It’s time to end “innocent Biblical literalism”

Here’s something you might not hear at your church this Sunday: stop reading the Bible (at least, stop reading it literally). Commenting on two intersecting issues – Christian evangelical college education in America and the evolution-creation debate – Brian McLaren made some excellent points about the underlying cause of some of the biggest issues in evangelicalism right now: an innocent literalism in interpreting the Bible. I don’t offer any solutions in this blog post, but just a good analysis of the problem from my friend, Brian.

Faith and Science in Evangelical Colleges

by Brian McLaren

A recent Huffington Post article details the ongoing struggle of Evangelical colleges over the theory of evolution.

Beneath this struggle is biblical literalism, which was the conceptual womb of many Evangelical colleges. In the commentary to my most recent book We Make the Road by Walking, I call this the “innocent literal” approach. It is diametrically opposed to what I call “critical literal” approach. (I propose a different alternative altogether – a critical literary approach.)

Innocent (or naive) Biblical literalism lies behind several other struggles too, including:
– Inability or unwillingness to rethink sexual orientation in light of new biological, psychological, and sociological science, resulting in ongoing stigmatization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people, including their own sons and daughters.
– Inability or unwillingness to address the science of global warming, which has staggering consequences for life on our planet.
– Inability or unwillingness to see beyond a facile good-guy/bad-guy typology of the Israel-Palestine situation, which results in a prolongation (even an apocalpyt-ization) of a conflict that needs to be resolved.
– Inability or unwillingness to grapple with full equality for women as well as men, nonChristians as well as Christians, people of all races and nationalities, etc.

Among Evangelicals, innocent literalism is typically called “a high view of Scripture.” It is time for Evangelicals to realize that this is actually an immature view of Scripture. A critical literary approach takes the text in all its granularity more seriously and seeks meaning and truth in all the facets of the text. It is unafraid to ask any question or face any evidence. It takes seriously all dimensions of the text, including the evidence for how the compositions of Scripture evolved over time. It is, in this sense, a much “higher view.”

It is time for Evangelical parents to realize that spending $50,000-100,000+ in lower forms of higher education for their daughters and sons is a bad investment. We need Christian colleges to defect from the innocent-literal approach and dare to actually educate….

Church leaders, college and university leaders, campus ministry leaders alike – higher education demands a higher view of Scripture than the innocent-literalism that currently holds the purse-strings and pulls the puppet-strings.

Source: Brian McLaren

Brian mentions in the quote above that he favours a “critical literary” approach. Whole books could be written on what this means and how to do it, but a simple summary is that we start by understanding and accepting the literary genre of the passage we’re reading, then placing it within the culture it originally belonged to. All of this is pretty standard evangelical exegetical technique, of course. But it seems to be forgotten for a few key passages in Scripture, and for a few key issues that evangelicals are currently dealing with.

I cannot speak for Brian, but for myself, I have become convinced that there are strong pointers throughout Scripture, from OT prophets to Paul (in particular) that the only part of Scripture that we are required to take literally (if we still want to call ourselves Christians, that is) is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We resolve to “know nothing except Christ crucified”. Some parts of Scripture are obviously poetic (the Psalms, for example) and cannot be taken as promises or history. Some are legal frameworks (Leviticus, for example), but are no longer valid under the new covenant (all laws we need under the new covenant are specifically given to us in the NT). Some are apocalyptic and need to interpreted within that very specific genre. And some are “myth”. This is a horrible word, because the technical sense of this term is superseded by the common usage. The common use implies a made up story, a fairytale. But that’s not what myth is. Ancient myths, like parables, are epic stories conveying truth, but not attempting to be scientific or historically “correct” (in the sense we in the modern, Western world would use that term). Genesis 1-11 and Job fall into these categories. Maybe much more of the OT does too.

I realise this is not nearly enough detail, and will probably raise more questions than providing answers for conservative evangelicals. The main point, for me, is that we should default to not taking the Bible literally. Certainly not when the genre and cultural context provide major clues that it is not meant to be read as “science” or “history” in any modern sense. Brian’s examples above all come from such parts of the Bible. And in all of the examples it is a naive literalism that creates difficulties. By saying this we in no way say that the Bible is not true. In fact, the opposite. And we’re not looking for some mystic truth beyond the words. We’re looking to understand what the original writers and readers would have understood the words to mean, taking into account the culture and literary genre of the passages in question. This is a deeper and more significant truth than the literal meaning of the words. You can find many examples of this on this blog, from the interpretation of the parable of the Prodigal Son to the innkeeper at Christmas. And, of course, examples related to the issues Brian highlights above.

The literalist approach to interpretation is a problem. And it needs to be questioned, at least, and abandoned at best. As Brian says, “it is an immature view of Scripture”, and not the “high view” conservative Evangelicals think it is.

A great book to read is Fee and Stuart’s, “How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth” (Zondervan, 3rd edition, 2003).

UPDATE: In discussions about this post it was pointed out to me that many conservative evangelical church goers are quite proud of their “simple faith”. “God said it, I believe it, end of…” is a common mindset. While we are exhorted to approach our faith and God Himself with due humility, a “simple” faith is nothing to be proud of if it produces weak mindedness, fluffy thinking, bad theology, etc. Here’s a nice list of verses exhorting us to maturity in our faith, our understanding of God and our Christian thinking. My favourite: 1 Corinthians 13:11 – “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”

4 thoughts on “It’s time to end “innocent Biblical literalism””

  1. Graeme where does this ‘teaser’ lead to? As I read it I see no ‘call to action’. What am I missing? I started reading expecting to be told that literal reading of the Bible may not always be correct. However, I am left hanging in space.

    Stay blessed

  2. Bill, good point. I did make that statement in the post, but I will add some more detail to it now.

  3. The problem is not so much with a literal approach or a critically literal approach , but in determining which sections should be taken literally! Where we begin and end with a literal approach (no one takes every single text literally anyway, even those who say they interpret literarily) is the real issue and is one of the determining factors in the complex issue of interpretation !

  4. I agree completely, Linzay. The danger I am trying to highlight is a naive approach to literalism. Maybe the default should be to NOT take it literally unless there’s a very valid reason to do so?

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