Bronze-level articleBiblical literalism

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I speak to them in parables
Some guy who didn't know the Bible was meant to be taken literally

Biblical literalism is the theological view that the contents of the Bible should be seen as literally true, as opposed to being interpreted as allegory, literature, or mythology. Literalism is the basis of several different pseudoscientific positions, such as young Earth creationism, deluge theory and the geocentrism.

A belief in biblical literalism requires one to ignore huge amounts of modern science and its supporting evidence, and to replace provable, rational explanations with various versions of Goddidit. Insistence on simple literal meaning also obscures the larger points that the scriptures convey, such as moral lessons or evidence of God's mercy.

There are a number of problems with this approach to Biblical exegesis, not only in terms of the interpretation not jiving with reality, but also with the internal consistency of the many books of the Bible.

Contents

[edit] Literalism vs inerrancy vs infallibility

It is important to distinguish between the related, but separate concepts of biblical literalism, biblical inerrancy, and biblical infallibility. Some are used interchangeably depending on who you ask. But going by strict definitions for reasons of precision, however, they are different — many doctrinal bases or confessions for churches and organised sects require adherents to view the Bible as "inerrant" but do not support literalistic interpretations like creationism.

  • Self-interpretation: The most extreme form, this argues that there is a singular true meaning which will be made evident to any "real" believer by simply reading the text. This typically forms an excessively text-literal reading which treats the text as though it were scientific data; all apparent contradictions will be held to be factual and "harmonised" with this in mind. This attitude may regard a specific translation as the only correct one (for example, Jack Chick regards only the King James Bible as truthful). It is often criticised by less insane literalists as worshipping the Bible instead of God.
  • Biblical literalism: A literalist approach means that one reads the Bible in a plain and straightforward manner, attempting to discern the author, or authors' original intent. Biblical literalists believe that the original authors of the Bible were inspired by the Holy Spirit and drafted scripture in various literary genres and styles of the period. Thus, biblical literalists accept that, for example, poetry and allegory in the Bible are literally true but may not necessarily be written as a historical document. They examine the circumstances of scripture to determine how it should be understood.
  • Biblical inerrancy: This is the basis that the Bible simply doesn't contain any errors. There is a subtle but important difference between this and historical accuracy, as stories can be interpreted as allegorical, but their meanings remain true.
  • Biblical infallibility: The least radical position. It holds that the Bible is an infallible source regarding questions of faith and redemption, but not on questions of science and history. These people may be willing to accept scientific facts like evolution as true.

The actual interpretation of these questions further depends on the various denominations and theological schools of thought.

[edit] Other views

Many Christian groups, such as the Catholic Church, hold that the Bible is inerrant in its spiritual and moral teachings, but can be inaccurate as far as history goes. In contrast to that position, Biblical literalists hold that the Bible reports true history from Genesis onward.

Some Christians would argue that it is a necessary fact of life that doubting one's own religion and all the things one learned from one's family is the most important step one can take to living the life of a model Christian.

Many educated Christians who do not believe in biblical literalism would maintain that interpreting the Bible literally, and therefore giving the genocidal tendencies of the Old Testament precedence over the love and compassion of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, is fundamentally wrong. Some would go even further to say that the center of one's faith should be Jesus Christ, as illuminated by the Bible. Making the Bible the center of one's faith, rather than Jesus and his commands to love and care for humanity, is therefore a form of idolatry, and deeply sinful.

[edit] Problems

There are numerous problems with Biblical inerrancy.

[edit] Science

See the main article on this topic: Evidence against a recent creation
See the main article on this topic: Biblical scientific errors

The first and most obvious problem with Biblical inerrancy is that science has utterly and completely falsified it. We now know that the earth is far older than 6,000 years and that the many species of life developed slowly through the mechanisms of evolution and that familiar spirits and wizards, which the Bible refers to as though they are real,[1] have no influence on the world.

However, Biblical inerrantists have not gotten this memo and have sent out bands of so-called creation scientists to slap a "scientific" veneer on inerrancy on the Bible and impugn without grounds the integrity of actual scientists.

[edit] Non-historicity

The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible's own.

WE AFFIRM that the doctrine of inerrancy has been integral to the Church's faith throughout its history.

WE DENY that inerrancy is a doctrine invented by scholastic Protestantism, or is a reactionary position postulated in response to negative higher criticism.
Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy[2]

Here is a piece of historical revisionism. Biblical literalists insist upon a literal interpretation of Genesis: "Genesis 1-11 is factual."[3] Yet a number of Church Fathers, including St. Augustine, are on record as not interpreting Genesis literally, and orthodox Christians were apparently free to disagree on the matter.[4] Had Biblical literalism been so "integral" to the Church in those early days, they would have branded those men as heretics, instead of commemorating them as Church Fathers and canonizing most of them. Not even the Reformers took the Bible in the most literal sense; certain Calvinist writers used an allegorical method of interpretation.[5]

[edit] Biblical position

The Bible does not refer to itself as a unit, nor could it possibly do so, since its most recent books were written generations before church councils compiled the canon of scripture. The closest the Bible comes to self-referral and claims of inerrancy is, for example, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which says "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work" (ESV). Note, first, that "Scripture" in this passage refers to, at most, the old Jewish canon, and second, that it says nothing of inerrancy or any similar concept. Going from "breathed out by God" to "without error in a single detail" is a logical leap made in relatively recent times. Should an omnipotent deity have wanted to establish a doctrine of inerrancy, the passage from 2 Timothy above could easily have indicated that "Scripture is inerrant and should be regarded as fully accurate in every historical detail", rather than making a general statement about its being "profitable" or "useful".

In addition, the phrase "word of God" in reference to the Bible is a recent and extra-biblical concept. "Word of God" appears in the Gospel of John and is meant to refer to God or Jesus, not to the Bible or any previously-compiled canon of scripture.

[edit] Biblical canon

WE DENY that Church creeds, councils, or declarations have authority greater than or equal to the authority of the Bible.[2]

It is all very well to say, "The Bible is without error." But then comes the question, What is the Bible? Since the Bible is made up numerous books, rather than a single unit, which books are literally true is a big deal.[6] The Biblical canon has been anything but fixed. As noted above, in the Apostolic Age there was really no Bible to speak of apart from the old Jewish canon; significant disputes over canonicity were not settled until a few centuries later, and they were not settled by "the Bible," but by ecumenical church councils.

Then at the Protestant Reformation, seven entire books not in the Hebrew Bible were cut from the canon. Martin Luther cut four more (Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation) mostly due to verses within them that contradicted his theological views.[7]

What, then, is the Bible? Were the Reformers right in cutting the deuterocanon? Was Luther right in his cuts? This seems to throw the whole concept of Biblical inerrancy into question by introducing a factor of fallible human judgment. If a book is erroneously included in the canon, literalists are material heretics; if a book is erroneously excluded, literalists are denying the inerrancy of a part of the Bible and hence the concept of Biblical inerrancy becomes useless.

The Catholics and Eastern Orthodox answer these questions thus: there is a concept of a "Holy Tradition" that is maintained within the church. Holy Tradition is put on par with the Bible in terms of authority, and the Biblical canon is part of that tradition.

However, the Biblical literalists have rejected this concept of tradition. As the Chicago Statement itself says, "The Church's part was to discern the canon God had created" -- and the Church, by the literalists' own admission, was perfectly capable of going wrong on this. In some sense, creating an errant Bible with inerrant contents.

[edit] Metaphorical verses

Some Biblical verses are meant to be metaphorical; some are not. How can a Biblical literalist tell the two apart?

As a special case of the above problem with interpretations, there is a problem with deciding what verses were meant to be taken literally and which verses were not. The Chicago Statement acknowledges that many parts of the Bible are not intended to be taken literally: "A parable, for example, should not be treated like a chronicle, nor should poetry be interpreted as though it were a straightforward narrative."[3]

But what is to be read straight and what is to be read as a poem, allegory, etc.? Literalists (e.g., Philip J. Rayment of A Storehouse of Knowledge[8][9]) claim that it is "clear" or "obvious" what is meant to be taken literally and what is not; in the Chicago Statement this is expressed as support for "genre criticism," or systematic attempts to determine which verses belong to which literary genres.

Unfortunately for the people who claim "clarity" or "obviousness," while genre criticism has shed some light on the matter, there is vast disagreement about what is literal and what is not. An example is the Book of Revelation: while most Christians, including some literalists, view Revelation as being obviously allegorical and using "apocalyptic symbolism,"[8] other literalists propagate New World Order conspiracy theories in which they claim that the Antichrist will soon be introducing a cashless economy, in which people will have to pay for things via an implant that will take the form of "a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads" (Revelation 13:16).

The problem of delineating the metaphorical parts of scripture from the literal ones applies to most any religion with its own scripture, and the tendency on the part of apologists toward moving the goalposts when faced with this problem was notably parodied by Zach Weiner of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Though he does not unambiguously reference a specific religion, he does encapsulate the issue nicely.

[edit] Fixity of the Earth

Take the year AD 1500 as a rough division line. Before that date, no one suggested that references to the fixity of the Earth and the motion of the Sun were figurative. Everybody thought that the Sun went around the Earth daily, just as the Bible says. After a somewhat tumultuous transition period, during which those who thought that it just might be figurative language in the Bible were often in trouble for suggesting that, it turns out that just about everybody -- except for modern geocentrists -- agrees that the Earth is a planet, and that the Biblical language is, after all, not literal. It may indeed have been intended as figurative, but it is difficult to maintain that it is "clear" or "obvious" if everybody, for 2000 years or more (from the first Biblical readers in 500 BC or earlier up to AD 1500, not to mention today's modern geocentrists), thought it was literal.

[edit] HolySpiritDidIt?

WE AFFIRM that a person is not dependent for understanding of Scripture on the expertise of biblical scholars. WE DENY that a person should ignore the fruits of the technical study of Scripture by biblical scholars.[3]

Norman L. Geisler, one of the signatories of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, expounds on the above position as follows, revealing it to have a political rather than a doctrinal basis, rather like the rationale behind the Conservative Bible Project (complete with scare quotes around experts): "One is not dependent on biblical 'experts' for his understanding of the basic truths of Scripture ... For if the understanding of the laity is contingent on the teaching of experts, then Protestant interpretive experts will have replaced the teaching magisterium of Catholic priests with a kind of teaching magisterium of Protestant scholars." With that in mind, there are at least two problems with this idea.

Firstly, if one looks at this from any sort of rational perspective, one can see that of course the layman needs the help of experts to understand the Bible; if one just picked up a copy of the Bible he found in the wilderness and read it cover-to-cover (something that few will do, and some cannot do) current doctrinal positions are the product of two millennia worth of theological thought, which the isolated Bible reader could not replicate in his own head, even allowing that most of that theology is based solely in the Bible. It is not: one must have at least some background in Western philosophy and the history of the times to do that properly.

Some Biblical literalists will respond to such criticisms by saying "HolySpiritDidIt": the Holy Spirit is said to fill the gaps to enable any person to understand the Bible. The Chicago Statement frames this as, "The Holy Spirit, Scripture's divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning."[2] However, the Bible itself is the ultimate means of support for such claims, introducing an element of circularity: one still needs experts to tell him that "HolySpiritDidIt."

However, even if HolySpiritDidIt, there is a second problem with this position, at least with regard to the Old Testament: historically, nobody interpreted the Bible independently of a body of experts. Before Jesus's time, the Jews maintained much of their religious law in an oral tradition of commentaries that was only codified into the Talmud several centuries after Jesus's death as a response to the destruction of the Second Temple. In Jesus's time the "scribes and Pharisees" were responsible for debating and teaching the law to the people, and although Jesus denounced the hypocrisy of these experts, he acknowledged (Matthew 23:3) that they taught the law correctly. From the Apostolic Age up until the Protestant Reformation, similarly, in both Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy there were ecumenical councils to settle theological disputes and an idea of "Holy Tradition" in the church, independent of the Bible.

There is a third (albeit slightly weaker) point to be made: to suggest that the Holy Spirit is necessary to understand the bible seems to imply that the bible is not literally true after all. Instead, this would mean that the composite of what is in the bible and what the Holy Spirit makes you understand is literally true as a combined unit. But of course, since the Holy Spirit speaks to individuals (as opposed to a world wide broadcast), we are still left with what amounts to individual interpretation of the bible, or at the very least a homunculus fallacy.

[edit] Problematic "self-interpretation"

WE AFFIRM that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.[2] WE AFFIRM that the meaning expressed in each biblical text is single, definite and fixed.[3]

In line with Biblical literalists' political objection to the idea that experts are needed to interpret the Bible, they hold that the Bible has only one correct interpretation and that this interpretation is self-evident. Contrast this view with the more flexible methodology of higher criticism, which seeks to understand scripture within the historical context of its original meaning to the author and recipients, rather than treating scripture as divinely inspired and incapable of error. Where literalists treat scripture as revelation, scholars employing higher criticism aim to treat it as an historical document.

The Bible itself disagrees with any rigid approach to interpreting it according to some "self-evident" literal meaning.

Genesis 16-17 relates the story of a love-triangle between Abraham, his wife Sarah, and her handmaiden Hagar. Sarah appears to be sterile, and tells Abraham to have a child with Hagar, which he does. Some years later, God makes a covenant with Abraham in exchange for, among other things, a child with Sarah.

In Galatians 4, St. Paul assigns an entirely new allegorical or figurative interpretation to this story to go along with the literal one: Hagar's son Ishmael represents non-Christians in bondage to the Mosaic Law, while Sarah's son Isaac represents Christians freed from the law by the new covenant. So according to the Bible itself, at least some parts of it can be interpreted in non-self-evident ways unintended by their original authors.

Fr. John Whiteford, an evangelical who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, had this to say about the idea that "Scripture is to interpret Scripture":

Protestants who are willing to honestly assess the current state of the Protestant world, must ask themselves why, if Protestantism and its foundational teaching of Sola Scriptura are of God, has it resulted in over twenty-thousand differing groups that can't agree on basic aspects of what the Bible says, or what it even means to be a Christian? Why (if the Bible is sufficient apart from Holy Tradition) can a Baptist, a Jehovah's Witness, a Charismatic, and a Methodist all claim to believe what the Bible says and yet no two of them agree what it is that the Bible says?[10]

[edit] Which rules?

This case is not about who is, or is not a Fundamentalist. It is about people hiding behind a claim of reading the Bible literally, which nobody does anyway. A great example can be found among those who claim to follow every word of the Bible and use that claim to explain their rejection of homosexuality and witchcraft, but have no problem violating equally biblical bans on pork or cooking on the Sabbath. Of course, they will point to a new scripture which extends the prohibition on the first two, and frees them from the second set of proscriptions. But that is an interpretive move and that means that they are no longer literalists[.]
—Brad Hirschfield[11]

The Bible has a great many rules, many contradictory. The only way to know which ones to follow (not eating pork, killing homosexuals) is to interpret the Bible. This means that people extend beyond mere literalism and enter into the field of Biblical criticism.

[edit] Consequences

Unquestioningly accepting Biblical or large portions of it can have adverse effects.

While this doesn't disprove biblical literalism, it does make it very bad public policy.

[edit] Faith healing

See the main article on this topic: Faith healing

Many children have died because their faith community believed prayer rather than medicine is what the Bible literally teaches.

For example, the Church of the First Born cites James 5:14:[12]

If any be sick, call for the elders of the church, let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.

This community rejects modern medicine but accepts computers and the Internet.

[edit] Unquestioning faith

People who adhere to literalism do not question their religion, tending towards a simplistic acceptance of what they are told. Though frequently literalists claim to have read the Bible, upon questioning it is clear they have rarely thought through the various positions proffered in it, including myriad inconsistencies or evidence that their God is capricious and violent.[citation needed] To hold such a position either requires an extremely low IQ or an overly developed reliance on cognitive dissonance.

One reason for biblical literalism is the need for consistency to protect ideas that are central to a religious ideology. For example, if one were to take the story of Genesis, as being allegorical, then what is to stop that person from taking the words of Jesus and the Ten Commandments as being allegorical, and not the direct word of God? People thinking this way also tend to be the ones who try to find one single flaw in scientific theories such as evolution and declare that the single fault invalidates the entire system (which is a pure Achilles Heel fallacy).

[edit] Necessary for salvation?

The Chicago Statement admits that belief in Biblical inerrancy should not be elevated to the level of a creed: "WE DENY that such confession [of Biblical inerrancy] is necessary for salvation."[2]

However, the statement also apparently contradicts itself by strongly implying that those who do not confess it are not saved: "The following Statement affirms this inerrancy of Scripture afresh, making clear our understanding of it and warning against its denial. We are persuaded that to deny it is to set aside the witness of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit and to refuse that submission to the claims of God's own Word which marks true Christian faith."[2]

Biblical literalists have made clear, both in words and actions, that they have no problem with the idea that those who reject literalism are going to hell, and that any admission they make otherwise is lip-service to orthodoxy that they do not actually accept.

[edit] Disbelief in evolution

The writers of the Chicago Statement went out of their way to bash evolution by saying:

WE AFFIRM that Genesis 1-11 is factual, as is the rest of the book.[3]

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

Guide to the Jewish and Christian Scriptures
Torah: Genesis - Exodus - Leviticus - Numbers - Deuteronomy Old Testament History: Book of Joshua - Book of Judges - Ruth - Samuel (1 & 2) - Kings (1 and 2 Kings) - Chronicles - Ezra and Nehemiah - Book of Esther Old Testament Wisdom: Book of Job - Psalms - Book of Proverbs - Ecclesiastes - Song of Solomon Major Prophets: Isaiah - Book of Jeremiah - Lamentations - Book of Ezekiel - Book of Daniel Minor Prophets: Minor Prophets

Deuterocanon (Catholic and Orthodox): - Tobit - Judith - 1 Maccabees - 2 Maccabees - Book of Wisdom - Sirach - Baruch - Letter of Jeremiah Deuterocanon (Orthodox): 1 Esdras - 3 Maccabees - Prayer of Manasseh - Psalm 151 Deuterocanon (Georgian Orthodox): 4 Maccabees - 2 Esdras Ethiopian Orthodox ("narrow" canon): Jubilees - Enoch - Rest of the Words of Baruch - 1-3 Meqabyan Syriac Peshitta: 2 Baruch Psalms 152-155


The Gospels: Gospel of Matthew - Gospel of Mark - Gospel of Luke - Gospel of John Acts: Acts of the Apostles Pauline Epistles: Romans - 1 & 2 Corinthians - Galatians - Ephesians - Philippians - Colossians - First Thessalonians - Second Thessalonians - First Timothy - Second Timothy - Titus - Epistle to Philemon General Epistles: Epistle to the Hebrews - Epistle of James - First Peter - Second Peter - 1 John - 2 John - 3 John - Epistle of Jude Revelation: Book of Revelation


Selected pseudepigrapha: Gospel of Judas - Infancy Gospel of James - Gospel of Mary - Gospel of Philip - Gospel of Thomas - Nag Hammadi texts


Rational Wiki's Guide to the Protestant Bible

Guide to Bible translations

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