Taking it Literally…Literally?

In the tribe I come from, we regularly talk about Literal-Grammatical-Historical hermeneutics. We’ll call it LGH for short, or (many of us) “literal hermeneutics.”

We all know what we mean, but the terminology is a bit strange for newcomers, because — how to put it delicately? — we don’t mean the word “literal” literally.

That’s not as crazy as it sounds. Within the history of biblical interpretation, there have been eras when the text was subjected to the most ridiculous flights of fancy. Things like the four rivers flowing out of Eden being a reference to the four cardinal virtues, or the Levitical dietary laws actually prohibiting, not the eating of certain animals, but the vices figuratively associated with those animals. There’s nary a hint in the actual text itself (nor in the later inspired references to it) of such interpretations. Against that backdrop, “literal” interpretation meant that the four rivers flowing out of Eden were actual rivers, and the prohibition against shellfish meant — follow me closely here — that Israelites weren’t allowed to eat shellfish.

Pretty straightforward, right?

So then what do we do with “He shall cover you with his pinions”? If we’re interpreting it literally, then don’t we take that to mean that God has feathers?

“Of course not,” we say. “Don’t be silly.”

But the thing is, a newcomer who asks such a question is not being silly. He’s taking the word “literal” in its ordinary sense: literal as opposed to metaphorical. Take a look at some basic dictionary definitions:

in accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical:the literal meaning of a word.

following the words of the original very closely and exactly:a literal translation of Goethe.

true to fact; not exaggerated; actual or factual:a literal description of conditions.

being actually such, without exaggeration or inaccuracy:the literal extermination of a city.

(of persons) tending to construe words in the strict sense or in an unimaginative way; matter-of-fact; prosaic.


To a normal person’s ears, when we talk about “interpreting the Bible literally” we are the ones that sound crazy. Many passages are obviously metaphorical, and even we admit that. So if you read a metaphor literally, wouldn’t that be a very basic hermeneutical mistake?

“Well, yes, it would,” we say. “But that’s not what we mean by it.”

And it’s not. We mean that we interpret the utterance according to the original author’s intent, not according to some exercise of allegorical ingenuity imposed on the text after the fact. But again, this is not a particularly obvious way to take the word “literal.”

New Zealand pastor Bnonn Tennant had an interesting take on this recently. I quote:

I think the term literal is functionally meaningless; it is just a pious way of begging the question in favor of whatever interpretation “seems” obvious to the person reading it. In other words, “literal” is a shorthand way of saying that scripture should be read according to the normal rules of communication….

The problem with this, he goes on to point out, is that what we think of today as the normal rules of communication are not the standard everywhere and for all time:

As a simple example, consider how scripture speaks of the moon being turned to blood. A “literal” hermeneutic will say this means the physical moon becomes perceptibly red. This is the most “natural” way to read it—for a 21st century Western Christian. If a newspaper said such a thing, we would assume that the physical moon is in view; but also that physically being transformed into blood is not. That’s the “literal” sense to 21st century English readers inculcated in an Enlightenment worldview.

But what makes us think that worldview is the natural way to read the text of Scripture? It’s certainly not the worldview of the people who wrote it. To the extent that we intend to be guided by authorial intent, we obviously have no business substituting our worldview for theirs.

Tennant suggests dropping “literal” from our description of the hermeneutic and substituting “theological.” His argument is that “literal” doesn’t really mean what we’re trying to say (as above) and that “theological” better captures our desire to read the text as a theologically coherent whole. I would be concerned that “grammatical-historical-theological” hermeneutic signals a tendency to use our theology as a background assumption of our interpretation, rather than allowing our theology to be chastened by the text as we should. That’s not, of course, what Tennant means — but I’m concerned he’s just trading one set of “that’s not what I mean by it” conversations for another.

What do you think?


6 Responses to Taking it Literally…Literally?

  1. agent4him says:

    An extraordinarily important subject in hermeneutics, and we must ask these questions if evangelicals are to be intellectually honest. I read Tennant’s piece and would agree with the points you made in response, conceding that the observations raise more questions than answers, of course. But the first choice we face will be whether we are willing to kill interpretive sacred cows as we explore the questions. And one theologian’s sacred cow may well be another’s “Meh.” So, I would argue for some preliminary deliberation on “process issues” before we jump into the content issues. How we handle sacred cows would be one of the first of these.

    Another process issue taught widely in evangelical seminaries is “Trust your exegesis,” by which is meant something like, “If you approach the text with the proper exegetical methodology, your interpretive conclusions will often (if not always) be more valid than even the most sought out commentaries.” But this only kicks the can down the road to surface the deeper question of “proper exegetical methodology.” Most of Tennant’s examples dealt with biblical terms or images and how we should rethink the terms/images in the context of their use historically (in “late antiquity”) and the textually embedded authorial intent. I would heartily agree, but the “true” meaning of “terms/images” employed by a given author serves larger purposes within the biblical story line, and maybe we are more “alike” as the people of God than “unlike.” Maybe terms/images would make more sense after spending more time putting ourselves in their shoes as the nascent, communal people of God. I would propose additionally, for starters, that:

    1. “hearing” the larger narrative and textual clues as to the “need” of the reader(s) being addressed by the particular narrative may be more fruitful in surfacing authorial intent. As an example, my whole world was rocked when I read Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch, and he suggested that the classical approach of viewing Moses mainly as a “bag of laws” had probably blinded generations of OT exegetes. And that if we ask, rather, why certain law texts made sense at that particular point in the larger narrative of the Pentateuch, considering what had transpired in Israel as a fledgling nation among the nations, we might come up with dramatically different interpretive conclusions. I have found speech-act theory to be quite useful for keeping this perspective “running in the background” of our exegesis: what is the author trying to “do” among his readership by what he/she is saying/writing.

    2. Hearing each other may be as important as tightening the screws of our exegetical method, and “trust your exegesis” may have had an unintentional effect of engendering competition as to whose interpretive conclusions are more valid. Maybe we need to rethink really inconvenient (and supposedly obsolete???) dicta like “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.” How do I respond when someone else at the “table of prophets” disagrees with my theological conclusions, so painstakingly and diligently achieved? (I know me all too well when I’m not “prayed up.”) Do we exegetes even know how to “dance interpretively” without coming down on each others’ toes like so many sledge hammers?

    I could go on, but I’ll shut up for now and try to keep my ear canals from waxing over.

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Hi Jim!

    I agree with both (1) and (2) – careful attention to the immediate context helps us ‘hear’ things that are frequently right there in the text, but we gloss them over in our search for Timeless Truth ™. And for me, one of the big lessons of seminary (which did inculcate a “trust your exegesis” ethos, in a certain way) was that we can’t trust ourselves alone in the study. We’d all do our work individually, then come together to hash through a paragraph for a couple hours, and invariably leave with a more mature understanding than we came in with — professor included. The Spirit works among the people of God in groups. Not that He couldn’t say it all to one guy, but it seems He likes to do the symphonic thing. Keeps us humble, if nothing else.
    One of our guys responded to the experience by converting his sermon time to panel discussion among the elders. “I can’t pretend I’ll do better work by myself than we’ll all do together, so why would I rob my people of the best I can give them?”
    When two of us got round to planting a church 3 years ago, we did something similar, but (in keeping with 1 Cor.) it’s open to the whole body, moderated by the leaders as necessary. Avoiding the “sledgehammer dance” is certainly a skill, and we’ve had to grow in it, for sure.

    So I’m curious — what would be your choice of term? If we’re not going to say “literal-grammatical-historical” or “historical-grammatical-theological,” what do we say instead?

  3. agent4him says:

    I like the “elder panel” idea, something the Plymouth Brethren have emphasized for a couple centuries. I would even propose that the 1 Cor model you cited is theoretically inclusive of more than just elders, assuming we all agree to conform to the Spirit’s choreography as pneumatikos (2:15-16; 14:37). This begs the question of how we are then to assess spiritual maturity among the participants, while also avoiding the appearance of hermeneutical elitism and undue exclusion from the process (e.g., women welcome?). (Can of worms noted.)

    As for the appropriate label for the process, what comes to mind would be something like “narratival cohesiveness,” to borrow from Sailhamer’s contribution to our grasp of the Pentateuch (see my previous comment). This added component would necessarily entail consistency in keeping Creation theology in view (esp when we get to the NT), with its central focus on image-bearing, both individual and communal, and ongoing awareness of how we tend to limit and distort the whole process by our theological presupps, as you warned in the OP.

    So, “grammatical-narratival-charismatic,” as suitably defined? The “narratival” component would entail “historical” by definition but be more attentive to textually embedded elements of authorial intent and less hampered by what I’ve thought to be excessive concern over historical “distanciation,” or Lessing’s so-called “ugly ditch” (i.e., we are more “alike” than “un-like” across dispensations). The “charismatic” component would invite the Spirit’s involvement but necessarily entail a communal aspect, vis 1 Cor (as if we hadn’t already opened enough cans of worms).

  4. Tim Nichols says:

    You just opened all the worm cans, didn’t ya? I’m just imagining saying “grammatical-narratival-charismatic” in a roomful of the usual suspects. Can you imagine? 😉
    In our services, women are welcome to speak at the appropriate time; I’ve not been able to see my way to a reading of 1 Corinthians that doesn’t allow women to pray and prophesy in the service. My best understanding at this point is that the evaluative function is laid on the men (and therefore pre-eminently the elders). That’s been a chore at times, but Paul’s prescription involves making, and cleaning up, the mess in public.
    We’ve not had occasion for a permanent exclusion from the process, but we have had occasion to ask someone to take a step back for a time, or to vet what they’re planning to share with an elder first. We’ve spent some time coaching people in how to share more effectively without hogging all the time. Lotta work there.

  5. agent4him says:

    “Housekeeping evangelism”

    We serve a sometimes hilarious God.

  6. Tim Nichols says:

    “Hilarious God.” Ain’t that the truth!

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