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Sunday, March 18, 2012

How Not to Take the Bible Literally

This post is not for new Christians or young believers.  So if you’re relatively new to the faith, I encourage you to click away right now.  Your time will be better spent reading the First Letter of John rather than reading my musings.  Grab your Bible.  Step away from the computer.  Move along, nothing to see here.

Cosmic Parx waits.

There we go.

This month’s topic is more meat than milk, which isn’t something palatable to those who are experiencing the glory, thrill, shock, and beauty of the Scriptures for the first time.  I would like to use this blog post to explain why you, my fellow Christian believer, do not really take the Bible literally.  Despite all our “God said it / I believe it / That settles it” bumper stickers, it’s critical we understand that we’re not to be literalists in the pure, unqualified sense of that word.  To explain why that’s so, I’ll use the words of Scripture itself.


Reason 1: I know some Scriptures are metaphors and similes.

Let’s start with the easy stuff.  Among those parts of the Bible I know not to take literally are the parables of Jesus.  I know this not only because of all the similes Jesus employs (“The kingdom of heaven is LIKE …”), but also because of the in-depth interpretations He sometimes gave His disciples (e.g., in Luke 8:11-15 where He decodes the metaphors in the Parable of the Sower).

Some of you might remember the old Life of Brian movie, a slapstick British farce about Jesus’ neighbor Brian who is continuously mistaken for the Messiah throughout his life.  At one point, Brian flees Roman soldiers by blending in among dozens of Judean street preachers.  He launches into a parable and is immediately confronted by a pair of hyper-literalist Jews:

BRIAN: There was this man, and he had two servants.
   ARTHUR: What were they called?
BRIAN: What?
   ARTHUR: What were their names?
BRIAN: I don't know. And he gave them some talents.
   EDDIE: You don't know?!
BRIAN: Well, it doesn't matter!
   ARTHUR: He doesn't know what they were called!
BRIAN: Oh, they were called 'Simon' and 'Adrian'. Now--
   ARTHUR: Oh! You said you didn't know!
BRIAN: It really doesn't matter. The point is there were these two servants--
   ARTHUR: He's making it up as he goes along!

Parables dwell beyond literalism.  Many other parts of Scripture directly inform us that they are symbolic, including the Revelation, the visions of Daniel, and the dreams of Jacob’s son Joseph.  This information led an acquaintance of mine to declare, “I take the Bible’s literal parts literally and its symbolic parts symbolically!”  And that is a fine saying.  If only it were that simple.

Reason 2: I know some Scriptures are hyperbole.

Those who approach the Scriptures with the spirit of enmity are fond of pointing out that the Bible has Jesus telling us to hate our mothers and fathers and to cut off our hands and pluck out our eyes should they cause us to sin.  We defensively protest that those verses don’t mean what they literally say, and the attackers wryly assert, “I’m just telling you what the Bible says.”  And they are right.  They employ the error of  excessive literalism to joust with truth.

How to respond, since we’re the ones who say the Bible is “true”?  Let’s just consider one example, the cutting off of one’s hand when one sins.  Here’s a losing back-and-forth:

XTIAN: But there are other places in the Bible that say not to mutilate yourself!
   JOUSTER: Oh, the Bible has contradictions?
XTIAN: No!  But you use Scripture to interpret Scripture.
   JOUSTER: Really?  Where is that don’t mutilate rule?
XTIAN: Ah!  It’s right in Leviticus 19:28 and Deuteronomy 14:1.
   JOUSTER: Oh!  So those are Old Testament verses that overrule the New Testament one?
XTIAN: They don’t overrule, they help us interpret!
   JOUSTER: I see.  The Old Testament overrules the literal words of the New.
XTIAN: I didn’t say that, you did.
   JOUSTER: So you pick which verse is literal and which verse is figurative?
XTIAN: It’s common sense which verse is literal!
   JOUSTER: Then your common sense carries more authority than the literal words of Jesus?

Yes, ouch.  Never presume that you know the Scriptures better than those who enjoy arguing them with believers.  I guarantee you, the jousters will find the above exchange just as funny as the Life of Brian exchange.

Literalists among us must be willing to cede some interpretational ground to the use of hyperbole – exaggeration that hammers a point home without being literal.  There is a reason Paul recommends that Timothy study to show himself approved.  That’s said about the very Scriptures Timothy has known well since he was on his mother’s knee.  There’s more to understanding than literal absorption and rote memorization.

Reason 3: I know Paul sometimes prefers symbolic interpretations to literal histories

Hyper-literalism takes more of a beating from Paul in other parts of his letters.  There are areas where Paul encourages symbolic interpretations of Old Testament stories originally presented as literal and historical.  In Galatians 4:21, he treats the stories of the sons of Abraham as an out-and-out allegory.  In Ephesians 5:32, he takes no interest in the literal implications of the first man and first woman clinging to one another in monogamous relationship, and decodes the tale as “a great mystery, and I take it to mean Christ and the church ….”  In 1 Corinthians 10, he even allows us a peek at his interpretation style.  Commenting on the complete history of the Jews, he says that all events occurred “as a typikos, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come” (v. 11).  Typikos or typoi – types, figures, symbols, and not, as the RSV mistranslates, "a warning.”  Paul vaults righteously from the literal histories to a symbolic application to Christian spiritual principles.  He says the stories are symbols.

Does this mean Paul didn’t think the texts were literal?  Certainly not.  But it means something even more thought-provoking: that Paul considered the literal far less important.  When it came to the Truth, the symbolic meaning significantly outweighed the disposable literal.  And that should give every mature student of the Bible a reason to pause.

Reason 4: I know some portions of Scripture directly say they are not inspired by God.

Paul does something that hyper-literalists wish he hadn’t.  (And I’m not just saying that.  I’ve heard hyper-literalists say, “I’ve sometimes prayed, Lord, why did you let Paul put that in the infallible Holy Bible?”)  In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul distinguishes between his own commands and those of the Lord, directly saying “The Lord says this and not I …” and then a little later, “I say this, not the Lord …”  He further says that if anyone wishes to argue about the Paul-only commands, that he knows of no other custom.  In other words, he states that customs and culture must be taken into account when weighing some of the things he says.

Furthermore, there are parts of Scripture that we know, and I mean know, come from non-inspired sources.  With great fanfare, the Epistle of Jude quotes from the “Assumption of Moses” and the “Book of Enoch,” two apocryphal texts found unworthy of placement in the Bible’s canon.  Does that make those pieces of apocrypha, rejected as the work of men, into the words of God, since they are now Scripture?  To believe so, we must imagine God looking at man’s creations and saying, “Hey, not bad, wish I’d said that, think I’ll use it.”

What are we to make of that, we who believe that all Scripture is inspired of God and useful for righteousness, as 2 Timothy 3 proclaims?  If we use the scripture-interprets-scripture principle, we have to conclude, “All Scripture is breathed by God … except the parts that aren’t …”  But is that even an option?  Are we thrown into an infinite loop, saying, "I believe these words are God's since they are in the Bible, and the words say that they are not God's, which I have to believe because all words in here are God's."

I hope you weren’t expecting a conclusion to this point.  I still have my pastor working on it.  But I suspect the answer may be found in the debunking of hyper-literalist practices.


I have one and only one point here today.  Milk is nice for the unweaned babies, but the full discernment of those maturing in the Christian life calls for meat.

The Gospel and its resultant salvation are simple.  Growth in maturity and progress along the path of righteousness are not simple.  If you find yourself coming again and again back to the basics of faith and the foundation you’ve already laid – not as part of your witnessing to the unsaved, but as the nature of your own walk in Christ  –  then I invite you to move beyond the hyper-literalist simplicity of easy answers.

The writer of Hebrews urges us to move beyond first principles and to press on toward perfection (6:1).  That means there are steps beyond salvation.  And while it’s glorious to share discourse in our common salvation, Jude makes it clear (1:3) that there will be times we need to contend for the truth of our faith.  That’s part of growing in our perfection.

Let us grow.  God said it?  Yes, and he says so much more than we imagine.  I believe it?  Yes, and the continuous growth of my faith and knowledge is part of my Christian mission.  That settles it?  Perhaps.  Or, perhaps now we only see dimly, as if through a glass.

Whatever hyper-literalism is, I know it is not Scriptural.

Marana Tha,

Cosmic Parx, who is YoYo Rez

1 comment:

  1. "....but the greatest of these is love".