Are You Getting the Sense that Scripture Is Literal?

Book of Wisdom

Recently I was in a men’s small group discussion, and we started discussing whether certain events in the Bible really happened. When I expressed my belief that events like the Flood and parting of the Red Sea were actual historical events, many looked at me like I believed in Santa Claus.

I am not a fundamentalist. When reading the Bible, I use the four senses of Scripture: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical (CCC 115–117). Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catechism states,

“All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal. It couldn’t get any clearer than that. The Church teaches that Scripture is always being literal. 

For some reason, though, many people think that using the four senses of Scripture allows us to categorize Scripture, and surmise that certain parts of it fall into just one, two, or three of the four categories. This is a flawed and fragmented view of God’s Word. Each and every part of the Bible possesses the sagacity and vitality of the four senses described in the Catechism. They are dimensions, not categories, so every page of Scripture is four-dimensional. 

I’ve heard people say that the allegorical sense of Scripture is the one we should focus on; or that it doesn’t matter if the events really happened, what really matters is the moral of the story. This doesn’t work though.

If it Didn’t Really Happen, There’s No Lesson to be Learned

If the stories in the Bible didn’t literally happen, then the allegorical sense gets lost too. With other allegorical stories, the moral is implied because it is still conducive to the truths about life we already know, even if we change certain elements. We can accept The Three Little Pigs as an allegory because the characters in the story don’t matter as much as the moral. We can put ourselves in the pigs’ shoes, and we all have wolves in our lives.

But change any element in the stories within the Bible and its essence is lost. For example, we can’t substitute God for some other character without destroying the story of the Garden of Eden. If any of the stories in the Bible were simply allegories, the Bible would, in essence, be useless except as a collection of ancient wisdom. The story of the exodus out of Egypt only has a moral if God literally and historically led them out the way the Bible says he did. The Flood only works as an allegory if Scripture literally and historically describes what happened. If Adam and Eve did not literally and historically fall the way it is described in Genesis, then whatever allegorical lesson we try to derive from the story doesn’t matter. 

Every detail in these stories matters, and if we find any of them hard to believe we need to re-examine our understanding of Scripture, not retell the stories so they match up with our understandings.  

Pieces in a Puzzle

Every part of the Bible is part of a larger story, and if anything in the Bible didn’t happen then the whole story falls apart. Fans of any book are familiar with this great poverty in storytelling. When their favorite book is turned into a movie, far too often the director takes out parts of the story that were essential. Fans of the book then dismiss the whole movie as an untrue representation of the original story. By saying certain things in the Bible didn’t actually happen, we’re essentially cutting out parts of God’s story and saying they aren’t important to the big picture of the Bible. We’re playing the part of the clueless movie director to God’s bestselling novel. Scripture is a saga where all the events leading up to the climax at the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Don’t sell it short by cutting out key elements just because you think they didn’t actually happen.

Historic Enough for Our Ancestors

To say the miracles in the Bible are just allegories is to say our ancestors who passed down the Bible either intended to deceive us or were just clueless fuddy-duddies. It’s like what C.S. Lewis said about Jesus: Jesus is either a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord. Our ancestors were either fools, con-artists, or normal people who were awe-struck by the stories in the Bible, so much so that they felt it was imperative to pass on these stories to future generations.

Of course, many of the stories in the Bible are unbelievable. That’s why they’re in the Bible. The Bible is basically a collection of the most unbelievable events in early human history, but that doesn’t make them untrue. It makes them significant enough to write down for posterity. The human authors inspired by the Holy Spirit did not just have their words guided by God. Their intuitive sense of significance probably kicked in when they noticed the magnitude of what they were witnessing–as if they said to themselves, under their own will, “I can’t believe what I’m witnessing. I’d better write this down!”

For centuries, the Israelites and then Christians believed these stories to be true. Are we to say thousands of years of handing down these stories was a tradition based on deception or gullibleness or some combination of the two? If they were just folklore stories written to teach life lessons, tradition would hand them down as such. But they’re not handed down to us like that. They’re handed down to us as history. 

If the Bible is just a collection of folklore we’re supposed to pass down because of the important life lessons it teaches, its relevance would have faded after a handful of generations. Descendants of believers would have eventually disregarded its lessons after learning the lessons were not firmly rooted in reality, but just loosely based on observations from the past. We see this to be the case for every other ancient work of literature from the West like Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and Beowulf. These great works are widely studied, but they hardly have lasting relevance in everyday life that the Bible has. The Bible is considered more valuable than these classic works–in fact the most valued piece of literature in Western Civilization, if not the world–because its historic validity has held up just as much as its wisdom, beauty, prophecies, and everything else that has made it revered as the Word of God. For some people, they came to believe it was the Word of God from someone they simply trusted. For others, they came to believe because it withstood their tests and it thus remained relevant in their lives.

God’s Authorship

Experience is the greatest teacher, and God knows this. That’s why he intervened in history and used actual events to teach us what he needed humanity to learn. God is not just the author of the Bible. He is the author of history, and the Bible is the written form that captures his story.

Where Do We Draw the Line?

If we’re not supposed to believe the parting of the Red Sea actually happened, for example, why do we believe the Ascension happened? If the forbidden fruit weren’t actually a fruit, what’s to keep us from saying the wine isn’t actually turned into the Blood? Where do we draw the line? One can say that’s why we have the Church, to help us make the distinction. But do you really believe that’s what Scripture meant to convey when the Ethiopian said ‘How can I understand without someone to teach me?” (Acts 8:31)? Do you think Scripture meant to say you will need a Church to help you determine what parts of Scripture aren’t actually true? That’s not why we need the Church’s guidance when reading Scripture. We need the Church to help us see all four senses because alone we’d be lucky to see more than one. 

“Ignorance of Scripture is Ignorance of Christ”

This quote is often used to point out the importance of reading and studying Scripture, but it is relevant here as well. If ignoring Scripture is like ignoring Christ, then ignoring one of the senses of Scripture is like ignoring a part of Christ. It’s like having an icon of Jesus that’s missing an arm or an eye. If Jesus is the Word of God and Scripture is the Word of God, then Scripture can be nothing other than the truth because Jesus is the Truth. By “truth” I do not mean some abstract, moral, allegorical or proverbial truth. Jesus was the Truth incarnate. He didn’t speak in some kind of code and then expect us to be able to interpret it centuries later. If he is the Word of God, why would Scripture, which is also the Word of God, be any different?

A Man of His Word

The Bible is not just another work of literature. Scripture’s author is the author of life, and whatever he speaks happens. He said “let there be light” and it was so. He said, “Let us make man in our image” and man was made in his image. It’s almost as if God is laying out the dynamics of Scripture right there in its first pages: whatever he speaks can be nothing other than pure truth, and Scripture is him speaking. If you believe he spoke the universe into existence, is it too hard to believe that the words he spoke in Scripture have the same power: the power to actually come about in the real world just as the real world itself did?

I’ve also heard people say we shouldn’t read the Bible like a science book, that doing so would be like reading a chemistry book and saying, “This is the worst poetry I’ve ever read.” But there’s a problem with this logic. True, the Bible is not a science book, but only because it is much more than a science book. If there’s something in the Bible that contradicts the science we know, we should humbly and logically assume we simply haven’t figured out the science behind it yet. We just haven’t yet figured out how it could be true. Yes, believe it or not, even today there are still mysteries in the Bible that transcend our comprehension. Also keep in mind that our God is the Creator of the laws upon which we base our sciences, and he can defy them if he so chooses. St. Gregory the Great said: 

Holy Writ by the manner of its speech transcends every science, because in one and the same sentence, while it describes a fact, it reveals a mystery.

Confide in the Word of God’s authenticity from the start of Genesis through the end of Revelation, and withstand the criticism. As Christians, we do not see things the way others do. We have been set apart to see things as God does. We can start by taking him for his Word.

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21 thoughts on “Are You Getting the Sense that Scripture Is Literal?”

  1. Have you heard about the prophecy of Saint Malachy? According to a booklet by Edward Connor, “Tradition has it that when Malachy visited Pope Innocent II in Rome in 1139, he was granted a vision of all the Holy Fathers of the future”. According to his listing, the current pope is the last – Peter the Roman. Pope Francis is the son of Italian immigrants who moved to Argentina. The real name of St. Francis was Peter.
    As a student of eschatology and a Catholic, I am concerned about what is taking place in the church and the world, while keeping in mind the prophecies in the Bible from such books as Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation.
    More attention should be devoted to the topic of the End Times for we are there now.

  2. Great article! Based on everything you’re saying about the need to interpret Scripture literally first and foremost, which is absolutely true and a principle that many Popes have affirmed, I think you would love a brand new Catholic video series just released online; go to: foundationsrestored.com
    I think you’ll really enjoy it and find the info from it invaluable.

  3. Dr. Edouard Belaga

    +
    pax
    Highly appreciate the intention and principal arguments of David Kilby. The point of view he is attempting to extract from unimaginably numerous discussions and comments on the subject, and to clearly define it, is very precious. It’s has nothing to do with the statement that “the Genesis story of creation is literally true”, or with references to Papal authorities. It is the voice of a more adult humanity starting hearing anew to the Prophets. It is a reference “upwards” from a thougthful man to the acts of the Creator who left to us many, many centuries ago His immensely profound “divine references” pronounced in our language but with excessively divine meanings.

  4. The author does not understand what the phrase “literal sense of Scripture” means. It refers to the Biblical author’s original intent. It has nothing to do with Biblical literalism. So if for instance the human author intended to tell a story with a moral lesson, then that moral lesson is the literal sense of the passage. It is not necessary for the story to be a description of actual events in order for the moral lesson to be the literal sense. When we say that the spiritual senses depend on the literal sense, we mean that the spiritual senses depend on a correct reading of the author’s intended meaning; we don’t mean that they depend on everything the author said being factual.

  5. R. Dennis Porch, MD

    The idea that scripture is all historical does not meet any academic standard for history. The idea that men were used as instruments to by the Supreme Being to communicate exactly what is on His mind is preposterous. We are finite Beings and could neve understand the great mind of our great God. The idea that scripture can be useful myth and metaphore is much better so that men can use their own God-given talents to continue to learn more of God’s truth because we finite beings can never know God’s Truth only bits and pieces of our own truth and that is how we grow as humans and as a society. No the world is not flat, yes Galielo was more correct than the Christian myth that saw the earth as the center of the Universe and man as the principal center of life has been proven wrong. Myth and dogmal are what we live by but that does not mean that we as finite humans can and should not use our own God-given minds to find our more of truth and change our myths and dogma as we do.

  6. Hi, a Catholic geologist here, and I appreciate very much your words. I started out as an old earth evolutionist, but was challenged by some Protestant creationists, and the more I dove into the data, the more I came to see that a young earth and a one-time ex nihilo creation of all living things, with built-in but limited capacities for variation, are valid interpretations for the origin of existing geological and biological phenomena.

    If you’re interested in looking at the scientific evidence from a Catholic creationist perspective, I recommend the natural science articles link on the webiste of the Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation: http://kolbecenter.org/category/natural-science/

  7. Loved your article! I understand that you and Aquinas and the Church are using the word “literal” intentionally and specifically, but I like to think of these contrasting Biblical views as either “historical” or “mythological.” It seems easier to argue that the creation stories are historical, than literal, since we have two somewhat different seeming stories. Also, it is very difficult to argue with intellectuals who have written one off as being a fundamentalist.

    You know, with the pro-life issue, one can argue that since neither the Bible, nor science gives us any other particular time life begins in the womb than conception, that we should assume it begins at conception.

    Since neither the Bible nor science give us any specific time when the Bible stories ceased to be mythological and became historical . . . we should assume they have always been historical.

  8. There is more than one type of “literal” as those of us English majors know. There is narrative recitation of fact, there is summary of events, and there is smile and allegory. There is nothing in the bible that would not fit into these categories and not be true. The flood story is common through at Eurasian cultures as are objects from heaven (meteors) along with sea monsters (whales, large fish, octopus etc). Of course none of the laws of physics constrains the Almighty and how the sun appears to stand still is due to a method of His choosing. Problems arise when literalism is used in one way to support a view for which is was not intended. The main difficult with radicals and the Koran today is that they want to transport the entire of the book in its most literal fashion back to a time when what was written did not seem so far out of line with the times. Modern Muslims (yes, they exist) are no more with a literal Koran than modern bible scholars are with a reading of Genesis as an anthropological handbook.

    1. Have you considered this?

      Proverbs 3:5-6 New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE)

      5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
      and do not rely on your own insight.
      6 In all your ways acknowledge him,
      and he will make straight your paths.

  9. Bob Kurland, the word “day” there is also the word that is translated “ages” in other parts of Genesis. It is literally true that God created the heavens and the earth and that we had original parents Adam and Eve, as the Catechism confirms. However, believing it to be literally true doesn’t mean that the original authors intended 24 segments to be understood, since there is ambiguity about the term.

    Not being meant to be a “science” textbook is a phrase I always hate as if science and faith are divorced from each other. Regardless, we never go wrong when we approach things as literally as possible.

    1. Well, here’s the problem Brandon. If a Hebrew word can be translated into two entirely different senses, then it is very hard to say the text has to be taken literally. I don’t think it’s such a bad thing that Scripture is not to be taken as a science textbook. The truth of Scripture (and I’m not here referring to a “literal” reading) is eternal, part of Revelation, whereas the “truth” of science changes as new theories and new data emerge. Which is not to say that science doesn’t intersect Catholic teaching (I’ve written about such), so they aren’t “divorced.” And I’m not sure I agree with your last sentence… but.. to each his own.

    2. Bob,

      I understand your point. However, if we don’t take things literally (while accounting for things like “figures of speech” and alternative translations) then we are left to figure out what is true and what is untrue, and we aren’t wise enough.

      So its true that God literally created the heavens and the earth and its true that Jesus literally walked on water and rose from the dead, even though scientifically it would be difficult to prove.

      There are figures of speech in the Bible, like “when the sun rose” even though the factually correct statement would be “when the earth rotated on its axis and the sun was visible again.” That doesn’t mean its not literally true that a new day began.

      So factually we could theorize that God created the life on the earth through evolution while distinguishing human beings in his own image. Literally it is also true that God created the heavens and the earth through 6 periods, whatever that might entail.

  10. John 1 New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE)

    The Word Became Flesh
    1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
    6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
    10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
    14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

    Did The Living Word of God challenge the truth of the Old Testament?
    Why should we elevate the words of those who came long after Jesus? Weren’t his words enough?

  11. Bob, was St. Thomas wrong? Is the Catechism accurate here as the author gas it? “Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catechism states,

    “’All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.’ It couldn’t get any clearer than that. The Church teaches that Scripture is always being literal.”

    Moses used the word “day” for the sequences of creation. A period of light and darkness. The period was literal. 24 hours came with the 4th day, as God ordered His creation for the creation of man. On the first day God called the period of light Day and the darkness Night. But together they are called “one day.” What was called “day” before the measure man uses (24 hours) is still a literal day. Otherwise the inspired word “day” would not have been used for just half a day to describe a period of light alone. What other word could Moses have used instead if “day”?

    1. Brian, if you want to interpret “literal” in a non-standard way, that is your (and St. Thomas’s) privilege.
      As Humpty-Dumpty said (“Through the Looking-Glass”)

      “When I use a word it means exactly what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”

      Here’s the OED definition of “literal:”

      “Taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory. ‘dreadful in its literal sense, full of dread’”

      Note the term “usual.”
      One does not need to take the Genesis description of Creation as literal in order to appreciate the power and goodness of God the Creator. This is also what St. Augustine said, as I understand the translations, in “De Genesi ad Litteram.”

  12. Excellent article. For any man. No need to have a degree. I especially appreciate the way you handled creation: “Also keep in mind that our God is the Creator of the laws upon which we base our sciences, and he can defy them if he so chooses.” followed by the salient quote from S Gregory the Great. Bob, above, misses the point by coping out on the literal truth of the six days. Not, of course, 24 hour days, but a day as from darkness to light being a day, Yes light before the sun. A mystery does not negate the literal sense!!! God made the laws of physics, He is not bound by them. The sun stood still for Joshua!! Bravo David.

    1. Mr. Kelly, as I understand the term “literal” it means that the meaning is fixed, e.g. one day=24 hours, or a period of the earth’s revolution. To say that one day equals one billion years or one picosecond is not what I would term a “literal” interpretation. If one wants to engage in cognitive dissonance and believe something that is totally inconsisten with current scientific evidence, then that is one’s privilege to do so. I do not choose to do so (and, by the way, I do believe in miracles, see:
      http://rationalcatholic.blogspot.com/2016/06/can-scientist-believe-in-miracles.html )
      If I missed the point of the article, I guess so would have Pope Benedict XVI.

  13. It seems beyond your comprehension that something can be part literal and part symbolic. Lots of smart people (such as C.S. Lewis) suffered from the same handicap.

  14. Thankful for your article. Have been making this argument for years with family and friends, as well as fellow Catholics and Christians. No doubt you can expect pushback from others.

  15. If you’re saying that the Genesis story of creation is literally true, then I’m not with you, nor was Pope St. John Paul II nor Pope Benedict XVI. Indeed, as Pope Benedict XVI said, the Bible was not meant to be a science textbook.

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