During the centuries preceding the Reformation, the literal meaning of God's Word was ignored, as scholars sought to impress each other with their ability to find hidden meanings. At that time, theologians assumed that the Bible was a dark book and that each statement had four meanings: a literal meaning, a figurative meaning, an allegorical meaning, and a moral meaning. While that approach was popular because it made it possible for church leaders to make the Bible say what they wanted it to say, it totally confused theology and obscured the Gospel. As a result, darkness reigned.
In calling God’s people back to the Bible, Martin Luther emphasized the clarity of Scripture and the fact that the human mind is dark, not the Word of God (Acts 17:27). Far from being dark, Scripture is the only light that can be a “lamp” unto our feet, make “wise the simple,” and dispel the darkness of the human heart (2Peter 1:19, Psalm 19:7 and 119:105). Furthermore, because the Bible is clear, the message that God intends for you to get from it is nothing other “than what ye read” (2Corinthians 1:13). In other words, because there is no deceptive double-talk in the Bible, its words mean the same thing that they would mean in ordinary conversation (2Corinthians 3:12).
Although the plain meaning of the words is, by definition, the “literal” meaning, if you use that term in reference to Scripture it is important to make it clear that you are talking about the grammatical meaning of the words, not the surface meaning. Dr. Robert Preus explained it this way:
In other words, because the literal meaning is the grammatical meaning, you should not assume that every figure of speech is a departure from the literal meaning. On the contrary, because words are defined by their context, all of our common figures of speech have a literal meaning. For example, when Jesus said of Herod, “Go ye and tell that fox” the word “fox,” in that context, literally meant “crafty person.” Once people lose sight of that fact, Satan is able to convince them that the intended meaning is subjective. As a result, they either wind up rejecting the grammatical meaning in favor of the surface meaning, or find figures of speech where none were intended. In either case, the result is confusion, and Scripture winds up being twisted to fit a particular tradition.
Because the idea that the literal meaning is opposed to the grammatical meaning is widely accepted, some reject the literal meaning of scripture and deny key doctrines of the faith, while others give Bible believers a bad name by confusing the surface meaning of the words with the literal meaning. However, in both cases people are being lead away from the intended meaning of God’s Word, to the detriment of faith. Therefore, I want to take a brief look at Bible prophecy, and explain why the literal meaning is far different from what people think it is, and why it is perfectly reasonable.
Since much of the controversy surrounding Bible prophecy centers around the meaning of various apocalyptic visions, let me begin with the vision recorded in the eighth chapter of Daniel. In that chapter, verses one through fifteen give us a literal description of what Daniel saw, while verses twenty through twenty-six provide us with a literal record of the what an angel said in explanation of what Daniel saw. In both cases, the literal meaning is easy to understand, and has nothing to do with the ridiculous ideas that people sometimes try to pass off as the literal meaning.
In verse three we are told that Daniel saw a ram with two horns, and in verse twenty Daniel is told that the horns represent the kingdoms of Media and Persia. In verse five we are told that Daniel saw a goat with one horn, and in verse twenty-one we are told that the goat represents the king of Greece and the horn represents the first king. Here again, there is nothing absurd about the literal meaning, it is simply “what you read” nothing more (2Corinthians 1:13).
What I have just said should make it clear that the people who have brought so much ridicule to the Christian faith with their absurd interpretations of Bible prophesy, are not taking what is said literally at all. For example, I have just pointed out that the Bible literally tells us that the horn on the goat in Daniel’s vision represents a king, yet I have had someone insist that the “stars” cast down by the horn were actual stars. That is stupidity, not literalism. The literal meaning of verse ten, is that Daniel saw stars being cast down in his vision, and the explanation that Daniel received makes it clear that the stars represent the “mighty” (Verse 24).
Moving to the Book of Revelation, chapters four and five give us a literal description of John’s vision of heaven. And, in that vision, we are told that John saw Christ as “a lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes” (Revelation 5:6). However, the very fact that Christ is represented symbolically as a lamb, indicates that the rest of the vision is symbolic also. Therefore, while it is absurd to deny that the vision is symbolic, that symbolism has nothing to do with whether the written record is literal or not. The written record gives us a literal description of what John saw, and the literal meaning is simply “what you read” nothing more (2Corinthians 1:13).
I hope that this essay has helped you to understand the importance of the literal meaning, the role it had in restoring the gospel to the church at the time of the Reformation, and why we need to make it clear that the literal meaning is the natural grammatical meaning of the words, not an artificial denial of all figures of speech.