Is the Bible Symbolical or Literal?

“And God said, Let there be light, and there was light…” Gen. 1:3

Recently, four college students came to my door with the above captioned question: is the Bible symbolical or literal? They were sent to me by their professor in Religious Studies. These were really some nice mid-west young people, who were seeking an answer to this and other questions in their bewilderment. They were not receiving any answers to this question in college, but only more questions. And these questions are by no means innocent. They are calculated to deceive the innocent and the simple in faith.

Perhaps I should try to give an answer to this question for you, youthful reader, as I attempted to patiently give the answer to my visitors.

I will then begin by defining what I understand with the term “Bible.” You know, do you not, that the various religions (such as the Zoroastrian, Hindu, Buddhist, Mohammedan) have their sa­cred writings, sometimes spoken of as their “Bibles.” Our Bible is not at all like their “bible.” We will borrow the definition of Dr. James Orr, who says that we understand by “Bible” the “collection of Scriptures of the Old Testament and New Testament recognized and in use in the Christian Church.” This does not tell us just what the Bible is, but it does distinguish our “Bible” from all other so-called “bibles.”

The term “Bible” is derived from the Greek word “biblia,” which means “books.” The phrase occurs in the Greek translation of Daniel 9:2 where it stands for the prophetic writings, including that of the prophet Jeremiah. These books are also called “the holy books.” In the 13th century these books were called, by common consent, “The Book.” (Compare article by Dr. James Orr in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. I, p. 400.)

When we speak of the Bible as the “Book,” we include all the sixty-six books of the O.T. as well as the N.T. Scriptures, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. The Bible starts with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…”, and it ends with “Even so come. Lord Jesus.” This is the history of the world! This is very real history, with real people from beginning to end. The Bible alone shows us the history of the world. It is the unfolding and coming to pass of God’s counsel of His will!

Such is our Bible.

Now this is what we believe concern­ing our Bible because the Bible tells us so, and the Holy Spirit testifies of this in our hearts. To understand this we must remember that this faith of ours con­cerning the Sacred Scriptures is a saving faith. It is not a mere historical faith, which even the devils share, and, therefore, they tremble (James 2:19), or the faith of King Agrippa, that unbe­lieving Jew, who nevertheless believed the Scriptures with an historical faith. Our faith is living faith in the Son of God, by which we are ingrafted into Christ and by which faith we receive all Christ’s benefits. With such a faith which drinks out of Christ as the branch does out of the vine, we believe the Scriptures. We believe with the heart and confess with the mouth (Rom. 10:9, Belgic Confession, Articles 1-4). When “we” approach the Bible, in distinction from unbelievers and haters of the Christ, we have a prejudice. Ours is the prejudice (pre-judgment) of faith in Christ, and then the unbeliever, too, has a prejudice. It is the pre­judgment of unbelief, which will not be persuaded by the Word of God. Such an unbeliever may denominate himself to be a “liberal” to the far-left, and try to tell you that you are a “conservative” to the far-right; but that is nothing but some sleight of hand hocus-pocus. It is a mere cloak of deception, the sham of the theological juggler. Either you believe in the Son and in the Scriptures which speak of Him, and you have the key of knowledge, or you do not believe in Him, and the Bible is a closed book to you!

By a saving faith by which you make your calling and election sure, you have the more sure prophetic Word unto which you give heed as unto a light which shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the day-star arises in your heart.

Now some very learned man comes to you and startles you with the question: is the Bible symbolical or literal? Don’t be stampeded by this question with all its pretense to solid learning. For it is really wind, a gust of wind of Satan’s error, which would unsaddle you. We must not be swayed to and fro by all these “winds” of error. For really this seemingly innocent question comes from people who boldly speak of things of which they have absolutely no understanding at all! (I Tim. 1:7). In the days of Paul, there was a lot of “vain jangling” (talking) in the church world, and there still is such today. Perhaps more so even. But do not be disturbed in your soul.

This “learned?” interrogator likes to place the matter as if you must make this a matter of either-or. The Bible is either symbolical or it is literal. But this construction is rooted in unbelieving prejudice which does not give serious and solid study of the Scriptures. It is the fashion of the modern day “interpreter” of the Bible, who has a new “Hermeneu­tic,” a new way of interpreting the Scriptures. He has never learned to interpret Scripture by the Scriptures, but must interpret Scripture by his unbe­lieving reason. He is an unbelieving rationalist. He places his judgment above Scripture and not under Scripture. And that he calls his “academic freedom.” Do not fall into his trap. It is not true that you must either say the Bible is “literal” or it is “symbolic.”

Mark you well, my youthful reader, that question whether the Bible is “literal” or “symbolical” is by no means an innocent question. It is a coldly calculated question; it is “loaded.” It manipulates by putting new meanings in old and accepted terms of the church and theology. It is the art and “science” called “semantics.” The Bible does speak in language which must be understood in a symbolical sense. Indeed! But the Bible also uses language which must be taken according to the literal meaning of the terms. In one case, “water” is literal like the water in Jacob’s well, and it is also used in a symbolical, figurative sense by Jesus to designate the salvation wrought by the Holy Spirit. Now does this call for a categorical either-or: literal or symbolical? By no means! It merely means that one must compare Scripture with Scripture, and carefully divide the Word of God.

A good example of this we have in the Book of Daniel, where the dream of

Nebuchadnezzar is interpreted under the inspiration of the Spirit in God s prophet. Daniel is a holy man who is moved and carried by the Spirit (II Peter 2:20, 21). The dream of this Babylonian king is full of symbolism of the Lord’s prophecy: head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of brass, legs of Iron, and feet part of Iron and part of clay. But the interpretation is such that this all refers to what “shall come to pass”; literally come to pass as history in the coming of Christ in his death and resurrection and ascen­sion at God’s right hand, as depicted in the “stone cut without hands” in the king’s dream. Yes, lots of symbolism, but not the Bible is either-or- literal or symbolical! Such is the false contrast drawn by those for whom the Bible is a closed book.

Take one more example, and then I will end this little study. In the Book of Revelation we have much symbolical presentation of both the kingdom of Satan and that of Christ. This is true in a great degree of what we read in the chapters 4-22. What do we have here? Real history? Of course, this is real history. John is shown by the Lord, taken up into heaven which is opened, the “things which must come to pass after these things” (Rev. 4:1). Here is history. Here is literal fulfillment of what is presented in symbolical form. The Bible is the Word of God, spoken now in literal form, then in symbolical.

Blessed is he that reads and they that hear the things written in it, and for whom the Bible is no closed Book.