The maxim of literal interpretation has a noble heritage reaching back to the Reformation, even though it has fallen into disuse among contemporary scholars. Part of the problem is its negative associations. It seems archaic and passé because its concerns are no longer the primary concerns of a contemporary culture. In addition, few can agree on the meaning of “literal.”
In this essay, I agree in part with the criticism of the use of “literal.” But I also believe that correctly understood it specifies a primary concern for biblical interpretation.
First, I agree that in biblical interpretation, we do not begin with a modern or postmodern worldview. Rather, we begin with a worldview expressed by Augustine: we believe to know. As Christians we believe the Gospel to know ourselves and to come to know God. When we turn to Scripture, we believe what the Scripture claims to be true of itself: God speaks and what He says is truth (John 17:17). Of course, interpretation is necessary to know the meaning of that truth.
Within this pre-modern worldview, there are two qualifications. First, textual criticism is essential to know what God has written. In addition, where historical-critical problems remain unresolved, these problems need to be addressed. Yet the claim of Scripture to be true remains a viable premise in textual interpretation.