In my previous answer on this question, while discussing Biblical Inerrancy, I stated:

The doctrine of inerrancy does not imply hyper-literalism. As noted above, in the second possible mechanism for Biblical Inspiration, we believe that God allowed the writer's literary style to be used in the writing of Scripture. Hyperbole (the use of exaggeration as a figure of speech. Example, "I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse.") is allowed.

This is not necessarily a Fundamentalist belief. In an article at cathtruth.com (A Catholic site) we read:

Since at times our data are only what we find in the Bible, we lack the necessary information to reconstruct a given incident with all its details. Occasionally the Bible embodies hyperboles, allegories, parables, etc.

Detractors love to claim that you can't have it both ways – that you can't claim to take the Bible literally, and then decide that parts of it are allegorical. (I've made the same statement myself in a discussion on creation/evolution.)

The charge leveled both at me and by me was the same: "You can't just choose which parts of Scripture you want to believe and assume the other parts are allegorical. that opens it up to claim that anything you don't like in Scripture is allegorical."

So, are there practical, accepted, time-honored guidelines for determining which parts of Scripture to take literally?

Traditionally, what are the hermeneutic rules applied to Biblical Literalism, and how does "Biblical Literalism" relate to Fundamentalist doctrine?

  • Even though I answered this one myself, I'm really hoping someone else will post a better answer... Commented Oct 3, 2012 at 4:04

2 Answers 2


Disclaimer - I'm not saying that you have to be a fundamentalist to be a Christian. I'm simply explaining the Fundamentalist perspective on this issue. it's likely to offend someone. That's not my intent.

Biblical Literalism, from a Fundamentalist perspective dies not mean hyper-literalism. Instead, we tend toward historical-grammatical method of interpretation, which provides guidelines for determining what content is to be taken literally, and where a non-literal interpretation is warranted. Teaching the Word Ministries gives a fairly good set of principles and rules behind the historical-grammatical method. Rather than quoting directly, I'll summarize:

  • Because the Bible is inspired, it is inerrant, infallible, and authoritative. No word of fallible man can stand in authority over Scripture.
  • Scripture is intelligible. God meant for us to understand it.
  • Because it is infallible, the Bible is internally consistent. it can't contradict itself.
  • Because God meant to communicate truth, and because Scripture is internally consistent, the words of Scripture have only one meaning in context. There may be multiple legitimate applications of a passage of Scripture, but a passage has only one meaning in context. This is what it means to interpret Scripture according to its literal, or normal, sense.
  • We are to employ passages in Scripture that are more clear on a particular subject to interpret those that are less clear, never vice-versa.
  • Remember that the Bible we are using is a translation, and inerrancy is not applicable, except to the extent that it has been transmitted accurately through time. Therefore, it is important for ministers of the church to examine the words of Scripture in the original languages (Hebrew and Greek) and in their historical and cultural setting in order to accurately understand their meaning in context and to properly translate them into other languages, thus accurately communicating God's truth
  • Extra-Biblical resources, such as language helps, commentaries, the writings of the so-called church fathers, and archaeological and scientific evidences, can be useful resources in correctly interpreting Scripture. But since they are the words and works of fallible men they are not authoritative.

Dr. David L. Cooper, the founder of The Biblical Research Society out it much more simply. Dr. Cooper is known for his “Golden Rule of Interpretation” which is as follows:

When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense,seek no other sense;

Therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths indicate clearly otherwise.

So, from this quote, from Dr. Cooper's perspective, we see that we are to take Scripture at face value (literally) unless...

  • The immediate context makes it clear that the passage is not to be taken literally.
  • Related passages, the literal sense does not make sense
  • The literal sense of the passage would contradict axiomatic, fundamental truths.

A shortened version, which I've heard far more often goes like this:

If the plain sense makes good sense seek no other sense lest it result in nonsense.

For Fundamentalists, this is a core doctrine. It's as central to the Fundamentalist view as the doctrines of Biblical Inerrancy and Infallibility, and Divine Inspiration.

To the fundamentalist, to stray from the rules of sound Scripture interpretation is to stray into pure conjecture, in which we can make up anything we want about God, rather than worshiping Him in Spirit and in truth. We can make up a god to suit ourselves (which is also known as idolatry.)

We want a God that says it's OK to lie? That's OK. We can take that as an allegory. We want a God that allows disobedience to parents? We want a religion that teaches there are "many ways to Heaven"? No problem. Those are just allegorical statements. God didn't Mean those things...

Man is fallible. Even those in charge of our Churches are fallible. Therefore, teachings and traditions can be erroneous, and outright blasphemous. Only God's Word is infallible. Put simply, from a Fundamentalist perspective, the disciplined, literal approach to interpretation of Scripture is the only approach that safeguards us from straying into error.

  • 3
    This isn't something I wanted to include in the answer, but I do realize that the Literalist view I've outlined is in and of itself fodder for the atheists and detractors, primarily because of a flat out refusal to believe that any evidence presented by fallible man could deny the truth of Scripture. I realize this makes us look like we simply stick our heads in the sand whenever some "evidence" comes about that "refutes Scripture". I'm perfectly OK with that. My intent wasn't to make the viewpoint look appealing, just to portray it accurately and fairly. Commented Oct 1, 2012 at 3:22
  • I disagree that the original Hebrew needs to be examined as long as you are using a faithful translation such as KJV or ESV. The translators were full of the holy ghost, and very learned in language. I realize they translated it mostly from the Latin Vulgate, which I believe to have the same properties (scholarly, spirit-filled translation).
    – dongle26
    Commented Oct 1, 2012 at 6:49
  • 2
    There is a lot of good stuff in this answer, but I would disagree right off the bat with the idea that "Biblical Literalism also goes under the moniker 'the historical-grammatical method of interpretation'.". The H/G hermeneutical approach is used by people who don't fall into the "Biblical Literalist" camp, although that is hard to define because it seem to be used two ways. Speaking of which, defining that term would help this whole topic.
    – Caleb
    Commented Oct 1, 2012 at 7:19
  • 1
    @Caleb - fair point. I re-phrased that portion because I agree I worded it badly. Thanks for the prod! Commented Oct 1, 2012 at 22:17

To take the Bible literally is to take the verses which are plain in meaning to you, with the aid of a dictionary if need be, and only those verses.

It's extra-biblical teaching that is all the trouble, in my Fundamentalist opinion, not the figurative speech in the Bible.

It's true that some scripture is hard to be understood, the scriptures even say that. 2 Peter 3:16. But we must not slap a teaching on the passage just because we want an answer. Prov 30:6 Instead we pass it by and pray to God for an understanding. James 1:5

The rest, pray about if you really need to understand it, and if you don't need to understand it then just pass over the verses to which you cannot ascribe meaning. You will learn more as you allow yourself to absorb more scripture and less external teaching. Don't let some priest tell you what they want those verses to say. Just pass them up for now. They are actually quite few in number.

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