“So, do you take the Bible literally?” The guy sitting next to me in Music Appreciation class had just discovered I was a Christian, and he was eager to start a debate. His question took me a bit off guard, and so I paused, not knowing what to say. I had only been a believer for a little over a year, and I knew that I interpreted the Bible literally. Or at least I thought I did.
The dilemma in that brief moment was very real to me. If I say yes, he will point to a figure of speech in Scripture that will make me look ridiculous. But if I say no, he will think that I’m denying the reality of hell or the historicity of events like the resurrection of Christ.
The correct answer to the question, of course, is that we should interpret the Bible literally where it was intended to be taken literally, and figuratively where it was intended to be taken figuratively. This flows out of our overall goal to discern the authorial intent of a given passage of Scripture, and in this way, we approach Scripture like we would any other piece of literature. But this only raises another question: How do we know when the biblical author is using symbolic language and when he is not? How do we distinguish the one from the other?
Our starting point, of course, is to begin with the literal interpretation. As Bernard Ramm wrote in Protestant Biblical Interpretation:
Whenever we read a book, an essay, or a poem we presume the literal sense in the document until the nature of the literature may force us to another level. This is the only conceivable method of beginning or commencing to understand literature of all kinds (p. 123).
Not only is this the only conceivable approach, but it also reflects the reality that symbolic language is a departure from the literal, and not vice versa.
This is a good starting point, but we still need to wrestle with the question of what exactly should compel us to abandon the literal interpretation. If I am studying a passage of Scripture, and I think that something might be intended symbolically, what exactly should I be looking for to make that decision? I would like to suggest that in order to determine whether or not the language in question is symbolic, we must begin by asking the following three questions:
1. Does it possess some degree of absurdity when taken literally?
The literal meaning of symbolic language ought to cause the interpreter to scratch his head and ask, “But how can this be?” In other words, there is something inherent in symbolic language that compels the interpreter to seek something other than a literal meaning. That something is a degree of absurdity that is found in a literal understanding of the language.
For example, consider Isaiah 55:12, where the Lord says, “And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” Does this verse possess some degree of absurdity when taken literally? Yes, of course, for how is it that literal trees could clap their hands? Simply put, literal trees do not have literal hands. (At this point, a word caution is in order, for many supernatural truths or acts of God may seem absurd to the unbelieving mind, which is not at all what I’m referring to here.)
2. Does it possess some degree of clarity when taken symbolically?
Put simply, symbolic language effectively communicates what it symbolizes. In other words, when you conclude that the literal meaning of the language is absurd and ought to be abandoned, a symbolic interpretation should yield some degree of clarity to the meaning of the language of the text. With symbolic language, then, the meaning intended by the symbolism is essentially clear and understandable.
Consider again the example of Isaiah 55:12. Does this verse possess some degree of clarity when taken symbolically? Absolutely, for when understood symbolically, it clearly and effectively communicates that Israel’s return from exile will be a time of great rejoicing. In this way, we might say that Isaiah 55:12 possesses the first two characteristics needed to be considered a candidate for symbolic language: a degree of absurdity when taken literally, and a degree of clarity when taken symbolically.
3. Does it fall into an established category of symbolic language?
As Walt Kaiser notes, figures of speech are “legitimate departures from the normal use of words for special purposes. Thus, they are limited in number; they can be described, named, and defined in accordance with known examples” (Toward an Exegetical Theology, p. 122; emphasis original). Therefore, if you think that a biblical writer may be using symbolic language, determine whether the language in question falls into an established category of such language. Some of the more common figures of speech include the use of simile (Isaiah 53:6a; Psalm 42:1), metaphor (Psalm 84:11a; 2 Peter 2:17), hypocatastasis (Acts 20:29; Jeremiah 4:7), hyperbole (Psalm 6:6; 1 Samuel 1:23), personification (Isaiah 35:1; 1 Corinthians 15:55), and anthropomorphism (Psalm 8:3; 2 Chronicles 16:9a).
Returning again to Isaiah 55:12, we find that the language of this verse does indeed fall into an established category of symbolic language. More specifically, it contains an obvious example of personification in which the trees are pictured as people who are rejoicing by clapping their hands. Therefore, the verse is best understood as a symbolic statement which pictures Israel’s return from exile as a time of such rejoicing that even the trees will be filled with delight!