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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Answering Bible Difficulties

Don Stewart :: Does Inerrancy Mean Everything in Scripture Must Be Understood Literally?

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Does Inerrancy Mean Everything in Scripture Must Be Understood Literally?

Answering Bible Difficulties – Question 17

One of the objections against inerrancy is the assumption that everything in the Bible must be interpreted in a literal manner. To be inerrant, it is argued, the Scripture must always be understood literally. When one attempts to do this it soon becomes apparent that this will not work. The following examples are usually given:

Was Judah actually born from a lion? We read the following in the Book of Genesis:

You are a lion’s cub, O Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness—who dares to rouse him? (Genesis 49:9 NIV)

Did the Red Sea part when God blew His nose? Moses wrote:

By the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up. The surging waters stood firm like a wall; the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea. (Exodus 15:8 NIV)

Did Jesus teach us to hate our parents? Luke records Him saying the following:

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26 NRSV)

Are believers supposed to be cannibals? John’s gospel says:

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:52-53 NRSV)

Supposedly, those who believe the Bible is inerrant must understand all these statements, as well as every other statement in Scripture, in a literal manner. How do we respond to this?

Literal Interpretation Is Not Always Necessary

This often brought up objection has no basis in fact. It is ridiculous to argue that to believe in inerrancy we must assume that every statement in Scripture must be understood in a literal manner. When Christians say they interpret the Bible literally, this does not mean that they do not recognize that the Bible contains figures of speech.

The Bible Allows for Figures of Speech

Believers understand that there are a number of different types of literary forms in Scripture. For example, the Bible contains parables—earthly stories with a heavenly meaning. By definition, the parable is not attempting to relay some event that actually occurred. However, the meaning of the parable contains actual, or literal, truth. Truth can be conveyed in a number of literary forms.

Thus, the Bible, like other writings, should have the freedom to convey truth in the various forms that the author wishes to use. The issue is this: does the Bible contain literal truth? The issue is not: does the Bible always have to be interpreted in a literal manner?

The key is to find out what the author intended to say, and how his audience would have understood it. We should not presume the author, as well as the audience, understood certain statements to be literal when the literal sense is absurd. The Bible contains spiritual truth in the various literary forms in which it is written.

Therefore, when we come across a statement in Scripture where the literal meaning would result in an obvious error, or it would be inconsistent with what has been revealed elsewhere in the Bible, or would make the passage nonsensical, then another type of interpretation should be found.

Summary – Question 17
Does the Doctrine of Inerrancy Mean That Everything in Scripture Should Be Understood Literally?

While it is often contended that inerrancy, of necessity, means that everything in Scripture must be understood literally, this is not the case. It is recognized that the writers of Scripture employed figures of speech, and their readers would have understood that certain statements were not meant to be understood in a literal manner.

The Bible uses a number of different literary forms and these forms need to be read and understood in the context they were given. This is consistent with the doctrine of inerrancy.

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The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.