Why the Bible Should be Interpreted Literally
A high school student wrote to us asking why we think the Bible is to be interpreted literally. Here is the answer I gave her.
Robert E. Gentet
Creation Matters, Vol. 6, No. 2, March/April 2001, page 7.
Your question is very basic and very good. And, to be truthful, to fully answer it would take a long paper or even a book! There are many facets to the question and my answer will probably only hit upon some of them.
The theory of evolution, while in one sense old (some of the ancient Greeks, for example, believed in a form of evolution), is a relatively new idea. It's really only a couple of hundred or so years old and especially made popular with the publication of Charles Darwinís book The Origin of Species (1859).
Itís important to understand that the term "evolution" can be understood in a variety of ways. For example, when Darwin studied and wrote his book, it was popular for the Church in that day to say that species don't change. However, many now believe (myself included) that the Bible nowhere says this! What the Bible actually says many times in Genesis Chapter One is that God decreed that life is to reproduce "after its/their kind/s" (Gen. 1:12, 21, 24-25).
Of course, the Bible wasn't written originally in English! "Kind" is from the more ancient Hebrew language min from which our popular, English translations originated. The scientific way of classification using species, genus, family, orders, classes, phyla, was thought up by Carl von Linne, or Linnaeus, a Swedish biologist in the 1700s -- long after the Bible was written.
So the Bible nowhere says that species can't change. It only tells us that "kinds" (Hebrew, min) can't change. And by actual living examples, we can see that species of some plants/animals can change. The question of how much they have changed since Creation is an open one. But if one takes the Biblical statements of Genesis 1 for what they plainly say (literally), then the theory of evolution that connects all life forms from a single origin in geologic time would be impossible.
But, the Bible does not rule out all change. You are not exactly like your parents. All people on earth differ in some way. But, we are all humans. And, according to the Bible, we always have been and always will be. People produce people. Cattle produce cattle. Frogs produce frogs. Birds produce birds. Fish produce fish. Snakes produce snakes. Bats produce bats. And you can go on and on. That is the reality of what we have observed for thousands of years and there is no evidence of anything evolving a wing, an arm, an eye, a toe, a hand, a fin, a fingernail, etc. There are examples of disuse where, for example fish lost in caves may lose their eyesight, but this is degeneration, not evolution! Losing what you have is hardly bringing something new into existence!
But, it is true that the Bible is a book that contains many expressions that are not to be taken literally. The New Testament calls Jesus "a door," but we would never take that literally. It is very clear that there are different literary genres in the Bible. While there is a literal meaning for every statement of the Bible, the literal meaning is not necessarily the literalistic meaning of the words themselves. It is clear that poetry may contain images that are not to be understood literalistically. Prophecy is composed to some extent of pictures (the Book of Revelation!!). In parables we must be very careful that we understand the point of comparison and do not seek literal meanings in details which have been added simply to complete the picture.
Even within an account that is basically historical, there may well be poetry with its imagery and figures of speech. There also may be accounts of prophetic utterances. For example, Genesis 2:23 stating the reaction of Adam to the creation of Eve is Hebrew poetry. The literal meaning is not necessarily to be understood in the sense of the literalistic meaning. That is, not every DETAIL of a particular account is necessarily literalistically true.
But to say that the Bible is a philosophy book that you don't take literally is an extreme view of the Bible. It forgets that God is telling us things that we would otherwise be unable to know. Only God was there at creation. No man or woman was. And God does not lie. The account of the creation of Adam and Eve, for example, was affirmed by the early Church and by Jesus himself (I Corinthians 15:44-49; Luke 3:38; I Timothy 2:13-14; Rom. 5:14; Matt. 19:4-6).
In short, there was a literal first man (made from the dust of the earth) and a first woman made from the first man. If we cannot accept this on the basis of Moses' account in Genesis and the affirmation of Christ and the original apostles in the New Testament, then we have no basis to accept the rest of the Bible as well. The Bible becomes merely a book of stories of the ancient Jewish people!
If you will study a little of history, you will find that most churches in the past taught the Bible much more carefully. They believed in the literal, seven day creation week of Genesis 1 and 2. It is only recently that some churches have changed their belief because of the growth of the belief in the theory of evolution! The church has changed to accommodate a theory that directly contradicts the Bible and what we can see around us in the world today! In reality, if you will study it, you will see that neither the world around us today, nor the fossil record prove the theory of evolution. The changes noted do not connect all life to one big family tree. Rather, there is a whole forest of trees, each tree representing a separate, distinct Genesis "kind" (min).
There are many, many books now available to give you specific examples of all what I am saying. For just a few examples, there is a new book out called What's Darwin Got to Do with it? by Robert C. Newman & John L. Wiester with Janet & Jonathan Moneymaker. It was published by the InterVaristy Press in 2000. It is written like a comic book (cartoon pictures) and gives lots of good information about genetics. (See Amazon.com for its price. It's not expensive.). A new book out called Icons of Evolution (2000) by Jonathan Wells is also good showing that much of what is taught about evolution is myth, such as the Miller-Urey experiment, Darwin's tree of life, homology in vertebrate limbs, Haeckel's embryos, peppered moths, Darwin's finches, etc. CRS has a Resource Catalog that we would be glad to send to you that has other interesting books on the subject.