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The Problem with Literalism: Introduction

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August 31, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
The Problem with Literalism: Introduction

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

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Jon Garvey - #28419

September 6th 2010

@defensedefumer - #28397

I’m mystified by Roger’s position too. I learn from 1 Timothy that slave traders are in a list of sinners. I learn from Revelation that one of the cargoes of the great prostitute is bodies and souls of men. I learn from Paul generally that freedom from slavery is to be gained if possible.

But Jesus says nothing to the subject at all, and I cannot see how his life, death and resurrection teach that slavery is wrong any more or less than they teach that it is to be borne in imitation of Christ (which is the predominant NT message).

So is the Jesus who is independent of the Bible a mystical Jesus who witnesses directly to us apart from the Bible? And if so how is he different from the Jesus of the Zwickau prophets, or the Fifth Monarchy men, or the Televangelists - or indeed of the Gnostics, Manicheans and other Patristic Heretics who forced the Fathers to codify the Canon and insist on the Apostolic tradition?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #28424

September 6th 2010


Please read Paul’s Letter to Philemon.  Philemon was a Christian friend of Paul’s who lived in Ephesus.  It happened that a slave owned by Philemon ran away using money that his master had intrusted to him.  He ran to Rome where he met Paul and was converted and became an assistant to while he was in prison.

Paul sent the runaway, Onesimus, back to his master with this note suggesting that Philemon free him.  Paul did not order or even ask Philemon to do so because he knew that Philemon would then feel obligated to do so, and he wants Philemon to free Onesimus on his own volition, not because he must.

Jesus did not tell us what to do, as did the Law.  He told us How to live, and more importantly Showed us how live, for God, for others, and even for ourselves.  I think in the same way God opened the door to understanding the Creation, but does not tell us exactly how it works, because it is our task is to discover these details.

In my opinion the Bible and science need to work hand in hand.  The problem today is that they do not.  The problem in large part lies with Darwin who miscontrued how evolution works, but Christians have also contributed to this problem.

defensedefumer - #28506

September 7th 2010

To Roger A. Sawtelle- #28424

I have read Philemon. I agree that Paul only encouraged Philemon to release Onesimus, and not force him to. He wrote that to Philemon, and not to the Roman Christians. Acts is silent on whether Paul made releasing slaves an issue. Furthermore, during the Roman period, it was possible for slaves to purchase their freedom, so Paul was abding by the Roman laws in that sense (in other words, releasing slaves was not exclusively Christian).

I agree with you that theology and science need to work together. I saw your website on Darwin’s Myth and I find myself incline to disagree with your views on evolution. I have yet to read your book, but I will look out for it in the future.

Thanks for educating me in many issues! It was a pleasure have a discussion with you.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #28896

September 8th 2010

To defensedefumer,

I enjoyed the discussion also. Thank you for being a good partner.

I am sure that you will enjoy my book.

Trismegistus22 - #29265

September 11th 2010

The problem of “literalism” in biblical interpretation I guess is not a problem for everyone.  The struggle is how to “reconcile” or “interpret” those parts of the bible that don’t line up with current understanding.  This first in a series focuses on history.  The thing is that the very concept of history was different 6000 years ago. Oral tradition which was later transcribed plays a significant role. 
Hebrew words do not necessarily have the same denotation that the word does in contemporary vulgates, not to mention connotation. It is not unusual for a single hebrew word to be rendered by several in english (or french, german, etc.) and several hebrew words to be used for the same vernacular translation.
There are more than a few “historical” references in the Old Testament that are not actual history.  And the New Testament has all kinds of “historical problems”

Then one has to deal with the concept of “who is the literal meaning addressed to?” How much variation can there be between my literal understanding and yours?  In one sense there should be only minor differences, but we know that is always the case.
I am looking forward to seeing how you address some of the more challenging biblical genres.

Trismegistus22 - #29266

September 11th 2010

oops my bad
“, but we know that is always the case. ” 
should have read”
“, but we know that is NOT always the case. “

My fingers move faster than my mind sometimes!!!

Benj Foreman - #32290

September 28th 2010

Do you actually think that the writer of Chronicles did not intent to write real history? In other words, do you think that he never intended for us to take his narrative at face value? This seems to be the implication of your post.

But if this is the case, then why is the writer constantly “footnoting” himself by saying “Is it not written in the annals of Samuel, Nathan and Gad” (1 Chr 29:29; see also other references to sources in 2 Chr 9:29; 12:15; 20:34)? Why make references to sources if you’re not concerned with (historical) accuracy?

Pete Enns - #32295

September 28th 2010


No. I am simply pointing out that the Chronicler intended to write some sort of history, and we should note how much it diverges from Samuel/Kings. The Chronicler’s references to source material make the problem of historicity more acute. As you say “Why make references to sources if you’re not concerned with (historical) accuracy?” That is a question one needs to ask of the Chronicler, which is what biblical historians do and the answer they land on is “he is writing for theological purposes” or something similar.

rhutchin - #32540

September 29th 2010

The Bible is to be taken as literally true.  If the Bible says that Israel is the apple of God’s eye or that God rides on the clouds or that Christ is the lamb of God, then these statements are literally true.  The question is whether a verse refers to physical objects (like an apple, clouds, or a lamb) or is the verse to be read metaphorically.  Regardless how one reads it, it is literally true that Jesus is the lamb of God.

One may take Genesis any way they want.  However, it is still literally true that God brought forth grass and herbs on the third day and the lights in the firmament on the forth day.  Rather than taking any of the events of Genesis 1 as metaphor, most people try to make it consistent with evolutionary teaching and they take the metaphorical approach only to the extent that they can justify the conclusion they want.  If you want to read Genesis 1 as metaphor, then do so.  However, the goal is not to conform that which we read in Genesis with what men proclaim but with that which God has proclaimed.

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