Difference between revisions of "Literal vs. figurative interpretation of scripture"

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Revision as of 15:52, 21 October 2020

The literal vs. figurative interpretation of the bible is a problem faced by all religious people whose doctrine in influenced by scripture, so, pretty much all of them. The problem comes from the fact that passages of scripture were written by their authors to be interpreted either literally or figuratively (e.g., allegorical, metaphorical, etc.), however, there is no way to be certain one way or the other. In most forms of writing, this is an inconvenience that gives work to commentators, but, for religions who build their doctrine from how they interpret their scripture, it's a serious problem. If they misinterpret the scripture, their doctrine may be invalid, and they may not be following their religion correctly.

Although many religions have adherents who claim to be literalists, this problem not only persists for them, but is often exacerbated by their strictness.

Argument

An informal way to describe the problem can be worded as:

  • P1: The authors of scripture wrote some passages literally and others figuratively.
  • P2: Many passages can be interpreted both literally or figuratively.
  • P3: The authors are no longer alive to clarify how they meant their writings to be received.
  • C1: Because of this, there is no way to know with certainty whether a passage should be interpreted as literal or figurative.
  • P4: Scriptures often contains many passages that, if misinterpreted, may result in false doctrine.
  • C2: With so many ways to result in false doctrine, nearly all possible doctrines must be false.
  • C3: Which means that most adherents are probably using a false doctrine.

I explain each of the premises and conclusions in further detail below.

P1

The authors of scripture wrote some passages literally and others figuratively.

In all the worlds major scripture-based religions, even the most strict literalist has to agree, some passages are literal and some are figurative. For example, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells various parables which essentially every Christian accepts as being allegories (figurative), while the passages which describe Jesus and his apostles traveling from town to town are meant to be taken literally.

P2

Many passages can be interpreted both literally or figuratively.

This is true for any writing, but especially true when the narrative includes gods or other entities that are not bound to the laws of physics. Young earth creationists interpret the creation narrative in the Book of Genesis as Yahweh creating the entire universe in six literal days, while old earth creationists interpret the same passage to be six figurative days. Since the narrative is based around a god that can do whatever it wants, both could be acceptable.

P3

The authors are no longer alive to clarify how they meant their writings to be received.

The authors of the scripture used by any of the worlds major religions are long since dead, so they cannot be asked to clarify whether they intended a particular passage to be interpreted as literal or figurative. Also, the authors almost never explicitly wrote how a passage should be interpreted. To some extent, it wouldn't matter if they did, because a writer could write that they want their work to be interpreted literally, but intend for that sentence to be taken figuratively.

C1

Because of this, there is no way to know with certainty whether a passage should be interpreted as literal or figurative.

This is true for all writing, but it really only matters to those people who base their world view on it.

P4

Scriptures often contains many passages that, if misinterpreted, may result in false doctrine.

A majority of Christians base their claim that homosexuality is a sin on passages from their bible which they believe are meant to be taken literally. However, a growing minority of Christians believe that these passages are meant to be received figuratively. Whoever is wrong is not living the doctrine their god intended for them, but a false doctrine. Other topics like premarital sex, abortion, the existence of hell, and so forth can go either way depending on how the reader interprets scripture.

C2

With so many ways to result in false doctrine, nearly all possible doctrines must be false.

If we assume that a religion's scripture has only 10 passages that require a judgment call to be interpreted as literal or figurative, that would mean there are 1,023 possible false doctrines and only one true doctrine. Of course, that's an extremely conservative estimate. More realistically, a scripture with a length similar to a bible, Quran, or the Vedas would probably have thousands of passages requiring a judgment call, resulting in a truly astronomical number of false doctrines.

C3

Which means that most adherents are probably using a false doctrine.

Objections

It's obvious to know when a passage should be taken literally or figuratively

Schisms and entire sects result in the inability to discern the nature of passages.

Literal or figurative, my god doesn't care