Bible Showdown: Literal Vs. Allegorical Interpretation


horizontescuriosos asked:

I came across one interpretation of Genesis that I thought might be insightful to ask someone about. The idea I found is that Genesis is really an allegory about human sin … Like before sin, Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed. Then Eve tried to sneak eating the apple, sin entered, and from then on Adam and Eve wore clothes out of shame … As a pastor, do you think this idea of Genesis being an allegory for human sin has credit? (Edited for length)


Hey dear friend, I’ve definitely seen Genesis (and much of the Bible) interpreted as allegory, and it’s a legitimate way of reading the Bible, called the Alexandrian method, that’s been around for centuries.

However, I personally view most of the Bible as literal, factual history — or at the very least, I assume that the Bible authors had an original intention that wasn’t meant to be stretched towards a “spiritualized” meaning that says whatever we fancy.

Scripture doesn’t read as an allegorical account, but more like a news periodical. There are parts of Scripture that are definitely allegory, but it’s usually obvious, with the author even saying so.

Ancient accounts of legend only revealed details that were much like Chekov’s gun, which were set-ups for a moral lesson. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Beowulf to The Odyssey, no detail was wasted. But Scripture would describe things that had no other purpose but to describe them. Jonah talks about buying an actual ticket to board a ship. Peter and his fellow fisherman caught 153 fish, which has no other meaning, except that they caught 153 fish. When Jesus is arrested, a naked guy totally flees the scene. Mythological stories never read this way. Most of Scripture has a prosaic, open-ended description that was not a type of genre for myths back then, but for eyewitness testimony.

While the Alexandrian method certainly has merit, here’s one huge advantage of the literal interpretation of Scripture.


Literal interpretation of Scripture leads to deeper change. In the third century church, John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople (also known as the Golden-Mouthed Preacher), held to a literal interpretation despite the popularity of the Alexandrian method. This brought about a revolutionary revival in the third century church that lit a fire under complacent Christianity.

When John Chrysostom read, for example, that Jesus said to “feed the least of these,” he took that to mean, “feed the least of these.” He used charitable donations from the wealthy congregants to build hospitals for the sick instead of fixing the church building.  He constantly preached to help the poor; the aristocrats hated him. At one point the Roman government invaded the city to retaliate against a riot, and while other pastors fled, John Chrysostom stayed. The Emperor ended up pulling back the invasion, and word got out that St. John had remained with the people, so his church filled with disciples just like him. At the cost of John’s own reputation and even his life, he followed Jesus when it would’ve been easy for him to soften up Jesus’s teachings into cute whimsy Instagram quotes.

The thing is, when Scripture is seen as mostly allegorical, it’s too easy to have a pick-and-choose mentality of convenience. In a heated moment, Scripture becomes malleable to the point of suggestions. When I allegorize the Bible, I run the risk of softening its edges when I disagree with parts of it, which is a bit like pressing an off-button on my wife whenever I disagree with her. Then I don’t have a real Bible and a real God, but a butler who tells fables that simply affirms what I’m already doing.


This sugar-coating tendency isn’t something we do on purpose. In fact, consider the opposite case. When you watch a movie “based on a true story,” there’s a subconscious visceral weight to the story that this actually happened, and it deepens what you’re watching. In the same way, when you know the Bible is describing real commands and real miracles and can’t be stretched to an ethereal type of philosophy, then it shakes us at the ground floor. The Bible puts flesh and blood on Jesus.

If you really knew that there was spiritual warfare and it wasn’t just “negative energy,” if you really knew there were angels and demons and heaven and hell, if you really knew that prayer could affect the substance of the universe, if you really knew that Jesus died for you on a dirty Roman cross — then, my guess is that the proportion to which you hold Scripture as true is the degree to which you’ll be transformed, and you’ll live in such a way that doesn’t bend when life bends you. I’ve witnessed it, in others and in me. The higher you hold Scripture, the more likely you’ll live in a Christ-like way even when it’s not easy, because the objective reality of a real God who really does something remains steadfast.

I think it’s absolutely commendable and necessary to investigate the Bible, just like you’re doing, and to discern all the riches it has for you as you wade through some of its tougher passages. There are parts of Scripture which are difficult, confusing, and frustrating to interpret literally (especially Genesis and Revelation), and I’m sure I’ll wrestle with those to the end. And of course, I still think that allegorical interpretation is an historical, qualified way to read Scripture, with its own advantages. The important thing is that we love Jesus and we love people, and that the reading of Scripture convicts us and moves us into grace-driven action.

J.S.

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6 thoughts on “Bible Showdown: Literal Vs. Allegorical Interpretation

  1. That is a powerful apologetic you have laid out there J.S.. Thank you! If we take the Word as actual historical fact then the way God worked in those lives could also be the way He works in our lives. If it’s just an allegory then how much influence can it have on who we are and how we behave?

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  2. Loved this post! I’ve always tried to read and interpret the bible literally where it’s applicable and allegorically where it’s applicable. His post just rekindled my fire and desire to study the bible as deeply as I used to.

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  3. Yes, and I want to recognize that the literal reading must include the literary. Interpretation must account for when metaphorical and rhetorical devices are used, and it must account for genre. (How would we read cumming’s “I carry your heart with me” literally? We wouldn’t. Why do we try to read Genesis 1 literally when it’s the same genre as cummings?)

    And horizontescuriosos – For a meaning-making of a literal read of Genesis 2-3 specifically, I preached on that a while ago, you can watch here if you’re interested: http://kateraedavis.com/2015/05/02/reach-reading-eves-story/

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    1. Thanks for sharing this! I know that Genesis 1-3 is hotly debated, as both poetic and prosaic devices are used. I tend to take Tim Keller’s stance on the issue: where there’s repetition, it’s probably a poem, and as such is more likely an allegorical description, sometimes of a real event.

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