Following my viewing of this superb discussion between the previous Archbishop of Canterbury and Richard Dawkins:

Dialogue with Richard Dawkins, Rowan Williams and Anthony Kenny (YouTube)

. . . I understood that Archbishop Rowan Williams interpreted the Genesis creation account not perhaps as literal but to be understood as a theme: God created everything and created man in His image.

What is an overview of Christian approaches to the Bible that utilize a non-literal method of interpreting the various texts of the Bible?

Here are two examples of what I might mean by "non-literal interpretation" in particular stories in the Bible:

  • Noah's ark: not perhaps to be read as a literal historical account, but rather as a story in which God offers salvation to all those who will "come aboard the ship of faith"
  • Samson and Delilah: Samson's power was "cut off" through the temptation of a woman
  • 1
    There have been many such approaches to the Bible throughout Christian history. It would be impossible to cover them all in the short-form answers allowed for here on C.SE. It might be possible to ask an overview question on metaphorical interpretation of the Bible that would fly. As it is now, this question is far too broad to be reasonably answered here. Commented Mar 4, 2017 at 18:37
  • @LeeWoofenden not sure what you mean lee...please edit so that the question is not closed ;)
    – David
    Commented Mar 4, 2017 at 23:53
  • I gave a shot at it. Let me know if this works for you, or just re-edit if it doesn't. Commented Mar 5, 2017 at 0:10
  • @rhetorician Sorry I stomped on your edits. I had already written my whole edit and was about to hit the button when it said that another edit had been made. Commented Mar 5, 2017 at 0:12
  • @LeeWoofenden: Stomp away. I wasn't that satisfied with my edit and intended to re-edit my edit. Before I did so, however, I took time out to view the "debate" the OP provided a link to. Don Commented Mar 5, 2017 at 1:57

2 Answers 2


A comprehensive overview of sorts is attempted on the Wikipedia page on Biblical Hermeneutics, but it is so comprehensive that it is incomprehensible (at least to me).

I think an abridged overview of sorts can be constructed by looking at what hermeneutic principles were applied within the Church during its first few hundred years.

Justin Martyr (100-165), relied heavily on typology in the interpretation of the Old Testament that he presented to Trypho, a Jew (Dialog with the Jew Trypho). His typological interpretation of the flood comes close to what you posted in your question.

Irenaeus of Lyon (130-202) relied heavily on a hermeneutic principle of letting Scripture interpret Scripture. This means that (John Breck, Scripture in Tradition, p.53):

a. Every interpretation must be in harmony with other passages of Scripture

b. Obscure passages can be interpreted by those that are clear and evident

Following Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, hermeneutics took the form of an Alexandrian "school" and an Antioch (or Antiochene) "school". Exegesis within the Alexandrian school was generally allegorical, whereas exegesis within the Antiochene school relied on a more literal reading of Scripture. The most prominent exegetes within each of these schools within the Church were probably the contemporaries Cyril of Alexandria (376-444) and John Chrysostom (349-407). Although each are classified as belonging to their respective school, neither was strictly allegorical or strictly literal in their exegesis. Both Cyril and Chrysostom employed all of the aforementioned methods, but employed certain techniques more than others.

I think that any hermeneutic principle that developed after the late 4th/early 5th century can probably be analyzed in terms of how much it employs each of the early methods discussed above:

  • Typology

  • Using Scripture to interpret Scripture

  • Allegory

  • Historical/factual reading


[NOTE TO READERS: Consider the following answer a précis overview which focuses primarily on the distinctly Jewish understanding of the hermeneutical principles involved in reading and understanding the Tanach, at least until the end of the Mishnaic period, ca. 220 CE.]

The writers of the Tanakh (aka the "Old Testament") and the people who figure prominently in their writings were well aware of the different senses in which words could be used, both literally and figuratively.

The prophet Nathan, for example, knew he was using words allegorically when he told King David the story of the rich man who owned many flocks and herds but who took the poor man's one little ewe lamb to feed a house guest. Enraged at the injustice of it all, and not knowing that the prophet was speaking allegorically about David's sins of stealing another man's wife (Bathsheba) and having her husband Uriah killed, David said,

As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity 12:5b-6 KJV).

Nathan then responded to the enraged king,

"Thou art the [rich] man!"

Glossing over, for the time being, the prophet's persuasive use of figurative language to make his point (I am, after all, a rhetorician!), the writers of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures and their audiences were well aware of the variety of ways in which words could be used.

Furthermore, the very existence of the three-fold division of the Hebrew Scriptures into the Chumash or Torah, (Law); Neviim (Prophets); and Kesuvim (Writings); shows that the readers and interpreters of the Old Testament documents during the years when they were in the process of becoming the organic Canon of the Tanach (the date of its completion being hotly disputed!) were well aware of genres and also different categories of content within God's written Word (e.g., aggadic content--the non-law oriented and chiefly homiletical subject matter, and halakha--the received laws within the 24 books of the tripartite division of the Hebrew Scriptures).

Even the writers of Sacred Text, such as the prophets, knew that mountains and hills do not sing and that the trees of the field do not clap their hands (see Isaiah 55:12). The psalmists and other writers of Scripture knew they were not writing history or law when they resorted to poetic expression, referring to the LORD as a shepherd (Psalm 23), a rock (2 Samuel 22:32), a mighty fortress (2 Samuel 22:2), a shelter or refuge (Psalm 91:2; 61:3), or a bird having feathers and wings (Psalm 91:4).

Furthermore, the writers of inspired Scripture used many anthropomorphisms to describe who God is and what God is like. The whole notion of similitude--from which we derive rhetorical tropes and figures such as metaphors, analogies, and similes, is foundational to the communication process and has been for millennia.

All this to say: any overview of the non-literal use of language by the authors of sacred Writ must include the Judeo-Christian Scriptures in their entirety, from beginning to end.

Where your question enters the picture is at the juncture of exegesis and hermeneutics. In other words, once we know how specific words are defined and what those words meant to the author and, later, to readers (the process of exegesis), only then can we discern what those words signify and symbolize. In other words, we are then free to engage in hermeneutics (i.e., interpretation), harmonizing the words of a given text with the rest of Scripture, and finally to apply them, if appropriate, to our lives.

Keep in mind that all words are symbols. Language is a symbol system in which words (sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books) stand for, or substitute for, ideas, whether they be concrete in nature (e.g., "Ur of the Chaldees," "30 pieces of silver," "King Hezekiah") or highly abstract ("the LORD is my rock," "I am the bread of life," "you must be born again").

I suspect that behind your question is a concern for how in the process of interpreting Scripture are we to distinguish the concrete from the abstract, the literal from the figurative, the "spiritual" from the physical. Going "too far" (however that may be judged) in one direction or the other can do violence to any given text. Since the authors of Scripture recognized and built upon the way in which words can function literally and figuratively, for an interpreter of Scripture to make virtually everything (slight exaggeration) spiritual, is a major exegetical and hermeneutical error. On the other hand, for an interpreter to err on the side of the physical and the concrete is also unwise.

From at least the Midrashic period in Judaism, the so-called PaRDeS method of biblical interpretation was taught by rabbis and scribes, and learned by their pupils. The acronym PaRDeS stands for P -eshat, the literal, plain, or simple meaning; R-emez, the deep, allegorical meanings or hints; D-erash*, the comparative, metaphorical meaning; and S-od*, the hidden, philosophical, secret, or mysterious meaning.

The four ways of interpreting Scripture which evolved during that period in the history of Judaism are at the heart of Midrashic hermeneutics (see also R. N. Longenecker's Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, by Paternoster Press, Carlisle, UK 1995).

Obviously, Remez and Sod are the two hermeneutical principles which are more susceptible to mis-interpretation, given their extrapolated meanings, significance, and application. Of the two, Remez is perhaps the easier to deal with.

For example, the Bible's teaching on "differing weights" being an abomination to the LORD (see Leviticus 19:36; Deuteronomy 25:13; Proverbs 16:11; Proverbs 20:10; Proverbs 20:23; and Micah 6:11) is relatively easy to deal with on the P'shat and Remez levels. Accordingly, once an interpreter knows that merchants in ancient times could (if they chose to) use inaccurate or differing weights in measuring the weight of the produce they sold, he or she can then discern the deeper meanings quite easily. In this case, the Remez is that the LORD expects his children to exemplify godly and biblical ethics, such as honesty and fairness, in their dealings with others, whether fellow Jews or Gentiles.

Interestingly, the Talmud includes a warning to biblical interpreters to the effect that "No [biblical] passage loses its P'shat." This rule of thumb is helpful to interpreters in any era, since in order to arrive at a "deeper meaning" from a word (or an aggregation of words), one has to know what the plain meaning of the word is.

For example, if interpreters read that the LORD is a fortress to his children, then they need first to know what a fortress is, how it is designed, and how it functions, all of which are derived from the denotation of the word fortress.

I like to think of the P'shat of a text as (there we go with the notion of similitude again, with my use of the word as!) a wink, a subtle hint, an implication, or a deeper (as opposed to a surface) meaning. If one knows, for example, that the LORD is a fortress or refuge for the trusting believer, then by implication, that believer will experience the comfort, safety, and protection of the LORD. Deeper than that is the larger implication that the believer has nothing to fear, since the worst an enemy can do is to kill him or her, which to the believer means being with God and being safe forever (see Psalm 27:1 and 4; cf. Psalm 23:6).

The D'rash of a text (< Heb dalet-reish-shin, to draw out) requires drawing out its meaning according to certain rules or standard operating procedures; in other words, hermeneutics. Just as Jesus in Luke 24 "hermeneuticked" (translated variously as expounded, explained, interpreted) to Cleopas and the unnamed disciple the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures (v.27, in the NASB, the NIV, and the RSV, respectively), so also have Christian Bible interpreters down through the centuries searched in the Tanakh for the things concerning the namesake of their faith; namely, Christ.

As Chuck Missler has observed, however, these connections and interrelationships between the so-called "Old Testament" and the "New Testament" have been systematically glossed over by Bible interpreters in general as they "abandoned [the Church's] Jewish heritage and understanding."

We thank God, however, that during the time of the Puritans, Christians began, as Gissler observed,

[to recognize] the limitations of Protestant hermeneutics, as did the later Plymouth Brethren who sought a proper understanding of biblical typology. In the 19th century the Plymouth Brethren tried to construct a model of biblical interpretation that emphasized typology from the viewpoint of Old Testmanet fore-shadowings of the New Covenant. This [Gissler suggests] may have been the closest that the predominantly Gentile church has ever come to returning to its Jewish roots in the area of interpretation.

In Jesus's "Bible study" on the road to Emmaus during one of his post-resurrection appearances, Jesus went through the Tanakh, text by text, explaining how various passages corresponded to the various events in his earthly sojourn. Moreover, he likely expounded on how the language in the Tanakh concerning him and his role as Messiah and Emanuel was simply continued and expanded in the teaching he had previously given to his disciples and to the various other audiences to whom he preached and whom he taught.

For example, Isaiah the prophet describes the nation of Israel in the following way:

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel

And the men of Judah His delightful plant.

Similarly (though with some perhaps obvious differences), Jesus in his "Upper Room Discourse" likened his Father to a vinedresser, he himself as the vine, and his disciples as branches of the vine (see John Chapter 15). In both teachings (i.e., Isaiah's and Jesus's), the clear message derived from the literal, P'shat and Remez meanings of the texts is that God's children are expected to bear fruit of various kinds. For the moment I will put on hold how we are to define fruit. Sufficient for now is the concept that fruit comprises God-commanded and God-expected results (or proof, as it were) of being truly children of God. Assumed in each text is obedience to God's commands, or as Jesus put it, "abiding" in him and demonstrating obedience primarily by loving one another, which was his primary commandment (John 15:10, and 12-17).

He, of course, was the supreme example of love, which perhaps gave birth to the saying that the "11th Commandment" is to love one another as Jesus has loved us (see John 13:34; cf. Philippians 2:3 ff.). In other words, sacrifice, selflessness, and an others-orientation are perhaps the hallmarks of true Christians.

Gissler then cites Puritans John Robinson and John Lightfoot as key figures in recognizing the Church's "need to restore a Jewish approach to biblical interpretation along Midrashic lines with its sensitivities to typological patterns."

Diligent and well-informed Bible interpreters down through the centuries have realized there are not only multiple genres contained in the Holy Bible, but they also realized that a responsible and God-honoring interpretation of the Bible will be cognizant not only of genres but also of the various ways in which (or levels at which) those texts are interpreted.

Moreover, despite the diversity of genres and content within the Bible, there is also a unity, of which the writer to the Hebrews wrote when he penned the following words,

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high . . . (1:1-3 NASB).

To many Christians around the world, to miss the centrality of Christ and the unifying thread he represents in the skein of biblical truth "in all the Scriptures" is to miss everything.

In conclusion, that unity of which I speak requires of Christian hermeneutists at least three things: 1) that they strive for balance in their interpretations, neither spiritualizing a text where such an interpretation is not warranted, nor being too literal in interpreting a text, particularly when a deeper spiritual interpretation is warranted; 2) that they learn to depend on the Holy Spirit of God, who is certainly the quintessential hermeneutist, to enlighten and enliven them as they seek to interpret God's Word; and 3) that they consider differences of interpretation among hermeneutists as opportunities for both learning from those with whom they disagree, and, if appropriate, pointing out in love where and why they disagree with a given interpretation.

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    +1 for PaRDeS. Psalms are a good example of a poetic attempt to have multiple meanings. On a large level, the prediction of the Mashiach--the Messiah, the Christ--is pre-Christian, 1000 years before Jesus, and quite impressive in the detail and description.
    – Stu W
    Commented Mar 11, 2017 at 3:59
  • @StuW: Thanks. And true enough, Jesus in his discourse with Cleopas and the unnamed disciple on Emmaus Road may very well have started with Genesis 3:15 and "the seed of the woman" (actually, "her seed"). You can't get much further back in history than that. What do they call that verse in Genesis? The protoevangelium? Commented Mar 11, 2017 at 4:48
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    I believe "her seed" is the correct translation. The serpent tries to woo Eve to be the mother of evil, but God places animosity between the serpent and her. I think this the protoevangelium. Romans 16:20: "And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet". I believe this is the New Testament reference.
    – Stu W
    Commented Mar 11, 2017 at 14:36

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