Q. I was discussing something with a family member and they said ‘You just can’t interpret the Bible literally because so many people argue over what the literal interpretation of that verse is.’ He makes a good point. In what way should we go about finding the ‘literal’ interpretation of a verse? And another question, when do we know when to not interpret a passage of Scripture literally?
A. There’s only one true literal interpretation, so among those who argue only one can be correct. You can tell you have the literal translation because you read it just as it’s written taking the context of the passage into consideration. According to the dictionary the context is the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular passage. It can be discovered by looking at the verses that precede or follow it that influence its meaning or effect. Most arguments over the interpretation of Scripture have more to do with context than anything else.
We know we shouldn’t interpret a passage literally when the Bible tells us not to. For instance parables and other obviously symbolic passages are not meant to be understood literally. A good rule of thumb is that if the literal interpretation of a passage makes sense, then we shouldn’t try to take it any other way.