When you pick up a telephone book and read it, the author intends you to understand or interpret it literally. That means there is only one meaning for each word and phrase. The name and the phone number have but one meaning and if you get the wrong one, you will dial the wrong number and not reach the right person.
Other books and forms of literature which are considered nonfiction (which are to be taken as true), have a literal sense or meaning but can also have either a literal interpretation or a figurative interpretation. The literal sense is the immediate understanding of what each printed word means. When you read the word “salt” in the Bible, you know that it is an English noun that refers to a chemical compound known as sodium chloride. That is the literal sense of the word “salt.” If you were reading a German Bible, you would have to know that the word “salt” is “salz,” or “sale” in Italian; “sal” in Latin; “melah” in Hebrew; and “halas” in Greek. If you could not read the Greek or Hebrew alphabet, it would be impossible for you to recognize the literal sense of the word.
Knowing what the letters spell and what the words mean is the literal sense. The Bible and every written book depend upon it; they would be totally useless if no one could read and understand them. A literal interpretation is the opposite of a figurative or symbolic interpretation. In Matthew 5:13, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.” The literal sense is that the word “salt” refers to the substance chemists call sodium chloride. Does Jesus or the sacred author, however, intend a literal interpretation of that text? If so, it would mean that you and I are table salt. If all Scripture must be interpreted literally, then there is only one way of understanding the text. If, on the other hand, Jesus and the Gospel writer (in this case, Saint Matthew) intend a figurative interpretation, we call it a metaphor.
Jesus speaks metaphorically when He says, “You are the salt of the earth,” since He is not asking us to place ourselves in salt shakers and sit on kitchen tables. He wants us to use the qualities of salt as a preservative and flavoring. Likewise, when Jesus says “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5), you must first be able to read and understand the words “vine” and “branches” to get the literal sense. The literal interpretation, however, would be that we are plants, whereas the metaphorical or figurative interpretation is that we must be connected to Christ like branches are to a vine.
Sometimes the text itself does not explicitly tell you or indicate whether or not the phrase is to be interpreted literally. Knowing when to interpret the Bible literally or figuratively is therefore important. Mark 9:47 says, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” Matthew 5:30 says, “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” Why does no Christian denomination require sinners who have stolen something to amputate their arm? What about looking at indecent images with your eyes? Thankfully, no one interprets these passages literally.
Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians literally interpret John 6:52–56 and Mark 14:22, in which Jesus speaks of eating His flesh and drinking His blood. At the Last Supper, He says over the bread, “This is my body,” and over the cup of wine, “This is my blood.” Many Protestant Christians interpret those passages figuratively, not literally. Catholicism and Orthodoxy rely on the principles of interpreting any text in context of what came before and after that passage, and depending on the teaching authority of the Church (called the Magisterium, from the Latin word “magister,” meaning teacher).