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November 08, 2005

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Jared Cramer

Thanks for the thought provoking comments. One of the key theological problems, for me, is the way that literalism has a tendency to devolve into bibliolatry.

*Christopher

Fr. David,

This is an excellent piece. You have identified two points I've often spouted off without backing them up: literalism is a product of the Enlightenment such that fundamentalism is quite modern and that sola Scriptura was mistaken in its ends (Trent was correct to be wary).

Note that this need not just be applied to Holy Writ, there are folks who read dogma and patristics through this lens as well, such that "Father" and "Son" mean G-d is male, masculine, etc.

Jennifer

I just happened to stumble across your blog site, and I must say that I disagree. I may or may not agree that fundamentalism or literalism is a product of enlightenment ideas, but thats beside the point. Where I have trouble accepting your argument is my conscience as a Christian. How can one accept that the Bible is the inspired Word of God (literally, God-breathed) but not accept every word of it as literal truth? It is only confusing to argue that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God but not agree that it is absolute truth. To regard the Bible in this "absolutist" way is not commiting idolatry, it is accepting God's Word as God's Word. The way He meant it to be. If we, as the body of Christ, de-value God's Word by not believing in its literal and absolute truth, then we have lost our foundation for ministry. Why should we preach the Word then, or live according to its decrees, or furthermore, even believe in the literal death and resurrection of Christ? In my opinion, to throw out the God-breathed truth of the Bible is to throw out a huge part of real Christianity. Unfortunately, I believe it is the cause of many of the watered-down churches we have today, and I don't believe it is bringing glory to God.

FrSimmons

So you are willing to accept that the earth is flat (multiple references to the four corners of the earth) that the stars are placed on a dome above the sky that has salt water outside of it, and that God creates rain by opening sluice gates in said dome? (Creation and Noah stories)You accept that mountains burst into song and that trees clap their hands? (Is 55:12) You think when Jesus tells a parable, he is actually relaying the story of something that actually happened, rather than using fiction to make a religious point?

How do you explain differences in timing and geography between the four Gospels? If scripture was dictated directly by God, would it not be a singular account instead of four differing ones?

You are welcome to such opinions, but they are recent notions, completely unknown to Christians for most of our history. Until recently, Christianity never made the claim that God dictated scripture directly to humanity. In fact, one of our historical criticisms of Islam has been the idea that Holy Scripture (The Koran in this case) is dictated by God.

Christian Faith is not about belief in a book - It is about belief in the person of Jesus Christ. The Bible is a witness to that person, but not that person. To elevate the Bible as the Word of God to the same status as the actual Word, Jesus Himself, is in my opinion no better than fashioning a golden calf.

That does not mean that the Bible cannot be our primary source of authority. It attests to the Word in Jesus Christ through the witness of the Gospel writers. However, we need to acknowledge that the authors, no matter how inspired, were human beings and subject to their human culture and beliefs. We need to engage the scripture on a deeper level than a simplistic reading that does not take into account the culture it was written in, the translational problems that exist, and the culture we are reading it in.

David+

Toby

David,

I understand your position, but I must disagree with your assumption that God could not do the things that are discribed in scripture; that is what you are saying. I do agree that the bible should not be held equal to God but scripture is very clear that it is the word of God and therefore should be read with reverence, humility, and obedience. I also do not agree that there are mistakes in scripture. Scripture must be interprited by scripture. If your interprit scripture with reason, then reason becomes your final authority. If you interprit scripture with science, then science is your altimate authority. Most of the issues that you raised with concern to "mistakes" can be very easily cleared up with just a little of time and effort in the scripture. I would suggest that you seek out Dr. Grudem at Pheniox Seminary and author of Systematic Theology. I certain that you will be quite surprised at what you might be enlightened to. That is of course if you haven't already decided that your right. blessings

frsimmons

I would submit that it is simply impossible for a person to interpret scripture "neutrally." While you and I would probably both interpret scripture to see slavery as wrong, a cogent defense from scripture was made by antebellum slave owners. While you and I would probably say that home mortgages are OK for a Christian to have, for 1500 years almost all Christian authorities said that ANY lending at interest was wrong.

We always read scripture through the lens of our culture and experience. Reason helps us get around these cultural blinders. To say that your interpretation is "neutral" is simply to insist that your cultural assumptions are correct - even if they kill the spirit of the scripture.

I use the word "contradictions." A "mistake" would indicate that Scripture is by nature a scientific, unitive whole, rather than a collection of divinely-inspired texts. That is a relatively new ad unorthodox way of thinking about scripture. Even the word "Bible" means "Library." If God had desired a unitive whole without contradictions, we would have only had one Gospel account.

Narrative, by it's nature, can be true DESPITE contradictions.

David+

James

One of the many problems with not taking Scripture literally is that it can therefore not act as our authority and therefore Christ has no way to exercise His authority over us as a church apart from direct revelation. Who then is receiving this direct revelation? Churches that believe in the fallibility of scripture would have us believe that councils and synods decide what is true revelation and then relay it to the lay people. No thank you. Scripture is my authority because it is breathed out by God Himself and I trust Him. If we have to put our trust in human institutions and organizations to hear from God then we're in trouble. If you see inconsistencies and contradiction in the Bible, it's because you want to see them. Because God isn't sovereign in your life and possibly because you are not born again and thus do not have the Holy Spirit to guide you. You need to repent of your misleading and heretical teaching and trust Christ. I'm afraid for you if you continue to steer people down this path of demoting God's Holy Word to just cute stories written by ignorant half breeds who had no concept of reality.

frsimmons

James,

I agree that scripture is authoritative and divinely inspirited, but the question always is, which scriptures? You seem to assume that the Bible as we know it always existed, but we know that which books made it in and which were left out were decisions made by the church. The canon of scripture was not decided for hundreds of years after Christ, and even now there is division over the status of the Apocrypha, which was a part of everyone's Bible until Martin Luther unilaterally removed it for protestants.

Therefore, claiming that "The Bible" always trumps decisions of the church is an contradiction, since the composition of the Bible WAS a decision made by the church (with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.)

If you wish to follow a literalist approach, that's your right, but understand that it's a completely new idea in the 20th Century and does not reflect the way people viewed scripture in previous times, including the time of Jesus. Indeed, literalism's complete mistrust of the Holy Spirit in the process of interpretation is what is heretical.

Your phrase "Just Cute Stories" illustrates the point that all of us as moderns are told that "story" is less important than "fact." This comes from the enlightenment, not from Christianity. The fact that Jesus used "Cute Stories" (Parables) to convey his deepest teachings should give us pause when we condemn the value of narrative and instead insist on a literalistic view of scripture.

My trust is in Jesus Christ, of whom the Bible is a witness. But the Bible is NOT God.

David+

Becky Robbins-Penniman

David-
Phyllis Tickle, in her book "The Great Emergence," argues that the days of sola Sciptura are coming to an end. At a conference in Memphis this past December, she gave over 44 examples of how Christians (in many of those cases, including Fundamentalists) have ceased to follow the literal demands and teachings that can be found in the Bible.

Prior to sola Scriptura was "sola Ecclesia" (remember "outside the church there is no salvation"?). Again, according to Tickle, after 500 years of sola Scriptura, we are emerging into a new era - and we do not yet know what it will look like. Because we don't know, those who are frightened of what might come next will want to shore up the certainties they have found in the current expression of sola Scriptura, which promises security and certainty. That is to be expected, and she reminds us to have the deepest respect for those who are part of this effort. Their quest for faith is real and passionate, and, for them, life-giving.

Which brings me to the hardest part of the discussion on this blog for me. Admittedly, I am someone who completely agrees with your analysis. What deflates me (the opposite of being "inspired") is the judgmental approach of some of those who disagree. I don't mind the allegations of heresy; today's heresy often turns into tomorrow's doctrine. But for any of the responders to your blog to question your faith, to assert (with authority!) that you are bereft of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is so much sadder than the disagreement itself. To such as those I can say only that there IS one verse in the Bible that I do try to take very literally: Luke 6:37. I often fail, and am probably doing so now.

Peace,
Becky+

Mbasa

Practically, literalism does not work. Most "bible-believing" christians tend to interpret the same verse a thousand different ways. I am an
African who grew up being told tales and fables to enforce certain values and morals. I have never questioned the truths carried by those stories. I take the bible in the same spirit. It does carry historical truths but most importantly for me, it also carries spirtual truths. Since having this truth, my faith has become much stronger as I do not carry the burden of justifying or explaining every thing that is written in the bible

Dan Martin

David,

I just came across your post from a long and convoluted chain of others, so I'm glad to see the discussion is at least (sort of) active. I've blogged fairly extensively about the issue of the inspiration of scripture from my own frustrations at an Evangelical, American perspective, and I would welcome your comments/engagement (there's a whole heading of "Biblical Inspiration" on my blog at http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com).

Particularly in response to several of the commenters above, I would submit that the very application of the term "Word of God" to the whole of the canon is, itself, an error. Contrary to the usual fundamentalist claims, the biblical authors never make such a sweeping claim. There is much within scripture that IS represented as God's word (in particular Jesus' own words in the gospels, and the "thus saith the LORD" parts of the prophets) and these ought to be taken with divine weight. But to apply such a label to the entirety of the canon is inappropriate, unproductive, and most of all, extrabiblical.

I appreciate your adding your historical perspective to this debate. Peace!

Dan

Leana

I've noticed that this thread started a few years ago, but I can't help (I have little self control in the face of militant ignorance!) but respond with disbelief at the inane circuitous reasoning that literalists use to justify there erroneous interpretations of scripture. It amazes me that literalists will often say that because someone does not believe in the scriptures the way that they do, that the one who does not conform to the ignorance of literalism is therefore not saved and not born again. This is just plain hogwash. Literalists for some reason do not seem capable of the fundamental insight that all interpretation of scripture on the part of anyone is totally dependent upon the myopic, narrow and limited understanding of the one who is reading and seeking to understand the scriptures. And here we are all in the same boat. No one, and least of all the literalists, have a clear and absolute understanding of the Word of God. To any literalist out there who thinks otherwise, and who simplistically believes that they understand the Word of God, take a look at Isaiah 55. Perhaps God had the literalists in mind when he inspired the author (authors?) of Isaiah to write these words.

I for one believe that we need all the help we can get from every form of textual criticism available to us. The Word of God is, for me, a doorway into the Mystery of God and into Jesus, the only Son of God. And I believe that every word of the Word is true, and that literalists have no appreciation for the meaning of the word “true”, other than to apply the canons of contemporary scientific truth to the inspired texts. What remarkable obtuseness! And to say that all scripture is literally true, because it says in the scriptures that all scripture is inspired is merely to “beg the question”.

I apologize for my little diatribe. Thanks for letting me ramble on.

Leana

D

What is clearly being presented here is philosophy not Scripture.
Questions about literalism should be answered from the source we, as Christians, claim to believe in...namely, the Scriptures and not our own reasoning.
If a portion of Scripture is written poetically (i.e. "The 4 corners of the Earth), then OBVIOUSLY it is not meant to be taken literally. However there are things that were written in the Bible that only recently (last 1 or 2 centuries)show it to be literal (i.e. the "vault" of the earth, the dome above the sky [in a closed universe system], etc.).

King David makes it clear that God values His word above His very Name:
"...thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name." Psalm 138:2b
Do we dare do any less?

Stephen Link

I would describe myself as someone who grew up knowing nothing but the literalism viewpoint. I am moving in the direction where David+ is but I'm not all the way there yet.

Having said all that I would also argue that the idea of the Earth having 4 corners being "OBVIOUSLY" poetic is only obvious from where we stand in the 21st century. There was a time when a flat earth view was embraced and I would not be at all surprised to find someone from that time period using OT verses about the 4 corners of the Earth to back up those claims.

Assuming David+ still looks in on this comment thread I would be interested in getting his thoughts on how does one know when to stop saying "this is parable" and start saying "this is fact". It is this uncertainty which keeps me from fully embracing his viewpoint. While I appreciate the idea that not everything in scripture is to be taken as scientific fact I also worry about coming to a place where we begin questioning, and then denying, Christ's miracles and resurrection.

FrSimmons

Stephen,

First of all, I would say there is nothing wrong with "Questioning" Jesus' miracles, if by that you mean having intellectual doubt. Our faith has nothing to fear from questioning if it is based on truth. Faith is not predicated on a removal of doubt, but a continuation of relationship DESPITE doubts.

I happen to believe that Christ worked actual, real miracles. Did they all happen exactly as scripture records? I don't know. But what he did was not what was unusual. Other Jewish (and pagan) miracle workers of the time were attested to have similar powers, with a few exceptions. We find his miraculous powers to be what stands out, but that's only from a modern, scientific perspective.

What stood out was the WAY he used his miracles. He healed Cannanites and prostitutes, and he performed miracles through his disciples (feeding the 5k.) He was the walking embodiment of compassion and modeled his community on it.

Therefore, I think basing on his faith on the content or veracity of the miracles is a pretty modernist way of going at it. Instead, it should be about the person performing them.

Warren Eckels


"Secular Humanism" and "scientific method" are not one and the same. In science, replicable observations are considered true. For example, when/if cold fusion becomes part of scientific reality, it will be heralded by an article in one journal that describes precisely how other scientists can replicate the experiment and confirmed by others.

The existence of any aspects of a God that cannot be measured or observed by any practitioner using a given procedure is not compatible with the scientific method. That does not mean that God does not exist, it simply means that God cannot be observed by procedures that can be replicated and that yield the same results, or at least results within a margin of error.

It's no innovation to Christian theology to suggest that God cannot be measured. It's almost given that each person experiences God in his or her own way: fear-and-trembling, ravishing love, a nagging conscience or the still, small voice.

Science simply refuses to pretend that it can observe God. Individual scientists may well be atheist, agnostic, or faithful; none of them expect (at least before a Rapture or a traditional Judgment Day) to be able to resort to direct and repeatable observation to prove God's existence.

(Of course, it may well be that scientists do their part to bring about God's kingdom, as described in Isaiah 65:20. Perhaps the religious authorities did their part by leaving the scientists alone, preserving what knowledge they did or translating it from other sources, or leavening their consciences with a hint of what's right and what's wrong)

"“Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere child;
the one who fails to reach[a] a hundred
will be considered accursed."

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