Literal Interpretation: The Key to Understanding the Bible -- By: Mike Stallard

Journal: Journal of Ministry and Theology
Volume: JMAT 04:1 (Spring 2000)
Article: Literal Interpretation: The Key to Understanding the Bible
Author: Mike Stallard


Literal Interpretation: The Key to Understanding the Bible

Mike Stallard

Associate Professor Of Systematic Theology
Baptist Bible Seminary, Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania

Thirty years ago the well known W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, wrote a controversial book entitled Why I Preach That the Bible is Literally True.1 The teaching that there is “literal” truth in Scripture has always raised the question of how one reads the Bible and has always had opposition. Countless people in present Western culture have affirmed that they “believe” the Bible, but “not literally.” In a day when radical, relativistic, and postmodern subjectivism has convinced many that it is virtually impossible to read any text from any source with absolute surety, the idea of taking the Bible literally has become even more passé.

This development is in stark contrast to the traditional affirmation of evangelical scholars. Article XVIII of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy produced by the International Conference on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) two decades ago states the following:

We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.

We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship.2

That the signers of this document equated “literal” interpretation with the idea of “grammatico-historical exegesis” (to be defined later) is clear from Article XV of the statement issued by the follow-up conference of ICBI dedicated to hermeneutical issues:

We affirm the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text.

We deny the legitimacy of any approach to Scripture that attributes to it meaning which the literal sense does not support.3

However, in spite of efforts at clarification, there seems to be a growing uneasiness among many evangelicals that the entire enterprise in biblical interpretation is being clouded by various factors...

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