Hyper-Literalism and Bible Believers
Bible Believers are so named because they claim to do that very
thing—believe the Bible—and that, a specific Bible. The
Authorized King James Bible of 1611. They claim to believe
what it says, as it says it, without reservation. Your author is
among this group. However, some of the brethren are so strict and
literal in how one is to believe or approach the Bible that they
actually miss some of the truths the Lord is wanting to convey. We
call this Hyper-Literalism.
Now as soon as we say believers can be hyper or too literal with
some statements in the Scriptures some will puff up and charge us
as being "liberal" or even an "unbeliever." This type of
reactionary charge is typical. Bible believers as a group have had
to deal with true unbelief from Modernism and Liberalism for so
long that some over-react and become hyper-literal, even to their
own Bible Believing brethren. They insist every passage must be
taken strictly literal unless it is absolutely impossible
to do so. On the surface this may sound "militant" and "biblical,"
but problems arise when they force and distort figurative passages
to make them "fit" their literalism. In fact, by not allowing
obvious figurative language to speak as intended, they hinder or
muffle what the Scriptures are actually saying.
In general, that the Bible should be first approached by taking
its words literally is a "no brainer." When a person reads the
Bible he should assess the words in their plain, normal, natural,
obvious sense, much like we would read and understand a newspaper
or book. Dr. David Cooper, founder of The Biblical Research
Society, is known for his “Golden Rule of Interpretation,”
When the plain sense of Scripture makes common
sense, seek no other sense.
This rule should be generally followed, but it is not flawless.
Scripture uses many literary devices that are not always announced
in the immediate context. Devices such as metaphor, allegory,
types, hyperbole, idioms, parable, etc. Ethelbert Bullinger
wrote a book called "Figures of Speech In the Bible" that
details 217 different types of figures. His Companion Bible
has many of them marked in the Bible notes.
Therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual,
literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context,
studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and
fundamental truths indicate clearly otherwise.
Cooper's Rule can also be limiting in its scope. He says, "When
the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no
other sense," but many passages in Scripture have more than one
sense or a dual (or even multiple) application. If one just takes
the local, immediate sense of say, Gen 22:8 where Abraham says,
"My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering,"
and then seeks no other sense, he misses that the passage is not
only speaking about God providing Himself a lamb, but He is also
MAKING Himself a lamb!
Again, Scripture is to be first taken literally and plainly, and
that is the normal way people approach words. When a person sees
or hears any words or speech he naturally (and by instinct it
seems) assesses the words literally first and only if they cannot
sensibly be taken that way does he consider them as figurative.
When the Bible says God "created the heaven and the earth,"
flooded the earth, parted the Red Sea, sent manna every day,
etc., it is natural to take the words at face value. The
same when it says Jesus was born of a virgin, died on a cross,
rose from the dead, is able to save sinners, and will physically
return, etc. Those passages are not unclear, ambiguous, or
figurative. If one tries to make them figurative or allegorical he
is arguing against the natural and plain meaning of the words. All
the key and fundamental doctrines of the Bible are clear and
A Prime Example
Although the words of Scriptures should be first addressed
literally, there are many passages and statements in the
Scriptures that simply should not be taken that way. A lot of this
figurative language is found in the Old Testament, but the New
Testament has a significant share also. Here is a clear New
Testament example straight from the Lord's mouth.
In Acts 9:5, after Paul fell to the earth from the bright light
from heaven, the Lord spoke to him and asked, "... it is hard
for thee to kick against the pricks." "Pricks" are sharp
goads or spikes carried by men plowing with oxen, and if an ox
would kick against the prick, it would hurt and could even wound
its legs. Here the question arises, would it be physically
possible for Paul to be literally harnessed in an ox yoke,
pulling a plow, and kicking against the spikes? Well...yes, it
is very possible; people have done stranger things. But is
that what really happened? Of course not. Even though it could
actually occur, it is so outrageous that everyone rightly sees it
as a figure. The Lord was referring to how Paul was battling with
his conscience in persecuting His people.
With just this one passage the Hyper-Literal
"impossible" argument has been shown to be invalid. Their
claim that all passages that can be taken literally must be
taken literally just doesn't work. Your author has never heard
or read anyone who claimed Paul was literally kicking against
literal pricks with his literal feet. Nor does he know of any
who claim Paul was actually hitched to a literal ox yoke.
Another figure like this in Acts is where the Jews "gnashed on him
(Stephen) with their teeth" in Act 7:54. Did they actually chew
his flesh with their mouths? Highly unlikely.
How about when Paul said,
"For I know this, that after my departing shall
grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock." (Act
Was he talking about literal, canine wolves with four legs or
people who seek to devour like wolves? Is a congregation a literal
flock of sheep or are sheep a figure of the believer? Likewise
when Paul said,
"Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the
concision." (Phi 3:2)
Does he mean German Shepherds and Doberman Pinchers or people who
act like dogs? Can you prove it from the context? Is it impossible
to beware of literal, four-legged dogs? See the messes the
Hyper-Literal make for themselves?
"Wash One Another's Feet"?
There are many comparison type figures in the Scriptures. When the
Lord said He was "water," "bread," a "door," a "stone," and a
"vine," etc., these are all obvious figures. More than that there
are even figurative actions; actions the Lord promoted
that many believers now do not perform literally. One is the
action of the Lord washing the disciples feet. Here it is not just
a few words or a phrase that are figurative, but the whole
process. After the Lord washed their feet he said (John
"If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your
feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet."
Should this be taken literally? Should believers actually wash one
another's feet? That's what the words plainly say, but very few
literally practice it. Your author has never been in a Bible
Believing church where he saw it practiced. Why do most Bible
Believing churches refrain from doing this, even those who are
hyper-literal about other things like Geocentrism? Its because
they see the passage as a metaphor for believers serving each
other in general. The inconsistency (and even hypocrisy) is
What Did You Say?
Here is a figure of speech of another type. Paul said in 1
Corinthians 4:8, 10,
"Now ye are full, now ye are rich, ye have reigned as
kings without us: and I would to God ye did reign, that we also
might reign with you...We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye
are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are
honourable, but we are despised."
Are these statements that should be taken literally at face value?
Hardly, Paul is using the literary methods or irony and sarcasm to
convey the opposite of what the words actually say! It is
a quite common way of speaking. Job did it as well,
"No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die
with you. (Job 12:2)
This type of speech is made "all the time" (another figure) today:
"You really did a good job..." (of wrecking your car).
Words of this type could be taken literally very easily, and it
is very possible to do so. However, if these passages and
phrases are taken strictly literal then the very message the
Scriptures are wishing to convey is completely lost! Now
think about that a while.
Idioms For Dummies
Another very common figure of speech in the Scriptures is the
idiom. As another said,
"An idiom is a common way of expressing thoughts by
words and phrases having an understood meaning that is different
from the literal meaning. The intended meaning cannot be
comprehended by inspection of the words alone but also by
investigation of ordinary usage. Idioms of one's own native
language are difficult to detect because they are simply the way
we normally put words together. English is full of
idiomatic expressions; examples include "real estate," "give
way," "take your time," "come up with an idea," "come down with
a cold," "work out," "dead even," "level best," "of course," and
"how do you do.
Take, for instance, the American English idiom "He bit the
dust." What do the words actually say? A rather filthy thing
to do, don't you think? But what do the words really mean? To any
American of the last 50 years the words mean someone has died,
usually by accident. Notice how the words themselves don't
even remotely convey the actual meaning of the phrase. There
is no way a person speaking another language could understand the
meaning of these words EVEN IF ACCURATELY TRANSLATED! The
meaning is not in the individual words but in the colloquial use
of the phrase. The phrase has a meaning of its own which is
independent of the words. Verbal literalism in cases like this
is a hindrance to the truth.
"Idioms are often lost when translating, because they differ
from language to language. For example, the way to say
"good bye" in German is literally "on again to see." The
same is true when the Bible is translated into English or any
other language. An actual word-for-word idiom translation
is difficult to follow. However, some so-called
translations today are considered "thought" translations, which
are essentially commentaries more than true translations."
Many of the idioms of the King James Bible have become so
accustomed to us that we forget some of them are figures. Take for
instance the word "seed." The Bible speaks much about men having
"seed," but they really don't. Plants have seed (Gen 1:11), men
have descendants or heirs. Isaac and Jesus are of the "seed of
Abraham." "Seed" is a Hebrew idiom for human descendants. And, of
course, we all know what the biblical "know" means (Gen 5:1). The
first part of Jeremiah 4:4 ("Circumcise yourselves to the LORD,
and take away the foreskins of your heart") would really be a mess
if you tried to make those descriptive words literal. Hebrew is a
very expressive language and the King James Bible masterfully
translates it into English, idioms and all.
The Bible says Jerusalem is the "apple of his [God's] eye" (Zec
2:8). This is a double idiom of sorts because people do not have
apples in their eyes, and if they did, what would it mean? The
"apple" is an idiom for the pupil, but what does it mean to say
something is the "pupil of mine eye"? That is a idiom stating
something is very dear or precious to a person. To take the phrase
as literal is meaningless.
Ever read in the parable of the "Good Samaritan" about how the
thieves left the man "half dead" (Luke 10:30)? How could that
possibly be taken literally? A person is either dead or not. There
are "literally" (smile!) thousands of idioms and other figures in
the Bible that by their very nature should not be taken literally.
Again, to do so is to miss the very intent of the passages the
Lord is wanting to convey.
Clearly, the "cut and dried" world of the Hyper-Literal is not so
"cut and dried"?
Of Heart and Eyes
Often the Bible uses parts of the human anatomy as figures of
speech. The "heart," for instance, is the most often used.
Everyone knows what one's literal heart is. It's the organ
that pumps blood through your body. An interesting observation is,
to your author's knowledge, out of the 833 times "heart" is found
in the Bible, not once does it refer to the physical organ.
Instead the term most often figuratively refers to one's inner
being: the center of man's thinking, emotions, and will. As the
physical heart is in the center of one's body, his spiritual heart
is the center of the man himself. As the Way Of Life
"Man thinks in his heart (Ge. 6:5; Pro. 23:7). He
understands with his heart (Pro. 2:2). He deviseth his way with
his heart (Pr. 16:9). The heart meditates (Psa. 19:14),
considers (De. 4:39), purposes (Da. 1:8), takes counsel (Pr.
20:5), reasons (Lk. 5:22), desires (Ro. 10:1), has intents (He.
4:12). From the heart proceed all the actions and motivations of
man (Pro. 4:23-27; Mt. 15:18-20). The mind is used as a synonym
for the heart (De. 28:65; 1 Sa. 2:35; 1 Ch. 28:9; Da. 5:20;
Phil. 4:7; He. 8:10). The heart/mind is the source of the
thoughts and imaginations (Gen. 6:5; De. 15:9; 1 Ch. 29:18; Pro.
Even though the term heart is used in several different
applications, every time it is used in the Bible it is figurative.
Much the same can be said about the"eye." Although the physical
eye is referred to many times (Gen 13:10; Mat 20:34, etc.), the
spiritual, inner "eye" is the primary usage of the term. When Adam
and Eve's "eyes were opened," it was not their literal, physical
eyes, it was their spiritual inner eye or sight that was given. In
this case their inner sight could see evil. On the flip side,
after Paul's conversion, one of the things the Lord said he would
do among the Gentiles was "open their eyes, and to turn them from
darkness to light" (Act 26:18). The eyes are figurative (as is the
"darkness" and "light"). Later in Acts 28:27 when the Jews refused
to hear Paul's message he said,
"For the heart of this people is waxed gross, and
their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed;
lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears,
and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I
should heal them."
The "heart," "ears," and "eyes" are all figurative uses of human
organs. The organs represent the inner spiritual aspects of the
human condition. Treating the terms as literal would greatly cloud
the intent of the message.
What About the Parables?
One of the Lord's preferred methods of communication was with
"parables" (Mark 4:34), and a parable is the epitome of a figure
of speech. The Greek word behind parable ("parabole") is even
translated as "figure" in Heb 9:9. By its very design it is not to
be taken literally. A parable is generally defined as "a simple
story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson," and the
story may or may not be actually true. The Lord spoke using a
parable around 50 times.
Although most parables could be taken in some sense literally, to
do so would wreck its entire message. take for instance the
parable of the shepherd and his lost sheep,
And he spake this parable unto them, saying, What man
of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth
not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after
that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it,
he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh
home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying
unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was
lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over
one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just
persons, which need no repentance. (Luk 15:3-7)
Notice how unlike some of the other parables this one is
personalized to those present, "What man of you...." Does this
charge only apply to them? Furthermore, the story only deals with
shepherds and sheep. Does that mean that those of us who are not
shepherds can ignore it? See how the flow goes? Taking this
account as strictly literal, even though it is possible,
essentially "guts it" to where it has no meaning. However, when
the story is used as it is intended, the meaning is very
clear—Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd who gives His life for the
sheep (John 10:11). He came to seek us as a sheep who had “gone
astray” (Isa 53:6) and to save you (Luke 19:10).
If you want to get into a quagmire, however, start pushing the
figures a little harder into doctrine a see the problems that
arise. Suppose you make the lost sheep a saved man as the Bible
often does in other places (John 10:26-28). How do you explain the
shepherd (Christ) loosing one of his sheep, especially when He
says, “I give unto them eternal life; and they shall NEVER PERISH,
neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (John 10:28)? If
you make the sheep a lost person, the shepherd is said to LEAVE
the 99 saved sheep while looking for the lost one! This is the
same Shepherd who said “I will NEVER LEAVE THEE, nor forsake thee”
(Heb 13:5)! Either way the parable becomes a hindrance to truth
rather than an aid when pushed too far.
Ah, the messes some of the brethren make for themselves.
Obviously, the parable is not meant to be pushed that hard or read
that literal. To do so renders it pretty much meaningless. This is
much the same for many other parables.
Figurative Language Between Members of the Godhead
It may come as a surprise to many, but figurative language is so
pervasive in the Scriptures that it is even used between members
of the Godhead (or Trinity). Look at Luke 10:21,
"In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I
thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast
hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed
them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good
in thy sight."
Notice how the Lord thanks the Father for revealing truths unto
"babes." Does He really mean infants who may not even "know their
right hand from the left," or does he mean those who are not
considered "wise and prudent" by themselves and the world?
Obviously, "babes" is used in the latter sense. Also, Look at John
"While I was with them in the world, I kept them in
thy name: those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of
them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the
scripture might be fulfilled."
"Son of perdition"? Perdition is a state of being, not a person.
Perdition is essentially the opposite of salvation; the state of
lostness. It can only have children in a figurative sense.
Of course, Judas is the person in question and it
is interesting that when talking about him the Lord and His
Father use a description of him instead of his name.
Hum...what would your name be?
Saying a person is a "son of" something is a common Hebrew idiom
showing a relationship between the person and what he is the "son
of" ("sons of the prophets", "son of Belial," etc.)
While in the Garden of Gethsemane the Lord prayed (Matt 26:39),
"O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup
pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt."
Was the Lord desiring a literal (wooden, glass, metal, etc.) "cup"
pass from Him? Of course not. The cup is a figure of His Father's
wrath which He was to bear on the cross. That the members of the
Godhead communicate using figures of speech is very interesting.
It shows that figures in language are either not necessarily a
human invention or are used to accommodate man's understanding.
Too Literal Can Be Dangerous
Those who hold to Hyper-Literalism refrain from mentioning the
passages where being too literal is not only an error but can even
be dangerous. Consider the Christ's words in John 6,
"Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto
you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his
blood, ye have no life in you...Whoso eateth my flesh, and
drinketh my blood, hath eternal life...For my flesh is meat
indeed, and my blood is drink indeed...He that eateth my flesh,
and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him..." (Joh
This is the famous passage used by Roman Catholics to "prove" that
one must "eat" the actual flesh of Christ to "receive" Him. On the
basis of taking this literally the Catholics invented the doctrine
of "Transubstantiation" where their priests can magically change
normal bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus
Christ. Lutherans also believe a form of this by claiming "that
Christ is in, with and under the forms of bread and wine."
Christ's words are quite clear and if taken literally they would
mean exactly what they say. They were so clear that many of the
disciples He was speaking too became so perplexed they said,
"...This is an hard saying; who can hear it?" and eventually left
Passages like this are a bane to the Hyper-Literal Bible Believer.
Bible Believers do not teach one must actually eat the flesh of
Christ to get eternal life so how are they going to consistently
deal with them? They can't. They usually try to bluff their way
through by insisting eating Christ's flesh should not to be taken
literally because it is impossible, but on the other hand all the
passages THEY want to take literal must be treated as such.
The answer to passages like this is to take them the way the Bible
presents the subject as a whole. If the language is figurative,
deal with it as such. If not, take it literally. Plowing through
passages with a fixed mentality, whether taking words literal or
allegorical, will lead to error along the way. (The Catholics are
in error here because in vs 63 Christ clarifies matters by saying,
"It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing...")
Preterism is another heretical view that overemphasizes the
"literalness" of certain passages.
"Preterism is a variant of Christian eschatology which
holds that some or all of the Biblical prophecies concerning the
Last Days (or End Times) refer to events which actually happened
in the first century after Christ's birth. The term preterism
comes from the Latin praeter, meaning "past." Adherents of
Preterism are known as Preterists. Preterists believe that
the Second Coming of Christ took place in 70 A.D. and they also
believe that the "great tribulation" (Matt. 24:21) took place in
or around 70 A.D."
One passage they often quote is Matt 16:28,
"There be some standing here, which shall not taste of
death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom."
They insist this verse must be taken absolutely literally and then
use it to "prove" that Christ's second coming had to occur before
the disciples died who were present when He spoke. Matthew 24:34;
26:24 and a few more verses are used in a similar manner. If the
verse is taken literally in a stand-alone manner it does say what
they claim, but if one reads the next chapter where Christ is
transfigured before the disciples eyes, he realizes Christ was
speaking of that event. The kingdom did not actually arrive but a
foretaste of the King's glory was on display which was a figure of
His actual coming in the future. A lot can be learned from this
passage about how the Lord uses words and His intended meaning
Of Course, another group that gets into a mess by taking certain
Bible passages too literal are the above mentioned Open Theists.
The primary error of the Open Theists is taking passages literal
that should be taken figuratively and on that basis insisting God
is subject to time. Remember above where we mentioned the
Scriptures using "anthropomorphisms" to describe God's actions?
Since in the Scriptures the Lord is speaking to men on earth, He
often uses human methods and human attributes to describe Himself.
By taking these passages as literal (like a good Hyper-Literal),
they actually end up teaching heresy.
Figurative Language—How Can One Tell?
From the examples we have mentioned above (and more to follow) it
should be quite clear that figurative language is common in the
Scriptures. We also demonstrated that to try and force the
figurative language into strict or wooden literalism leads to
error at the least and heresy at the worst. The way to approach
the language of the Scriptures is to simply let them speak in
their natural manner. Every word is truth, even the most literal
truth, but many of the words only reveal their literal truth
when they are not taken absolutely literal themselves. Here
is what Ethelbert Bullinger says about figures in Appendix 6 of
his Companion Bible (emphasis mine),
A "Figure of speech" relates to the form in which the
words are used. It consists in the fact that a word or
words are used out of their ordinary sense, or place, or manner,
for the purpose of attracting our attention to what is thus
said. A Figure of speech is a deigned and legitimate
departure from the laws of language, in order to emphasize what
is said. Hence in such Figures we have the Holy Spirit's
own marking, so to speak, of His own words.
Here some will complain, "If we allow figurative language in the
Bible, then how can we know what is figurative and what isn't?" or
"Everyone will have a different idea as to what is figurative and
use it to explain away what is actually true, such as creation,
the miracles, Christ's resurrection and return, etc."
This peculiar form or unusual manner may not be true, or so
true, to the literal meaning of the words; but it is more true
to their real sense, and truer to truth. Figures are never
used but for the sake of emphasis. They can never,
therefore, be ignored. Ignorance of Figures of speech
has led to the grossest errors, which have been caused either
from taking literally what is figurative, or from taking
figuratively what is literal.
First, there is almost always no problem for a rational human
being who can comprehend natural and normal language to determine
the figurative from the literal. Take Matthew 7:15 for instance,
false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly
are ravenous wolves."
Is there any problem in determining that the "prophets" are
literal and the "sheep's clothing" and "ravenous wolves" are
figurative? How about Matthew 21:42 where it says,
"...The stone which the builders rejected, the same is
become the head of the corner:..."
That whole phrase is figurative. The "stone," "builders," and
"corner" do not literally exist, but does anyone have any problem
understanding the truth of the words when considered in their
Bible prophecy often has figurative symbolism associated with it.
Here are a few examples,
Head of Gold
Rock cut out of mountain
Kingdom of God
Ten horns of 4th beast
Woman in bushel
Iniquity of the land
Angels of the churches
Seven churches of Asia
Bowls of incense
Prayers of saints
Ten horns of beast
from Walther C. Kaiser, Jr. Back
Toward the Future, Baker Books, 1989.
Often just reading these symbols within their context will clear
them up. Usually the Scriptures will specifically state what the
figure represents like Satan is called a "dragon" (Rev 12:9). Is
he really a reptilian dragon like "Godzilla"? Or is he really a
"roaring lion" (1Pet 5:8) from the plains of Africa? No, but those
comparisons do effectively describe his characteristics much more
than just saying Satan is a "bad guy."
Guidelines for Determining Figures of Speech
As we mentioned earlier, figures of speech usually present
themselves quite obviously, however some can be a little more
elusive. When confronted with a passage that the reader may
believe contains a figure of speech there are a few guidelines
that will help.
When one follows these guidelines, much of the Bible's figurative
language will easily be understood.
- First, always try to take the passage literally. If it makes
little or no sense to apply it literally, then it’s probably a
figure of speech. As we saw above with the example of Paul
kicking against the pricks, using the "impossible test" will
often fail. One cannot reliably insist that a passage must be
impossible to take literally before it should be taken
- Once a figure is determined, let the context determine the
meaning of the figure.
- Then look for what is behind the figure; what the figure
- Look for specific points of similarity and difference.
- Be careful not to force the figure past the author’s
intended meaning. Just like the parables, there’s a limit to
the meaning of any figure of speech.