Biblical Evidences

Literal Or Figurative?
How Can We Determine?

Elmer Moore


To the Ephesians Paul wrote: "Be not foolish, but know the will of the Lord," (Eph. 5:17). The passage identifies two alternatives: Be foolish or understand the will of the Lord. He further wrote, "How that by revelation was made known unto me the mystery, as I wrote before in few words, whereby when ye read, ye can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ," (Eph. 3:3-4). The word "mystery" simply means something not heretofore made known., (v. 5).

He declares that God chose the word method of revealing His mind to man. Whatever is characteristic of this type of communication is true of the Scriptures. Whatever strength or weakness that is inherent in this type of communication is inherent in Scripture as well. A word is simply a symbol of an idea, a vehicle of thought. Words are arranged into sentences and sentences into paragraphs and etc.

The student of the Bible will endeavor to determine the meaning of a statement at the time it was written and how it was understood by those addressed. This is true of any document. To properly understand, one must be able to determine if a word or a passage is being used in a literal sense or in a figurative sense.

There are those who will tell you that everything in the Bible is literal and there are those who argue that nothing in the Bible is literal; that everything is figurative. Both of these concepts are wrong. Surely no one thinks that when Jesus said "go and say to that fox" that He meant that Herod had long ears and a bushy tail. Neither are we to understand that when Paul said "Hagar is mount Sinai," (Gal. 4:25), that he intended to suggest that she was a mountain. You hear people say that the "Bible means just what it says." This statement, intended to praise the Bible, unwittingly sets forth an erroneous concept. The Bible means what it means, and to determine the proper meaning of a passage, we must be able to distinguish between the literal and the figurative.

Words are capable of being used figuratively. However, there is no such thing as a figurative definition of a word. "If a word or words be a figure, then that figure can be named, and described," (Bullinger, figures of speech, Intro, p. 11). Bullinger also writes, "We are dealing with a science whose laws and their workings are known." Those laws must be respected. If they are not then language would not be a means of communication.

The following rules are taken from Bullinger, Dungan, and Grubbs. I have taken the liberty to state these rules as I understand them.

Please note the following from Bullinger: "It may be asked, How are we to know, then, when words are to be taken in their simple, original form (i.e., literally), and when they are to be taken in some other peculiar form (i.e., as a figure)? The answer is that, whenever and wherever possible, the words of Scripture are to be understood literally, but when a statement occurs that is contrary to our experience, or known fact, or revealed truth; or seems to be at variance with the general teaching of the Scriptures, then we must expect that some figure is employed. As it is employed only to call our attention to some specially designed emphasis, we are at once bound to diligently examine the figure for the purpose of discovering and learning the truth that is thus emphasized" (p. 15, Figures in general).

Consider, if you will, the following rules that describes several ways in which one can know that a passage of Scripture is figurative.

First: One is not at liberty to arbitrarily decide that a word or phrase is figurative. We must always give a word a literal meaning unless it is impossible to reasonably do so. If this is not respected then words would not be a medium of communication. A violation of this rule is seen in the doctrine of the Catholic Church. They cite 1 Peter 5:13 that states "She that is in Babylon, elect together with you, saluteth you" and argue that "Babylon the great," (Rev. 17:5) is described as Rome (v. 9). From this they conclude that Peter was at Rome as the Pope when he wrote First Peter. This is a violation of the very first rule of language. Almost anything can be proven by this method of argumentation. Was there a place called Babylon? Absolutely! Hence, we do not need to make the term "Babylon" figurative in 1 Peter.

Second: We must allow the immediate context to help decide if the language is figurative or literal. The sense of the immediate context will indicate how a word or phrase is being used.

Third: "A word or sentence is figurative if making it literal involves an impossibility" (Dungan, p. 195).

Fourth: The harmony of Scripture demands that we never interpret one passage to conflict with another. Thus, language must be regarded as figurative if the literal interpretation would cause one passage to contradict another.

Fifth: If making a passage literal would demand actions that are wrong or forbid things that are right, we must conclude that it is figurative (Matt. 5:29-30).

Sixth: Language is figurative when it is said to be so (John 2:18-22).

Seventh: Language is figurative when one thing is said to be another, (Matt. 26:26-28). For example, "This is my body," or "This is my blood." The figure involved is called a metaphor.

Eighth: Language is figurative when a part is put for a whole or the whole for a part; when the plural is put for the singular, and etc. This figure is very common and can readily be understood when one respects the context which involves the statement, the immediate text and the remote passages on the same subject.

Last, but not least, use of common sense.

I am not implying that what I have written exhausts this subject but I hope the thoughts presented here will be of help to any who desire to distinguish between literal and figurative language found in Scripture.


e-mail this author at pmitch@lcc.net

Return to Watchman Front Page

return to April 1999 index