The Literal Method of Interpretation

The Literal Method of Interpretation

            The Literal method of interpretation stands in direct opposition of the Allegorical method discussed in the previous study.  The Literal method of interpretation is defined by Pentecost as “that method that gives to each word the same exact basic meaning it would have in a normal, ordinary, customary usage, whether employed in writing, speaking, or thinking.” (Pentecost, 1974)  In short, this could be stated in the more simple idea that God meant exactly what He wrote.  There is no need for trying to decipher words or phrases in search of some “deeper meaning”.  The Literal method also employs using both the grammatical and historical considerations of the passage, which helps to bring writing from antiquity into a more understandable meaning today as it also accounts for customs and practices of that time period. (Pentecost, 1974)

It is noted by Ramm that Ezra is considered to be the first of the Jewish Interpreters and therefore the first instance of using Biblical hermeneutics. (Ramm, 1970)  As this method moves throughout history, the key component of its practice is that the interpreters continue to use the Word of God as the Authority for interpretation and that interpretation is based in a literal rendering of the passage.  Some of the key rules developed during these periods in history are still in use today.  Ramm points out that these include:  (i)Words must be understood in terms of the sentence , and a sentence in terms of its context. (ii) Scriptures dealing with similar topics should be compared to relieve apparent contradictions. (iii) Clear passages should be given preference over one less evident if both are dealing with the same subject matter. (iv) Very close attention should be paid to spelling, grammar, and figures of speech.  (v) Logic can be used to determine the application of Scripture to problems in life not specifically treated, and (vi) God has chosen to speak in the tongue of man so that he can understand it.  (Ramm, 1970)

There would continue to be schools of Allegorists to emerge during this same time and would be in direct opposition to the Literal approach but much support can be given for the Literal method.  Some of these included by Pentecost are:  (i) The literal meaning of sentences if used as the normal approach for all languages. (ii) Any secondary meanings found in the passage are dependent upon the previous literal meaning of the terms. (iii) The majority of Scripture makes adequate sense when interpreted literally.  (iv) The literal approach maintains room for figures of speech, symbols, allegories, and types when the nature of the passage demands so.  (v) The literal approach is the only approach that offers a way to check and confirm the interpretation. (vi) This approach clearly fits with the nature of Inspiration of Scripture. (Pentecost, 1974)  One point to re-emphasize is the fact that the Literal method does allow for figurative speech.  When figurative speech occurs in the Scripture, the Bible student realizes that the purpose of the figurative speech is to reveal a literal truth but never at the cost of destroying the literal truth that is intended in the Scripture. (Pentecost, 1974)

The Literal approach is certainly not without its objectors.  Three objections are brought out by Pentecost concerning this approach:  (i) The Bible contains figures of speech. (ii) God is a spirit and therefore the teachings of Scripture are Spiritual in nature and are taught with earthly objects and human relationships. (iii) The Old Testament holds deeper meaning in its words than what they appear to literally contain. (Pentecost, 1974)  How is the Bible student to answer the critics on these objections?  Is there merit for these complaints of the Literal method?  In answer to the appearance of the figures of speech found in Scripture, it has already been shown that both the literal method and figures of speech can easily co-exist within the boundaries of sound hermeneutical practice as long as the Bible student realizes that the figures of speech are there to reveal a literal truth.  The student must remember that the Literal method includes the historical characteristics as well, which include figures of speech possibly found and known to the people of the period.  For example, all throughout Scripture the Lord is referred to as the “Shepherd”.  The Bible student clearly understands that the Lord is not a physical Shepherd in the sense of having sheep, a sheepfold, pasture, etc.  The figure of speech however is used to express the great and marvelous fact that the Lord very much has the duties and characteristics of a Shepherd towards His people.  No harm is done with the fact that this “picture” is used to teach the literal truth of God’s provision and protection for His children.  Literal methods of interpretation and figures of speech can be used in harmony.

The second attack on the Literal method employs the idea that, because God is a Spirit, there is no “tangible” teaching of literal things to be drawn out of Scripture.  There is merely “ideas” and “life mottos” that one can take and use to commune with God on a Spiritual plane.  God simply used earthly objects and human relationships understandable by carnal man to present Spiritual teaching.  This idea would be used to support the heretical Allegorical approach.  Things such as the Garden of Eden, The Flood, even Satan himself are “stories” to present a humanistic lesson to mankind.  This could not be further from the truth!  God, though existing in Spirit, very much longs for His creation to know Him and to know His Word.  It is not a Book of suggestions and ideas, but is a Living Book that is overflowing with literal truth for the Christian.  It is the Literal accounts of Biblical lives of God’s people and truths given to mankind inspired by the Spirit.  Sin is real.  The penalty for sin is real.  A real Hell awaits for all those who die without Christ.  What a sad account it would be if that is where it ended!  There is also the fact that Christ and His Sacrifice is real!  Salvation through His shed blood is real!  Heaven and the future Kingdom and new Heavens and Earth are real!  The idea of “spiritual” ideas and philosophies without tangible truths is totally unfounded.

           The last argument deals with the idea that there is more in the Old Testament that meets the eye.  Lessons and truths brought forth in the Old Testament and discussed in the New Testament seem to perhaps go deeper than realized at first glance.  Interpreters then use this idea to allegorize Scripture.  When the Bible student truly studies this relationship, however, the conclusion is arrived that shows the New Testament truths of the Old Testament are brought about through literal fulfillment.  Types are many times used in the New Testament to refer back to the Old Testament, yet this is not allegorization.  Just as with figures of speech, types are used to represent and teach a literal truth that can be used by the believer.  God has perfectly chosen the components of Scripture for mankind.  Its truths are real.  The Literal interpretive approach is the only vehicle through which the Bible student can arrive confidently at the intent and teaching of Scripture.


Pentecost, D. J. (1974). Things To Come. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Ramm, B. (1970). Protestant Biblical Interpretation. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Cushing-Malloy, Inc.

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Filed under Bible Study, Prophecy

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