Good Reasons To Interpret A Passage Non-Literally:
2. If taken literally, the passage is not self-consistent/coherent
3. Analogy and metaphorical language such as "like" and "as" are used in the text
Bad Reasons To Interpret A Passage Non-Literally:
2. A word in the passage is used symbolically in a different passage
3. The passage in question happens to be prophecy/apocalyptic literature (like Daniel, Ezekiel, or Revelation)
4. It is not consistent with your current worldview if taken literally
For "Good Reason #2: If taken literally, the passage is not self-consistent/coherent"...a good example would be John 10:9 where Jesus calls himself "the door". It is obviously not coherent that Jesus was a living, walking door to a pasture. So it is obvious that the verse was not intended as literal.
For "Good Reason #3: Analogy and metaphorical language such as "like" and "as" are used in the text"...a good example would be Psalm 104:1-2
"Bless the LORD, O my soul!
O LORD my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent."
In this case, the passage is not claiming that the heavens are a tent or that light is a type of cloth. The words "as" and "like" demonstrate the intent of the author as to create an analogy or a symbol, rather than make a literal statement.
Now, I imagine most will not have much issue with my three "Good Reasons". Their truth is fairly self-evident, though I do know of examples where people violate these rules.
However, I imagine my "Bad Reasons" are going to be more controversial, and indeed these bad reasons are used far more often than the good reasons are not.
"Bad Reason #1: You are capable of inventing a coherent non-literal interpretation of the passage"...most people should agree with this, and on the surface seems the most obvious (with the possible exception of #4) but is actually the most often violated in my personal experience.
People will often look at a passage and draw parallels and invent a grand story that will look perfectly coherent and beautiful and then look at you with shock when you say that you think the passage is literal.
The problem is, you can do that with almost *anything*! You can take any passage in the entire Bible and come up with a beautiful allegory and claim that's what the passage "really" means.
I once heard someone do this with the story of Adam and Eve (though I strongly suspect that his actual motivation for doing this was reason #4), and many new-age proponents go so far as to call the entire story of Jesus a metaphor, claiming he never existed as a real historical person (in spite of all the historical evidence).
Preterists (those who believe biblical prophecy in both the Old and New Testaments was mostly or even entirely fulfilled in the days of the destruction of Jerusalem and the roman empire) will often do this with Revelation in an attempt to make certain passages be about the roman empire, in which case I would say:
"Okay, if you take the passage non-literally in this particular way you can make the passage fit Rome and/or 70 AD Jerusalem decently, but can you give a reason for doing that?"
Another problem is that a passage can indeed be both. The Exodus story is used metaphorically in the New Testament to parallel the life of Jesus, but the early Christians still clearly believed the Exodus was a real, literal, historical event.
Baptism is said to metaphorically parallel the flood and the resurrection of Christ, as well as the eschatological resurrection at the second coming. That doesn't mean that those two events were not literal and historical.
"Bad Reason #2: A word in the passage is used symbolically in a different passage"...this is also a pretty common one. But it is pretty easily debunked by referring to our earlier examples of good reasons to take a passage non-literally, because:
- If you took every example of the word "door" in the bible and took it as symbolic for Jesus you will obviously have serious problems.
- Revelation 17:15 used waters as symbolic of the peoples of the earth, but that doesn't mean any time "water" pops up in the bible you can take it as symbolic for "peoples". Funny enough, this is specifically violated in Revelation often because many interrupters use this as a bad excuse for interrupting the "water" in the trumpet and bowl judgements in earlier chapters as actually symbolic of "people".
I could go on to list dozens of examples I have personally heard where this rule is violated, but I think you get the point.
"Bad Reason #3: The passage in question happens to be prophecy/apocalyptic literature (like Daniel, Ezekiel, or Revelation)"...this is a strange one, it is probably the least common I've seen. But I have indeed seen multiple Amillenialists use this as an interpretive rule, essentially using the fact that the text is prophecy and/or apocalyptic literature as an excuse to take everything in the entire book as symbolic by default.
Of course, they never give any reason whatsoever as to why they believe this is a rule. Yes, prophecy does use symbolism, but it is always within the framework of the three good reasons I've listed, there is no reason I see to use a different system of interpretation for prophecy.
"Bad Reason #4: It is not consistent with your current worldview if taken literally"...this is pretty obvious and most of the time nobody is going to come right out and say they are using it as a reason. But nonetheless people do.
I have heard people say the story of Adam and Eve must be non-literal because they (falsely) believe it is inconsistent with the science of today.
The new-age individuals I mentioned earlier likely are taking the life of Jesus non-literally because the story being literally true contradicts their worldview (or worse, their agenda) for various reasons.
My final message is this: I would be *extremely* happy if people would stop using the bad reasons and always use the good reasons where applicable.