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4 Good Reasons Not to Read the Bible Literally

Discussion in 'Theologia Crucis - Lutherans' started by mdseverin, Aug 9, 2011.

  1. mdseverin

    mdseverin Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Word Alone

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    I read this article on another forum and thought I would post it here for discussion. By posting this I'm not saying I agree or disagree with the author. This is an article that appeared in the Huffington Post. It is written by David Lose who is a professor at Lutheran Seminary, St. Paul, MN.

    4 Good Reasons Not to Read the Bible Literally

    Cards on the table: 1) I read the Bible -- not as much as I should, I'm sure, but still pretty regularly. Moreover, I get paid to talk about the Bible with folks all across the country and have written a popular book to help people read the Bible with more confidence and enjoyment. So, you could say, I'm a pretty big fan of the good book. 2) I was a little shocked to discover that three in ten Americans read the Bible literally. That is, about a third of the American populace takes everything the Bible says at face value, reading as they would a history or science textbook. 3) I don't read the Bible this way, and can't imagine doing so. Here are four reasons why:

    1) Nowhere does the Bible claim to be inerrant.

    That's right. At no place in its more than 30,000 verses does the Bible claim that it is factually accurate in terms of history, science, geography and all other matters (the technical definition of inerrancy). "Inerrant" itself is not a word found in the Bible or even known to Christian theologians for most of history. Rather, the word was coined in the middle of the 19th century as a defensive counter measure to the increased popularity of reading the Bible as one would other historical documents and the discovery of manifold internal inconsistencies and external inaccuracies.

    The signature verse most literalists point to is 2 Timothy 3:16: "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." But one can confess that Scripture is inspired by God without resorting to claims that it contains no factual errors. We normally use the language of inspiration in just this way, describing a painting, a performance of Chopin, or even a good lecture as inspired. What binds the various and sundry texts found in the Bible together may be precisely that they are all inspired by the authors' experience of the living God. There is no hint that the authors of the Bible imagined that what they were writing was somehow supernaturally guaranteed to be factually accurate. Rather, biblical authors wrote in order to be persuasive, hoping that by reading their witness you would come to believe as they did (see John 20:30-31).

    2) Reading the Bible literally distorts its witness.

    In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus drives the moneychangers out of the Jerusalem Temple in the days immediately preceding his crucifixion. In the Gospel of John, he does this near the beginning of his ministry, two years before his death. Similarly, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the day Jesus is crucified is named as the Passover, while in John it is the Day of Preparation; that is, the day before Passover. Inconsistencies like this are part of what undermines claims to inerrancy of not just the gospels but also many other books in the Bible.

    But if the primary intention of the biblical authors was not to record history -- in the post-Enlightenment sense we take for granted today -- but instead to confess faith, then these differences are not troubling inconsistencies to be reconciled but rather helpful clues to understanding the confession of the author. So rather than ask who got it right, we might instead wonder why John describes these events differently than the other Evangelists. As it turns out, both of these examples stem from John's theological claim that Jesus is the new Passover lamb. For this reason, once he begins his ministry there is no need for Temple sacrifice, and he is crucified on the same day -- indeed, at the exact hour -- at which the Passover lambs were sacrificed on the Day of Preparation.

    You can attempt to reconcile these and other discrepancies in the biblical witness, of course, and literalists have published books almost as long as the Bible attempting to do just that. In the case of the different timeframes for the cleansing of the Temple, for instance, one might suggest that Jesus did this twice, once at the beginning of his ministry and then again, for good measure, two years later. But far from "rescuing" the gospels, such an effort distorts their distinct confession of faith by rendering an account of Jesus' life that none of the canonical accounts offers.

    3) Most Christians across history have not read the Bible literally.

    We tend to think of anything that is labeled "conservative" as being older and more traditional. Oddly enough, however, the doctrine of inerrancy that literalists aim to conserve is only about a century and a half old. Not only did many of the Christian Church's brightest theologians not subscribe to anything like inerrancy, many adamantly opposed such a notion. For instance, St. Augustine -- rarely described as a liberal -- lived for many years at the margins of the church. An impediment to his conversation was precisely the notion that Christians took literally stories like that of Jonah spending three days in the belly of a whale. It was not until Ambrose, bishop of Milan, introduced Augustine to allegorical interpretation -- that is, that stories can point metaphorically to spiritual realities rather than historical facts -- that Augustine could contemplate taking the Bible (and those who read it!) seriously.

    The point isn't that pre-modern Christians approached the Bible with the same historically conscious skepticism of the Bible's factual and scientific veracity that modern interpreters possess. Earlier Christians -- along with almost everyone else who lived prior to the advent of modernity -- simply didn't imagine that for something to be true it had to be factually accurate, a concern only advanced after the Enlightenment. Hence, four gospels that diverged at different points, far from troubling earlier Christians, was instead seen as a faithful and fitting recognition that God's truth as revealed in Jesus was too large to be contained by only one perspective. Flattening the biblical witness to conform to a reductionist understanding of truth only limits the power of Scripture. As Karl Barth, arguably the twentieth century's greatest theologian, once said, "I take the Bible too seriously to read it literally."

    4) Reading the Bible literally undermines a chief confession of the Bible about God.

    Read the Bible even for a little while and you'll soon realize that most of the major characters are, shall we say, less than ideal. Abraham passes his wife off as his sister -- twice! -- in order to save his skin. Moses is a murderer. David sleeps around. Peter denies Jesus three times. Whatever their accomplishments, most of the "heroes of the faith" are complicated persons with feet of clay. And that's the point: the God of the Bible regularly uses ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things.

    Why, then, treat the Bible itself differently? Rather than imagine that the Bible was also written by ordinary, fallible people, inerrantists have made the Bible an other-wordly, supernatural document that runs contrary to the biblical affirmation that God chooses ordinary vessels -- "jars of clay," the Apostle Paul calls them -- to bear an extraordinary message. In fact, literalists unwittingly ascribe to the Bible the status of being "fully human and fully divine" that is normally reserved only for Jesus.

    So why, then, would so many people read the Bible literally? Perhaps that's the subject for another post. For now, I'd be interested in your experience with the Bible and sense of its nature and authority.
     
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  2. Resha Caner

    Resha Caner Expert Fool

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    Not a very good article, actually. The author uses some rather tired and dismissive arguments for his position. Also, the article confuses the issues of "literal", "inerrant" and "inspired," in a way that makes me question whether the author really understands those issues in the first place.
     
  3. Rechtgläubig

    Rechtgläubig der Anti-Schwärmer

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    This is exactly why the elca is in such a mess.
     
  4. Zecryphon

    Zecryphon Well-Known Member

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    I wonder if the author even knows what it means to read the Bible literally. All that means is to read it as it is written. If you're reading a book in the Bible that records history, read it as history, if you're reading a book in the Bible that is written as poetry, read it as poetry, if you're reading a book in the Bible that is prophetic, read it as prophecy and so on. Read it as it's written. This isn't that hard.

    Plus to say the Bible is not inerrant, the writer of the article must either ignore these verses:

    2Ti 3:16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
    2Ti 3:17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

    or believe that something breathed out by God can contain errors. So I guess God makes mistakes according to this "genius." :doh:
     
  5. Rechtgläubig

    Rechtgläubig der Anti-Schwärmer

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    I will make this short.

    Perversion of God's Word is what got us into this mess in the first place (Gen 3:4).

    It sickens me that this guy is teaching at a sem.
     
  6. doulos_tou_kuriou

    doulos_tou_kuriou Located at the intersection of Forde and Giertz

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    I'd be interested to hear what is tired and dismissive about his arguments?

    And I don't think he confused inspired or inerrant, you could as Zec does make the claim for a confusion in literal, although only if you mean terminology. Ultimately he is going at literal in the post-modern sense, which I think he is clear about.

    Now it certainly raises the issue of what does errancy of God inspired work mean for God and trusting in his word which Lose does not address.
     
    Last edited: Aug 11, 2011
  7. lux et lex

    lux et lex light and law

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    This is what I was thinking. Thanks for bringing this up.
     
  8. Resha Caner

    Resha Caner Expert Fool

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    OK. Let me take them one at a time.

    Dimissive
    ---------

    I said the posted article was dismissive because even though it was noted that "literalists have published books almost as long as the Bible," he seems to think it sufficient to set up a straw man ("one might suggest that Jesus did this twice") to answer the different ways Luke and John relate the cleansing of the temple, and then knock that straw man down with one sentence that doesn't really say anything. All that sentence does is claim the Bible is being distorted without explaining why.

    His later "Earlier Christians ... simply didn't imagine" argument is just plain nonsense. Since when did Christian theology become a democratic venture?

    Tired
    -----

    I said the article was tired because the issue of the cleansing of the temple has been adequately answered. Lose even gives subtle indications that he is aware of the answer, but chooses not to address it. Instead, he chooses to trot out this tired old example as if he can't be bothered to deal with the tough questions. Then, he picks the amateur answer (the straw man I mentioned earlier) so he can quickly settle the question and move on.

    So, just for the record, what is a good answer? As Lose hints, there is a "post-Enlightenment sense we take for granted today." There are many misunderstandings about the world view being presented in the Bible. People misunderstand the Hebrew view of time. They don't seem to realize that words like "scientist" and formalized scientific methods weren't even used until the 19th century. So, likewise, historiography was not developed until the 19th century. Therefore, one cannot expect the Bible to be written chronologically. In fact, it is quite obvious it was not.

    The examples are many, but a few include the traditional ordering of books in the OT, which is not chronological. Further, Isaiah was not written chronologically, but as a series of "cycles." It seems quite obvious to me that the gospel of John is different than all the other gospels. It is very much a thematic gospel, and therefore events were included to fit themes, not chronology. It is further interesting to note that in Luke's gospel he took the pains to note that he was writing it chronologically (1:3).

    We tend to assume that is how people will write history, but that was not always the assumption. It's not as if the idea of chronology was unknown to ancient historiographers, but it was not considered a default practice. As I said, that is recent. For example, Voltaire wrote his Essay on the Manner and Spirit of Nation as a thematic rather than a chronological history.

    With that said, Lose's statement that, "Earlier Christians ... simply didn't imagine that for something to be true it had to be factually accurate" is another tired misunderstanding of the ancient world view. Just because they didn't write chronologically doesn't mean they had no concern for fact. For example, consider ancient law. Hammurabi was codifying law by 1700 BC and the Romans are known for writing detailed law. Or consider that the Hebrews had incredibly stringent criteria for making copies of scripture. Further, it is often mentioned that Luke's writing style is different because he was a doctor trained to pay attention to detail (and I've already mentioned Luke 1:3). Lastly, consider the early church councils and the lengthy debates over a single word such as filioque. You can't tell me early Christians weren't concerned with accuracy.

    Confused
    ---------

    I will admit that the whole "literal" debate can get very confusing. Personally, I think "literal" is a very poor label. Yes, there are extreme literalists, but using extreme examples as if they are the norm is another very tired and questionable debating tactic. Maybe "explicit" would be a better word than "literal," so you can call me an "explicitist." The intent is to separate from gnostic and mystic approaches. So, for example, my belief is that Jesus is God, not that he has some metaphysical symbiotic relationship with higher spiritual forces. But surely someone who teaches at a seminary understands the debate better than he indicates. The article almost seems to take that coyly ignorant approach of the extreme skeptic that I hate in discussions with atheists.

    Further, what Lose is really talking about is inerrancy, not literalness (or explicitness). He seems to conflate the words "literal" and "inerrant." One could read the Bible explicitly without thinking it is inerrant. For example, one could agree that Jesus claims to be God without believing that Jesus is God.

    Given his obtuse explanation of 2 Tim 3:16, I'm tempted to claim he is intentionally playing dumb and conflating terms like literal and inerrant. But, since he isn't here to defend himself, that would be an unfair accusation - and it's also why I didn't say more at first. All I can say is that the posted article is pretty weak.

    For the sake of openness I'll conclude by admitting that explicitism does have its difficulties, but this article doesn't even raise the feeblest of challenges. I'll bet you could give me a better debate on literalism than this article, doulos.
     
  9. doulos_tou_kuriou

    doulos_tou_kuriou Located at the intersection of Forde and Giertz

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    I appreciate your willingness to take the time to answer fully.

    This may be a shocker, but debates on literalism are not in my list of hobbies. :p

    Plus it has been a looonnnggg week. If I were able to fit a debate on literalism in my schedule but not other things my wife would...well...let's just say no more Doulos. :eek:
     
  10. benelchi

    benelchi INACTIVE

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    My thoughts exactly. I have been having a similar discussion in another thread. It seems to me that those who make these claims have never really read the works of those like Augustine, who argued forcefully that Scripture was without error.
     
  11. Resha Caner

    Resha Caner Expert Fool

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    np

    That's a shame. My comment was sincere. I may not agree with everything you post, but it always seems respectful and well-reasoned.

    I used to reserve Saturday morning to catch up on sleep, but even that has disappeared, so I know how you feel.
     
  12. Resha Caner

    Resha Caner Expert Fool

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    Yeah. But in some ways can you blame them? City of God isn't something you read at the soccer game while you wait for your kids. There were some sections (free will & the uniqueness of creation, for example) that I was very disappointed with until I studied it further. Once I understood better what Augustine was saying, the disappointment went away.

    At the same time, don't forget Augustine's neo-platonist tendancies. :thumbsup:
     
  13. benelchi

    benelchi INACTIVE

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    I think that neo-Platonist label some have places on Augustine is unwarranted. Yes, Augustine makes it clear that had bought into the Platonist understanding of reality before his conversion to Christ, and there may be some small hints of Platonism in his early writings, but he later argues very forcefully against Platonism, forcefully enough that I find it difficult to conclude that he was still being influenced by Platonism.
     
  14. Resha Caner

    Resha Caner Expert Fool

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    Oh, cool. You look like the kind of guy who would be fun to argue with. The problem is, so far it seems we're agreeing. :p
     
  15. Luther073082

    Luther073082 κύριε ἐλέησον χριστὲ ἐλέησον

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    So ok lets see. . . so if you belive that the bible should not be taken at its face value you belive.

    1. That God is a liar. He would inspire or write a scripture about events that never really happened without making it clear that it is an allegory or some similar sort of thing in the form of the writing.

    2. That God quite enjoys confusing us. If scripture can't be taken at face value then its very confusing. What should we take for what it says and what should we ignore and cast away?

    3. That God has no intention of us knowing anything about him for sure. . . If God is a confusing liar then how do we know what is true and what is a lie in scripture.

    4. God does not love you. . . No one that loves you would purposefully confuse you as to what his expectations where of you.

    5. God is a sinner . . . He lies to people and confuses them. Apparently because he thinks its funny I guess.
     
  16. mdseverin

    mdseverin Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Word Alone

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    I tend to look at the Old Testament a lot less literal. I believe in theistic evolution. There are too many questions I have to take it literal. I think a lot of stories might not have literally happened but were ways of God communicating his message and purpose. I think the flood probably happened, I think the Exodus happened. I think the story of Job and Jonah may have happened, but it also might just be a story to explain God to the people. I still believe it to be God's word. Jesus told stories too so people could understand and grasp a message.

    The New Testament I believe is written by man and influenced or inspired by the Holy Spirit. I have no problem with people taking it literally. I have read the NT many times and the main message I get is God is very liberal with His love. As far as I can tell, there is no harm in taking the NT literal. I just tend to interpret it a little more liberally taking into account the time period it was written.
     
  17. seajoy

    seajoy Senior Veteran

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    Doesn't Jesus talk in the New Testament about how the Jonah story is true? I don't know where that's found, but what reason do you think he did that. Do you think Jesus was confused?
     
  18. seajoy

    seajoy Senior Veteran

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    I think it's in Matthew - I'll check.
     
  19. seajoy

    seajoy Senior Veteran

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    Matthew, chapter 12
     
  20. seajoy

    seajoy Senior Veteran

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    38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.
     
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