Literalism

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Literalism is a commitment to strict exactness of words or meanings in translation or interpretation. A literal translation seeks to represent as accurately as possible in one language the words which were written in another. By way of contrast, a paraphrase translation seeks only to reproduce the meaning (or the translator's understanding of the meaning) of the original.

Most often literalism is used in connection with biblical interpretation. Generally it seeks to discover the author's intent by focusing upon his words in their plain, most obvious sense. The Jewish rabbis practiced an extreme form of literalism which stressed external and even minor points of OT or traditional requirements. They gave little thought to the intent or purpose that lay behind the texts with which they dealt and so received the condemnation of Jesus (Matt. 23:23 - 24; Mark 7:3 - 23). Medieval interpreters sought a fourfold meaning (the quadriga), literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical, for every text. The plain, literal meaning was considered the lowest and least important level of meaning and received little attention. Disregard for the literal meaning led many of these theologians into sometimes wild speculations and vastly different allegorical or mystical interpretations for the same text.

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Luther and the other Reformers, rejecting multiple meanings for biblical passages, sought the single sense. This Luther described as "the very simplest, the literal, ordinary, natural sense." Literalism in this sense remains as the central focus of conservative Protestant interpretation theory.

Since the Reformation at least two main trajectories of thought have come to be associated with literalism. One attitude seems akin to that of the rabbis. It approaches the text in such a strict, unimaginative way that word and letter are permitted to suppress the spirit of the text. Interpretation becomes a mechanical, grammatical, logical process. In extreme forms this type of literalism makes no room for special consideration for figurative literary forms such as poetry or metaphor nor for the possibility of unique situations addressed by the author.

Other contemporary adherents of literalism, no less devoted to finding the true meaning of the text as intended by the author, employ different attitudes and methodologies. They seek to apply interpretative principles and rules with a sense of appropriateness and sensitivity. In addition to grammatical and philosophical investigations they employ information about the author's historical and cultural situation that may aid in interpretation. Differing literary forms and genres are handled with methods suitable to their type. Individual passages are considered within their immediate context in the writing in which they appear as well as within the totality of Scripture. These interpreters focus upon words and externals in order that these may lead them to the meaning and spirit of the text. For them "literalism" means to seek the plain meaning without exaggeration, distortion, or inaccuracy.

J J Scott, Jr.
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)


The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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