How much of the Bible do you take literally?


Had a great debate in small group church meetings recently about this.

So how literal do most Catholics/Christians take the Bible?

For example:

How old is the Earth?

Did Adam and Eve really exist?

Was the Ark real?

Jonah in the whale…etc…

The consensus in the group was that these were meant as metaphorical studies, but
scientifically there was no real Adam and Eve…


The Church uses a literal approach to interpreting Scripture, but employs the following guidelines from the Catechism of the Catholic Church for interpretation:

The four ways of interpreting Scripture: #s 115-119.

The senses of Scripture
115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.
116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal."83
117 The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.

  1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism.84
  2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written “for our instruction”.85
  3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, “leading”). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.86
    118 A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses:
    The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
    The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.87

119 "It is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, towards a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgment. For, of course, all that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God."88
But I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me.89


Thank you so much for the detailed response, but I don’t quite understand when do you use which of the 4 ways?


Regarding the first three chapters of Genesis, one of the Catholic [literal] doctrines which flow from them, is that there are two, real,
fully-complete human parents who are the sole founders of the human species.

Adam and Eve really existed. :thumbsup:


I am sure many will speak to what the Catholic Church teaches. I will say since you said Catholic/Christian that you mean either or?

I don’t put any stock in it being literal. I believe it contains valid moral lessons, people’s understanding of how God has worked through time, and accounts of Jesus and his life, death, resurrection. I am not a big Bible person but I do love the Psalms. They are beautiful. I have no problem with creation being millions of years long. I am reading everyone else’s posts with interest.


The flood also as it lead to redemption.

Jonah is here…

St. Peter and Christ Himself in the New Testament confirmed the global Flood of Noah. It covered all the then high mountains and destroyed all land dwelling creatures except eight human beings andall kinds of non-human creatures aboard the Ark (Unam Sanctam, 1302)

Matthew 24. "But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of
man be.

2 Peter 2:5 “he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others”

Hebrews 11:7 “By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith”

The historical existence of Noah’s Ark is regarded as most important in typology, as central to Redemption. (1566 Catechism of the Council of Trent)


You use all of the four ways in interpreting any passage of Scripture.

What the Catholic Church means by the “literal sense” of Scripture and what fundamentalists mean by the term are not the same. When the Church speaks of the literal sense of Scripture, She is referring to getting at the actual meaning the author intended to convey. That is not the same as interpreting every phrase literally.

The distinction some Catholics make is between the literal sense and between interpreting something literalistically. The example I always use is the phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs.” To interpret that phrase literalistically, one would think I meant that cats and dogs were actually falling from the sky in great numbers. But what I actually mean is that it is raining heavily. And that would really be the “literal sense” of what I was saying.

In other words, we take into account things like literary style when looking at the literal sense of Scripture. So we take the creation account in Genesis literally, but that doesn’t mean we think of it in terms of a scientific-historical account whereby the earth was created in six 24 hour days. The author was intending to convey certain religious truths in a literary structure (e.g. that God created the world out of nothing, that human beings were created in His image and likeness, etc.) The literal sense is concerned more with the why of creation than the how of creation.

But there are other parts of Scripture that are historical – such as the Gospels. The literal sense of those books does concern things that actually happened as described (though, of course, there are differences between the ways that 1st century Jews wrote history and the way that 21st century Americans write history).

I would say, though, that Adam and Eve did actually exist. Whether or not their names were “Adam” and “Eve”, I do not know, but somewhere along the line there has to have been a set of first parents that we all descended from.


Thank goodness as Catholics we do not rely on sola scriptura. The Gospels are absolutely true, but as far as the Old Testament is concerned I have problems taking it literally. Used as a teaching instrument for history, it’s OK, but the earth is certainly NOT 5000 years old, and yes, dinosaurs did exist! :wink:


Remember that the Bible white true, is not a book, but is a library of books. Some books are written as poetry and others are written like a fast-paced true crime newspaper article.

We sometimes need to rely on Biblical scholars to guide us on what kind of book we are reading because the original languages are ancient Greek, Latin & Hebrew which may need some interpreting of style for an average person.

I bet you could do some interpreting on your own of language style without even having a formal education. If I showed you a paragraph that contained the words “Thou hadst shown thy love for me” you could easily tell that that was probably a love poem or letter NOT from the 21st century! In addition if you saw a paragraph that contained “UR funny, LOL” you would know immediately that it was modern and NOT from the 17th century. So it is easy to see how people have looked at biblical language over the centuries and determined what books were written when, and what style of language they are.

“The Lord is my Shepherd” is true and beautiful, yet this does not mean Jesus is a shepherd and I am a sheep. This language is poetic, yet that does not distract from it’s truth. Many other books such as Genesis have clearly been shown to be in a poetic style and should be read as such. Hope this helps, God bless.


As individuals who have not made an in-depth study of the many books of the Bible, we rely on two things: First what the Church determines it means. And secondly, on sound findings of reliable theologians. It’s important to remember that the Church has not told us how to definitely interpret every passage, every verse, every book. There are only so many things we must take literally, such as the existence of our first parents, their fall from grace, and that we are all their descendants. There are a few others, but you get the idea.

For instance Genesis calls them “Adam” and “Eve”-- names that describe who they were rather than telling us their “given” names, although we have no real reason to doubt they were called by the names given for names in the ancient world always meant something, good or bad. Jacob, for instance means usurper since his foot came out before his brother’s, the brother actually born first. Ichabod means “the glory has departed” because when he was born the Ark of the Covenant was lost to Israel.

In order to properly interpret Scripture one needs to know the cultures in which the books were written as well as the intentions of the authors. It’s a complex business that requires much study. We ordinary lay people can certainly derive much from reading the Bible, but it’s best to leave the deeper matters of doctinal interpretation to those authorizied and qualified to do so.


:thumbsup: Great explanation!



And I do not know the method the Lord used to create them. All I know, is that if there were man-like creatures without a soul before our first parents, then at the point that the Lord so desired he placed a soul/spirit in the first man and woman. They walked with God (they had the fullness of sanctifying grace), and when they disobeyed his directive and chose their own will they lost that grace.

We don’t have to get hung up on the method God used.

We should be aware that we need a Saviour!


So then could God have used Evolution?

I mean, for people that believe they literally existed, did they just appear?


The Church does not oppose evolution but we have to remember that it is a theory based on evidence that seems to point in a certain direction. That is not the same thing as absolute proof, and science, real science cannot and does not make that claim. The Genesis creation stories were written in mythological style. Mythology does not mean made up or false it is a type of story telling that uses metaphors to describe events that are above what we can know with our five senses alone. The 6 day creation story is a metaphor and not to be taken as 24 hour periods, for example. The days and nights, as the ancients would have seen it, were epochs that lasted a great deal of earthly time. Scientifically we can get close our first real human ancestors, but no one knows or has yet discovered who they were and when they existed.

I mean, for people that believe they literally existed, did they just appear?

That is certainly possible. Even in evolutionary theory there are eras in which species simply appear with no ancestorial forms before them. And for people of faith, we know that the God that could raise up Christ from the dead could certainly have created our first parents just as described in the text. God may also have used another humanoid form to create the first true homo sapiens. We simply don’t know. It is important to believe in a primordial Adam and Eve because Jesus certainly believed in their existence, as did St. Paul, whose theology rests on Christ being the new Adam. It goes to original sin and our need for a redeemer.


As a Christian, this ^ pretty much although I at times find myself taking some things literally and some not. So I’m not sure I’d personally say I don’t put any stock in it being literal. But I remember the writers were human and were writing in their times.


Studies have been published about Americans in general who were asked about some of these questions, but to get to the specific things you mention. God has God-like powers and can do things human beings cannot do. And I hope you find the following Catholic answers helpful.

  1. "The Time Question

“Much less has been defined as to when the universe, life, and man appeared. The Church has infallibly determined that the universe is of finite age—that it has not existed from all eternity—but it has not infallibly defined whether the world was created only a few thousand years ago or whether it was created several billion years ago.”

  1. "Adam and Eve: Real People

“It is equally impermissible to dismiss the story of Adam and Eve and the fall (Gen. 2–3) as a fiction. A question often raised in this context is whether the human race descended from an original pair of two human beings (a teaching known as monogenism) or a pool of early human couples (a teaching known as polygenism).”

  1. The Ark was quite real. In fact, scale replicas have been built that show it would have survived the kind of weather recorded in the Bible.

  2. That God put Jonah in the whale and had the whale spit him out is entirely credible.



That is not a question which can be answered: 2 billion people are too many to survey, and the range of views is very broad.

How old is the Earth?

About 4.5 billion years, which is younger than I feel when I get up in the morning.

Did Adam and Eve really exist?

Probably not.

Was the Ark real?

Probably not.

Jonah in the whale…etc…

Probably not.

Another question is whether the writers of those tales thought that these things were literally and historically true, because some elements of the narratives (e.g., the doubling of the Creation narratives at the beginning of Genesis) suggest that literal history was not the point.


Even CAF has a wide range of opinions and we only number in the thousands, not the billions. :stuck_out_tongue:

About 4.5 billion years, which is younger than I feel when I get up in the morning.

I hear ya! :wink:

Probably not.

Probably not.

Probably not.

Well, Jesus and the Apotles certainly believed them to be true stories and referred to them in regards to his prophetic call as Messiah. Just because stories are cast in mythological langauge doesn’t ipso facto make them false or made up. There’s more than a grain of truth in mythologies from around the world. For example, oftentimes the “gods” were actually real heros or great people who became divinized. The stories are like reflections in a cracked mirror. Having said that, the Hebrew stories are more than that. They tell us about real people and events touched by God’s hand. The details may be a bit blurry, but we really have no solid reasons to doubt them because of that.

Another question is whether the writers of those tales thought that these things were literally and historically true, because some elements of the narratives (e.g., the doubling of the Creation narratives at the beginning of Genesis) suggest that literal history was not the point.

Another way of looking at the creation stories is that they were passed down in different forms and then crammed together. They don’t contradict each other, rather some give us more details than others. Again, if we had no primordial parents, an Adam and an Eve, then Christ’s mission to save us was in vain. If we are merely products of evolution, and not part of God’s plan, then why bother with faith at all?


I don’t believe in the Biblical literal creation.

Some of the Old Testament stories


If you mean a 6 day/24 hour creation, you are fine. The Church does not read Genesis 1 literistically. She understands that the language is mythological and therefore filled with metaphors. Having said that it’s not that God couldn’t have created the world in an instant, but from the geological record it seems clear he didn’t. Genesis 1 goes out of its way to tell us it took time–a lot of time. In any case, the universe is God’s creation and we his people. That’s all that should really concern us, IMHO. :)_

Some of the Old Testament stories

The problem is which ones will you believe and which won’t you and why? Are the plagues of Egypt any less likely that Noah’s ark? Don’t we see great disasters in our own time that are “biblical” in porportion? If we were ancient peoples what would we make of such events and how would we record them? Quite differently from our modern newspapers, that’s for sure.

The OT stories have importance in so far as they tell us something about Christ, who is has the primacy in all things since he is our Redeemer and Savior.

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