Many ask, “When I read the Scriptures, should I view them literally, or symbolically?” This is a hard question! Jesus at times seems to talk in a symbolic way, other times, He spoke in a literal way, sometimes He spoke as a prophecy. I add prophecies to the mix because prophecies may sound symbolic when they are said, but once the event is passed, you can look and understand that it was also literal. And at times, the scriptures are both literal and symbolic at the same time!
Is what Jesus saying in Matthew 16:18 literal or symbolic : “And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church“. In this case, it is easy to see that it is symbolic in the sense that the Pope acts as an anchor to settle matters of doctrine and faith. The church is “the pillar and bulwark of truth“, so it’s fitting that the successor of Peter is the “rock” upon which that pillar stands. Peter is not really a physical rock, but his leadership and his authority acts as the foundation upon which others can in fact build their faith. But you know, sometimes we might wrongly think we got it all. On the tomb of Saint Peter, a huge church (Saint Peter’s Basilica) was built. So yes, Jesus was also speaking literally when he said he would build his church on Peter.
It’s not the only instance! God telling Abraham his descent would be as numerous as the stars of the sky. It might sound like it’s symbolic in the sense that he is the father of those who have faith in God. But scientists have calculated that with all of the exodus of the Jews, and their deportations, and their exiles, almost everyone on the planet would have a link back to Abraham. (Marco Polo says there was small Christian and Jewish communities almost all the way to China in the late 1,200).
Now take Genesis, that will cause a bit of a headache. We see there’s a whole lot of symbolism with the light representing the good angels, and the darkness representing those angels who left God’s grace. And there’s a lot of symbolism of the sacraments as well. So we know there’s not just a literal interpretation that’s possible. But it doesn’t mean that because there’s a symbolic meaning to it that it is not also literal. And you know, that’s just the beauty of the Word of God. One person, or even 2,000 years of Church Fathers and theologians and brilliant minds cannot completely grasp the meaning behind each thing mentioned. We always discover a bit more and shed a more light on this or that verse.
You should always try to look at every angle of the scriptures before thinking you got it all. And even there, a person’s mind is finite, and we are limited beings. There’s no way we will think of everything. If you’re a simple person, then simply remember that the Bible contains a message of love and repentance, a journey to God. If you read the Church Fathers, the writings of the Popes, of the Saints, and writings from modern theologians like Dr Scott Hahn, you’ll see you don’t exactly need to interpret scriptures, it’s already done for you! It’s good to learn scriptures and such, but always do a thorough research before drawing a conclusion.
Actually, the first Pope, Saint Peter, wrote in an encyclical that is found in the Bible: Understanding this first, that no prophecy of scripture is made by private interpretation. (Douay-Rheims Version) 2 Peter 1:20. The Catholic Standard Version uses different words, but it means the same thing : First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.