First posted on 15 Feb , 2008
Here’s something you might not hear in church this Sunday, but should: Stop worshiping the Bible.
On Sunday, the preacher at our church spoke of forgiveness, and used the wonderful interaction between Peter and Jesus recorded in Matthew 18:21-35. It was a good sermon, but it also sparked another thought about how we choose to interpret the Bible (and an afterthought about Scotland making it legal to marry your mother-in-law).
Because of the nature of what I say (and how I say it), I am often accused of abandoning the Christian faith altogther. Nothing could be further from the truth, but that doesn’t deter my detractors. Anyway, I am finding that the most common “root” concern that people seem to have with my approach comes down to one thing: how we treat the Bible.
The methods and techniques we use to interpret Scripture (referred to as “hermeneutics”) are fast becoming a battle ground for Christians. Obviously, its not enough to simply say that we take God’s Word seriously, if at the same time, we don’t use a serious interpretation technique. For example, if we believe that the Gospels are fictional stories, that Jesus was not God, and that the crucifixion stories are just parables told to help us understand a cosmic truth, it is still possible to “take them seriously”. In other words, to treat them as serious literary works, and analyse them as scholars analyse Shakespeare or Wordsworth. (BTW, most literary scholars rank the Gospel of John as one of the greatest pieces of literary in human history). Doing such a literary analysis may even have a profound impact on you. But I am not sure I would like to call it “taking God’s Word seriously”.
So, on the one side we have a group of people who would simply write off the Bible as pure fantasy and analyse it as literature. On the other extreme of the spectrum are the people who take every word absolutely literally, and who make no allowance for the fact that the Bible is, indeed, a written document (i.e. literature). These people are often lumped together under the label of “fundamentalists”. They believe that every verse of Scripture has only one correct interpretation, and most of them are very happy to tell you what that one interpretation is. (More kindly stated, they believe that applying one’s mind to Scripture will always produce the same interpretation because there are standard acceptable hermeneutical methods/tools that will ensure this).
I believe that many of these people worship their Bibles more than they worship God. Earlier today I posted an extract from Deere’s book, “Surprised by the Voice of God”, which I highly recommend: see here.
It is on the battleground of hermeneutics that most of the skirmishes in the borderlands of the emerging church movement will be fought.
I am still trying to discover an adequate hermeneutic – many come close, but most are easily abused. The truly “postmodern” crowd have gone so far over to “abandoning the old” that I think they have lost the plot mostly. If we abandon everything that has come before, and try and start “from scratch” we ignore a key element of Christian practice – that is, the “cloud of witnesses” that have gone before us. Yet, if we stick at one point in history (say, the Reformation, Enlightenment, King James version, or anywhere else), we make an equal if opposite, mistake of not learning from our contexts. The truth lies somewhere between.
All of this was sparked by our preacher on Sunday. He comes from a Baptist tradition, where most conservative pastors would argue for the lietral interpretation of Scripture. Yet, as he read Matt 18:22 (Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”(NIV)), he pointed out two things:
1. The footnote is important (as it invariably is, especially in the NIV!!) – it could also read “70 times 7” (or 490 times). Its interesting how the fact of footnotes does not cause major concern in Biblical literalists. Which is it? 77 or 490? Quite a difference, really?
2. His second point was that it doesn’t matter whether its 77 or 490, because Jesus really meant “forgive as many times as you have to”. Clearly (in the preacher’s words), Jesus did not intend for us to keep a running total, and when we hit 77 (or 490), then we can stop forgiving. He was using a phrase similar to my 3 year old daughter’s “60 million hundred” – which is her little brain’s version of “the biggest number I can think of”.
OK, so why didn’t Jesus just say, “never stop forgiving”? Why the funny maths? And who gave the preacher the right to change Jesus’ words?
You see my point? Fundamentalists shouldn’t be allowed to choose which parts of the Bible we can take literally and which we can’t?
Another example has just flashed across my screen on a news release from Scotland. The Scottish Parliament is to revoke an ancient law that makes it illegal to marry your mother-in-law (personally, I can’t see that this law would have created too many criminals over the years, but so be it). The argument is that the two parties are not biologically related, so there is no health reason for the law. It is just an out of date legal issue that is now resolved.
I hear no moral outrage from the Christian right. I see no protestors in front of the Parliament buildings. I do not hear George Bush wishing to change the Constitution to ensure this heinous subversion of morals won’t happen in the USA.
What? You may ask why I think anyone should be outraged at this seemingly common sense law change. Well, if I take my Bible literally, and know the consequences of such actions:
Lev 20:14: “If a man marries both a woman and her mother, it is wicked. Both he and they must be burned in the fire, so that no wickedness will be among you.” (NIV)
If we’re prepared to get all hot under the collar about homosexuality, then surely we should do the same when Parliaments just abandon good Biblical injunctions? Why the outrage about gay marriage, but not about this?
Its clear that not all parts of the Bible should be taken literally. Its less clear which parts are which! I just wish more Christians would give each other the benefit of the doubt in discussions, not immediately assuming that an alternative hermeneutic meant that the other person had abandoned their faith.
I have not abandoned mine. But I have abandoned my old hermeneutic, and am looking for a new one. And I have a sense that God is pleased with the process I’m on.
22 thoughts on “Taking the Bible Literally”
“On the other extreme of the spectrum are the people who take every word absolutely literally, and who make no allowance for the fact that the Bible is, indeed, a written document (i.e. literature).”
Umm, not sure what you mean there. Stating the obvious, even those who take it literally recognise it as a written document. How could they not?
The real question is where do you sit on the inerrancy debate. Is is it the Word of God or not? Did God preserve it as He said He would or not? Do you think there are errors in it or not?
“If we’re prepared to get all hot under the collar about homosexuality, then surely we should do the same when Parliaments just abandon good Biblical injunctions? Why the outrage about gay marriage, but not about this?”
Well probably because it never made the headlines as homosexuality does. Not to mention the fact that homosexuality is a far more popular and popularised activity than marrying ones mother-in-law is, or ever will be!
PS where abouts in SA are you based?
Last question first – I am based in London, England, although I have a home in Johannesburg and am often in SA.
What I mean by “literature” is that there are many parts of the Bible to which the word “truth” as we define it in today’s scientific/logical/philosophical framework just does not apply. Let me give you a simple example. Jesus said, “There was a farmer who sowed some seed…” – this is how he started one of his most famous parables. But Jesus did not say it was a parable. Nor did he say, “Imagine there was a farmer”. So, was there an actual farmer who actually sowed actual seed and actually got the actual results Jesus said he actually did? Probably not. Does it matter? Probably not.
So, if something that Jesus specifically said is probably not actually “true” (in the sense we use the word these days). But does that cause us problems? Well, in this case it doesn’t, but it could in other parts of the Bible.
What I mean by the fact that the Bible is “literature” is that we must take account of the fact that our FIRST task is to understand the literary genre of text we’re reading. Then we SECONDLY need to understand the literary context of the book in which it was written.
In terms of the inerrancy debate, I believe everything the Bible claims for itself. Where, for example, does God promise to preserve his Word through translations? He does not, as far as I know. So, I do not consider anything other than the original documents as fully inerrant. And since we neither have those, nor anyone who is a native speaker of those languages even if we did, I’d have to have a question mark over any current translation.
I believe all the Bible claims for itself. No less. But also no more.
It seems that whilst you effectively claim one thing, you truly believe another. You say you believe all that the Bible claims of itself but then contradict yourself elsewhere through what you claim to believe, or assert as a fact, which in turn invalidates what is written in the Bible. Like most, your faith is in man and not God. For example, like most people, you take man’s word on the question of origins and reinterpret what is very clearly written in the Word.
In relation to your farmer description, you are in error. The Holy Spirit who penned the Bible (that is what it claims for itself) pre-faces what Jesus says in Matthew with “and he spoke to them in parables, saying:….”. Even a child can understand that it was a parable.
God promises that His words will never pass away. Reread that last sentence. So if you believe that only the original documents are inerrant, containing God’s Words and no longer exist, Gods words are not true. Anyone who has had an encounter with God and actually has begun to know Him, knows that we do not need to have a first hand understanding in ancient Hebrew or Greek or a complex, “perhaps we can trust this portion of the Bible but that is unreliable” approach. God says that His words are true (and He says what he means and means what He says) and that they will never pass away. You say the Bible isn’t true in parts. But if you can’t trust some portions how can you trust others? Since we don’t have the original texts, perhaps there was no virgin birth nor resurrection? Perhaps everyone goes to heaven, Jesus isn’t the only way, but a way etc. etc. If you can’t trust the small things how can you trust the big things?
“I believe all the Bible claims for itself. No less. But also no more.”
No, you believe far less than you’re willing, or able, to admit.
JR, let’s try and keep the conversation at a civil level and not throw accusations around before being certain of what we’re saying…
I have found after years of experience of having these blog based conversations that it’s best to take things one thing at a time. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll just pick up on your first point and wait for your response.
You correctly point out that Matthew’s Gospel says that Jesus spoke in parables. In fact, I think you’ll discover in Matthew 13:34 that Jesus ONLY used parables. It’s even more clearly stated in Mark 4:33-34: “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable….”
Do we understand by this that EVERYTHING Jesus said was a parable?
Would it be correct then that when Jesus was talking about hell, eternal damnation and God’s judgement at the end of times, that he was speaking in a parable? If not, why not? The Bible says that Jesus only ever spoke in parables. So which of his words are NOT parable? And why?
Sorry if I don’t sound civil but I don’t believe in mincing words. I am sure of what I am saying and my position and I think you are making your position of doubt and uncertainty pretty clear.
Sure we’ll deal with that one point and then we can move on to the others.
Not everything Jesus said was a parable. Those things he taught using parables are outlined as such. Those that weren’t, weren’t. In Matthew its pretty clear where He was and wasn’t using a parable. I can provide verses and examples if you wish but a quick read through some passages in Matthew should suffice any reader.
Where does it say “He ONLY ever spoke in parables”? Thats just not true.
JR, Mark 4:34 says: “He did not say anything to them without using a parable….”. So, every time Jesus spoke to the crowds we MUST see a parable. If not, then Mark 4:34 is not true. Would you agree?
Yes. Both Mark 4;34 and Matt 13;34 make it clear- Jesus spoke to the multitudes in Parables. They do not say that “He ONLY spoke/used parables” as you have said.
Its as if you were to say :’JR only eats Peking duck” in response to a comment from me “I only eat Peking duck when I go to the Flower Drum restaurant”. Theres a very important qualifier in the second sentence which can’t be ignored, as there are in the Matthew and Mark passages where it speaks of Him teaching the masses.
So in summary:
-Jesus never only taught in parables (unless you are suggesting He only taught multitudes whenever He spoke- which is clearly not the case).
-Where He did speak in parables there are easily identifiable qualifiers that denote it as such… and the converse.
-Since the above are true why create a problem that isn’t there?
JR, thanks for sticking with me on this. The problem is that different people at different times in different cultures would say that different things are “obvious”. You say that it’s obvious when Jesus is speaking in parables and when he isn’t. I am not so sure.
So, here are a few examples:
Matthew 25 starts with two parables. In verse 31, Jesus continues: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left…” and so it continues to describe a great separating between “sheep” and “goats” (based solely, by the way, on their works and not at all on their beliefs).
Is this section a parable? If not, where is the literary marker to indicate that it is not a parable?
No problem staying with you on this subject Graeme.
I think if I am going to participate in further debate however, there needs to be a two way street and stable goal posts. You need to actually respond where I pick you up on points.
You have ignored several things from my prior post.
You said earlier in the debate :”In fact, I think you’ll discover in Matthew 13:34 that Jesus ONLY used parables.”
and again….:”The Bible says that Jesus only ever spoke in parables.”
Both of those statements are false and are proven so by the very scriptures you suggest support them, as I explained in my restaurant analogy.
The balls in your court- please respond and then I will do likewise. I am waiting for a satisfactory explanation.
Sorry, JR, I am happy to accept that you are right. I should have made that clear. You then went on to say that it is “obvious” when Jesus is using parables and when he is not. You said that there were “clear” markers indicating which is which. So, then my next comment… back to you.
OK. So we have established that Jesus never only taught in parables. Now we are making progress.
To keep things simple and to give you as little wiggle room as possible, I’ll answer your question by a series of simple one word answer type questions. Ill start with a few ….
To whom was Jesus speaking when He was talking in Matthew 25? was it a crowd/multitude or His disciples?
Who is the Son of Man?
Jesus was speaking to his disciples (with a lot of people listening in) in Matthew 25. Jesus is the Son of Man.
Thats right Jesus is the Son of Man.
“Jesus was speaking to his disciples (with a lot of people listening in)”.
Please explain from scripture how you came to this conclusion as it says very clearly who was there.
It seems obvious to me from the context of Matthew 24 – 26 that these passages are an amalgamation of a number of bits of teaching Jesus gave to his disciples. But, for the sake of this conversation, I am happy to concede that Matthew 25 was a private conversation with the disciples.
To pre-empt a few things, I am therefore also happy to concede that Jesus was intermingling parable and teaching. My question remains though. What are the markers that indicate that one thing is parable (virgins, talents, sheep and goats) and the other is not?
You say things like: “Jesus only taught in parables” and then make other fairly obvious mistakes which disagree with the very scriptures you use to support your statements such as “Jesus was speaking to his disciples (with a lot of people listening in)” and think that you have a credible mode of biblical exegesis. One has to actually take note of all of the words in a passage (as an aside- only the Holy Spirit can open ones understanding) if you are to understand.
We’ve dealt with the former before but to say “But for the sake of this conversation, I am happy to concede it was a private onversation.” says a lot about your position.
It clearly states:
Matthew 24;3- And as He sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him PRIVATELY, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what [shall be] the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?
The word “privately” is self explanatory and clear, as was the word “multitude” in the context of parables. So, is it for the sake of the conversation or because the scripture contradicts you, that you’re conceding? Missing words like that (or simply not believing them) may be why you struggle to see where a parable ends and the explanation starts. That or you prefer to have things ambiguous as it allows greater accommodation of your unorthodox beliefs. As an aside- the parables without the explanation makes things pretty clear to those that have ears to hear. Those that don’t, don’t hear nor understand.
Every word is important in Scripture (I believe the Lord has preserved His word perfectly as He promised) and simple words and phrases like -“parable”, “hear the parable”, “like unto”, “for as” , “as” and other descriptors lets you know when the Lord was telling a parable/metaphor to aid understanding or explaining a parable or just explaining things matter of factly. You only have to follow fairly basic rules of language (if English is your first language in our case) and subject matter to know the transition. Its pretty easy really. We can go through Chapters 24 and 25 together verse by verse if you like.
Let’s pretend I’m ruthless king 500 years ago, and you’re my ambassador.
You come to me one day and ask “how long will the King be away?”
I say “I’m not too sure. But my return will be sudden. As lightning travels across the sky so will the Kings return . Follow my instructions whilst I am away. When I return those that have not done as ordered will be thrown into prison and have their houses burnt down”.
Stupid analogy I know, but I’m trying to keep it simple. The word “as” makes it clear that lightning is a descriptor of the manner of return. The next sentence is clearly not a metaphor or an analogy, its a promise. Not too difficult to follow? The same transition occurs in matthew 25:31.
JR, I am not ignoring you, just travelling a lot recently and no time to chat…
Apologies again for not taking the time to be clear. In the passage we’re chatting about in Matthew, it says that Jesus was talking to his “disciples”. This is an ambiguous term. Most often it appears to refer to a large band of people who followed him around. Most often when the Gospels want to specify that Jesus was in private conversation with the chaps who became the Apostles it refers to them as “the twelve”. So, I was indicating that in my response that this appears to be Jesus speaking to “the Twelve” as well as a broader group of “disciples”.
Either way, it’s fairly irrelevant to the next points we’re both trying to make. You are saying that it is clear from the words used when Jesus changes from parable to direct teaching (from “story” to “truth”). My argument is that it is not that clear. If you don’t accept that hell is a particular place where the unsaved will go for eternal conscious torment, then it is not entirely clear that Jesus has stopped speaking in parables half way through the chapter. There is certainly no LITERARY cue that indicates such a shift has taken place. To the contrary, Jesus continues to use very parabolic/allegorical language talking of sheep and goats.
Only if one accepts a presupposition (that hell is literal and Jesus is therefore being literal) is it “clear”. And this is my concern. That if you already have a pre-existing set of beliefs, you see the Bible in one way. If you have a different set of pre-existing beliefs you see it another way. I don’t think anyone could dare argue with that assertion, since that is the one big lesson we seem to be able to learn from church history.
So, knowing that it is my beliefs that shape my reading of Scripture (rather than Scripture shaping my beliefs), we must surely be a lot more humble about how we approach Scripture.
I want to say as much as you do that “Scripture says what it says and is totally without fault”. In fact, I do believe that. However, I am equally as convinced that my current interpretation of Scripture is not entirely accurate. Have I understood it clearly in relation to the role of women, to how much I should tithe, to how God speaks to us today, to the role of the Holy Spirit, to my attitude towards poverty, racism, war, abortion, gun control, free speech, wealth and a whole host of things? I THINK I have. But every now and again, as I read and reread Scripture – prayerfully trying to discern God’s Word for me today – I discover some part of my belief set that needs adjusting and changing. At that point I cannot say that “God has changed His mind and His Word has changed”. Clearly not. I obviously acknowledge that it is I who has changed, and God was always right. And so, I come to Scripture humbly acknowledging my limitations in interpreting it.
It is BECAUSE I believe that Scripture is God’s Word, without fault or blemish, that I take this approach to it. So, for exactly the same reasons, and with precisely the same attitude, you and I approach Scripture in fundamentally different ways.
I think that’s one of the reasons that Paul was so clear in Corinthians that it’s not enough to be right. If we do any of this without love, it really is meaningless.
I am not buying what you’re selling. You don’t believe the Bible “says what it says and is without fault nor blemish”.
-You’ve already eluded to the fact we no longer have the “original” manuscripts and that only those are perfect. Now you’re contradicting yourself. Which is it? Perfect or imperfect?
-You have stated beliefs which are diametrically opposed to the plain reading of whats in the Word and still suggest its “true” and “says what it says”. Again, you come across as double minded and confused.
-In you’re last response you say this and that “is not clear”. Which is it? Clear or unclear?
Any child if given the chapters we’re discussing in Matthew or Genesis 1 would come to a better grasp of what the Lord is saying than you. I’m not trying to be rude. You’re presuppositions are so strong it allows you to deny what is plainly spelt out. I’m pretty sure if you gave some child in the deepest darkest untouched jungles (and therefore a minimum no. of presuppositions) they would grasp what is being said even if they didn’t believe it.
I provided a pretty simple example that contradicts you’re statement “There is certainly no LITERARY cue that indicates such a shift has taken place.” Repeating you’re assertion makes it no more true than it was the first time you made it. You haven’t dealt with the argument. If I say “I will separate the boxes. As a magnet separates iron from rubber, so I will separate them. The black boxes will be incinerated and the white will go in the shop”. “As a” clearly denotes a descriptor. Any english speaker knows this. The word “will” speaks of a future action- again it is basic English. There are very simple and undeniable literary markers, contrary to your assertion. I can read them on the page. The question lies in if you believe the statement or not about what will happen. If I repeated the same basic principle hundreds of times it should be clearer. Apparently not. You make God out to be a very poor communicator and teacher.
“And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.”
You read: I’m not too sure wether there is a real everlasting punishment. Excellent.
“For God created the heavens and the earth in six days and on the seventh day He rested”.
You read: …..I’ll take mans word on the subject. So much for perfect.
“My words will never pass away”
You read: Well some of them have passed away, but I am not too sure which ones”.
“He shall separate them one from another as a shepherd divideth sheep from the goats”.
You read: He separates them on the basis of works not beliefs.
“it is an abomination for a man to lie with a man as a man lies with a woman”
You read: If they love each other its ok. Of course theres a long explanation but it effectively comes back to this- you don’t believe it is an abomination.
On the subject of disciples…. it is actually important as it clearly shows the level of accuracy and mode of your reading the Word. You always try and quickly explain away you’re errors like they never occurred. If it is only that you’re not making yourself clear ,thats not my fault. You chose your words and if you mean something other than you write (kind of how you treat the Bible) it gets pretty hard for others to understand what you mean. So now the term disciples is ambiguous? The fact that He taught the disciples the meaning of the parables but not the multitudes was the thrust of the whole matter. The fact that they came to Him privately is important.
So in summary:
I take God’s word seriously and regard it as perfect: God say what He means and means what He says (Proverbs 8:8) and none of His words have passed away.
You don’t. And you THINK you have it sorted. I am sure you are sincere and are trying but are in error. The sad fact of the matter however is that you are now propagating and promoting error.
You are correct in pointing out that we differ in our approach to the Word. Despite your attempts to distance yourself from presuppositions in biblical reading it is apparent they are preeminent. How else can you derive beliefs so distant from the text on the subject at hand and pretend you have a neutral starting point? What child reading any of the above verses would come to your conclusions without a serious head injury? Seriously…. You may have fooled yourself into believing your own impartiality or that you even remotely approach it. No one with an ounce of discernment is buying it.
I’m on holiday for a week now with no internet mostly. Don’t mistake a lack of response on my part as a cowering submission to whatever pithy comments you may have posted in the mean time.
Thanks for taking the time to respond, JR,
We’re clearly not seeing eye to eye on the Matthew topics and I am not sure how to proceed there. But luckily you’ve opened the door to some other wonderful avenues of discussion.
Let’s try this one for a starter, and come back to the others…
You say, “God created the world in six days”. Which Bible are you reading? If we allow any child from deepest darkest jungle to read Genesis 2, they’ll say: “God created a man first, and then created a garden to put him in. Then he created a lot of animals. Then he brought those animals – every single one of them to the man. The man both named each animal and weighed it up for selection as a potential mate. At that point he came up short. How long did that process take? Then, God put him to sleep and created a woman who was perfect for him”. That doesn’t sound like six days to me. Now does it follow the process laid out in Genesis 1. So, does the Bible contradict itself? Which version is “true”? What would this child from the jungle with no presuppositions say to that?
Was that the best you could do in a week?
It seems there is no discussion to be had. I can see why you are unsure how to proceed… and why you are attempting to change tack.
Amongst the many things you didn’t respond to- Please do explain how the Word is “without blemish” as you say in one breath but in the next ” that only the original documents are inerrant…and we don’t have them”. Which is it? Im trying to understand your “thinking”.
If you are seeing contradictions in the Bible ie between Gen 1 and 2, you aren’t getting your understanding from the Spirit of God but another spirit.
Which Bible am I reading? The one we are discussing. Exodus 20:11 makes it pretty clear. I asked an 8 year old to read that verse and he came up with a 6 day creation period. I guess God misled him by Himself writing that, in tablets of stone.
Please get back to me with a list of verses suggesting that :
God lies in His Word
God deliberately misleads the young and simple.
His word is imperfect and contradictory.
I’d be happy to explain the absence of contradiction between Gen 1 and 2. It is very straightforward. There is no point however, as you have exchanged the truth for a lie an have placed your faith in something other than God and His Word. You already believe men and there assumptions rather than what God has said. You are thinking with your fallen mind rather than with a faith in God. The same fallen mind that has already said “Jesus only taught in parables”, Jesus was “teaching his disciples with a lot of people listening in” and now that the bible is inerrent and faulty at the same time. Thanks but no thanks. I choose to believe God rather than you. Only a blind man would entrust himself to another blind one.
Tell us, since you have a neutral origin in reading the bible- where did you find the concept of evolution between its pages? Please be honest with yourself. How neutral an unbiased are you really? Did you come up with the concept independent of popular thought from within the pages of Genesis?
I think, unless there is engagement from your side with the arguments along with some honesty (primarily with yourself) there is little point in ongoing dialogue. Only God can open your eyes. All the best.
Thanks for the “chat”, JR – neither of us is budging, so best to move on…
All the best Graeme
Thank you for sharing this word! It remidns me of so many other good words I’ve heard in the past such as Would you do for the truth what others will for a lie? or To pray without labouring is to mock God. … Robert HaldaneOur level of commitment as followers of Christ should be based on our awareness of His great love and sacrifice for all of us! THAT makes serving God a joy!I appreciate how you broke it down into simple everyday examples of sharing Gods love!