On Literalism in Biblical Interpretation

Here, Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church, is a college lecture by a scholar concentrating on the Early Church, Dr. Daniel F. Stramara, Jr.

He notes that Jews and early Christians did not take numbers as literal, such as Enoch living to be 365 or Lamech living to be 777, or the Hebrews wandering for 40 years in the desert.  And Creation was not done in 6 literal days, but in 6 “successive enormous periods of time.”  The Scriptures were not seen as “literally true historical documents as in the modern sense,” but historical testimonies of God and faith.

And get a load of this–from the most conservative church on the planet–according to The New Testament, An Orthodox Perspective:

Orthodox theology holds to a personal and dynamic, rather than mechanistic and verbal, concept of inspiration. God did not merely dictate words or propositions to passive authors, but rather he impacted personally their whole beings, allowing them actively to comprehend, interpret, and convey his will to others according to the limitations of their understanding and language.

It is important to note that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit embraces a far deeper and broader process than the composition of single books. Inspiration involves the entire community of faith, the life of a particular author, the composition of particular books, as well as their gradual gathering into a sacred collection.

While all Scripture is “God-breathed”, 2 Tim 3:16), it is not equally so, because of the variability of human receptivity. The inspirational character of the Book of Isaiah cannot be compared to that of the Book of Ecclesiastes, nor the inspirational character of the Gospel of John to that of the Epistle of Jude.

Those who emphasize the literal authority of Scripture, often conservative and fundamentalist Protestants, debate the concept of inerrancy. They advocate essentially a Bible without error and are thus compelled to provide artificial defensive justifications.

Many seem to bypass the historical complexities and to attribute to Scripture an absolute character that properly belongs only to God, thus seemingly lapsing into a kind of bibliolatry.

The Roman Catholic view of inspiration may be expressed by the term infallibility, following the etymological sense that Scripture ‘does not fail’ for the essential saving purposes for which it was given by God.

In the Orthodox tradition, perhaps the most appropriate expression is the sufficiency of Scripture, an expression used by St. Athanasios to affirm the fullness of saving truth provided by Scripture.

Read the whole passage, titled “Divine and Human Aspects,” for a complete picture of the Orthodox view of Scripture.  Basically, their rejection of inerrancy does not mean that we cannot trust anything the Bible says, such as about Christ’s death on the cross or God’s existence etc., as many proponents of the inerrancy doctrine have charged.  Rather,

The divine aspects are to be found in Scripture’s saving message about God, humanity, the gospel, the Church, grace and works, as well as the hope of the coming kingdom.

This saving message is not merely an announcement of abstract concepts but a present reality as God’s word which, when proclaimed and received by faith, becomes a living and transforming word through the power of the Spirit.

The human aspects are to be found in the specific human languages of the Bible, the different kinds of literary forms and skills of the biblical authors and editors, as well as in their cultural and conceptual limitations which are intrinsic to all human endeavors. –Theodore G. Stylianopoulos, The New Testament: An Orthodox Perspective

This Orthodox view was passed down by the Early Church Fathers, which you’ll discover if you also read this section: “4. The Church Fathers & Holy Scripture/The Authority of Scripture.”  For examples:

However, the exaltation of the authority and centrality or Scripture in the patristic tradition did not lead to its absolutization as a kind of holy book delivered directly from heaven.

It is true that, on the one hand, without the benefit of current critical awareness pertaining to the composition of the biblical writings, the Church fathers held a distinctly higher view of the divine authority and historical veracity of the Bible than is usual among modern scholars and theologians.

But, on the other hand, the Church fathers did not reach a kind of fundamentalist view of the Bible as found in Protestant orthodoxy. We may say that the fathers in their total witness were indeed fundamental but never fundamentalist about the Bible, acknowledging in significant ways its human as well as divine character.


….Numerous examples can be given of the patristic refusal to stay with the plain teaching of Scripture when such teaching compromised the overall understanding of God.

Biblical texts that are predestinarian in grammatical meaning (Rom 8:29; 9:11,16-17) cannot, according to the Church fathers, be taken at face value without leading to unacceptable deductions about God who is loving and just, and not arbitrary.

The Book of Revelation may teach a literal millennium (Rev. 20:4), and the Epistle to the Hebrews seems to prohibit the possibility of a second repentance after serious sin (Heb 10:26-27; 12:16-17).

Although some early interpreters advocated such ideas, for example, the author of the Shepherd of Hermas, St. Justin, and St. Irenaios, these doctrines never became part of the normative teaching of the Church.

In a remarkable instance of freedom from biblical literalism, St. Isaac the Syrian, arguably the greatest mystic in the tradition of Eastern Christianity, intentionally demythologizes the image of hellfire.

Although he by no means rejects the reality of hell, he reinterprets it as a separation from and inability to participate in God’s eternal love, a separation more painful according to him than any physical hell. For St. Isaac, hell did not exist prior to sin and its ultimate end is unknown.


….Certainly the patristic tradition, known for its spiritual exegesis, cannot be charged with slavish literalism to an absolute holy word. In the end, as H. Chadwick has observed, the Church fathers knew that Christianity is not a religion of a book but of a Person.

Written around 2005/2006/2007

Index to my theology/church opinion pages:

Page 1:

End Times and Christian Zionism
God’s Purpose/Supremacy of God Doctrine
Cat and Dog Theology
Raising One’s Hands in Worship
Christian Music
On the “still, small voice” and Charismatic sign gifts
On church buildings
The Message Bible
The Purpose-Driven Life
The Relevance Doctrine, i.e. Marketing Churches to Seekers
Republican Party
Abortion Protests
The idea that God has someone in mind for you
Literalism in Biblical interpretation

Page 2:

Name it and Claim It Doctrine, Prosperity Doctrine, Faith-Formula Theology, Word-Faith Theology,  Positive Confession Theology, Health and Wealth Gospel, and whatever else they call it
More about Pat Robertson
Dr. Richard Eby and others who claim to have been to Heaven
Women in Marriage/the Church
Spiritual Abuse
Other Resources

Page 3:

Why do bad things happen?
Should we criticize our brethren’s artistic or evangelistic attempts?  Or, how should we evangelize, then?
Angels: Is “This Present Darkness” by Frank Peretti a divine revelation or fiction?
Halloween: Not the Devil’s Holiday!
Hell and the Nature of God
Is Christmas/Easter a Pagan Holiday?
Is everybody going to Hell except Christians?
How could a loving God who prohibits murder, command the genocide of the Canaanite peoples?
What about predestination?
Musings on Sin, Salvation and Discipleship
An Ancient View which is in the Bible, yet new to the west–Uncreated Energies of God

Page 4:

The Didache
Technical Virginity–i.e., how far should a Christian single go?
Are Spiritual Marriages “real”?  (also in “Life” section, where it’s more likely to be updated)
Does the Pill cause abortions, or is that just another weird Internet or extremist right-wing rumor?
What about Missional Churches, Simple Churches, Fluid Churches, Organic Churches, House Churches or Neighborhood Churches?
Is Wine from the Devil–or a Gift from God?
What is Worship?
Evangelistic Trips to Already Christianized Countries
Fraternities, Sororities, Masonic Lodge
Was Cassie Bernall a Martyr?
Some Awesome Things heard in the Lamentations Service (Good Friday evening) during Holy Week

Conversion Story

Phariseeism in the Church

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