Recently, a man asked me on Twitter how we should pray. He wanted a single Bible verse that would summarize Christian prayer. I suggested he start with the Our Father since that is the prayer that Jesus himself taught us. Then he asked if the rosary was commanded by Jesus. At this point I realized he was a Protestant fundamentalist who is trying to catch me to trap. I responded that Jesus told us to treat Mary as our mother on the cross in John 19 and the rosary is a collection of biblical passages (the Our Father and Hail Mary) and summaries of the Bible (Glory Be and mysteries) but developed as one of the ways to fulfill Jesus’ command. His response was almost comical: “Thanks your answer… Now it’s clear the rosary is an invention of the Roman Catholic Church.” (Note: I corrected spelling/abbreviations.)
As Catholics we believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible as the basis for other interpretations. (These interpretations are generally divided into 3: analogical, moral, and typological [Cf. CCC 118].) We were discussing this in a theology class, and then after class one of my fellow priest-students was having trouble with explaining the literal meaning of Ephesians 5 to some of his parishioners (wives obey your husbands). If we use the same method my Twitter friend used, it would seem like the man has power over his wife. How can we resolve this?
I think we need to distinguish between the literal and the literalist meanings of Scripture. The literal meaning is what the author intended through the literary form he was inspired to use. The literalist meaning is the very letters of Scripture.
The literalist meaning falls apart quite quickly. Psalm 18:2 says “God is my rock” and psalm 42:2 says “the living God” – either God is a rock or he is living, rocks are not alive. In John 1:29, John the Baptist calls Jesus “The Lamb of God” but we all know that Jesus is a human being not on ungulate. These cases provide little problem for the literal interpretation as we can clearly understand that “rock” indicates that God is secure and faithful, “living” indicates that God is the principle of his own motion and not moved by another, and “Lamb of God” refers to Jesus as the redeeming sacrifice and not to a physical lamb. We do this because we understand that the author was using the words in a metaphorical sense. Even though it is metaphorical, it is still literal.
The literal meaning also helps us understand problems like discrepancies between relations of the same event in the Gospels or in Samuel/Kings and Chronicles. The authors at times will make estimations or will interpret intentions.
It’s a little counterintuitive but the literal sense saves us from subjectivism. Because the literalists need to interpret every single word as it comes, they end up interpreting it according to their own culture. The Bible was written as a historical document as historical documents are written in that time even though today historical documents are written in a different fashion. For example, a rather large percentage of the Gospels are dedicated to Jesus his final week but if we look at contemporary biographies it was very common to focus more on the final battle or last speech of a person (I use battle and speech as most other boundary fees are of soldiers, politicians, or philosophers). Recently, a non-Catholic church leader gave a conference and said homosexuality was fine because Jesus did not condemn it; in years past non-Catholic church leaders have argued that even having homosexual desires makes one a completely evil person – both of these match the literalist interpretation of the Bible but not a literal interpretation; they correspond with the culture of the time in taking every single word of Scripture on its own. The literal sense lets us keep every single word as an authentic word of Scripture without worrying that the interpretation with the culture.
What ultimately makes our interpretation literal and not literalist is we take into account things like grammar, literary form, historical context, and a realization it is the word of God not any old book. As well we use this level of interpretation as the basis for other meanings and not as the only meaning. Literalists are stuck using a single lens unreflectively while we can reflect and choose the right lens for each passage.
I find this distinction is really important when talking to people who are starting to read the Bible themselves. We want them to read the literal sense but the tendency in our culture is to mistake the literalist sense as being the literal sense. If you teach teens to read the Scriptures, make sure you include this distinction.