What is the Literal Sense? A Brief Historical Review and Then Proposal

The Christian tradition has historically affirmed the priority and foundational nature of the literal sense for interpretation. However, the literal sense is one of the most slippery phrases in the history of interpretation. To say that one interprets literally doesn’t say much about how one interprets.

This paper will overview what modern people mean by the literal sense in comparison with premodern interpreters (both patristic and reformers) and then move toward defining the literal sense as “that which pertains to the most natural sense of the words in their grammatical and historical context which will be discovered by sound exegesis.” Defining the literal sense is key to distinguishing it from typological, allegorical, and spiritual readings.