Should the Bible be taken literally?

Most of the time, during the homily, the priest doesn’t really focus on what actually happened in the Gospel account, or one of the other readings. He starts finding all sorts of meanings that I never heard of before, or he talks about things happening in current times and tries to tie it in. And his homily is not the same as what some other priest is giving somewhere else. How much of this is OK? Shouldn’t we just get the facts?

Scripture is very rich and multi-faceted. There is always a literal meaning, and we can often find several layers of spiritual meaning hidden beneath the literal. Some Scriptures have more depth than others, and in order to understand the spiritual meanings, we first need to understand the literal meanings. So, there are two “senses” of Scripture: literal and spiritual. The spiritual can be further divided into three sub-categories: allegorical, moral and anagogical.

Let me explain all this in a nutshell:

A. The Literal sense is about the meaning of words and history. It is what the human author intended to teach and his audience understood (but we don’t always know this with precision).

B. The Spiritual Sense is the deepest meaning of things. It is what the Divine Author intended for us. The meanings may even exceed the human author’s awareness. The Spiritual sense is divided into three parts:

  1. The Allegorical sense is mainly in the Old Testament. The whole Christ is prefigured by “types” in the Old Testament (Example: Moses is a “type” of Christ-he freed the Israelites from slavery by bringing them through the waters of the Red Sea. Christ frees us from the slavery of sin by bringing us through the waters of baptism)

  2. The Moral sense is the implication of the mystery in my life (Ex: Confronted with the story of the Good Samaritan, the Holy Spirit helps me to love my neighbor).

  3. The Anagogical sense is experiencing eternal and heavenly realities here and now through the meditation of the biblical text. (Ex: Rev.7:17, “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” - I may begin to get a glimpse of heaven and long for it through this text)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this also in [font=Arial]§115-118.[/font]

So if the literal meaning of a given passage is rather straight forward, your priest may decide to focus on the spiritual rather than the literal sense of scripture for his homily. This is fine, as long a he remains faithful to the literal as well. For example, it would be wrong for a priest to say that the gospel account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish was not really a true miracle, but a purely human event about people sharing. The spiritual meaning depends on a proper reading of the literal.

Please remember that the Bible contains all different types of writing and writing styles. There are historical books, poetry, prophesy and wisdom books. There are legal codes, narratives, and wise sayings. Some authors do use metaphors and other literary devices to achieve their purpose in writing. This does not discount the reality of the event they are reporting any more than my describing a luminary in the sky as a jewel denies that I saw a star.

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