Should We Take the Bible Literally or Figuratively?

Question: I started going to a Bible study in our parish and usually enjoy it but am thinking about dropping out. Several people in our group said we should never take the Bible literally, but what's the point of reading the Bible if it doesn't mean what it says?

Discussion: The Bible does mean what it says. However, God's ways can be so mysterious that people do not always understand what's said or why, especially on first reading. Some may write off the whole Bible as being merely symbolic or allegorical, while others take every word as the kind of literal truth you get when you say something like, "The fire is hot." Symbolically, that same fire represents the power, warmth, and enthusiastic fervor poured into Christians by the Holy Spirit. You can approach the flame literally or figuratively, but either way, the fire is "true." 

As the living word of God, the Bible is also true to itself and the spiritual truths expressed in a variety of tones, formats, and literary styles. Many themes and purposes arise in its pages, but the overall goal shows the salvation and redemption of man by the Almighty God, beginning in Genesis and going all the way through the final Amen in Revelation. So as you study the Bible, don't worry about whether you should take the words literally or figuratively. Just take them. Read them. Study them, and get to know what the Biblical record shows about the ongoing relationship between human beings and the God of love.

 You might also take another tack in your Bible study. For instance, try thinking of yourself as an investigator or a Christian reporter looking for the who, what, when, where, why, and how of your Judeo-Christian heritage and the life-giving truth of God's loving mercy and forgiveness. As you do this, consider:

the Who of God — i.e., the character and power of the One to Whom you speak;

the what of the conditions, circumstances, or context surrounding the larger spiritual truth that a book or chapter presents;

the when of the past, present, and future as well as the timelessness of eternity in which a Biblical truth or statement affects God's people, including you;

the where of the place and culture from which the text arises;

the why of the law recorded, the wisdom taught, or the prophecy spoken;

the how of the literal, figurative, or poetic words that the inspired writer utilized to tell a story and present a spiritual truth in the most effective way.

Generally speaking, the Who, what, when, where, and why of the Bible will express our Judeo-Christian background and beliefs, whereas the how has more to do with the means by which the Bible presents a spiritual truth. Unlike modern libraries that separate fiction from nonfiction and both genres from poetry, a single book of the Bible may contain an eclectic mix of Godly commands, historical events, poetic lines, and allegorical tales. Between genres, thin lines may overlap, but don't let them trip you up. For instance, if you read something that troubles you or that you don't understand, just do a little research by looking up the verse or passage in a reputable commentary. Better yet, see if the Catechism of the Catholic Church covers that specific topic. To ease the search, just look for a key word on a website that contains the complete Catechism.

Most importantly, begin and end each Bible study session or independent reading with prayer for God to guide the discussion and increase your understanding. Then trust that He will. The same Holy Spirit who scripted the story of God's love into the Holy Scriptures knows how to write His word into your spirit today.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Guest

    God's thought far transcends our thought. The Bible, the Holy Scripture of God, is inspired by the Holy Spirit.

    I converted to Catholicism from the Lutheran Church MS. Before I converted to Catholicism, I attended many "To-Me-Bible-Studies." That is a study where each person starts off, "To me this verse says…" This approach ultimately tends to undermine one's faith if the overall approach of the group is emotional rather than disciplined and orderly.

    I see 'personalization' of the Scripture as very detrimental to real growth in the Body of Christ. It causes fissure and divisions. So, the role of Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium in the Catholic Church are essential to my focus. I see fewer "To-Me-Bible-Studies" in the Catholic Church. Still, they exist in our Church as well.

    A tenet of Protestantism is to read and believe the Scriptures as the Word of God. But, the reader is usually left to come to their own conclusions as to the literality of the text. Some denominations, accept it word for word and close the possibility of expanded understanding. Others dissect the word and try to crawl into God's intellect. These approaches seem to be at odds and incorrect. The one approach may misunderstand  the Word due to rigidity, the other approach may blind one to the forest for being lost in the weeds.

    In my years as a Catholic, I have heard certain Priests try to explain away the "Feeding of the Five Thousand" [for example] by saying that Jesus really just told all of the gathered pilgrims to share their travel food with one another. I disagree. The scripture says otherwise. The explanation inspires faith if we believe, and despair if we doubt. When I explain away the miracles in the smallness of my humanism, then doubt and skepticism set in… dangerous territory. This is one step away from saying that Jesus was speaking figuratively about His Body and Blood at the Instutuion of the Eucharist on that Holy Thursday. "With God all things are possible." If we don't take this literally, with what are we left?

    Sometimes it is very difficult for the scribe/prophet/apostle to describe an event or to transcribe instructions and visions. This mystery is what St Paul called "looking through the glass darkly," receiving the whole but seing or understanding in part. Can you imagine being Peter, James, or John trying to relate thge Transifuration to the other disciples and the women? Do you think they told them not to take what they had seen , heard and experienced so literally? Maybe some did.

    The Revelation of God in Jesus Christ is complete. But, the Church is continually understanding more of the scriptures. The Bible is a dynamic and not a static. As Jesus is the Living Word of God, so God's words in the Holy Scriptures are alive.

     I concluded long ago that the Scripture is full and literal. Just because I don't grasp the fullness of God does not reduce Him or His Word in the Scriptures. When Jesus walked this earth did people take Him literally? Some did, some did not.

    It is useful to meditate pray on this issue for oourselves and for others. The Bible is to be taken literally for therein lies the believer's hope for salvation. God is not the spreader of doubts and skepticism. He always means what He says and He is faithful to His promise. That's about as literal as one can get.

    Dona nobis pacem.

  • Guest

    Whenever this topic comes up, I recommend the most ignored Vatican 2 document – Dei Verbum. It is hardly longer than a pamphlet and yet contains a clear explanation of the Word of God, Revelation, Tradition, and the Church's understanding if it all. Pretty good in 16 small pages!


    Try introducing it to a parish Bible study and watch the pseudo Catholics run for cover. I had one long time Bible study leader tell me that no one was going to tell her how to read the Bible. I took great pleasure in always calling her Mrs Luther to her face. She never did get the joke.



  • Guest

    One more thought:


    Whenever someone asks me the question:

    Should We Take the Bible Literally or Figuratively?


    My answer is……. yes we should.

  • Guest

    Of course God speaks to each of us in His word, but when we reject all of what the Church has handed on to us and decide that we individually can simply figure it all out, we are shortchanging ourselves. We are truly pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants.

    Vatican II Offers Three Criteria for Interpreting Scripture:

    1. Be especially attentive "to the content and unity of the whole Scripture"

              Different as the books which compose it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God's plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart, open since His Passover

              The phrase "heart of Christ" can refer to Sacred Scripture, which makes known His heart, closed before the Passion, as the Scripture was obscure. But the Scripture has been opened since the Passion; since those who from then on have understood it, consider and discern in what way the prophecies must be interpreted. (St. Thomas Aquinas)  

    2. Read the Scripture within "the living Tradition of the whole Church”

              Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church's heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God's Word

              The Holy Spirit gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture "according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church“ [Origen].  

    3. Be attentive to the analogy of faith – meaning the coherence of the truths of faith

              among themselves

              within the whole plan of Revelation 

     Traditionally, we distinguish between two senses of Scripture:

             the literal sense

             the spiritual sense, being sub-divided into:

              the allegorical sense

              moral sense

              anagogical sense

      The profound concordance of these four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church. The literal sense:  The meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation. The Bible means what it says.  "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal" 

    The spiritual sense: Not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs 

              The allegorical sense – their significance in Christ   thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ's victory and also of Christian Baptism 

              The moral sense – how it leads us to act justly     As St. Paul says, the events were written "for our instruction"  

              The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, "leading") in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland   thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem 

  • Guest

    First, because it was written via Divine inspiration, the Bible does not contain any errors.  Things in the Bible that might seem like errors to us, are just things that we simply do not understand.  The fact that I do not understand something does not make it (i.e., that which I don't understand) in error.

    Second, the Bible is not entirely literal, nor is it entirely figurative.

    When Jesus told the apostles they should forgive someone "7 times 70", he did not mean you only forgive something 490 times, and after than you do not forgive.  He told that as a parable; since Peter and crowd were simple fishermen and not expert mathematicians, 7 X 70 was such a big number they could not even imagine it.  Jesus meant of course, that you must always be forgiving. 

    On the other hand, when the Bible spells out the Ten Commandments, or when it describes the miracle Jesus performed at the wedding at Cana (changing water into wine) it literally means just what it says. 

    Jesus made Peter the first pope, and down through the centuries, part of the all the popes' job has always been to educate the laiety, and one way popes have always done this is to interpret the more difficult things in the Bible.  We Catholics have been blessed over the centuries in many ways, one of which is the archive of the many, many brilliant papal encyclicals on Church dogma and doctrine.

  • Guest

    To answer this question, check out  The author makes the point of determining the difference between a literal interpretation and a literalist interpretation.  A literal interpertation of takes into account the meaning that the author intended to convey:

                            Example: “It's raining cats & dogs.”

                            Meaning: Its raining hard.


    Literalist interpretation takes the exact meaning of the words without consideration of popular cultural meaning or the meaning that the author intended to convey. 

                            Example: “It's raining cats & dogs.”

                            Meaning: Cats & dogs are falling from the sky.

    Many times when someone states a literal interpretation, what they are actually meaning is a literalist interpretation.