The First Foundation: Consistent Literal Interpretation
by Thomas Ice
Consistent literal interpretation is essential to properly understanding what God is saying in the
Bible. Yet some believe that consistent literal interpretation is either impossible or impractical. One
critic believes it to be a "presumption" that "is unreasonable" and "an impossible ideal."1 In spite of
false characterization, what do we mean by consistent literal interpretation?
A DEFINITION OF LITERAL INTERPRETATION
The dictionary defines literal as "belonging to letters." Further, it says literal interpretation involves
an approach "based on the actual words in their ordinary meaning, . . . not going beyond the facts."2
"Literal interpretation of the Bible simply means to explain the original sense of the Bible according to
the normal and customary usages of its language."3 How is this done? It can only be accomplished
through an interpretation of the written text which includes consideration of the grammatical (according
to the rules of grammar), historical (consistent with the historical setting of the passage), contextual (in
accord with its context) method of interpretation. This is what literalists mean by consistently literal
The grammatical aspect of literal interpretation considers the impact that grammar plays on a
passage. This means that a student of the text should correctly analyze the grammatical relationships of
words, phrases, and sentences to one another. Literal interpreter Dr. Roy Zuck writes,
When we speak of interpreting the Bible grammatically, we are referring to the process of seeking
to determine its meaning by ascertaining four things: (a) the meaning of words (lexicology), (b) the
form of words (morphology), (c) the function of words (parts of speech), and (d) the relationships
of words (syntax).4
Dr. Zuck has been teaching biblical interpretation for many years at Dallas Seminary and I believe his
recent book Basic Bible Interpretation is the best place to start for anyone interested in learning how
to interpret the Bible. Dr. Zuck gives further amplification of the four areas he noted above:
In the meaning of words (lexicology), we are concerned with (a) etymology-how words are
derived and developed, (b) usage-how words are used by the same and other authors, (c)
synonyms and antonyms-how similar and opposite words are used, and (d) context-how words
are used in various contexts.
In discussing the form of words (morphology) we are looking at how words are structured and
how that affects their meaning. For example the word eat means something different from ate,
though the same letters are used. The word part changes meaning when the letter s is added to it
to make the word parts. The function of words (parts of speech) considers what the various
forms do. These include attention to subjects, verbs, objects, nouns, and others, as will be
discussed later. The relationships of words (syntax) are the way words are related or put together
to form phrases, clauses, and sentences.5
The grammatical aspect of literal interpretation lets us know that any interpretation conflicting with
grammar is invalid.
Proper interpretation of the Bible means that the historical context must be taken into account. This
aspect means that one must consider the historical setting and circumstances in which the books of the
Bible were written. Dr. Paul Tan explains:
The proper concept of the historical in Bible interpretation is to view the Scriptures as written
during given ages and cultures. Applications may then be drawn which are relevant to our times.
For instance, the subject of meat offered to idols can only be interpreted from the historical and
cultural setting of New Testament times. Principles to be drawn are relevant to us today.6
"A passage taken out of context is a pretext." This slogan is certainly true! Yet, one of the most
common mistakes made by those who are found to have misinterpreted a passage in the Bible is that of
taking a verse out of its Divinely ordered context. Even though a sentence may be taken from the
Bible, it is not the Word of God if it is placed into a context which changes the meaning from that which
God intended in its original context. Dr. Zuck says:
The context in which a given Scripture passage is written influences how that passage is to be
understood. Context includes several things:
the verse(s) immediately before and after a passage
the paragraph and book in which the verses occur
the dispensation in which it was written
the message of the entire Bible
the historical-cultural environment of that time when it was
A widely used example of a verse taken out of context is 2 Chronicles 7:14: "and My people who
are called by My name humble themselves and pray . . . " Usually this is quoted as an explanation for
why America is in decline. Because "My people" are addressed, it is said that the success of a nation is
dependent upon the obedience of Christians to the Lord. Thus God blesses or curses a nation in
accordance with Christian obedience. Then 2 Chronicles 7:14 is cited as a formula for national
restoration because the passage says to "humble themselves and pray, and seek My face and turn from
their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin, and will heal their land."
I believe that this is an illustration of a passage taken out of context because of the following
"My people" are said in 2 Chronicles 6:24 to be "Israel" as is also indicated by the flow of the
Solomon is preparing to dedicate the just completed Temple and 7:14 is God's renewal of the
Mosaic Covenant under which Israel and only Israel operates.
Since this passage involves Israel and not the church it is improper to speculatively relate it to present
day American Christianity. Proper contextual interpretation would allow for the general observation
that God delights in a humble and obedient people, but obedience and pray should be offered
according to His plan for the church.
FIGURES OF SPEECH
Literal interpretation recognizes that a word or phrase can be used either plainly (denotative) or
figuratively (connotative). As in our own conversations today, the Bible may use plain speech, such as
"He died yesterday" (denotative use of language). Or the same thing may be said in a more colorful
way, "He kicked the bucket yesterday" (connotative use of language). An important point to be noted
is that even though we may use a figure of speech to refer to someone's death, we are using that figure
to refer to an event that literally happened. Some interpreters are mistaken to think that just because a
figure of speech may be used to describe an event (i.e., Jonah's experience in the belly of the great fish
in Jonah 2), that the event was not literal. Such is not the case. A "Golden Rule of Interpretation" has
been developed to help us discern whether or not a figure of speech was intended by an author:
When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take
every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate
context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths,
indicate clearly otherwise.8
Literalists understand that a figure of speech is employed by Isaiah teaching that the Adamic curse
upon nature will be reversed in the millennium when he says, "And all the trees of the field will clap their
hands" (Isa. 55:12d). This figure is discerned by specific factors in the context in which it was written,
all dealing with the removal of the curse upon nature at this future time. Even though figurative language
is employed, it will literally happen in history.
LITERAL VERSES LITERAL
Dr. Elliott Johnson of Dallas Seminary has noted that much of the confusion over literal
interpretation can be removed when one properly understands the two primary ways the term has been
used down through church history: "(1) the clear, plain sense of a word or phrase as over against a
figurative use, and (2) a system that views the text as providing the basis of the true interpretation."9
Thus, literalists, by and large, have used the term literal to refer to their system of interpretation (the
consistent use of the grammatical-historical system; Johnson's #2), and once inside that system, literal
refers to whether or not a specific word or phrase is used in its context in a figurative or literal sense
Johnson's second use of literal (i.e., systematic literalism) is simply the grammatical-historical
system consistently used. The grammatical-historical system was revived by the Reformers. It was set
against the spiritual (spiritualized) or deeper meaning of the text that was a common approach during
the Middle Ages. The literal meaning was used simply as a springboard to a deeper ("spiritual")
meaning, which was viewed as more desirable. A classic spiritualized interpretation would for example,
see the four rivers of Genesis 2-the Pishon, Havilah, Tigris and Euphrates-as representing the human
body, soul, spirit and mind. Coming from such a system, the Reformers saw the need to get back to
the literal or textual meaning of the Bible. For instance, Martin Luther wanted to debate John Eck from
the text of the Bible.
The system of literal interpretation is the grammatical-historical or textual approach to
interpretation. Use of literalism in this sense could be called "macroliteralism." Within macroliteralism,
the consistent use of the grammatical-historical system yields the interpretative conclusion, for example,
that Israel always and only refers to national Israel. The church will not be substituted for Israel if the
grammatical-historical system of interpretation is consistently used because there are no indicator in the
text of Scripture that such is the case. Therefore, one must bring an idea from outside the text by saying
that the passage really means something that it does not actually say. This kind of replacement
approach is a mild form of spiritualized, or allegorical, interpretation. So when speaking of those who
do replace Israel with the church as not taking the Bible literally and spiritualizing the text, it is true,
since such a belief is contrary to a macroliteral interpretation.
Consistently literal interpreters, within the framework of the grammatical-historical system, do
discuss whether or not a word, phrase, or the literary genre of a biblical book is a figure of speech
(connotative) or is to be taken literally/plainly (denotative). This is Johnson's first use of literal which
could be called "microliteralism." Thus, within microliteralism, there may be discussion by literalists as
to whether or not a given word or phrase is being used as a figure of speech, based on the context of a
given passage. Some passages are quite naturally clearer than others and a consensus among
interpreters develops, whereas other passages may find literal interpreters divided as to whether or not
they should be taken as a figure of speech. However, this is more a problem of application than of
Reconstructionist Ken Gentry, in his attack on consistent literal interpretation, argues that
"consistent literalism is unreasonable."10 One of the ways he attempts to prove his point is by arguing
that, since literalists take some words and phrases as figures of speech, they are not consistently
literal.11 He asserts that, "the dispensational claim to 'consistent literalism' is frustrating due to its
inconsistent employment."12 Gentry seeks to discredit literalism by giving examples of literalists who
interpret certain passages as containing figures of speech, citing this as inconsistent with the system of
literal interpretation. According to Gentry, the literalist has to abandon literal interpretation when he
realizes that Jesus refers figuratively to Himself as a door in John 10:9.13 Gentry is not defining literal
interpretation the way literalists do. Therefore, his conclusions about literal interpretation are misguided
because he commonly mixes the two senses described by Johnson. When speaking of the
macroliteralism, he uses an example from microliteralism, and vice versa, therefore appearing to have
shown an inconsistency in literal interpretation. In reality, the examples cited fall within the framework
of how literalists have defined what they mean by literal interpretation.
God's Word is to be understood through literal interpretation. It is an important foundation
stone supporting the Pre-Trib Rapture, because when the Bible is consistently interpreted literally, from
Genesis to Revelation, the Pre-Trib position is hard to avoid. W
1 Kenneth Gentry, Jr., He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology (Tyler, Tex.:
Institute for Christian Economics, 1992), pp. 148, 146.
2 Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, Unabridged, Second Edition, p. 1055.
3 Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy (Winona Lake, Ind.: Assurance Publishers, 1974), p.
4 Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth
(Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1991), p. 100.
5 Ibid., pp. 100-01. 6 Tan, Interpretation of Prophecy, p. 103.
7 Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, p. 77.
8 David L. Cooper, The World's Greatest Library: Graphically Illustrated, (Los Angeles: Biblical
Research Society, 1970), p. 11.
9 Elliott E. Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990),
10 Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion, p. 148.
11 For examples of his approach see Gentry, pp. 153-58.
12 Ibid., p. 153. 13 Ibid., p. 148.