Should the Bible be read literally or literarily? This question must not only be asked but answered if the Bible is to be read in conformity with the twin demands of faith and reason. As is often the case, it will serve us well to begin by defining our terms. What’s the difference between reading literally and reading literarily?
Reading literally is perceiving the facts and only the facts; reading literarily is perceiving further levels of meaning beyond the facts, meanings that are discovered through the recognition of an allegorical dimension to the text. It is important to realize that the two types of reading are not necessarily in conflict. A literal understanding of the text is required before any literary understanding is possible. It is, therefore, not a question of either/or but both/and. We must read the Bible literally in order to be able to read it literarily. It is, however, not sufficient to only read the Bible literally. If we insist on the facts and nothing but the facts we will not be seeing the fullness of truth that Scripture reveals.
In his seminal work On Christian Doctrine (De Doctrina Christiana), Augustine makes the crucial distinction between “things” and “signs”:
I have here called a “thing” that which is not used to signify something else, like wood, stone, cattle, and so on: but not that wood concerning which we read that Moses cast it onto bitter waters that their bitterness might be dispelled, nor that stone which Jacob placed at his head, nor that beast which Abraham sacrificed in place of his son. For these are things in such a way that they are also signs of other things.
These are literal things that signify something else— like the “wood,” which in this particular scriptural context signifies the cross. (“For these are things in such a way that they are also signs of other things.”) Augustine then goes on to distinguish two distinct types of signs. There are “natural signs,” those occurring in nature, such as smoke that signifies fire or animal tracks that signify the passing of an animal. And then there are those “conventional signs,” such as words, “whose whole use is in signifying.” Every word is, therefore, allegorical in the broadest sense, insofar as it is a thing whose only purpose is to signify something beyond itself. There is another, cruder form of allegory, a literary genre where characters and things exist only to represent an abstract concept, which is not to be found in Scripture.
The word “allegory” derives from the Greek word allegoria, which is itself the combination of two other Greek words: allos, meaning “other,” and agoria, meaning “speaking.” At its most basic level, allegory is, therefore, any thing which “speaks” or points to another thing. In this sense, as Saint Augustine states, every word is an allegory, a conventional sign that signifies something else. The word “dog” is a sound (when spoken) or a series of three shapes (letters) arranged in a certain order (when written) that signifies a four-legged canine mammal. Each of the three letters arranged in the certain order to make the word “dog” are themselves allegories, signifying certain sounds. If we were to shuffle those three allegorical signifiers into the reverse order it would make a word which signifies something very different from a dog, i.e., “god.” Letters and words are the most basic form of allegory (i.e., things that speak of other things) but there are many other types of allegory. The parables of Christ are allegories in that they are one thing—a fictional story—that speaks of another thing—the moral lesson to be learned and applied to our own lives. Insofar as the Prodigal Son or his forgiving father or his envious brother remind us of ourselves or others, they are allegorical figures. It is in this sense that it is imperative that we move beyond the literal to the literary level of understanding the text.
According to Aquinas, the Bible needs to be read on no fewer than four distinct levels of meaning: the literal level and three distinct allegorical levels. These three levels are what he terms the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. The allegorical meaning is to be found in the way in which the Old Testament prefigures and points towards its fulfilment in the New Testament; the moral meaning is to be found in the manner in which the text of Scripture is applicable to the moral life of the reader and his neighbour; and the anagogical meaning relates to the eternal significance of the text.
Once we’ve ascertained that the Bible must be read not merely literally, we will be better able to detect the literary quality of Scripture. Broadly speaking, literature can be said to fall into two distinct forms, which might be termed lyrical and narrative.
Lyrical literature is the fruit of that contemplation, born of wonder, which dilates the mind and soul into the fullness of reality. This lyrical dimension can be seen in the Song of Solomon and the Psalms of David, and also, most sublimely, in the opening chapter of the Gospel of John, as well as in John’s ecstatic description of the apocalyptic and anagogical Revelation with which he was gifted.
It is, however, in the narrative dimension of Scripture that the literal and literary qualities shine forth most powerfully. The Bible, and especially the Gospel, is the giving of good news through the telling of good stories. We know that stories are potent ways to evangelize because they have been sanctioned and sanctified by Christ Himself, who taught many of His most important lessons in the form of parables, which are fictional narratives.
As for the power of fictional narrative to reveal the deepest truths, let’s conclude with that most sacrosanct of fictional works to which we have already made reference. The parable of the Prodigal Son is a work of fiction: The Prodigal Son never existed; nor did his father, nor his brother, nor the pigs. They are all figments of Christ’s imagination. In this sense they are fictional characters whom we might be tempted to see as less real than we are. And yet every time that story has been told or read since the time Christ Himself first told it, each listener or reader has seen himself in the story, perhaps as the Prodigal Son, or the envious brother, or the forgiving father. And when we hear or read the story, we don’t think that the Prodigal Son is like us, we think that we are like the Prodigal Son. He is the archetype of which we are only types. In this very real sense, he is more real than we are, even though he never existed except in a fictional story that Christ tells us.
The reason that the fictional story of the Prodigal Son speaks to us so powerfully is that we don’t merely read it literally but literarily. We see ourselves as being like the Prodigal Son because his father is our Father also. We see ourselves like the envious brother because we have also failed to love our neighbour, feeling that he is less worthy than we are.
J. R. R. Tolkien wrote that fictional stories hold up a mirror to man. They show us ourselves. How much more true is this of the Bible? The difference between the Bible and all other literature is that the Bible is not merely a mirror that shows us ourselves but the light by which all reality is seen.