“The Literal Word of God”

Evangelists and others often claim that “the Bible is the literal Word of God”. Putting aside whether it’s true or not, what does it actually mean?

Google the quoted phrase to find lots of instances of the claim, and also lots of rejections of it. Both sides tend to confuse two possible meanings the phrase could have, so here they are nice and separate.

“The Bible is the literal Word of God” could mean either or both of the following:
1. The Bible is literally the Word of God. All those words on the pages really were composed by God.
2. The Word of God in the Bible is literal. God’s words are intended to be interpreted literally.

Some people are nice enough to spell out that they mean one or the other. Surveys of belief usually offer option 1 explicitly (again, Google the phrase in quotes), and some participants select it. Young-earth creationists defend option 2, arguing to the hilt that Creation took place in “six literal days”.

Option 1 is difficult to either establish or debunk, because even the most zealous Bible-thumpers will say that God wrote through the minds and hands of human “authors”. Short of going back in time and doing brain scans, we’ll never be absolutely certain that their writings weren’t the products of their own brains.

The most common way of supporting option 1 is to argue that the Bible makes prophecies, and statements about the universe, which history and science have since confirmed. I’ve addressed this sort of thing already.

Option 2 is a theological matter, because you have to presume the existence of a god before you wonder what it meant by something it wrote. That said, it’s extremely difficult to defend a 100% literal reading of the Bible. There are passages which, unless taken metaphorically or figuratively, are for example false even in a Biblical context (Genesis 2:17) or deadly (Proverbs 3:3).

Most Christians reject option 2 and take some or all of the Bible as metaphor. Many more also reject option 1 and allow that the Bible is simply a book written about God, and that any perceived issues with its contents don’t reflect badly on Him. Therefore the quoted claim in my title and the confusion it creates are irrelevant to most. However, for the minority that do shout it from the rooftops (clearly, I’m a metaphor man) and those who worry about their influence or are under it, it’s important to clarify this profound statement before accepting it, rejecting it or just discussing it.