Why Interpret the Bible Literally?
Have you ever heard comments like these?
- “Accept the story about Adam and Eve and a talking snake? You’ve got to be kidding! That’s a nice children’s tale, but no one really believes it actually happened.”
- “If you think the world was created in six twenty-four-hour days, you might as well join the Flat Earth Society too. Neither theory has any scientific credibility.”
- “The story about Jonah is a whale-of-a-tale if I ever heard one. That anyone could survive three days in the belly of a whale is so incredible that it’s impossible.”
- “Right … God told Noah to build an ark, load it up with animals, then shut the ship’s doors so God could drown the rest of the world with a heavenly downpour. Children shouldn’t even be taught such a cruel story, much less told it’s true.”
- “You don’t take the Bible literally do you? Everyone knows that the Bible is mostly myth and that most of its stories are scientifically and historically inaccurate.”
All these comments have one thing in common: they challenge the inerrancy of the Bible; they question whether the Bible is without error not only in matters of faith and practice (spiritual and moral truths) but also in its historical, geological, and scientific information.
They undermine how the Bible should be interpreted by assuming it’s not entirely true because some of its stories don’t fit with a modern mindset that tends to reject the supernatural. People who make such comments don’t believe the Bible should be taken literally. “The ancients,” so they say, “had a more primitive view of the world. They readily accepted the unusual and fantastic because they were not as scientifically astute and highly educated as we are. Today we know better. We know much of what they believed was really myth, with perhaps vague resemblances to what actually happened. There wasn’t a worldwide flood, but maybe a local one that did a lot of damage and killed scores of people. The Adam-and-Eve myth was created to explain how the presence of evil can be reconciled with belief in an all-good God.” And so the explanations go.
Are these people right? Is the Bible pockmarked by myth? Are there good reasons to interpret it less than literally?
The first step in dealing with these questions of inerrancy is to clarify what a literal interpretation of the Scriptures really means.
As we’ve seen, the original manuscripts of the Bible are unavailable to us, but the science of textual criticism has proven beyond doubt that the copies we currently possess are nearly 100 percent accurate to the autographs. Although this in itself does not prove that the Bible is inerrant, it does guarantee that the Bible contains few errors due to textual transmission.
Christians believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. This means that the Holy Spirit, working in the hearts and minds of chosen men, authored the Bible so that what God wanted recorded was recorded. However, this doesn’t mean that God acted as a divine stenographer, dictating the Bible word for word. Rather, God superintended the writing of Scripture, retaining the authors’ own writing styles and personalities, so that the end product was God’s.
Taking the Bible literally, then, like believing it is inerrant, does not mean that every word or phrase denotes only its exact literal meaning. The human authors of Scripture used the same literary techniques as other authors. Figures of speech in the Bible should be treated the same as figures of speech found in any other piece of literature. In John 16:25, 29–30, for example, Jesus states that He speaks in “figurative language” (nasv). When Jesus says “I am the door,” common sense and normal language usage tells us He is not literally calling Himself a door. When Peter calls Satan a “roaring lion, seeking someone to devour,” we know from other passages that Satan is not really a lion and that he doesn’t really eat people. People do not always communicate to each other in an exact literal fashion, and we shouldn’t expect God to speak to us differently. God used normal modes of language in the Bible. He spoke to us as we speak to each other.
Actually, it is common sense that God would inspire the authors of the Bible to use normal language. To claim otherwise is to question the ability of God to communicate truthfully and accurately. God created man to love and to have fellowship with Him. This requires communication between them. If God wishes to convey to us important truths (e.g., how to receive eternal life), He would unquestionably do so in a way we could easily understand. He would use normal human language. Thus, figures of speech used in Scripture, such as metaphors and personifications, would be easily recognized and understood, which is what we find to be true.
The Bible is also a historical document because God chose to reveal Himself within a historical context. It would be inconsistent with revelation if the Bible contained inaccurate historical information.
Inerrancy, then, simply means that the Bible contains truthful information revealed through normal methods of communication, and what it relates is without error. This applies not only to spiritual truths, such as salvation through Jesus Christ, but to historical, geological, and scientific matters (e.g., the fall of Adam is a true historical account of sin entering humanity; the Noahic flood resulted in catastrophic changes seen in the geological record; creation was by divine mandate rather than naturalistic evolution).
But why should biblical inerrancy be accepted as true? I could cite numerous reasons, but I’ll simply focus on six here. Although all of these would not convince every skeptic, they do show the extreme importance of inerrancy to the Christian faith.
THE CASE FOR BIBLICAL INERRANCY
INERRANCY PRESERVES THE BIBLE’S AUTHORITY
Christians claim the Bible is God’s written Word, and as such, it is their primary source of authority. Why? Because God is the Bible’s ultimate author (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21), and in it He has revealed Himself and His plan for mankind.
The reason inerrancy is so vital to the Bible’s authority is that without inerrancy, this authority is baseless. For example, if the Bible contains error, how do we know that the gospel message (salvation through Jesus) is true? Perhaps some of the errors in the Bible are found in the teachings ascribed to Jesus. You can’t have any assurance that an inerrant gospel appears in an errant Bible.
Moreover, if the Bible contains error, who determines where the error lies? The answer has to be human beings. Therefore man becomes an authority over Scripture because it is up to him to decide what’s true and what’s false. Man, not God, becomes the determining factor of what is divine revelation. But because man is fallible and makes mistakes, he might judge wrongly. He might even interpret the Bible heretically. In fact, church history stands as a witness that this has sometimes happened.
So if man becomes the authority over Scripture, the Bible loses its authority and we lose our moorings. We end up adrift in a dangerous sea of fluctuating opinions, ulterior motives, and half-truths.
Another problem arises if inerrancy is rejected. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and other false religions make the same claim as Christianity, that they are the only true religion. But the truth of Christianity does not rest on the subjective, personal experience of men independent of objective (testable) revelation. Christianity is a historical religion grounded on objective, verifiable facts. No other religion or cult in the world can make this claim and then substantiate it. For this reason, Christianity stands elevated above all other religions as the one true faith. But if we admit to error and allow human beings to become the determining factor of what is truth in Scripture, we reduce Christianity to the same level as all other religions. Its authority becomes human subjectivity and opinion. On the other hand, if the Bible is God’s inerrant Word, we have an objective and absolute standard for judging and rejecting the claims of false religions and their false prophets.
INERRANCY RESTS ON THE BIBLE’S HISTORICAL RELIABILITY
The historical reliability of the Bible is the foundation for the inerrancy of Scripture. The Bible claims to be inerrant, as we’ll see in a few moments. However, no matter what the Bible claims about itself, if it is not reliable, we could not trust what it says in any area, including inerrancy. On the other hand, if the Bible is a reliable, trustworthy document, then what it says about itself can be trusted. And we saw this fact verified in Chapter 3.
Therefore, since we found the Bible inerrant in all areas in which it can be checked out, we are logically consistent to insist that problem passages (i.e., passages that appear to contain historical or scientific error due to the current unavailability of extra-biblical verification) will eventually be settled in favor of inerrancy. Over the past hundred years, scores of so-called problem passages have been resolved in favor of Scripture. Clark Pinnock reports that “in 1800 the French Institute in Paris issued a list of 82 errors in the Bible which they believed would destroy Christianity. Today none of these ‘errors’ remain! With further reflection and new discoveries, these ‘errors’ were cleared away.”1 So it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that as additional evidence surfaces, those remaining problem texts will also be validated by nonbiblical sources.
INERRANCY IS TAUGHT IN SCRIPTURE OVERALL
In 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21, we’re told that what the biblical authors wrote did not flow from their own opinion or theology. Rather, “all Scripture” is inspired by God—it did not ultimately come from a human mind. It is absurd to think that all Scripture is divinely inspired and valuable for teaching and spiritual growth yet can give faulty information. God would not breathe out (which is what inspire literally means) error.
Revelation 22:18–19 and Deuteronomy 4:2 come at the inerrancy issue from a different angle. They teach that God’s Word should not be added to or subtracted from. Take note that this command occurs in both the Old and New Testaments. Also observe that Deuteronomy is the concluding book of the Old Testament Law, and Revelation is the last book of the New Testament as well as of the entire Bible. There is little doubt that this injunction covers the entire Bible. Unless God’s Word is without error, a command not to add to or subtract from Scripture loses its significance.
Consider Psalm 119:105, 130, which teaches that Scripture is designed to give understanding even to the “simple.” It would be contradictory to claim that something containing error can lead to understanding. Similarly, in 2 Timothy 3:15, God’s Word is said to give wisdom, which would be impossible if it contained mistakes.
Many other passages (such as Isa. 55:10–11; John 17:17; Titus 1:2; Heb. 4:12; 6:18) say that God cannot lie; He inspired the writing of Scripture through the Holy Spirit; Scripture was written clearly and contains specific, truthful information; it should not be changed in any way; and it is adequate for guidance in all matters of Christian living. These claims are totally inconsistent with an errant Bible, but they do support inerrancy.
INERRANCY IS EMBEDDED IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
When we turn to examine the Old Testament, we find inerrancy supported throughout. Texts such as Exodus 4:10–15, Deuteronomy 18:18, 2 Samuel 23:2, and Jeremiah 1:9 tell us that God selected certain individuals, called “prophets,” to speak His Word. Some were selected even before they were born (see Jer. 1:5; Luke 1:11–15, John the Baptist is considered the last of the Old Testament prophets). These men were God’s mouthpieces. What they spoke was what God wanted communicated. The prophets themselves recognized that they conveyed God’s words, not their own (e.g., Jer. 30:2). As God’s mouthpieces, they must have spoken inerrantly because God would not have allowed them to speak error in His name.
Not only did God select His spokespersons, but, to ensure that His words were passed on to future generations accurately, He commanded His prophets to record them (Exod. 34:27–28; Isa. 8:1; Jer. 30:2). Now why would God select His own mouthpieces and command them to write His words, then allow them to record error?
God instructed these same prophets to preserve the recorded Word and pass it on as an everlasting testimony (Exod. 17:14; 40:20; Deut. 10:5; 31:24–26; Isa. 30:8; Hab. 2:2). In Romans 15:4, the apostle Paul states that “whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (nasv). If God insisted that the Old Testament be recorded and preserved for future instruction, we can be certain that God would have prevented the contamination of error.
Or consider Psalms 105 and 106. In these and other passages, the human authors recall historical events from Israel’s past. These texts are examples of the Old Testament validating its own historicity. The Old Testament was written over a thousand-year time span. When newer books in the Old Testament acknowledge historical events in older books, it shows that the later authors believed in the historical inerrancy of the older books. The Psalms noted above were written hundreds of years after the events they acknowledge occurred. The psalmists praise God for the plagues on Egypt that resulted in their people’s release from bondage and for parting the Red Sea during their exodus. Obviously, the Israelites alive at the time Psalms 105 and 106 were written did not consider these events as myths or legends. If the Old Testament writers did not believe in the inerrancy of the Old Testament (their Bible), it would be meaningless for them to recount historical data as factual.
It’s beyond doubt, then, that the Old Testament claims to be inerrant, and the Israelites accepted it as so. It was written by individuals personally selected by God and instructed in what to write, how to record it, and how to preserve it. It contains not only spiritual truths (matters of faith) and moral truths (matters of practice) but also trustworthy historical facts.
INERRANCY IS EMBRACED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
Passages such as 2 Timothy 3:15, 2 Peter 1:21, and 1 Thessalonians 2:13 echo what the Old Testament teaches: all of Scripture is inspired by God, the Holy Spirit superintended the writing of Scripture, and the Bible contains the words of God, not of men. These texts also lay a foundation for other New Testament passages that teach biblical inerrancy.
The apostles acknowledged that the Old Testament authors wrote under the authority of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:16; 4:24–25). The New Testament writers also acknowledged that what they wrote originated with God, not with them (1 Cor. 14:37; 2 Pet. 1:21).
The New Testament authors frequently demonstrated their belief in the truthfulness of the Old Testament by referring to fulfilled prophecy (John 12:37–41; Acts 1:16; Rom. 3:1–2). This is nowhere more evident than in their many references to the prophetic passages concerning Christ’s coming ministry (see Matt. 1:22; 2:5, 15, 23; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9). It’s unlikely that the apostles would place such a heavy emphasis on Old Testament prophecy if they thought it was less than truthful.
A compelling evidence demonstrating that the New Testament writers considered the Bible to be inerrant is that they referred to Old Testament characters and events as fully historical, with no hint that they were legendary (Luke 3:38; Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Tim. 2:13–14; Heb. 11:4–11; 2 Pet. 3:6). If the New Testament writers considered the Old Testament as anything other than inerrant historically, it would make no sense for them to refer to it in such a fashion. There are many passages throughout the New Testament that refer to events in the Old Testament as literal history. People and events in Genesis are mentioned or quoted at least 160 times by the New Testament writers—and more than 100 of these pertain to the most controversial passages. For example, in the above passages, Peter refers to the Noahic flood, and Paul refers to Adam and Eve. In Romans 5:12–21, Paul uses the historical event of the Fall as the reference point for his teaching on Christ’s work of redemption. He states that just as sin entered the world due to the single act of one man (Adam), so too is the effect of this sin undone by the one act of righteousness when Jesus died on the cross. It is impossible to sustain the parallel between the work of Adam and the work of Christ if Adam was not a historical person and if the fall was not a historical event.
Altogether, such passages demonstrate that the New Testament writers believed their Bible (the Old Testament) was inerrant. They staked their lives on it. Believing Jesus Christ was the prophesied Messiah, many of them died under religious persecution. Like the Old Testament prophets, the New Testament authors recognized they wrote under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. To them, all of the Bible was God’s inerrant Word.
INERRANCY WAS TAUGHT BY JESUS
The most compelling evidence supporting the inerrancy of the Bible is the testimony of Jesus Christ. To all Christians, Jesus is God and the final and supreme authority in all things. If this is true, then His opinion on the inerrancy of Scripture must be accepted as truth. Jesus believed and taught that the Hebrew Bible was inerrant, not only in matters of faith and practice, but in its prophetic, historical, geographical, and scientific data. Jesus also predicted the writing of the New Testament under the power of the Holy Spirit, therefore putting a stamp of approval on its inerrancy. The following is a summary of Jesus’ teaching on the Bible’s inerrancy.
Now some people may argue that because Jesus’ teaching on inerrancy is recorded in the Bible, it’s circular reasoning to use the Bible to prove Jesus’ view of inerrancy and then use Jesus to prove the inerrancy of the Bible. However, this is not what we’re doing here. In Chapter 3, we established the historical reliability of the Bible independently of Jesus’ testimony by relying on nonbiblical evidences. So we are not guilty of the fallacy of circular reasoning.
Jesus on the Scriptures
In this and many other passages, Jesus either quotes or refers to the Old Testament (His Bible) to teach religious truth or resolve issues. Jesus considered the Hebrew Old Testament completely authoritative; He never questioned its truthfulness. He taught that whatever the Old Testament pronounced was the last word on the subject at hand, and He used it to rebuke the Jewish leaders when they misapplied Scripture (see Matt. 22:29). For Him to use Scripture in this manner would be meaningless unless He considered it inerrant.
Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39
Jesus knew He was the Son of God and the Messiah. He also knew the Old Testament was a witness to Him. Thus, in His communication with both His disciples and the Jewish people, He referred to Scripture to validate who He was. If Scripture was not accurate and truthful, this would have been a futile exercise. Jesus would have been a hypocrite and worse if He knew that the Old Testament was false and yet tried to use it to validate His claims. Clearly, Jesus believed the Hebrew Scriptures spoke inerrantly of Him.
John 14:26; 16:12–13
In these passages, Jesus certifies the inerrancy of the New Testament by predicting it will be written and that the Holy Spirit will superintend its authorship. By this He confirmed the inerrancy of the soon-to-be-written New Testament just as convincingly as He confirmed the divine authorship of the Old Testament.
Jesus implied in this text that every letter and word in the Old Testament Law was put there for a purpose. What the Bible claims as truth is truth, and what the Bible says will happen will happen. The only way Jesus could guarantee that everything recorded in the Old Testament will come to pass is if He knew that it was inerrant.
Again, referring to His Bible, Jesus stated that “Scripture cannot be broken,” confirming its reliability and authority. If Scripture is reliable and authoritative, it must be inerrant. A reliable and authoritative Bible would not contain error.
Jesus on the Old Testament as History
The most compelling evidence that Jesus considered the Old Testament to be inerrant was His reference to Old Testament passages in a historical sense. Although the Scriptures use figurative language to illustrate spiritual truths (e.g., John 10:1–6), it is easy to identify those instances as figurative. To use an earlier example, saying that Satan goes around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour (1 Pet. 5:8) is an accurate figurative description of Satan’s desire to destroy people, but it is obviously not saying Satan is a real lion that eats people. But Jesus did not refer to Old Testament people and events as allegories or myths. He took them literally and historically and thereby clearly endorsed their inerrancy. The following passages illustrate this.
Matthew 19:3–6 (see Genesis 1:27; 2:24)
In this passage, Jesus authenticates the literal creation of Adam and Eve and confirms their historicity in His teaching on divorce. If Adam and Eve were not real people, Jesus’ instruction would be hollow. The divorce issue was raised by the Pharisees, and Jesus stated His position by referring to the historical event on which His doctrinal stand rests.
Matthew 12:38–41 (see Jonah 1:17)
In Jesus’ mind, Jonah was a real person who really spent three days in the belly of a “great fish” (the Hebrew word used here can be applied to any large creature, including an animal specifically created by God for the purpose it served). It is impossible to draw any other conclusion than that Jesus regarded the experience of Jonah as an historical parallel to His own forthcoming experience between His death and resurrection. If these events in Jesus’ life are factual, so too must Jonah’s experience, or the comparison would be meaningless. A myth cannot be used to validate a fact. The historicity of this event is further reinforced in Matthew 12:41, where Jesus claims that the people of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah. They would not have done so if Jonah never lived. Thus Jesus aligned the historical events surrounding His resurrection with the historical events in Nineveh and the historical person of Jonah.
Luke 17:26–30 (see Genesis 6, 19)
Here Jesus refers to Noah, the worldwide flood, Lot, and the city of Sodom—all within an historical framework. Although many people have rejected the Noahic flood as scientifically unacceptable, Jesus obviously accepted it as fact. His prediction of a future historical event (His second coming) rests on the literal occurrence of a past event (the Noahic flood). If the flood was myth, then Jesus’ prediction would be absurd.
John 6:49 (see Exodus 16)
Skeptics scorn the Exodus account of the supernatural feeding of about two million Israelites during their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. But once again, this passage illustrates that Jesus accepted Old Testament history as completely truthful and accurate.
Luke 20:37–38 (see Exodus 3:1–6)
In this passage, Jesus acknowledges the historical reality of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. He also defends the doctrine of the resurrection. But even more controversial, Jesus speaks of these people in connection with the burning bush, a supernatural occurrence rejected by Bible critics. It is irrational to think that Jesus would refer to historical people, an historical event (the resurrection), and another historical event (the burning bush) all in the same sentence if part of what He was talking about was factual and part (e.g., the burning bush) was not. The entire statement would lose its credibility.
THE LITERAL TRUTH
Jesus accepted and taught the inerrancy of Scripture. The authors of the Old and New Testaments believed the same. The early church fathers accepted the Bible as the inerrant Word of God and treated it as such in their sermons and writings. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and countless other theologians and scholars from other disciplines have embraced the inerrancy of Scripture. For two thousand years, the church has accepted the Bible, as originally inspired and recorded, to be free from error in all that it says. God condemns hypocrisy and false testimony on all fronts. It is unthinkable that a sovereign and holy God would allow error to infiltrate the Bible.
Since the Bible is God’s inerrant record of what He wants us to know and do, what it says about moral standards, the human condition, the remedy for sin, the path to salvation and eternal life, the way to a more abundant life here … everything it affirms, we should accept as true. What the Bible says, God says. And when God speaks, we better listen.
The Bible Is Inerrant
God selects men as prophets to speak His Word (Deut. 18:18)
God inspired all Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16)
God instructed the prophets to record His Word (Isa. 8:1)
The NT authors claim they wrote the words of God (1 Cor. 14:37)
God instructed the prophets to preserve His Word (Isa. 30:8)
The NT authors acknowledge the truthfulness of OT prophecy (Acts 1:16)
The Israelites saw Scripture as historical information (Ps. 105, Ps. 106)
The NT authors accepted OT prophecy concerning Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:22–23)
The NT authors accepted OT people and events as factual (1 Tim. 2:13)
Jesus uses the OT to resolve issues (Matt. 4:4)
Jesus says that all OT prophecy will come to pass (Matt. 5:17–18)
Jesus taught that the OT prophesied of Him (Luke 24:27)
Jesus says that Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35)
Jesus certifies the inerrancy of the soon-to-be-written NT (John 14:26; 16:13)
Jesus referred to OT events and people as factual history (Matt. 12:38–41; Luke 17:26–30)
The Israelites accepted the OT as the inerrant Word of God; Jesus and the authors of the NT accepted the OT (their Bible) as the inerrant Word of God; Jesus announced the soon-to-be-written NT, thereby certifying its inerrancy. The Bible claims to be the inerrant Word of God. It contains truthful information, and what it relates is without error.
1 Clark H. Pinnock, SET FORTH YOUR CASE (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1968), 71.