A common label thrown at Bible-believing Christians is that they are “Biblical literalists,” that is, they interpret every part of the Bible in a completely literal, rigid fashion. Sadly, this charge is often made within the church. I was in a class at my church last Spring where nearly all the members were shocked that I believed that the original writings of the Bible were inspired by God. I was accused of being a literalist (eek!). I thought I had gone to the Unitarian church by mistake.
Sometimes the charge has merit, such as when someone takes a given passage in a wooden fashion and causes unnecessary divisions. Interpreting the Book of Revelation is an example, where in my opinion some are too literal with their end times predictions. Sometimes people take verses out of context to “prove” something they favor. Some Bible reading tips to help avoid this are located here.
But I think the charge is mostly aimed at those who take the Bible seriously and who believe that the original writings were inspired by God. The Bible claims to speak for God several thousand times, so one would think that anyone calling themselves a Christian wouldn’t find it controversial to claim that the Bible is God’s Word.
Jesus used hyperbole, or extreme exaggeration, in saying it was better to gouge out our eyes or cut off our hands if that would stop us from sinning (at least I hope He was exaggerating!). He also said to love your enemies and hate your parents. But the passage where he said to hate your parents is also hyperbole. He was making the point that we should love him so much more than other people and things that relatively speaking it would look like hate. He obviously didn’t mean that literally.
Sometimes the criticisms are leveled at those who think Noah and Jonah are real people. But when you read those passages, do they sound like allegories or real events? If God made the universe and everything in it, is any miracle in the Bible too hard for him?
Ironically, those who hurl the literalist label are usually the first to take a verse literally and out of context. The favorite verse of some Christians (and non-Christians) appears to be Matthew 7:1, where Jesus says, “Do not judge.” They use this as an excuse for any and all behavior and to deflect criticism. If they would keep reading they would see that Jesus meant not to judge hypocritically. There are plenty of verses teaching that we need to make sound judgments, such as John 7:24 (“Stop judging on mere appearances and make a right judgment.”)
In an additional irony, they use this verse to judge those who make judgments. If anyone ever throws that verse at you out of context, then just reply by asking, “If it is wrong to judge, why are you judging me right now?”