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.

boabott: I understand your answer generally, but would like an answer it more specifically responding to to a question I was asked last night by a skeptic: do you really believe that the Red Sea was parted? I fear I did not provide an adequate answer and need some help. For example, is there any archaeological or other evidence of the parting of the Red Sea of the Flood? Thank you for your consideration.


@cuatropapi, that’s a really good question and I’m glad you are in conversation with non-Christian friends!

To be candid, I’m not an expert in this area so please accept my best attempt at an answer as a lay person. Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt occurs in Exodus so that would tell us that there is to be some historical truth to the story. I’m unsure if there is archaeological evidence for or against this event, but I think there’s a significant question we need to ask your friend, “Why is this event keeping you from Jesus?”

The answer will tell you a lot about how the following conversations should go. It could be that this is simply a “gotcha” question, or a false reason to reject Christianity. Or, it could be that this is really troublesome to him or her because it raises questions of Biblical authority/inerrancy. Clearly your friend’s response is crucial to you being able to answer the questioner. Remember, the goal is to see your friend follow Jesus, so if it’s a “gotcha” question there’s not a lot you can do. Even if you can provide great historical evidence for the event, there’s going to be another fence put up quickly so I would try to move the conversation to Jesus.

If this is a real and deep question, you can point out many things like the doctrine of inerrancy says that the Bible is inerrant in all that it teaches. So, what is this event teaching? Well, a number of things, but one of them is that while God’s people were slaves He provided a way out and rescued them from bondage just like he provides for us today through Jesus. We’re slaves to sin (feel free to name a few) but Jesus is here to rescue and deliver us from our bondage, so it’s amazing to see how even in the Old Testament God was in the business of saving his people. And then you can let the conversation run from there; hopefully to more discussion about Jesus and why your friend should follow Him.

I hope this helps! I’m terribly sorry I don’t have more information surrounding the exodus. Perhaps @CarsonWeitnauer, @SeanO, or @matthew.western have better insight, or could connect us with an expert in this area.


It’s a good question and worth pondering.

Some in Christian circles suggest the exodus story is actually mis-translated and should be the crossing of the ‘reed’ sea where the Israelites crossed over in knee deep water. The idea has been around for a while but here is a ‘scientific’ article.

To suggest this means you need a bigger miracle; sure, the Egyptian chariots might have got bogged, but it would have been more impressive for God to drown the Egyptian army in 6 inches of water.

Maybe share this as a way of turning the conversation into a slightly humorous one; but then share this list of miracles from
The Old Testament here.

How to scientifically prove Balaam’s talking donkey?

I think to try to explain scientifically the miracles that are documented in the historical books makes it harder to explain. It’s interesting to speculate. I just take them at face value in the historical record. The universe is not a closed system; God who called everything into existence from absolute nothing isn’t going to have much trouble stopping or pausing the natural flow of time/space and inserting new information.

The one I’m much more curious about is the account of when Moses held his arms aloft and the sun stood still so the Israelites could win the battle. I’ve always wondered about this one; did God stop the entire solar system, the earth stopped in space and stopped rotating. Do I doubt it happened? No, God may have bent the rays of the sun so the day was longer.

I think when people raise these miracles it’s so much less pressure to say ‘yeah, that one is really out there; here’s all the thoughts I’ve had about it’; and maybe if the conversation goes well, then ask them what they think of the central claim of the Bible. The miracle of the resurrection - not just of anybody; but of the Creator himself.


@cuatropapi I agree with @boabbott that there is likely a deeper doubt about the existence of the supernatural or a personal God behind this question. You might redirect the conversation by asking a question in response rather than dealing specifically with the issue of the parting of the red sea. I see a few possible directions you could go based on your knowledge of this individual.

  1. Do you believe in miracles? Have you ever experienced a miracle?
  2. What do you think of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as evidence for the miraculous? Would you be interested in exploring more?
  3. Do you believe there is a God? How come?

You may already know the answers to these questions if it is a friend, but certainly I think the root objection is not the red sea. If you can identify what is behind the question, it will help you respond to the heart of the issue rather than only the surface objection. I think it is helpful to understand where someone is at on the Engel scale when sharing Christ—at least to begin prayerfully considering how God would have us engage them.



Hi @cuatropapi,

Thank you for this good question!

Personally, I really like Bo’s response:

What is of primary interest to me is the motivation or rationale why your friend asks this question. It seems unlikely to me that the story of this miracle is the actual deal-breaker for most people.

If it was a question that did need an answer, I might put it like this,

If I was convinced there was no God, I would not believe the Red Sea miraculously parted.

However, if the God of the Bible exists and is real, then it would seem relatively simple to believe that God miraculously parted the same Red Sea that he had already created simply by speaking.

If my friend would like external, archaeological corroboration of this event, I could agree that evidence would be nice to have. However, I’m not sure that such an event would be detectable four thousand years later.

But that does not mean that no miracle story from the Bible can be tested with the tools of history. If my friend was genuinely interested in looking into this, I would recommend looking into the evidence for and against the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

I would be curious to hear more from you and your thoughts on this discussion. What could you have done better? Will you have an opportunity to talk again? How might you engage in that conversation?


Thank you all for your helpful responses. My response was very close to that of boabbott, but not as eloquent. I responded that she was moving the conversation to a discussion of the supernatural. Then I essentially gave the second part of boabbott’s response (thank you Holy Spirit!). She moved off the point and I did not press it further. This all came up in the context of our inviting them to hear Mr. Zacharias at Explore God Miami in a few weeks.