Literal or Metaphorical interpretation of Scripture—what criteria do we use?

When in conversation with friends from agnostic or atheistic backgrounds (who “know their stuff”), I have been asked why we as believers get to pick with teachings/laws are to be interpreted as spirit of the law vs. letter of the law; which are metaphorical in nature vs. which must be followed as they are stated.

I have felt backed into a corner on this one and have had to say that I would have to get back to them on their question. So, to be true to my word to get back to them, I was hoping this community could help me formulate an intelligent, winsome answer to the question I’ve been presented.


@pwiersma, that’s a great question and I’m glad you asked it :slight_smile:

I think the answer to your question ‘why do believers get to pick the interpretation of scriptures?’ is simply this: We don’t.

As you’re likely aware, the Bible is a collection of 66 different books and each book falls into a certain genre. For example, the gospels are considered ancient biography, the psalms fall more closely into poetry, and the book of Revelation is Jewish Apocrypha. So, it’s within these frameworks that we begin to interpret the meanings, and within each book itself we look at the context of passage in the writing.

Consider this: Jesus said, “The mustard seed is the smallest of all seed.” That quote is located in the gospels which are biographical and in this genre most passages are descriptions of literal events. However, as we check out the context we see that Jesus is teaching about the Kingdom of God, so we take this teaching as a metaphor. Good thing too because if we had to take it literal, Jesus would be in error because there are seeds that are smaller than mustard seed. Luckily, Jesus isn’t giving a botany lecture so we’re not committed to taking this as literal.

But, to be sure, there are passages in the Scriptures that are debated as to whether we are to understand them as literal or in some sort of figurative language. The most famous example is the creation story. Some scholars think it must be taken literal, while other scholars think it’s more figurative. When we encounter these types of passages I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that there’s wiggle room on how to interpret the scripture and still be within orthodox teaching. After all, we won’t be judged on our belief of the interpretation of the creation story or our doctrine of the second-coming of Christ, but rather what we do in response to Jesus.

I hope answer begins to shed some light on your question despite it being a bit shallow. I bet @SeanO could provide us a deeper and more thorough explanation.


That is a great question, @pwiersma! As Bo has pointed out, context is vital to understanding the laws in the Bible properly. One way that you may have come across this objection phrased is saying, “I see you are wearing a wonderful cotton and polyester shirt even though Leviticus 19:19 says, ‘Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.’ Why aren’t you choosing to follow that law?”

One of the reasons that I think that this is really good question is that it requires us Christians to take a step back and really ask the question of “why do I follow this law and not this one?” And in asking the question, I think that we see the Gospel coming out in the answer to the question!

One of the ways that people have attempted to answer this question is to divide the Law of Moses, or the laws in the Old Testament, into three categories: the civil law, the ceremonial law, and the moral law. There are some problems with these divisions, especially in trying to separate out the so-called “moral laws,” but I think they provide a helpful framework by which to begin thinking through this question.

Under these categories, the civil law refers to the laws that dictate how the Israelite nation was to be governed, such as what constituted a crime and what the punishment was to be. Similarly, the ceremonial law were the dictates that delineated precisely how the Israelites were to worship and sacrifice to God. The purpose of the civil and ceremonial laws were, at the very least, to set the Israelite nation apart from the other nations, and this sense, they were only necessary and binding in the time until Christ.

The third category, the “moral law,” refers to those laws that are not specific to the Israelite nation, but apply to all people in all space and time; frequently, the 10 commandments fall into this description.

Now, as I mentioned, these categories quickly fall apart under closer scrutiny, especially attempting to delineate the moral laws; however, you might see how we can begin to understand why some of these laws were given. And given an understanding of why they were given, we can perhaps begin to answer the question of what the significance that particular law has for us now. And if we can answer that, perhaps we can begin to determine whether the law applies to us.

I’ve included a link at the bottom to a short article about how to view the Law of Moses, but, at the end of the article, Justin Taylor provides these four steps when looking at a particular law:

  1. Remind yourself that this law is not my law, that I am not legally bound by it, that it is one of the laws God issued to ancient Israel as part of his covenant with them.
  2. Determine the original meaning, significance, and purpose of the law.
  3. Determine the theological significance of the law.
  4. Determine the practical implications of the theological insights gained from this law for your own NT circumstances.”

To do this kind of study is time-intensive and rigorous, but, as I mentioned at the beginning, I think that in doing this type of study of the laws, we see more of the character of God, more of our sinfulness, and in that, it propels us toward the good news that Christ has fulfilled the law and we stand righteous before God by the work of Christ.

I hope these thoughts are helpful! Does that seem to be an answer in line with the trajectory of your questioners?


@pwiersma I think @boabbott and @jspare covered the main points well. The only thing I will add is to say that we must remember that God’s covenant with Israel was made with a particular people group at a particular time in history for a particular purpose. In Israel, God was establishing a physical Kingdom on earth with a sacrificial system that could not cleanse from sin, but was to be a reminder of their desperate need of repentance and pointed forward to Christ. In contrast, the New Covenant established in Christ was not an earthly Kingdom and had no need of a sacrificial system because Jesus was both High Priest and sacrifice to take away the sins of the people once and for all.

To understand how the OT laws relate to us (civil, priestly, moral), it is critical to understand this shift that occurred between Old Covenant and New Covenant and the radical nature of what Christ did and became for us.

Some of God’s laws for Israel were only temporary and we can identify which ones by understanding the shift from an earthly kingdom to a Heavenly one and from the old sacrificial system to the perfect priesthood and sacrifice of Jesus. And by following the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Christ grant you wisdom as you share with your friend :slight_smile:

John 18:36 - Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

Hebrewws 10:11-14 - Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest (Jesus) had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. 14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

Hebrews 8:13 - By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.


@pwiersma, do your friends have specific teachings/laws in mind when they ask this question? Answering a question related to the creation account would be very different from explaining why most Christians don’t observe the Sabbath. I’d love to know whether you’re finding certain passages most troubling to your friends.

As @boabbott mentioned, some passages of Scripture are debated. I sometimes let my agnostic friend serve as a bias check for me. If she asks about a passage, I share with her what I believe, and I ask if she thinks it’s a valid interpretation or if she thinks I’m twisting the passage to fit my beliefs. I can show her respect this way, and she sharpens my thinking.


Thanks, Paul, for asking this question.

I think it is very difficult to respond to your friends’ general questions about Scripture. I would ask for a specific question or objection and respond to that. That way you know exactly what objection they purport to have. They don’t get to run for cover. It may not even be a real objection. You respond to a general question and then they can flee to another nebulous island. The unbeliever hates God and will not seek after Him. The Shepherd hunts and gathers the sheep. The sheep scatter.

I think this is a great opportunity to share the Gospel. Think about it. God gave you unbelieving friends. Why did He do that? He uses us as means to an end and you may be a means. I think this is wondrous.

Because of your friends’ background I wonder if they have ever heard the Gospel. What do they know about Jesus? I think if you sit down with them and open the Bible and respond to their specific objections you will earn the right to ask them some questions such as “What do you know about Jesus?” or “What happens to you when you die?” or “How do you explain our existence?” I think it would be wonderful for you to open the Bible with your friends, answer their questions, and then they answer your questions. You have the Book with all the answers and the Almighty Spirit can apply your answers and His Word to their hearts.

I encourage you to proceed with confidence and courage while engaging your friends. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.” 2 Timothy 1:7.

I wish I could be there with you.

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@pwiersma, we all face these types of questions. There have been great responses, but I want to tackle this from a little different direction. Hopefully it will be helpful in formulating a response.

The answer to your basic question is because scripture was written a very long time ago, in a very different culture, under very different socio-economic-political circumstances, in dead languages and the authors are no longer around to interview as to their exact intent. And has been pointed out – from various authors, for various purposes (history, poetry, revelation, prophecy, etc.), over a long span of time. Many of these same kinds of challenges face those reading and trying to understand the Koran, the Talmud, and any other ancient document.

So all readers have to approach scripture with the exact question your friends are asking: is it literal or figurative?

Let me give you a modern example. Suppose I wrote in my diary: Today was a real fire drill at work. If you are an American of today you would probably understand that I meant it was a crazy, busy, hectic day where every task was critical to get done ASAP. If you were reading that in an understanding of a person prior to the 1980’s, it probably meant everyone had to line up outside the building while the bosses judged whether or not everyone complied with the fake emergency properly. The cultural context of language is significant in understanding the intent of the author. And these changes in cultural context can change very quickly, even overnight. Our world changed on 9-11. World (Roman empire) events in the 1st century equally changed their culture.

Those Jesus preached to knew scripture and had an oral tradition of telling important stories over and over. So very small references in the words he spoke to an audience may have brought to their minds a much larger story that did not need to be retold. Something they would have understood without re-educating them. We have no such advantage. So we have to rely on such things as historians gaining new insights as archaeology and other disciplines unearth more elements that widen what we know of that culture.

Another thing you’ll notice in much of scripture is that often the details are very sparse. So we are looking at small details in the context of wider passages that may shed light on both what is written and perhaps what is missing in those details.

No two historians agree on certain aspects of Shakespeare’s life, and he lived in a time and spoke in a language much closer to ours with a great deal of recorded information to go by. Logically one would look at the Bible and expect that biblical scholars, historians, theologians, preachers, etc, would each see nuances in the scriptures that shade an interpretation.

I agree with others that have asked if your friends are referring to anything specific. Too often non-believers use this argument as an easy way to rationalize anti-Christian views, rather than really being willing to explore and seek to understand. If that’s the case, then maybe there are really other issues that are an obstacle to believing.