How do we know whether to take a passage of Scripture literally or figuratively? I have recently read On Christian Doctrine by St. Augustine, and his theological concepts in this book are spot on! If you don’t mind reading some out of date grammar rules, I would highly suggest this book.
First of all, I think I should clarify, that I am NOT by any means saying in this post that some pieces of the Bible are more or less important to follow than the rest! I am only addressing a confusing idea that many people don’t understand: Is all of Scripture meant to be taken literally? St. Augustine would argue, “no”, but it must all be taken, one way or another. He explains a great way to figure out which passages in Scripture to take literally, and which to not. On Christian Doctrine, says that when we are trying to find the meaning of an obscure passage, we need to look at other passages in Scripture that are clearer. So, in other words, we should take the context of the confusing verse or two, and try to dissect it, and use other verses to clarify.
The Old Testament is often ignored due to it’s seemingly irrelevant or sometimes out-dated commands. So, because of this, people ask, “Should we, as modern day Christians take the entire Old Testament literally?” St. Augustine said that in any book, we should weigh the content, and decide if it is meant to be taken literally, or figuratively. Specifically addressing this question of the Old Testament, he said that “Many things were done in the course of duty in those times which now cannot be done without libidinousness.” For example, in their culture, it was necessary for a godly man to marry his deceased brothers wife, or for a modest woman to have long hair, or even for the sacrifice of their livelihood. Therefore, Augustine claims that due to the new Law, in Jesus Christ, we do not have to execute them literally. Because of this, we must pray, and ask the Lord to show us which parts of the Old Testament to take literally and which to take figuratively.
Deciding what parts of the Bible to take in what way, is VERY serious. It is easy to declare that a passage is meant figuratively, simply because it fits your cause. But this would be altering the Scriptures, and it is of the uttermost importance that we do NOT do that!! Revelation 22:18-19 says, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” So this passage is saying that anyone who adds or takes a way from the Scripture, will be punished by God with the ultimate punishment. (eternity without God!)
Now, you might say, “Well, I have a hard time interpreting other books. Did Augustine claim that the Bible is the only book that is sometimes hard to interpret?” The answer is, no. St. Augustine said that there are many books other than the Bible that have been misinterpreted, and that they too must be dissected and compared to the rest of the book. He said that the only thing keeping good readers from good books, is the fact that often, people do not put in the effort to connect the pieces of the puzzle and discover the true meaning of the book.
When we look at the Scripture, we must first define if it is meant literally, or figuratively. When we look at literature, we must first define if we should take it literally, or figuratively. What about movies? Americans today watch movies all the time! And due to this fact, the market for movies has rocketed. Movie producers now days have the money, and the means to add special effects, hire amazing actors, and set up a fiction stories that pop out with amazing reality. Because of the general unwillingness to take some things in, in different ways, this type of eye-candy draws our culture in. And we become infatuated with these stories that seam so possible, and realistic. Sadly, this has created a society that constantly quotes films as if they were sages, wears t-shirts on their favorite TV shows, and imagines absurdities as if they were living in a fairy tale themselves. This proves that, despite the general obsession for movies, we must weigh them against scripture, and be very careful when taking something from them literally.
To maintain clarity, I must reiterate the importance of believing Scripture. As Christians, there are not a lot of books that we can just read without straining them through the Word. In fact there are NONE! The Bible is the only piece of literature that we may completely have faith in. Yes, it is good to study it, and try to understand it better (which is the whole point of this post) but we mustn’t think twice about whether or not it is true! The Bible is a gift from God, and we are to cherish it as much as possible, without making it an idol. Psalm 119:129-136 says, “Your testimonies are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them. The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple. I open my mouth and pant, because I long for your commandments. Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is your way with those who love your name. Keep steady my steps according to your promise, and let no iniquity get dominion over me. Redeem me from man’s oppression, that I may keep your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant, and teach me your statutes. My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law.” This says that we should view God’s word as entirely holy, and full of wisdom. Weather we take it’s parts literally or figuratively, it is all from our Father, therefore it must be believed! We too must long to keep His commandments.