Literal Interpretation of the Scriptures: Why We Need MORE

Melvin Cook, famous chemist and ardent LDS young-earth creationist, thought scripture should be interpreted literally.

My analysis is intended to be strictly literalistic; in my view, intellectual honesty requires literalism in the interpretation of the scriptures.

President Joseph Fielding Smith also made repeated statements about the necessity of reading scripture literally.

I agree with them. But I’ll go one better and do something they never did: I’m going to define the term “literal.”

But first let’s unpack a little, because typical use of “literal” involves at least two implicit assumptions.

  1. The “literal” reading is the authoritative reading.
  2. That authoritative “literal” reading is immediately accessible to any reader where the language is plain, i.e. a “face-value” reading. 

Many would agree with assumption 1, and I do too, to an extent; in simplified form, we believe scripture has authority, and that author-ity is entangled with the inspiration of the authors. What God inspired is the meaning Moses or Paul or Joseph Smith intended to communicate. (It’s not quite that simple for a variety of reasons, but sufficient for my purpose here.)

Which gets us to assumption #2, which is much more problematic, and I’ll use Isaiah to illustrate why. Isaiah spoke to his contemporaries. His preaching made extensive use of people, places, culture, history, politics, and linguistic hooks (like poetry) common to his time and his audience. The denotations and connotations could go without being said; as contemporaries and natives, they understood these references and the implicit connotations and meanings they carried. We are not natives, and so we don’t understand Isaiah unless all those implicit connotations and meanings are made explicit. That implicit contextual meaning is not included in the words.

This means that a translation, however good, however plain the language, simply can’t convey all the meaning intended, all the meaning that that the audience would have gotten. And sometimes, the key aspects go without being said. Genres are rarely made explicit, for example, because the native audience recognizes them from genre markers, not explicit labels or tags saying “this is a parable.” And without that fullness of context, we’re likely to misunderstand what Isaiah meant, even if the language is plain.

Joseph Fielding Smith and other General Authorities have sometimes emphasized the importance of reading scripture in context, and not taking it out of context. “Taking it out of context” sounds like something we do actively, a sin of commission. And with certain kinds of context, that’s true. We do need to read a verse with what comes before and after that verse, ditto for chapters. That’s fairly easy.

But given what I said above, we can’t read a passage with all the important context unless we are actively seeking out that context to put back in. Reading out of context is a sin of omission because we fail to recover the full context. It’s not included in the text.  Where do we get that context? Who helps us understand Isaiah’s language, culture, geography, history, allusions, etc.? Well, experts and specialists who are trained in language, culture, geography, history, and literature, i.e…. scholars.

Says Elder Ballard,

[some] types of questions… require an expert in a specific subject matter. This is exactly what I do when I need an answer to such questions: I seek help from others, including those with degrees and expertise in such fields.

I worry sometimes that members expect too much from Church leaders and teachers—­expecting them to be experts in subjects well beyond their duties and responsibilities. The Lord called the apostles and prophets to invite ­others to come unto Christ—not to obtain advanced degrees in ancient history, biblical studies, and other fields that may be useful in answering all the questions we may have about scriptures, history, and the Church.

Let’s return to “literal” and assumption #2, that the “literal” reading is immediately accessible to any reader where the language is plain, i.e. a “face-value” reading. 

As it turns out, there is long long usage of “literal” with a different sense than the popular misuse of it as a synonym for “real” or “historical.” It is, in fact, the actual definition of “literal” as it applies to interpretation of scripture. Christianity has long had several identifiable and labeled kinds of interpretation, one of them being the “literal sense” which goes back at least to Augustine’s 4th century “Literal Commentary on Genesis,” Genesi ad Litteram.

It is important to understand that Augustine deploys the descriptor “literal” here in a way somewhat unfamiliar to modern readers, using it to distinguish his approach in this work from highly allegorical or moral readings of Genesis that were common during this period. Augustine sought, in his literal meaning, to establish the sense intended by the author.

-Peter Harrison, historian of science and religion, in Evolution and the Fall

The Reformation continued this sense of “literal” and even emphasized it over the other senses or interpretations of scripture (i.e. the moral, allegorical, and anagogic interpretations.) It remains a shared definition between Catholic and Protestant scholars. For example, Joseph Fitzmeyer in The Interpretation of Scripture, “The Literal Sense of Scripture.”

A standard, modern definition of the literal sense of Scripture runs like this: ‘The sense which the human author directly intended and which the written words conveyed.’

He then quotes Pope Pius XII,

Let interpreters bear in mind that their foremost and greatest endeavor should be to discern and define clearly that sense of the biblical words that is called ‘literal’ … so that the mind of the author may be made abundantly clear.

And here’s the official Catholic Catechism.

In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current. ‘For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression’” (CCC 32).

Protestant scholars agree with this definition, e.g. literal is

 “the type of interpretation where one reads passages as organic wholes and tries to understand what each passage expresses against the background of the original human author and the original situation.”

– Tremper Longman

And John Walton is blunt.

A literal reading [of Genesis] requires an understanding of the Hebrew language and the Israelite culture.

To summarize, a literal interpretation is not a surface reading of English— however plain— but one which tries to recover as much context as possible about the author’s setting, culture, language, history, intent, etc. And that requires work. We have to work to put scripture back into context. If we don’t do that work, we are reading scripture out of context by default. An out-of-context reading is absolutely NOT a “literal reading.”

In short, I agree that we need to read scripture literally; but “literal” says nothing about the genre of a given text, whether it is history, historical fiction, parable, etc. To read literally, we must do some work to recover the “the conditions of [the author’s] time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current.”

Assuming all scripture is historical by default also isn’t reading literally. It’s misreading. A reading of Genesis (or Moses or Abraham) which assumes it must be speaking about natural history and scientific facts isn’t a literal reading. It’s a misreading based on post-Enlightenment assumptions that truth means fact, and fact means science and history, and the meaning of the passage can be ascertained without any kind of context at all.

Those are deeply flawed assumptions.

So when I advocate that we need to read scripture literally more, I am not woodenly declaring everything to be history. Rather, I am calling for us to give up our literal lazy surface readings, to empty our cupboard of theological Twinkies,
and engage in deeper, closer reading, to make effort to seek out contexts for our scriptures… as the prophets have said. Only then can we lay claim to a literal reading of scripture.

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2 thoughts on “Literal Interpretation of the Scriptures: Why We Need MORE

  1. Yes, John Walton changed my understanding of what it means to read the scriptures “literally.” Your article reminds me of a statement attributed to Joseph Smith. “I believe the bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers; ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors.” [1] “Ignorant translators” is not necessarily a pejorative; it simply means a “translator” who doesn’t know something essential for a correct understanding and interpretation, and it includes reading the scriptures out of context, as you say. Joseph himself attempted to learn Hebrew in order to better understand the book of Genesis, notwithstanding his prophetic gifts. Having said that, the amount of context you refer to here is far beyond my abilities to acquire independently, and I am dependent on others, scholars like you, to provide the context and genre for me, to in a sense interpret the scriptures for me. My experience is much like President Ballard’s in that experts like yourself provide enlightening and satisfying answers to many of my questions. Yet here’s the rub. Which scholars am I to believe? What if they’re wrong?

    The good news is that ultimately it doesn’t matter. To understand the plan of salvation sufficiently to follow it to exhalation requires accepting a few plain truths, such as that God created the earth, mankind is created in His image, and that there was a fall by which humanity is estranged from God, and so forth, without having to understand very much about them. A peasant can be saved as well as a doctor of philosophy. These are the ideas that the Book of Mormon prophets emphasize. To me this means we can engage in scholarship, or not, to the extent we are inclined to do. There is no need to insist that ones interpretation is the only valid one. Contentious disputations about doctrine are explicitly condemned by the Lord. I am not obligated to accept any one interpretation as eternal truth. Scholarship changes, and who knows how Genesis will be interpreted 100 or 1000 years from now? I find the scholastic discussions interesting and sometimes convincing, but I am not prepared to bare testimony of them.

    Thank you for your thoughtful and faithful articles! I have learned a lot by reading them.


    Liked by 1 person

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