Literal interpretation | Definition, Christianity, Hermeneutics, Key Figures, & Facts (2023)

literal interpretation, in hermeneutics, the assertion that a biblical text is to be interpreted according to the “plain meaning” conveyed by its grammatical construction and historicalcontext. The literal meaning is held to correspond to the intention of the authors. St. Jerome, an influential biblical scholar of the 4th and 5th centuries, championed the literal interpretation of the Bible in opposition to what he regarded as the excesses of allegorical interpretation. The primacy of the literal sense was later advocated by suchdiversefigures asSt. Thomas Aquinas,Nicholas of Lyra,John Colet,Martin Luther, andJohn Calvin. A strictly literal interpretation of the Bible, particularly the book of Genesis, has given rise to a number of Christian fundamentalist beliefs that are frequently deemed unscientific, including young-Earth creationism (Genesis 1) and the belief that Noah’s Flood covered the entire world (Genesis 7:17–24).

The literal interpretation of scripture is often, but not necessarily, associated with belief in the verbal inspiration of the Bible, according to which the individual words of the divine message were divinely chosen. Extreme forms of this would imply that God dictated the message to the speakers or writers word by word, but this view is criticized on the ground that it does not account adequately for the evident individuality of style and vocabulary found in the various biblical authors.Verbal inspiration received classic expression by the 19th-century English biblical scholarJohn William Burgon:

Literal interpretation | Definition, Christianity, Hermeneutics, Key Figures, & Facts (2)

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biblical literature: Literal interpretation

The Bible is none other thanthe voice of Him that sitteth upon the Throne!Every Book of it,—every Chapter of it,—every Verse of it,—every word of it,—every syllable of it,—(whereare we tostop?)—every letter of it—is the direct utterance of the Most High! (FromInspiration and Interpretation,1861)

This explains Burgon’s severe judgment that the revisers of the English NewTestament(1881), in excluding what they believed to be scribal or editorial additions to the original text, “stand convicted of having deliberately rejected the words of Inspiration in every page” (The Revision Revised, 1883). Such a high view of inspiration has commonly been based on the statement in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “all [Old Testament]scriptureis inspired by God” (Greektheopneustos,which means “God-breathed”) or Paul’s claim in 1Corinthians2:13 to impart the gospel “in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.” On this latter passage, the English bishop and biblical scholarJoseph Barber Lightfoot(1828–89) remarked:

The notion of a verbal inspiration in a certain sense is involved in the veryconceptionof an inspiration at all, because words are at once the instruments of carrying on and the means of expressing ideas, so that the words must both lead and follow the thought. But the passage gives nocountenanceto the popular doctrine of verbal inspiration, whether right or wrong. (FromNotes on Epistles of St Paul from Unpublished Commentaries, 1895)

The detailed attention that Lightfoot and hisUniversity of CambridgecolleaguesBrooke Foss Westcott(1825–1901) andFenton John Anthony Hort(1828–92) paid in their exegesis to the vocabulary and grammatical construction of the biblical documents, together with their concern for the historicalcontext, sprang from nodogmaticattachment to any theory of inspiration but, rather, represented the literal method of interpretation at its best. Such grammatico-historicalexegesiscan be practiced by anyone with the necessary linguistic tools and accuracy of mind, irrespective of confessional commitment, and it is likely to have more permanent value than exegesis that reflects passing fashions of philosophical thought. Biblical theology itself is more securely based when it rests upon such exegesis than when it forms a hermeneutical presupposition.

Literal interpretation | Definition, Christianity, Hermeneutics, Key Figures, & Facts (3)

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The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Melissa Petruzzello.

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