Were Catholics literalists?


At one time, were Catholics literalists? By literalist I mean believing the Bible word for word. For example, believing in seven 24 hour days of creation as the only possible interpretation of the creation story.


I’m sure individual Catholics have had literalist views of the Bible, but the Church has always viewed and interpreted Sacred Scripture contextually.


Perhaps I should have amplified my question. By always, do you mean from the first century until today?


Some still are (like me), though we are in the minority.


Do you believe in literalism? Origen was condemned by the Church Fathers for mutilating himself below the waist. Is it consistent with our human dignity to approach the Bible with a literalistic interpretative grid? How many Christians have poked out their eye or cut off their hand? I don’t know.

Literalism seems to fly in the face of reason in order to maintain a control over reality to insure entrance into heaven. Whether or not this is true, I don’t know. I simply want to know if a literalistic interpretation was ever the generally held view by the magisterium? Thanks.


I don’t think you could make a blanket statement and say someone interpreted every word in the bible as literal, because you would have to take the scripture on a case by case basis. Some passages are obviously metaphorical. For example, Jesus said that he is the door. Obviously he is not a literal door made out of wood. It is an image with a deeper meaning. Much of the bible is written this way. In the OT Psalms God is often described as a Rock. I doubt anyone believed God was literally a Rock, but that it was an image of strength. So, one would always have interpreted the bible in literal and non-literal ways depending on the passage in question. I heard the Jews didn’t interpret everything literally either. St. Augustine in the 4th century described the 7 days of creation as non-literal.


As fisherman carl pointed out St. Augustine is frequently cited for his interpretation of the seven days of creation as something other than seven twenty-four hour days. As I recall he also thought that God created the first living things through natural causes which continue to the present day (though he had a very different idea of what those causes are than that of modern science).

We should be careful about our use of the word “literal” though. The word literally just means the meaning of the words of Scripture. In this older, Catholic sense of the word of course we believe in the literal sense of Scripture. Indeed it is this literal sense on which every other sense of Scripture is based. Properly speaking it is not a question of interpreting the Bible literally or non-literally, but rather of determining what the literal sense of Scripture really is: what do the words really mean?


2 Peter 3:8 seems to indicate that time to God a.k.a. God’s time being of a much more flexible and indeed mysterious nature than the rhythms of the earth’s current clock.

God has eternity, so why a ‘six day’ rush in any case?


How the Bible should be interpreted according to the Catechism:




Well said. St. Augustine interpreted Genesis’ “Let there be light” as spiritual light rather than physical light, but he considered spiritual light to be literal fact.I dislike the use of “literal” in connection with the Bible. Facts can be expressed in a metaphorical or poetic or parabolic form, and still be literal truth. I prefer the use of the term “Lyrical” in some of the descriptions in the Bible.


I can’t remember the location of the following quote, but somewhere in the OT, it was said basically that to God “a day is as a thousand years”. I interpret this myself as meaning that yes, God did create the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th, but each day to a MORTAL MAN could have been a thousand or a million years passing! To God, to Whom all time is PRESENT (He sees the end from the beginning), an Eternal Present, it was 6 days. To us it could have been 2 or 3 million years, or perhaps 6 million years! Time means nothing to God, since He always IS (I AM) = I am now, I am then, I am in the (your) future.

I’ve never worried about the dinosaurs, by the way. Just thought maybe it was God’s joke to make us wonder! Maybe they were necessary to the creation of the rest of the world for a time, and when no longer needed for that purpose, He just got rid of them! I can see Him laughing at people trying to figure out where the dinosaurs fit into the Creation! I concern myself with my life now, and how my eternal life will be spent. Maybe there are some dinosaurs as pets in heaven too??? LOL As an earlier Talmudic Scholar said: ‘God takes care of the afterlife, He makes us responsible only for our lives here. If I take care of my business (life and living correctly), I can trust Him to take care of His part!’ I.E., HIS business is not MY business, but MY business is part of HIS business!:slight_smile:


In summation, no. The Catholic Church, from day one to today and forever onward, has not, does not, and will not take a literalist approach to Scripture. To read and interpret Scripture in a literalistic way is, quite simply, wrong. The Bible is full of metaphor and hyperbole, and to read it literally will lead on to error and almost inevitably material heresy. Context is essential.

Pax Christi sit semper tecum.


The bible is not a book. Its a library of books. So it’s tantamount to asking if I take the library of congress literally.


What a broad, sweeping generalization. It is not true. Jesus refers to Abraham and Moses as real people, for example. The Church has been explaining this or that part of the Bible for a very long time. It alone has the ability ti interpret it correctly and in light of Divine revelation.



Lets remember that the Bible wasn’t really put together until around 400 A.D

St Augustine in his commentary on Genesis never thought that the days be taken literally, but rather God had certain potentials for humans that would unfold during time.

God Bless!:thumbsup:


I’ll take the Church’s definition since St.Augustine is brought up quite often here. The Church hasn’t decided and I’m fine with that.

"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."



The earliest Catholics interpreted the Bible in lots of different ways, and even the Book of Genesis was something that had a wide variety of interpretations to it, some literal and some not. The Catholic Answers tract called “Creation and Genesis” documents a bunch of different Church Fathers and the way they interpreted Genesis: catholic.com/tracts/creation-and-genesis

In a book called “De Genesi Ad Litteram,” St. Augustine famously interpreted the Book of Genesis in a way that suggests modern evolutionary theory: “The things [that God] had potentially created…[came] forth in the course of time on different days according to their different kinds…[and] the rest of the earth [was] filled with its various kinds of creatures, [which] produc[ed] their appropriate forms in due time.” (Book V Chapter 7 Paragraph 22)

That is evolutionary thinking. God didn’t create all species of animals all at once, according to St. Augustine; He created them in a potential kind of way, so that they would develop later, “producing their appropriate forms in due time.” “It is thus that God unfolds the generations which He laid up in creation when first he founded it.” (Book V Chapter 20 Paragraph 41)

So the answer to your question is no, not all Catholics used to be literalists.


I don’t think a yes or no answer is possible here by using just one example.




To a certain extent, we are all literalists about some sections of the Bible. As a Catholic, I believe that the Old Testament is true but that some parts are written in symbolic, lyrical or parabolic styles - although true none the less. As a Catholic, I think that the New Testament, including the Gospels, is literal truth, and intended as such. (Except in the passages that are clearly denoted as parables when Christ is teaching (and which are, obviously, still true in what they teach, and it is true that Christ taught them).

Protestants, especially those who consider themselves literalists, often tend to view the Old Testament literally (and will wrap themselves in knots to explain how every element in the Book of Genesis can be historically validated), but insist that some passages in the New Testament must be viewed more symbolically.

This is from am 1898 essay by Fr. G. Bampfield, a member of the Catholic Truth Society. It is worth reprinting:

I go again with my open Bible to our Low Churchman, our Independent, or other Dissenter. It is open at St. Matthew, chap. 26, verse 20—”Take eat : this is My Body.” I say to them, “Here are very simple words. Do you believe them? When Our Lord said, ‘This is My Body,’ did He mean ‘this is My Body ?’”

“Well! No,” our Protestant friend will say, “He did not mean exactly, This is My Body; He meant, This is the figure of My Body.”

But He does not say so—He says, This is My Body, and, again, This is My Blood.

“No. He does not say so, but He means what He does not say. He says, this is My Body, but He means, This is a figure, a type, a likeness of My Body. He says, This is My Blood, but means, This is a figure of My Blood.”

Then you will grant that your meaning is not the first clear, common-sense, easy meaning which the words would have? When it is written that the water was made wine (St. John ii. 9), you would not say that the first clear meaning of the word was, the water was made a likeness of wine ?

”We suppose this must be granted. Our Protestant meaning is not the first clear meaning of the words.”

Well, then! let us turn again to that un-scriptural priest who is so afraid of the Bible. What say you, Reverend Father, of these words?

“I say, what I have always in all things said, that the Bible means what its words seem to mean. The plain, simple, straightforward sense is the true sense. When our Lord said, This is My Body, it was His Body; when He said, This is My Blood, it was His Blood. Just as when a man says, this is a book, he means this is a book, not this is the figure of a book; so surely with Our Blessed Lord, Who cannot love to puzzle us by hiding His meaning under doubtful words. Why does our good Protestant think that our Lord meant one thing and said another?

“Oh! because it cannot be. It is impossible. Bread cannot become God’s Body: wine cannot become His Blood.”

Cannot again! Always cannot! In Baptism cannot, in Confession cannot, and now again cannot? What is it that God cannot do?

Surely the priest is here again the straightforward one of the two. He does not seem afraid of the Bible after all. It is the Protestant who seems afraid, who wriggles and shuffles a little, and does not give plain senses to plain language.

It will be perhaps the same with St. John vi. 53, “Except ye eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, ye have no life in you.” Do you, Low Church, or Independent, or Wesleyan minister, do you really eat the real Flesh and drink the real Blood of God ?

“No, certainly not; Our Lord means that we must eat the figure of His Flesh, drink the figure of His Blood ; eat and drink His Flesh and Blood not with the body but only with the mind.”

We turn to the priest, and his answer is straightforward as before. “What the Bible says it means. We do really eat the real Flesh of God; we do really drink the real Blood of God. He enters not into our soul only by His Spiritual Power, but His Real Body enters into our body, and is meat indeed and drink indeed.”


More from the good Fr. Bampfield:

I go again on another matter to the Low Church man or the Wesleyan, or Independent, or other Protestant. I ask, Do you believe that a man by the power of God forgives the sins of other men? “Of course not,” he tells me with a laugh of mockery if he be a merry man, or a scowl of indignant horror if he be of the severer sort; “of course not, man cannot forgive the sins of his fellows.”

“Well, but here is plain Bible on the point. The Apostles were men, and Our Lord said to these men quite plainly (John xx. 23), ‘Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them.’ Now if this does not mean that God gave the Apostles the power to forgive sins, what does it mean? Is ‘whosesoever sins ye remit’ the same as ‘You can’t remit any sins;’ or is ‘they are remitted unto them,’ the same as ‘of course they won’t be remitted unto them?’”

But come with me to the Catholic Church and ask the priest about it. “We know,” we will say to him, for priests are mostly good-natured men and like a little fun, “we know that you are greatly afraid of the Bible, and never let your people see it for fear they should find you out. Now here is a plain text: dare you face it? What does it mean?”

Mean! he will answer; why! of course it means just what it says, like any other straightforward truth-loving book. The Apostles were men, and being men they did remit sin; and those sins were remitted. Of course through the power of God, not through their own power. God only can forgive sins, but He can forgive them through what instrument He pleases. And the instruments He used of old time were men, as is clear by the text; and if He forgave sins of old time through men, He will surely forgive sins through men now; for He does not change.

Really the priest does not seem frightened of this text at all events. He gives to the words their plainest, simplest meaning; the Protestant does not; he either gives the words no sense at all, or he puts upon them a crooked round-about meaning, not a plain meaning for plain words such as any other book would have.

Again the reason the Protestants have for not sticking to the clear sense is “cannot.” God cannot forgive sins through man. “Cannot!” says the Catholic, “yes, through these stones if He pleases.” The question is not about “can” or ” cannot.” The question is only, ” What way of forgiving sins has God chosen ; of what way does the Bible speak?”

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