The Word of God, Literally

The Word of God, Literally

Site: Rock Literally

What does it mean (1) that the Bible is the word of God and (2) to interpret the Bible literally?

Some things the Bible is:
  • True (when it explains anything, such as theological concepts, it is correct)
  • Accurate (when it describes who, what, when, where, why & how, it is correct)
  • Short (considering its purpose)
  • Inspired by God
  • A love letter from God to humanity
Some things the Bible is not:
  • Exhaustive
  • The most perfect book on earth (as the author of the Book of Mormon said about his book)
  • Corrupted (as Mormons & Muslims believe)
  • Self contradictory

As we read through it we notice the whole thing is not a single long list of commands and "thou shalt not's". With 66 "books" written by over a dozen authors over a span of approximately 1000 years there is amazing harmony and consistency. Amazing, that is, if it were just a hoax but easy to believe if it were truly written with guidance from an immortal, infinite, immutable (never changing) divinity. The harmony should not be mistaken for monotony, there is actually a lot of variety in the text. Here is a brief list of some of the kinds:

Text type/​kind
General commands/​instructions
Exodus 20:3-17, 1 Samuel 15:22, Matthew 5-7
These are difficult to justify ignoring, disregarding or disagreeing with. We must relentlessly strive to learn and obey them, especially when they contradict our personal opinion and/​or cultural norms.
Specific commands
Genesis 9:4, Numbers 18:26, Judges 13:4
While given to specific people, and when you read the context there is no reason to believe the hearer was supposed to "go into all the world and preach" these commands, but they do inform us what God thinks are good ideas. Since He is our creator, we should give them the highest regard and we should relentlessly strive to understand how these apply to our lives.
Genesis 4:7, Hosea 6:6
Though not commandments, they do inform us what God thinks are good ideas. Since He is our creator, He knows how the universe works and we are logically guaranteed (and in some cases explicitly guaranteed) to have better lives if we follow his designs. Obviously if they make our lives better then we have an obligation to ourselves and our posterity/​dependents to understand and comply with all of them.
Exodus 23:20-31, Psalm 89:3-4, Jeremiah 29:11
Not to be confused with commands, these are often conditional on our following the commands.
Genesis 4:7, Proverbs 4:14-15, Romans 16:17-18
We can choose our actions but not the consequences, so knowing consequences of certain actions/​behaviors/​thoughts can help us make wise choices.
Current events/​observations
Judges 17:6, 1 Samuel 14:13, 1 Kings 18:4
Help us to establish time and place and most importantly context.
Genesis 1, Deuteronomy 8:2-4, Joshua 24:2-13, Matthew 1:1-17
Recap/​reminder of what has happened and where we came from.
Judges 9:8-15, 2 Samuel 12:1-6, Matthew 13:1-9, Luke 16:19-31
Consider like emotional/​intellectual/​theological illustrations. Like a poster of Dumbo for a person who has never seen an elephant, the illustration can be both completely accurate and only partially accurate at the same time.
Mark 14:22-24, John 3:3, Hebrews 13:4
These are like figures of speech, or a concept being explained, not a literal/​immediate/​tactical/​logistical command being given.
Luke 12:35-36, Luke 14:26
Exaggeration to make a point. There was a time when I used to say if you can't explain something in terms of the extreme then you don't really understand it.
Opinions of all kinds of people
1 Kings 22:8, 2 Kings 6:31, Job 2:9, Acts 8:3
Not every opinion documented in this book is something we should adopt. Sometimes it shows us by example and implication how not to think.
Lies & inaccuracies
L: Genesis 3:4, Judges 16:10-12, Acts 5:8

I: Job 4:7, Ecclesiastes 1:9, John 9:34, Acts 12:21-22
Obviously these are not to be believed. Note I am not saying the Bible itself is inaccurate or lying, I am saying the Bible correctly contains the statements of people who were lying or inaccurate. They are preserved in the middle of God's word so that we can be prepared. Lies and inaccuracies will be all around us until Jesus returns for the second time so we need to be ready to show wisdom and discernment.

In summary, since it would be inaccurate to read every verse in the Bible as divine instruction, I prefer to say that we should take the Bible seriously (Matthew 5:19, especially MSG translation). Nicodemus in John 3:4 was a good example of someone who took being literal too far. Consider that everything was not said to everyone, but everything has value to explain the heart of God (who He is and what He wants). Since it is the word of God we should believe it, and belief in something means we act like it is true.

We must also be very careful not to confuse history with parables, commands with warnings, recommendations with lies, etc. or else our paradigms are doomed to distortion which will result in distress or worse for ourselves and those who care about us. Of course the exact classifications I identify above are my own opinion and they shouldn't in any way contradict the verses in the Bible that explain itself. For more detail of what is in God's word I have made my own Resources for a Biblical Worldview page, here.

Related Themes

Remember that our paradigm is the 21st century. We're used to reading books that have been written on a digital word processor, previewed by people who've made a career at editing, and polished up by going through multiple revisions. Writing before the printing press was invented was more like what we know today as blogs than what we know as books. Each book of the Bible was likely written, at least in large part, in a single draft. Luke 3:18-22 is a good example of how the text was clearly not edited and revised for continuity because it mentions John being put in prison before he baptizes Jesus. This doesn't mean the Bible is contradictory, it just means we have to appreciate not only the context of the text itself but also the context in which it was written. Obviously it's possible for something to be accurate without being edited. Speaking of context, John 21:25 points out to us that the gospel writers didn't even try to document everything Jesus said and did, so there's no reason to believe the gospels tell us everything there is to know. However we can believe it tells us everything we need to know to understand what God wanted us to learn by His visit, therefore we must take His word seriously.

There is a serious concept of balance that we need to mention. Many of us feel that since we have a free will that we should be able to think and do anything we want and it should go well for us (like we learned from children's cartoons). Sooner or later we all find out the universe doesn't work that way. Even when we accept God we intuitively and incorrectly expect that everything will go well, however just because our eternity is safe doesn't mean our present is. The vast majority of us, before we decide to believe him, incorrectly think that submitting to God is equal to completely handing over our God-given free will. And if we are going to do that then we expect an exhaustive "rule book" telling us the answer to every question and the response/​solution to every situation. But God doesn't work that way.

While here in person He spoke in parables on purpose (Matthew 13:10-15, Matthew 13:35, Luke 10:21). God wants us to think for ourselves. This comment may surprise you since I just explained to you how I interpret the Bible literally, but in the context of Micah 6:8, Deuteronomy 30:11-14 and Acts 17:27 you can hopefully see my point is God's will is not difficult to understand nor confusing, it is just honestly unattractive when you've spent your life at the center of your own universe. The main purpose of God giving us the Bible (other than history is inherently important to God) is that God created us to be happy (though never at the expense of others) unique individuals (not puppets) who think for ourselves. But we are too stubborn and too selfish to live the life God created us for so he gives us some tips to balance our nature of self centeredness and our duty to servanthood, ultimately so we can worship God with our lives and bring honor to His name. Considering their source we must take those tips seriously and think about how we can apply them in our lives, not simply to honor right and wrong but even to do the most good. Lastly, God always gives us the freedom to choose. Even if the natural consequence of our choice is spiritual condemnation He will not override our free will, which makes understanding these "tips" (which are really our best glimpse into the whole of reality) all the more important.

Be careful about post-apistolic teaching, including traditions of the church, that are not clearly based on scriptural cannon. Feelings, visions or even audibly answered prayer alone doesn't cut it because how would you know if the spirit that's talking to you is a demon, an angel or the Holy Spirit if the message communicated to you doesn't reinforce pre-existing scripture? (2 Corinthians 11:14-15, 1 Timothy 4:1, 1 John 4:1) We may be spiritual beings but we lack any direct perception of the spiritual world (meaning we must rely on spiritual things presenting themselves to us rather than us being able to perceive them on our own.)

My reason for saying all this is the end conclusion. Think about the future, the trajectory your ideas are leading you towards. Some day you will come before God and He might ask "Why did you believe that?" While standing before an infinitely holy God there will be no lying, not even a slant or teeny distortion of the truth to make you look good. If you reply "Well, I knew what your word said (or even worse I never bothered to read your word) but this spirit came to me who I thought was an angel so I believed them over you, God because I liked what they said better than what you said." Then God's response will likely be something like "Well that's dumb. Besides, that was a demon anyway." I would rather hear Jesus' quote in Matthew 25:21 but I just don't think it's possible if we discount, dismiss or ignore what we know He has told us. We must take God's word seriously.

Last Modified: Sunday, January 3, 2015

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