Literal vs Figurative

Hello and good day everyone. I’ve been thinking about the good book and what it means. Not just what it means to me, but what it means to all of us collectively. What it means for the world. What it has done for the world. What it will do for human kind in the future of this world.

In my meditation I hit what felt like a brick wall. Something was blocking my will to progress into the infinitum of my mind. I felt myself repeating this question in my head and it wouldn’t go away. What method should we use to distinguish biblical literalism from figurative language? I know there are very few who believe the Bible to be literally, word for word what went on. It’s a bit of an outdated view. We know that some parables and story’s serve to teach good morality rather than to serve as a historical record. I am wondering, how do we know what is what?

Reading the Bible prayerfully and with common sense, and with CONFIDENCE.

Read it; reread it; and read it again. Start with one Gospel.

Hello Jim. Thanks for taking the time to reply to me. Can you explain what you mean by prayerfully? Should I read the bible as a prayer out loud when I read the bible?

The idea of the bible makes sense to me, I have a very common sense approach to that. When I’m reading the bible, it requires little effort. This is the same with any book, when I read I simply, read. I find it easy. I can read all day long if I want to, rereading the same part or a whole big chunk of book. I could reread the same part over and over again or I could do something that requires a little bit of confidence and read it once, memorize it word for word, sit in silent darkness, ponder upon the words and their meaning. This method is a little easier when searching for the truth of the bible.

Always begin with the literal approach, assuming it to be correct unless context calls for a different perspective. In any case, the catechism gives sound advice on the interpretation of scripture, beginning here:


I like reading the Bible real slow.

The way I do it is: I read four or five chapters a Gospel, then read those four or five chapters again. Then I move on to the next four or five.

I do the same with the Psalms.

I read the first ten; then I read them again. I slow work through the entire 150 Psalms.

I do the same with the New Testament.

I have found it an absolute blessing!


Jesus didn’t leave us the Bible, He left us the Church to spread His Gospel. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Church compiled the Bible. So, if we want a ‘method’ to understand the teaching of the Bible, then that method would be to turn to the Church and listen to what she says about the meanings found in the Bible!

I know there are very few who believe the Bible to be literally, word for word what went on. It’s a bit of an outdated view.

Absolutely, it’s “outdated” to seek strict Scriptural literalism (i.e., ‘fundamentalism’). In fact, the Church has always taught that the Bible contains a variety of types of literature, and they must be interpreted according to their form. Why, even back in the beginnings of the Church, Augustine (c. 300AD) taught that there are both literal and figurative meanings to be found in the Bible!

We know that some parables and story’s serve to teach good morality rather than to serve as a historical record. I am wondering, how do we know what is what?

Follow the Church’s teaching, Jack… follow the Church! :wink:

I tend to think that figurative is correct and the reason I think that is because of the two stone tablets (actually the KJV calls them ‘tables’: Exodus 24:12, 31:18).

“Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart.” (Proverbs 3:3)

“Let them not depart from thine eyes; keep them in the midst of thine heart.” (Proverbs 4:21)

“Bind them upon thy fingers, write them upon the table of thine heart.” (Proverbs 7:3)

Therefore, it’s **our heart ** that God writes his commands on . And in so doing the hard heart is changed:

Ezekiel 11:19:
And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh

Ezekiel 36:26:
A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.

“Forasmuch as you are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” (2 Cor. 3:3)


Another idea that I use. The Holy Bible will often explain itself.

In St. John’s Gospel this happens.

When the Jews hear Jesus say temple, they think of the building. Jesus means His own body and rising from the dead.

When Jesus says one must be born again; he explains it by being born of the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus tells His disciples about His food; it is doing God’s will. “My food is to to do the will of My Father.”

When at the well of Jacob, the Samaritan woman thinks Jesus means physical water. His water is everlasting water.

Erm, isn’t that the Protestant approach?

No, but depending on the Protestant that’s where they might begin and end their approach. Here’s the Catholic approach, from the CCC:

**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

hi, to answer-i suppose the mind is a labyrinth -
hyperbole is an exageration of language; a faith to up root a sycamore and see it fly to the see-wish i had that faith; ever pushed on a sycamore trunk? well i did-it is sturdy, rooted and so placed my mind in a labyrinth…i thought it would be simple; what to do? my prayer journal entries took it serious/as the labyrinth navigation continued…i thought it was one thing…turned out to be something completely diferent; in hind sight , the prayer journal-always faithful to add that days activity…shown a path to holiness, rather than a labyrinth…that is not simple, rather complex, just as complex as that hyperbole-seems a ‘process’ to answer your question-the journey to holiness is that method…thx patrick

Well thank you, Fhansen. However, I do not see anything there about taking the Bible literally except when one absolutely must do otherwise.

Most Protestants interpret John 6 in a spiritual sense while Catholics interpret it literally. The literal sense is simply the place to start. We move on to the other senses as indicated by the context, by Church teaching, through the eyes of faith, etc. I have no problem believing that Jonah spent three literal days in a literal whale, and I think Jesus believed that as well, although there can be other meanings to the story. In other cases the words signify wholly other meanings then the literal sense would indicate; God has no right hand, for example.

I see the Bible as salvation history. The key figure is Jesus Christ the Messiah. I see the Old Testament as pre-figuring Christ in old testament Moses leading people out of bondage. I see the New Testament as the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament. Messianic times. I see Christ as the axle around which the entire Bible rotates like a wheel with many spokes. I see the Bible as a history of the Jewish nation. I see the Bible as a source of spiritual guidance, and prophetical, a book of inspiration with infinite meaning. I see the Bible as the inspired word of God made manifest by l2 fishermen, t he followers of Christ. I’m not a scripture scholar, or infallible so I depend on the Church to provide me the best they can with the accuracy of its meaning… I also see the teaching body of the Church as chosen by Jesus to protect and guide the faithful from error in its beliefs with His guarantee to protect it from error, inspite of human frailty. I see it as a Supreme gift from God for the salvation of mankind. I see it as the Breath of God, the Holy Spirit of Truth. Many have tried to destroy it , but like white heat it burns through that which tries to bury it. I see it live and active always, surviving time and turmoil I see the Bible as establishing the “New Jerusalem” a spiritual kingdom of God on earth, the Church meant for all men.

I agree - definitely figurative. At the same time the walking on water seems a literal event, which has me a little stymied. :shrug:

Good good question!
When something gets stuck in your head it is a dark force trying to control your awareness. It is like a vice that is a stronghold. Been there once.
I was sitting and thinking when the thought got stuck in my head and it frightened me so bad. I was shocked out of it when I suddenly realized the problem that was shown to me when I cried out to God, The problem was I didn’t realize it, but I was idolizing a very important pastor I looked up to. That realization freed my mind at that moment.
Hope this helps.

Well explained. I’ll have to think about that interpretation, it seems to make good sense. Thank you.

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