The Bible, literal vs symbolic

Julie at Happy Catholic has an awesome reflection on the Book of Joshua (the real one, not the one by Joseph Girzone) and it’s worth reading. It also made me think more about literalism as it pertains to the Bible. In her passage she quotes:

…at the basis of that whole argument lay a misunderstanding by theologians of the day as regards the nature of the sacred texts. St. Augustine and St. Thomas had already explained the salvific meaning of Holy Writ, a teaching which Leo XIII ws later to sum up in these words: “The sacred writers, or better said, ‘the Spirit of God who spoke through them, did not seek to teach men those things (the knowledge of the nature of visible realities) that were of no consequence for their eternal salvation’ (St. Augustine, De Gen, ad litt., 2, 9, 20)[…].

In other words, we don’t have to read Genesis 1 like a cookbook for How A Deity Makes A World In Six Easy Steps. (Which is good, because Genesis 2 tells a second creation story that’s entirely different.)

In the past few weeks, I’ve encountered some who take the Bible as a literal text with no errors in it; these folks have said, point-blank, that one cannot be a Christian and simultaneously believe that some of the passages in the Bible are mythological or symbolic in nature. Specifically, that a Christian must believe in a seven-day cycle of Creation and must believe in all the inflated ages in Genesis.

I don’t believe either of those is the literal truth. The Bible is the revealed truth of God, given to human beings through other human beings, speaking both literally and symbolically to the human heart, and therefore parts are best interpreted in the symbolic fashion in which they were initially written. We’ve already discussed on this blog that there are contradictions within the Biblical text itself, which could not be the case if the Bible were literally inerrant, but these contradictions do not need to be justified to one another because the truth of the Bible is a greater overarching truth that doesn’t fully depend on the limits of human language and human understanding.

God gave Jesus into human hands, and God also gave the Bible into human hands to be written and transmitted. In order for us to hold Divine Truth, it needed to be fit into a form that human hands and human minds could hold. Rather than leaving us with a document that would confuse and frustrate us, God gave it to us on our level, in an emotional, literal and symbolic language that resonates in the human heart so that we keep ringing like a bell after hearing and holding it.

Consider a parent explaining something to a child at the child’s level.

Kid: Did you miss me when you were in Texas?
Dad: Yes, I did.
Kid: How did you get to Texas?
Dad: I flew there.

Is he telling the truth? No, because he didn’t sprout wings and FLY to Texas. Instead he sat in a piece of machinery that flew him to Texas. If the child remains at a child’s level of understanding, he might argue that his father actually sprouted wings. Do we really want to be the kid on the playground screaming that of course Daddy has feathers? And really, the important detail is, his father went to Texas and missed him. Right?

There’s eternity for us to get to know God and plumb the depths of his mysteries. There’s nothing more loving than that.

I’m confused about one thing. Invariably the individuals who believe that the Bible must be taken literally are the people who belong to churches which interpret John 6:53-69 symbolically. That when Jesus said “If you don’t eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, then you have no life within you” and was willing to let all his followers go if they didn’t accept what he was saying, they assert that he didn’t really mean it.

If we’re interpreting the Bible literally, then that MUST be taken literally too. Jesus’s “This is my body” MUST be interpreted (as all the early churches did) as the Real Presence in Holy Communion, that we must eat it in order to have life within us — meaning that anyone who has a literal interpretation of the Bible and believes it’s inerrant should be conscience-bound to join a church that has the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

Except that isn’t the case, is it?

So in the Evangelical literalist churches, you end up with this bizarre dichotomy that if someone believes Abraham wasn’t 175 years old, then that person is not a real Christian — but that we don’t have to eat Jesus’s body and drink His blood in order to have His life within us.

Your thoughts?


  1. Julie D.

    My favorite example is “it rained cats and dogs.” Of course, none of us has ever stepped in a poodle after a rainstorm. And it allows me to both tell an old joke and make my point.

    More seriously, that is one of the things I discovered about Catholicism after I came to the Church … the way that you can read through layer after layer of Scripture which all is perfectly true, as our priest says in our Scripture study class, but may not always be “factual.”

    1. philangelus

      I’m laughing about the poodle. 🙂 That’s awesome.

      The Bible has withstood the interest, the focus and the deep study of millions of Christians and Jews for the past two thousand years, give or take a few centuries. The Torah has existed in its final form since at least 1000 BC. The Bible wouldn’t have stood the test of time if it were only capable of a surface reading and nothing more.

      But the lens of our selves helps illuminate different aspects of different passages, and maybe over eternity, spread out over all humanity, we’ll have covered the whole thing. 🙂

  2. Amy Deardon

    great message! The Bible obviously is written in different genres that can’t all be literally interpreted. My Lutheran pastor says that the Bible is SUFFICIENT for faith. That being said, I DO believe it is God-breathed, but God is also able to think beyond a concrete level 🙂

    1. philangelus

      By sufficient I take it you mean that everything we *need* to know to get into Heaven is there. Because I’d agree with that.

      But information isn’t limited to what’s in the Bible, and of course, the Holy Spirit is continuing to guide us, and the Word of God is living too.

  3. Ken Rolph

    The points raised in this post caused me to have a serious think. Very useful. I used to think that creationists and similar were just a bunch of confused teenagers stuck in their black and white period where “believing” was a hormonal thing about trying harder. But now I see them as dangerous and bringing the gospel into disrepute.They are preaching another gospel.

    I’d never thought about it in the terms you raised. I have asked some creationists whether they let their children believe in Santa Claus, which has lead to some very interesting discussions.

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  5. Barry

    If you want to Interpret you must Interpret using other scripture passages This will help you to determine which is written symbolically and which is literal. We yo read it you should also pray that God opens your understanding of his word.
    All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,2 Timothy 3:16

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