The Problem with Literalism: Introduction
The Logic of Literalism
For some Christians, it is very important to read the Bible literally unless it is impossible to do otherwise. In fact, some hold that reading the Bible literally is the only way to be sure it is read as God’s authoritative word for the church.
As the logic goes, once you start down the road of not taking the Bible literally, there is no telling where that road will end. In fact, that road becomes a slippery slope to unbelief. Individual Christians will be free to pick and choose what parts of the Bible are binding and which parts aren’t. When the Bible ceases being the absolute, literal authority for the church, God also stops being the authority, since he wrote the words of the Bible.
Ignoring a literal reading of the Bible means ignoring God. Literalism is the only proper way to show respect for the Bible, and so the only way to maintain the doctrinal health of the church. Literalism is the default position of interpretation for truly faithful and obedient Christians.
Those who advocate literalism certainly understand that not every single passage should be read literally; no one is really a pure literalist. For example, the Bible often employs figures of speech: Israel is the “apple of God’s eye” (Zechariah 2:8); Yahweh “rides on the clouds” (Psalm 68:4). Everyone recognizes these sorts of things.
But one area where literalism cannot be sacrificed is with texts that make historical claims. If the Bible says something happened, it happened. Otherwise God himself is wrong, and that cannot be.
Parables are not to be read as literal historical accounts, but that is because Jesus announces them as parables (“the kingdom of heaven is like…”). Esther, however, is considered historical because the book itself announces that these events happened during the reign of Xerxes, king of Persia. Likewise, the book of Job is considered historical because we are told that Job hailed from “the land of Uz.”
Placing these books in time and place means that the author—and God himself— intended them to be read as literal accounts of events. Since there is no actual announcement in either of these books that they are anything other than historical, the default literalism is operative.
Literalists apply this line of thought to Genesis 1. Since there is no clear announcement or any other indication to the contrary, literalists argue that we have no option other than to accept this as a literal account of history. Hence, the cosmos and all life on earth were created in six literal 24-hour days and there really is a dome of some sort overhead (interpreted by some as a vapor canopy). Some literalists reject scientific data because it conflicts with a literal reading of Genesis. Others find creative ways to merge science and literalism (concordism). Either way, literalism is non-negotiable and drives how the scientific data are addressed.
Literalism is designed to insure that Christians not go down the slippery slope to relativism by building a fence around the Bible. Occasionally it is necessary to take some things non-literally, but by and large biblical interpretation is well inside the literalist fence.
The Problem of Literalism
As compelling as this logic might seem, it runs up against some significant problems. Those problems are generated by the Bible itself. That doesn’t mean a totally literal interpretation of the Bible is always wrong and interpreting the Bible is some subjective freefall. But it does mean that literalism is not the default position that Christians should take.
Ironically, literalism leads either to ignoring some texts or at least handling them with some ingenuity that moves beyond what an author meant to say. Reading the Bible and understanding what it means requires much more attention on our part than simply putting on literalist lenses. Scripture is richer, deeper, and subtler than literalism allows. And, as I will show in a future post, strict literalism is actually a “sub-Christian” reading of the Bible.
One way to illustrate the problem of literalism is to look at some passages where biblical authors make clear historical claims—those very portions of the Bible that literalists claim must be taken literally, since they are announced as historical.
The Old Testament spends a lot of time talking about how God is involved in Israel’s history, from creation to the return from the exile. The problem for literalism, however, is that the Old Testament tells part of that history twice and in two different ways. This is sometimes referred to as the “synoptic problem” of the Old Testament.
The story of Israel’s monarchy—from Saul to the Babylonian exile—is told in 1 Samuel through 2 Kings. It is retold differently in 1-2 Chronicles. Of course, these two versions overlap significantly. After all, they tell the same general story over the same general time period, so there is bound to be a lot of similarity in content. But there are also very significant differences between them. Explaining these differences and why they exist are regular topics of research among biblical scholars.
Chronicles is a historical text every bit as much as Samuel-Kings. It even begins with a nine-chapter genealogy. But Chronicles reports the same exact events in very different ways that cannot be reconciled by a literalistic approach. In fact, literalism will obscure the theological intention of the writer of Chronicles.
Chronicles, in other words, teaches us by example that literalism does not capture how the Bible reports history—not just metaphors or parables, but history. And the reason why Chronicles and Samuel-Kings tell Israel’s story so differently is because they are telling the story for two different reasons.
Next week, we will look at some specific examples to illustrate the differences and the reasons for them before moving on to other problems with literalism.
Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.