Jesus appears to establish the Christological approach used by the apostles:

Joh 5:39 Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.

Are there any such statements which would give warrant to the literalist approach, particularly in light of the apostle's Christological approach which is often characterized as being weird or supernatural?

The literalist approach (as I understand it) would take literalism to an extreme, preferring apparent contradictions to acknowledging literary genre.

For instance: These passages are viewed as a contradiction:

Pr 31:6 Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.

1Co 5:11 But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.

Recognizing the genre of proverb, one sees that Pr 31:6 is not an admonition to get people drunk, but it is a parallel saying to "Let the dead bury their dead". The Christian will never perish, and does not have a heavy heart since he "give[s] thanks in all things."

What is the Biblical warrant for the literalist approach?

  • Perhaps the months of silence without an answer to this question is a bad sign for the literalist position...
    – Kazark
    Dec 24, 2011 at 18:52
  • I know a lot of people who take a literal approach to Scripture, and the first question we ask when reading is "what is the genre of this passage? Does the genre indicate literalness or figurative?"
    – Frank Luke
    Feb 21, 2012 at 4:15
  • Do you know of anyone who takes a literal approach that recognizes 'riddle' or 'dark sayings' as a genre?
    – Bob Jones
    Feb 28, 2012 at 7:19
  • How is this a hermeneutics question and not a theological question? Isn't hermeneutics supposed to focus on the text, not on the religious interpretation, or am I misunderstanding?
    – Ron Maimon
    Apr 3, 2012 at 7:35
  • 1
    The question has nothing to do with the theological issue presented. It is asking for a scriptural warrant for a literalist (not literal) approach by way of command, overwhelming evidence of its usage, etc. The apparent missing genre from the practice of literal interpretation is that of "dark saying".
    – Bob Jones
    Apr 16, 2012 at 23:44

3 Answers 3


Perhaps one possible argument comes from Galatians 3:16, where Paul bases his entire argument on the fact that the scripture uses the word "seeds" instead of "seed." I.e. his conclusion rests on the "literal" use of the plural as opposed to the singular. That being said he is using the word "seed" in an allegorical fashion.

Gal 3:16 (NIV) "The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ".

My personal approach is to understand "literal" not in terms of a hard literalness but as you suggest to recognize the genre. Grant Osborne and Kevin Vanhoozer suggest that a true literal approach recognizes that the original author may use certain genres to make a point. So that if the author (for instance in proverbs) is using a specific literary genre or technique to make a point the best interpretation would be to discern the point that is being made which in many cases would differ from a literal interpretation. After all when Jesus says "I am the bread of life," he is not saying that he is a loaf of bread, is he?


I would say that Jesus' extensive use of parables, which later became part of the written word of Scripture, would indicate that an exclusively literal approach to Scripture is not supported by Scripture itself. If this were the case, then at least the parables - which are allegorical - would be incomprehensible.


Before answering, I'd like to take the time to define the term as it's commonly used in reference to biblical hermeneutics: "the term can refer to the historical-grammatical method, a hermeneutic technique that strives to uncover the meaning of the text by taking into account not just the grammatical words, but also the syntactical aspects, the cultural and historical background, and the literary genre. It emphasizes the referential aspect of the words in the text without denying the relevance of literary aspects, genre, or figures of speech within the text (e.g., parable, allegory, simile, or metaphor" (Ryrie, Charles Caldwell (1995). Dispensationalism (Rev. and expanded ed.). Chicago: Moody Press. p. 224, p.81).

This form of biblical literalism is totally in keeping with the Scriptural command, "Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you" (Deut. 4:2).

The reason is this: the written Scriptures were always meant to be understood on their own terms. After we understand that Scripture really can interpret Scripture, that usage and internal context can accurately define meaning, then we can begin to get to an unleavened interpretation.

It's also worth noting that the Book of Deuteronomy was given to Israel by Moses reading it to them on one day, and by plastering it on large stones for all to read. Most surely at the onset there were not many copies of Deuteronomy, but the text was no doubt recited at the Tabernacle at least every Shabbat during the generation of Joshua. So you see the text is meant to be memorized by repeated in hearing or careful study. It is meant to be kept on your heart/mind. Further, this Law was not given to a nation of former college professors. It was given to a nation of former slaves. It's literal, I dare say common sense meaning, therefore, especially in respect to the laws concerning sacrifices, debts, servitude, property, diet, and the sabbaths, cannot be ignored (unless you think that's all been done away with and don't care). The Law is a system of right conduct. Outside its literal application to Israel in the Holy Land, it seems at times an anachronism to the modern student, and is therefore often over-allegorized, often with a stretched attempt to show 'how it points to Christ.'

To import a more accurate Christian interpretation (I think), the Kingdom of God will be restored in the land of Israel through Messiah the King (Jesus). It's at hand, and has been for a while (it comes is the twinkling of an eye after we die) and so a more literal application of the Torah is also at hand, and necessary now. Why? Well, most believing Christians will accept that all nations will be required to keep the Feast of Tabernacles in the millenial reign of Messiah (Zach. 14). Why not get a more literal understand of what it means to leave your comfy house and dwell like an Israelite in a booth made of palm trees (on the Biblical Feast of Tabernacles)?

Sometimes these literal commandments escape us. God wants us to have a hands on experience of His deliverance from bondage in our lives. That's why I recommend literally resting on the Sabbath. Literally living in a booth on Tabernacles. Literally purging your home of leaven for the feast of unleavened bread. It is a hands on way to make God's Word a tangible part of your life. It can literally help you interpret the Bible better. Indeed, the life of Messiah is clearly illustrated when we remember and participate in these feasts. I see them as a memorial of good things past, present, and to come. At the end of it, it's about remembering the fulness of what God has said. Literal interpretation forms the foundations on which the Righteous may stand. If those foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do but over-spiritualize an inapplicable literal commandment?

That isn't to denigrate a more allegorical hermeneutic, just to point out that when we encounter much of the Old Testament as anachronistic old covenant stuff, we are left with few options to turn to but allegory. When we view the Torah commands as PART of the New Covenant (now written on our hearts as per Jer. 31:31-34), the whole Bible can now become more and more a part of our lives and make sense on its own terms.

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