The word literal is complicated. According to one of the first definitions in the dictionary, literal means: “adhering…to the ordinary construction of primary meaning of a term or expression.”
In other words, being literal can just mean saying what you mean to say, giving primary importance in the moment to what you mean to give primary importance.
Is the Bible Always Literal?
Yes, the Bible is entirely literal. But what does that really mean?
We might mistakenly replace the word literal with some other word. We might assume the Bible is entirely historical. Much of it is primarily historical, but how can Revelation, whose symbol-laden, future-tense prophecies have not yet happened, be historical? And surely we’d be missing much in our reading of the Psalms if we read them in the same way we read a biography.
When I say the Bible is always literal, I mean that it always gives primary importance to what it means to give primary importance. The Bible always and perfectly says exactly what it means to say.
And I want to argue here that the Bible is also more than literal. It is entirely literal, but it is also what I call “literal plus.”
Three Ways the Bible Is “Literal Plus”
The thirteenth-century writer Thomas Aquinas wrote:
Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of [Scripture] is God, who by one act comprehends all things by his intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says, if, even according to the literal sense, one word in [Scripture] should have several senses.1
Essentially, Aquinas is saying that since God understands everything, and in so many deeper ways than we do, isn’t it possible that when he says something simple it can also have a deeper meaning? The deeper meaning would not contradict the first meaning, but would be that which rewards further study. In this way, a single sentence could be enough for a lifetime’s worth of reflection.
Take this sentence from 1 John 4:16: “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (ESV). You could spend an eternity learning more about the riches of this phrase, and in all that time you would never learn something truthful that contradicts the initial lesson it teaches.
And so every Bible passage has the truth it presents to you right away—that’s the literal meaning, and the truth that can be discovered by reflection and study—that’s where the “plus” comes in. Here are three ways the Bible is “literal plus.”
1. Literal Plus Allegorical
Remember, the Bible is entirely literal, and the Bible is also “literal plus.” The “plus” never contradicts the literal. With that said, let’s open to Genesis 1:10–13:
And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good… “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” … And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
The literal meaning is that God created the earth and the seas. God created plants and fruit trees. And He created them good. And it was on the third day of creation. That’s the literal meaning, and it is true and trustworthy.
Now let’s turn to Genesis 1:26–27, 29–31:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” …
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.” … And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
The literal meaning is that, on the sixth day of creation, God created mankind, Adam and Eve. He created them in his image, male and female, and he gave them the land as a place to live and govern, and God gave them the plants and fruit trees as food to eat.
But there is more truth to be gained here! And so we can read allegorically. Here the allegorical truth is this: God provides and prepares life for his creation.