One of my pet peeves is the way “literal” is used in discussing biblical interpretation. The problem is not just that the word has changed meaning; rather, it is now scattered all over the map. “Literal” comes to mean anything from “seriously” to “severely out of context” much more often than it means “literal as opposed to figurative.” Even “literal as opposed to figurative” leaves something to be desired since without a knowledge of just which way something is to be taken, either literally or figuratively, one often can’t tell what is meant.
For example, if I say I don’t take Genesis 1 literally, just what do I mean? For me, Genesis is not narrative history. Having said that, there are many things it could be, and it happens that I take Genesis 1:1-2:4a to be liturgy. There are figurative elements in liturgy, but it is a more specific label.
In any case, in studying Philippians, I came across this note in the Orthodox Study Bible regarding the Greek word leitourgia in 2:17: “Service is literally ‘liturgy.’ …” I hate to beat up on the Orthodox Study Bible so much, especially considering that at the same time as I use it, I’m becoming more and more delighted with the eastern church fathers.
But “service” is not literally “liturgy” nor is leitougia literally “liturgy.” “Liturgy” is merely one gloss one might use, expressing a certain portion of the semantic range of the Greek word. One might say the the word translated “service” is the one from which we derive the English word “liturgy,” though that doesn’t really mean much regarding the meaning of this passage.
So again I will maintain that “literal” is one of the most misused words in biblical interpretation. I’ve suggested before that if I could take one phrase away from conservatives it would be “the Bible clearly teaches.” If I could take one phrase away from liberals it would be “we don’t take that literally.” Neither one advances the discussion.