Skip to comments.Should We Take the Bible Literally or Figuratively?
Posted on 04/18/2007 11:20:10 AM PDT by Salvation
Other Articles by Mary Harwell Sayler
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|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.
Please remember the rules of the Religion Moderator as this topic is discussed.
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In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.
at times literally (Jesus rose from the dead.)
at times figuratively. (Jesus the Lamb of God.)
At times both. (Jesus being the stone the builders rejected.)
Where is speaks on faith and morals, how to live a life the way God wants us to, it’s quite clear.
To What Degree does the Bible Matter to Catholicism?
"I have repeatedly offered $1000 to anyone who can prove to me from the Bible alone that I am bound to keep Sunday holy. There is no such law in the Bible. It is a law of the holy Catholic Church alone. The Bible says, 'Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.' The Catholic Church says: 'No. By my divine power I abolish the Sabbath day and command you to keep holy the first day of the week.' And lo! The entire civilized world bows down in a reverent obedience to the command of the holy Catholic Church. Priest Thomas Enright, CSSR, President of Redemptorist College, Kansas City, Missouri, in a lecture at Hartford, Kansas, and printed in the American Sentinel, June 1883, a New York Roman Catholic journal.
Is that literally or figuratively?
Excellent examples! Thank you!
Don’t be a “one-issue” guy here, please. There are many other things that we can discuss.
You see the word Sabbath and you assume I want to discuss that.... again? Address my inquiry, please. Is the Bible important to Catholicism, if at all, and how much? Is the Church bound by the scriptures or are the scriptures bound by the Church?
Nice article. I’ve always thought the answer to this question is “yes,” because so much of the Bible is written in allegory and parable.
Actually that joke has a double meaning. Did you get the part of the joke that implied you are off topic?
“Should we take the Bible literally or figuratively?”
I’ll lay a counter offer...I’ll give you $1000 if you can prove to me that Gentile Christians are either directly told to “keep the Sabbath” or told directly that “breaking the Sabbath” is a sin.
P.S. I’m not a Catholic.
We should take the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament, in the sense put in it by the inspired writers and attested to by the Fathers of the early Church. No figurative interpretation should take precedence over the literal interpretation, if the literal interpretation is available and has a patristic origin. Everything else is inserting your own meaning into the Bible.
I’m not going to hijack Salvation’s thread.
Did you read the part of my post that indicated my desire for them to have another thread discussing the relevancy of the Bible to a Catholic? My post was not about the Sabbath and was only slightly off topic. If the Catholic Church believes it can rewrite commandments, why bother reading scripture at all?
109 In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.75
110 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."76
111 But since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is another and no less important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter. "Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written."77
The Second Vatican Council indicates three criteria for interpreting Scripture in accordance with the Spirit who inspired it.78
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.79
2. Read the Scripture within "the living Tradition of the whole Church". According to a saying of the Fathers, 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, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture (". . . according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church"81).
115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.
The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal."83
1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing 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.84
2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written "for our instruction".85
3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, "leading"). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.86
118 A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses:
The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.87
Thank you for that. It’s amazing how clearly the Catechism can cut through to the heart of the matter...
(2) There has never been a Catholic journal in NY called "The American Sentinel."
(3) There is nor record of a Redemptorist College in Kansas City in 1883. Redemptorists of that region have been attending the Redemptorist Colllege in Waterford, WI for at least 70 years. There is a St. Louis University in St. Louis, MO that has an association with the Redemptorists, but no Redemptorist College (it's a Jesuit university).
(4) The St. Louis Province of Redemptorists was founded in 1875 - when the first American Redemptorist professed his vows - with jurisdiction over Kansas City and most of the American west. It seems unlikely that the Redemptorists got a whole college up and running while they were still raising funds for parishes, and unlikely that they would start by founding a college anywhere other than where they were headquartered.
It seems even more unlikely that there would be no record of such a college.
(5) The Redemptorist website has no record of any Fr. Thomas Enright. They have records on Redemptorists in America going back to the Revolution.
Your source is a fabrication.
And, even if it were not a fabrication and Thomas Enright was a real Redemptorist, Thomas Enright's personal opinion is not and can never be Church teaching.
Had this fictional Enright existed, he would have conceded that his opinions were entirely his own and subject to correction by anyone more knowledgeable than he.
Excellent information. Thanks, Frank!
Have you ever been to a Mass? If so ... did you listen? Not trying to be a smartaleck here ... just wondering if you've explored your own querie.
Which set of 10 came first ... Catholic or Protestant?
It seems to me that, if you're truly interested in learning about this subject, you'd simply go to the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" and read what the Catholic Church, officially, says.
After that, if you're deeply interested, you could read the source documents identified by the footnotes in the CCC. After that, if you're exceptionally interested, you could begin reading the sermons of the Greek and Latin Fathers, most of which are reflections on Scripture, in its many senses.
I fail to see how the discussion of a group of laypeople would edify you about "Catholicism" in some way that the official - publically available, in English - teachings and historic understandings of the Catholic Church would not.
Anything to assist your harried life, Mrs. Tax!
I’ve found that keeping a small, compact version of the Catechism by my reading chair has devolved into the equivalent of a dictionary. I refer to it more and more. And, now with book in hand, Fr. Corapi’s series is even more appreciated for the gem it is. He has estimated that over 2 billion people have watched that series, and Lord only knows how many languages it is translated into! He once said it would still be showing in 25 years!
Cool. I’ll have to see if it’s available on DVD.
Sorry, I did not know that you were Catholic. From the tone of your post I just presumed you were not and that you were spoiling for some kind of a fight.
As for me, Catholic beliefs do not change anything as to why I should read the Bible.
Well said! For someone who is not interested in “hijacking Salvation’s thread,” he is doing a superb job of “hijacking Salvation’s thread!”
A bit pricey! I decided to just watch as often as possible until I have seen each one 5 times. I should reach that by the year 2022. At least you know where I am on Sundays at 8:00. Of course, I could Tivo the thing!
Sooo, are you saying that lay people ought to just defer to the Church and not read scripture on their own?
Romans 14:5 Some consider one day more sacred than another; others consider every day alike. Everyone should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Those who regard one day as special do so to the Lord. Those who eat meat do so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and those who abstain do so to the Lord and give thanks to God. 7 For we do not live to ourselves alone and we do not die to ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
Acts 20:7 On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.
Why not just read post 28 and keep busy, FRiend?
Because you guys are pushing the issue. Ping me next time you take a shot at me, eh?
Why not stop pinging about something you don’t wish discussed, FRiend?
The Pope is the head of the Catholic Church.
Acts 20:7, of course, shows that Christians gathered on the first day of the week for the breaking of the bread and to hear the Word preached.
And, of course, the Resurrection itself is Scriptural ground enough to keep the first day of the week holy.
For someone not spoiling for a fight, you have a mighty big chip on your shoulder!
I didn’t post this, bub. You did.
People who have serious issues with the Bible taken literally or figuratively most often don’t understand what the Bible is. It was not written exclusively to the 21st century western culture. It is not exclusively a rulebook. It is not exclusively history, prophecy, or moral teachings. It is essentially the most relevant true story to our existence. It is timeless truth for humanity throughout our time here on Earth.
What the Bible says is entirely true, but has to be understood through the cultures which it was given. We must not make the error that we completely understand the Bible. Its core message is clear, but it touches on the deepest concepts in creation. Some concepts the Bible covers are complex to the point of being unknowable. Some things are mysteries now, but will be understood at a later point in human existence.
One thing is clear though: Jesus us the point of the Bible, and the reason for the Bible. The simple message of salvation through His sacrifice is its core message. Whatever else God may reveal to us through the Bible is secondary to Jesus.
(1)Because posting something in supersize font plus bold letters is the online equivalent of shouting at the top of your lungs.
(2) Because you provided a fraudulent quote as your leadoff argument.
At face value your "question" was a provocation.
Had your question been sincere it would probably have been written in words like:
"The Catholic Church holds it worship services on Sundays and calls that day the Lord's Day. What Scriptural reasoning is behind this practice?" And it would probably ahve been written in regular font and unaccompanied by faked quotes.
Hi Kerry; thanks for the question.
Well, continuing along the lines of what was discussed in other threads, maybe we should step back and see exactly what the Bible is and where it came from.
The Catholic Church produced the Bible. The Bible didn’t produce the Catholic Church. It is a document of and by the Church. The Bible is the most important document that it has produced, obviously, but, again, the Church alone is responsible for its content. And, unlike all other earthly entities, it alone has the authority to interpret it. Now who is it responsible to? To the One who gave it the authority to produce the Bible in the first place.
Now where did the Church get its authority? Jesus Christ. Protestants and all other non Catholics don’t have the authority because it was never given to them. Rather, they had - and have - the ability to join or rejoin the organization that has it. The Church is open to all who would follow Jesus. By His rules, not yours. The Church got its marching orders from Him and Him alone. Predating the Bible and definitely predating the mutilated versions that non Catholics often prefer.
The only reason that we can believe that the Bible is the Word of God is because the Church tells you. Not because of your inner feelings or whims or what a televangist tells you.
And this little article is suspect because of the language used. The Catholic Church does not say things like: The Catholic Church says: ‘No. By my divine power I abolish the Sabbath day and command you to keep holy the first day of the week.’ And lo! The entire civilized world bows down in a reverent obedience to the command of the holy Catholic Church.
Don’t think so.
However, the Church never abolished the Jewish Sabbath Day. It had no authority to do so. The Church, although we acknowledge our Jewish roots and reverence the Jewish people as the first chosen to hear the Word of God, has no authority over Judaism. She DID, however have the authority to create a new Christian Holy Day. The First day of the week, in weekly memory of the Risen Lord. And she did so. I see nothing wrong with it and everything right with it.
And, to neatly wrap up the post so as to comply with the rules concerning topic drift, the Church, over the millennia has delved deeply into which parts of the Bible are to be taken literally and what are to be taken figurately. The Catechism, on line and freely available to all who would access it, can address each of your questions as they arise. The knowledge, of which I am sometimes woefully lacking, is there for anyone to see.