etc. to help guide us. WHY it is important which authority you put your trust in.

    • Login to reply the answers
  • Daniel
    Lv 4
    4 years ago

    If all the writing in the bible were parable stories it would still be a holy book full of godly and spiritual wisdom. but it would be much more limited in its impact on our thinking, faith,understanding and motivation. The Christian's guide-lines for living are to found in the New Testament because a new relationship was set up between God and the believer after the work & sacrifice of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the key character of the whole Bible. He emphasised the love and mercy of God ,and then when the Spirit was given to indwell the believer an intimate relationship with God was initiated. This relationship with God is true, and provable.

    • Login to reply the answers
  • How do you think about the answers? You can sign in to vote the answer.
  • ed f
    Lv 7
    1 decade ago

    I believe that people reject the spirit of the law categorically, because they feel oppressed by the letter of the law. The spirit of the law is to love your neighbor the same way that you love yourself. If you do that, you will end up keeping the law. The entire Bible is written in a way to give us a sense of how God deals with people in general, and the laws are there to let us know what will give us problems and bondage.

    Whether or not it was an actual tree that Eve picked the fruit off of, or if it was just the picture of indulging in the forbidden activity, is really of no consequence. We understand that it represents our fallen nature.

    • Login to reply the answers
  • 1 decade ago

    It either tells you directly or it is obvious! Make sure that you read the verses before and after to understand the context in which it is written. Don't read more into it than is actually there. Don't overthink it.

    All things need to be spritually discerned with the help of the Holy Spirit.

    The scripture about calling no one father is refering to your "spiritual" father not your "biological" father.

    Another example: Galatians 4:24 The various translations call this an allegory, symbolic, figurative or an illustration.

    • Login to reply the answers
  • 1 decade ago

    i believe that must be understood with the heart...

    and it has a language all of it's own.

    also... there are different levels or layers of understanding... depending upon the consciousness of our being. that which is understood on level one... is clearly different than that which is understood on level seven... and so on and so forth... (or so i have been informed by those who are on a higher level than myself).

    i believe from personal experience and transformation that this is certainly true. sometimes we understand one day what we understood another day in a completely new or different way.

    for example... Ephesians 3:19... (verified by the Prophets Ephesians 5:14)


    edit: ultimately we must surrender in humility to God's Will... Insha'Allah... and ask for our LORD's Guidance... and not rely on our own personal interpretation (innovation).

    we find this idea in The Lord's Prayer and Al-Fatiha, as well as other Holy Scripture. [Allahu A'lam]

    "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

    for they shall be satisfied." - Beatitudes

    • Login to reply the answers
  • 1 decade ago

    Interpret the Bible using the Apostolic Tradition the new testament came out of

    I follow the authority of the catholic Church to do the difficult interpretation

    • Login to reply the answers
  • 1 decade ago

    One must examine scriptures through "Wisdom".

    There is no place for lies or falsehoods to occupy within "Wisdom".

    Searching for the truth with anything other than "Wisdom" is futile (useless).

    The human mind will never discern the truth within scriptures or revelation.

    Understanding "Holy Books" is beyond the comprehension of the human mind.

    You asked, I shared......

    Peace be always with you.

    Source(s): a small insignificant brother....
    • Login to reply the answers
  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    I think it ain't that hard Jon. Got gave us common sense so we can use it. I know that you do. This why it is very important to understand the spirit more the exact letter of the law.

    • Login to reply the answers
Still have questions? Get your answers by asking now.