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Literal Or Proverbial. How Do We Find Out The Differences?

Guest - July 26, 2005

Submitted by Bret

Recently at work I have been listening to some fascinating Old Testament commentary tapes. The lecturer is not LDS but has some wonderful insights and is pretty dang close most of the time on a majority of things. However, on the things he doesn’t have right I started to think again upon the age-old controversy that has waged in my mind all my life and for millenia within Christian realm. Do we interpret the Bible (or scripture in general for that matter) literally or proverbially? I know this is a ridiculously huge topic, but please stay with me as I go through this a bit.

I fully understand that we believe the events as described in the Bible and Book of Mormon to have actually happened and I have no problem with that. Where the line gets fuzzy is when it comes to prophecy and interpreting doctrines and such. This particular commentator says that he gets into the most trouble when he doesn’t take the scriptures literally enough. I’ve found wonderful truths when applying that advice, but I’ve found wonderful truths when doing the opposite as well.

A few examples to get at what I mean:

The doctrine of the Anti-Christ: As far as I understand the church has never taught (the BD and Mormons Doctrine seem to go against the idea) what most other Christian churches (Evangelicals/born-agains especially love this topic) teach regarding there being one physical person who will take over world government and send the nations into war against Israel, etc, etc. However, I have heard some members teach this because they believe it is what the text is saying and the teachings of the prophets do not disagree, etc, etc.

The Fall of Man: Did Adam and Eve actually live in a physical garden and actually eat some fruit to give them knowledge? Or is this just a metaphor to help us understand what happened? Again, I’ve listened to some wonderful lessons both ways on this. (one lesson favoring it as a metaphor opened my eyes more then any other on understanding the fall)

Waters shall rush from the Temple and heal the waters of the Dead Sea: This one is more specific but still begs the question. Is it literal or is it telling us something in regards to the baptism and/or cleansing of the peoples of the region or something? If it is literal, what’s the point of that happening and happening in the manner described?

An old favorite–The Lost Ten Tribes: Perhaps the most hotly debated in the church. I knew a very intelligent/well read bishop that said it was obvious they were on another planet while I also had Gerald Lund (who happened to be the 2nd counselor in my MTC branch) tell my MTC district that they obviously had to be scattered throughout the nations.

The list goes on and on and we could debate each one (Honestly, I’d be interested to hear your responses) but I think you understand my point–how do we know? Or does it matter at this point in our existence to know for sure? Are we supposed to make our own theories and wait till they actually come to pass? Or, are we to wait for interpretations by the prophets themselves?

Just wonderin’


  1. Bret,

    This is really a fascinating topic. I don’t know that I can answer any of your questions, but thanks for asking them all. My personal feeling on the matter is basically summed up in your second paragraph:

    “I’ve found wonderful truths when [taking the scriptures literally], but I’ve found wonderful truths when doing the opposite as well.”

    It was a high school teacher who first put into my mind the idea that Jonah may not have literally been inside a big fish. Since that time I have discovered such an occurence is actually possible and has even been documented in the 20th century. But what I decided was that it probably didn’t matter too much, as long as I believed the concept symbolized by the story (Christ’s resurrection).

    As you said, you can find wonderful truths looking at scripture stories literally as well as allegorically. So why not do that with every story? Even so, my guess is that we’ll be surprised one day to find how literal most of them are.

    (A great help to me are the Old Testament student manuals, which sometimes affirm the literal validity of specific stories, based on New Testament/B of M/D&C verses in which Christ refers to the Old Testament story as a true happening.)

    Comment by Amy — August 1, 2005 @ 9:11 am

  2. So are Paul Dunn’s modern stories literal or proverbial?

    Comment by Rusty — August 1, 2005 @ 11:48 am

  3. I agree with you Bret. I think that most “born agains” take the scriptures more literally than we “Mormons” do. I think maybe we are afraid to take them more literally than we do.

    I also think we can learn alot from our “born again” brethern, especially when it comes to the Bible.

    Comment by don — August 1, 2005 @ 4:28 pm

  4. Amy,
    Thank you, but I think you may of missed that I believe the fatc that all the stories in the scriptures actually happened as they say they do, it’s the prophetic talk that I get confused by. Yeah, a lot of it can be looked at both ways but a lot of it can confuse you if you look at it the wrong way.
    I’m pretty sure the existence of Paul Dunn is proverbial. I’ve never seen him before…

    Comment by Bret — August 1, 2005 @ 6:10 pm

  5. Bret,

    You’re right — I did miss the fact you take all scripture stories literally. Reading back through your post I see that line now, but so many of your questions seemed to be asking which way we should read them, literally or proverbially.

    Forgive me for missing your point — I guess I need you to clarify a little. You say, “Where the line gets fuzzy is when it comes to prophecy and interpreting doctrines and such.” So are you asking only about taking prophecies and doctrines (NOT the stories) literally or symbolically? In that case, I’d probably stick with my original comment: try it both ways and see what you can gain. I agree it can be confusing if looked at in the wrong way, so in answer to your last two questions my best guess is this: we’re probably to search the prophecies and seek revelation to understand them, always remembering “interpretations by the prophets themselves” trump our own.

    I probably ended up not really answering anything at all, didn’t I?

    Comment by Anonymous — August 2, 2005 @ 2:37 pm

  6. (That last one was by me)

    Comment by Amy — August 2, 2005 @ 10:52 pm

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