No, I'm Sorry, You Actually DON'T Read the Bible "Literally"
All too often I'll come across some article or blog post from a Christian author or whatever warning his/her readers about the dangers of reading the Bible typologically or symbolically. They warn that, while there is symbolism in the Bible, we must be weary to actually look too far into these repeated symbols. Almost without fail these writers take a turn in their article to how we should all just "read the Bible 'literally'."
While I can stand (to some degree) warnings against typology and symbology hocus-pocus, the fact that these writers then fall back on this "literal" interpretation of the Bible just makes me want to laugh. The reason it makes me want to laugh is because not one of those people claiming to read the Bible "literally" actually do! Yeah, they sure claim to! In fact, about 90% of the time they actually do read the Bible "literally" (even in parts of the Bible that are seeping with types and anitypes). But if you really press these people about how they interpret certain parts of the Bible their entire hermeneutic agenda breaks down when they begin to sidestep around that so called "literal" approach.
A couple of examples come to mind, but first, a story.
A few years ago I was in a Bible study that wanted to study the book of Revelation. It was around this time that I was beginning to see that the New Testament made a lot more sense through a preterist lens (Canon completed before 70AD & most prophecies in Revelation/Gospels/Epistles about future are concerning the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD). The guy who was to lead this proposed study took a staunch Historical Premillennial approach to Revelation/eschatology (Future rapture, tribulation, Armageddon, Antichrist, etc). I let the group know that I was apprehensive about the study because I will (likely) have a different perspective on things. All in all we went forward with the study and let's just say it was interesting.
The way all this relates to what I'm writing above is that the guy leading the group often attacked my symbolic approach to Revelation by saying that his approach was "literal." The only problem with this is that he would then turn around and say that the dragon with 10 horns and 7 eyes is a future world empire that will persecute Christians...What? I thought you just said that you read the Bible "literally." How can you then turn around and say that the dragon is a symbol for something else? I thought the dragon was literally a dragon!? It was pretty clear that both he and I were reading the Bible symbolically (in fact everyone must do this) the difference was that I was looking for my symbols and counter symbols in other parts of the Bible (OT prophecies) while he was looking for his symbols in world events and mid-twentieth century dispensationalism.
Now for my two examples.
One of my favorite things to bring up to people who claim to read the Bible "literally" (usually Baptists) is how can they take 1 Corinthians 10:2 "literally?" 1 Corinthians 10:2 "literally" says "and all [Israel] were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea." What's Paul talking about here? He's referencing Exodus 14:29 which talks about Israel escaping Egypt through the read sea, "But the sons of Israel walked through dry land through the midst of the sea..."
Baptist often say that someone must be immersed in Baptism because the word "baptize" in Greek "literally" means immerse. Yet Paul says that Israel was "baptized" and he's referencing an event that makes a point to say that no one got wet??? How can we literally believe that they were baptized and that no one got wet ("on dry land")?!?
Most baptists will end up giving a very non-literal interpretation to this passage.
Another place where I like to challenge people on their "literal" approach to the Bible is from 1 Peter 3:21, "...baptism now saves you..." This one really stumps all the reformed folks who are very adamant that they read the Bible "literally" and that Baptism does nothing. "It's just an outward sign of what we hope has/will occur inwardly."
Yet that's not what the Bible "literally" says is it? Nope, 1 Peter 3:21 says that "baptism saves." How very Romish of you Peter!
Now, what I want to conclude in saying here is not that we need to take these passages literally or symbolically. What I want to say is that NO ONE actually reads the whole Bible "literally." What I want to conclude with is a call to all those who claim to do so to STOP!
Stop trying to claim the hermeneutical "high ground" with your literal approach. You don't actually do it. To some degree or another we all read the Bible symbolically.
Food for thought.