Biblical Literalism

I've never met anyone who actually believes the Bible is literally true.  I know a bunch of people who say they believe the Bible is literally true but nobody is actually a literalist.

Taken literally, the Bible says the earth is flat and setting on pillars and cannot move (1 Chr 16:30, Ps 93:1, Ps 96:10, 1 Sam 2:8, Job 9:6).  It says that great sea monsters are set to guard the edge of the sea (Job 41, Ps 104:26)  According to the Bible, the sun moves around the earth, not the other way around (Josh 10:12-13).  We all recall from history, the fate of Galileo and Copernicus for their blasphemous claims that the earth is round and that the earth goes round the sun.  However, in this day and time, I have never met anyone who seriously contends that the world is flat on authority of the Bible.

There are a multitude of laws given in the old testament which literalists don't take literally:  food laws, laws about clothing, laws relating to nearly every detail of life in at the time the old testament was written.  But there are laws given in the new testament that almost no one takes literally any more. For example, Jesus forbids his followers from swearing oaths of any kind (Matt 5:34) and  Jesus instructed his followers to cut off their hand if it led them into sin (Matt 5:30).

But there are other passages of scripture which those who claim to believe that the Bible is literally true do not take literally.  For example, in Mark 16:16 Jesus said, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned," yet most fundamentalist evangelicals hold to the position that baptism is not necessary for salvation and  I Cor 15:29 refers to baptism for the dead, a practice which is repudiated by most Biblical literalists.

So if these people don't really believe the Bible is literally true, why do they say they do?  What do they mean when they say the Bible is literally true?  There are several reasons people claim the Bible is literally true.

  1. Most people who believe the Bible is literally true have never really thought about it to see if that is a sensible thing to believe or not.  A trusted pastor repeatedly claimed that the Bible is literally true and frequently condemned people who don't believe the Bible is literally true as tools of satan and unbelievers in danger of eternal damnation. These people know they don't want to be one of the infidels, so they agree that the Bible must be literally true.
  2. A lot of people who say they believe the Bible is literally true have either not read the Bible or have not read the Bible critically examining each verse to determine if it can be taken literally.  Some of these people read the Bible through, cover to cover, every year, but reading the Bible through is not the same as critically examining each verse to determine if it can be taken literally.
  3. Many people who believe the Bible is literally true mean that they believe in
  4. A lot of people don't have any idea what it means to believe that the Bible is literally true.  A friend and I got into a discussion about literalism one morning in Sunday School not long ago and his understanding was that large sections of the Bible had to be interpreted symbolically and metaphorically (like the parts about the earth being flat) but that once you figured out what the symbolism was then that was literally true.  At that point in the discussion I realized that he didn't believe the Bible was literally true either but it was clear he'd never admit it to me or to himself.
But there are a good many individuals who have read and studied the Bible carefully, who have semenary degrees, who can read the original languages, who know the history of the canon, who know something of archaeology and the culture and history of Bible times who still teach and preach that the Bible is literally true.  Why do these people keep saying it?

When someone says they believe the Bible is literally true, they mean you are not allowed to disagree with them or question their beliefs.  They use literalism as a defense, as a security blanket, to avoid having to think about or defend their beliefs.  Some individuals use Biblical literalism as a cudgel to keep their followers in line.  Their sermons that appeal to literalism imply that "if you disagree with me you are a tool of satan, an unbeliever in danger of eternal damnation."  In some cases this is simple demagoguery.  And I can assure you that persons who use the Bible for demagoguery will spend an eternity in the "W. A. Criswell Biblical Literalism Wing" of a literal burning hell.

For the Bible to be true it must be interpreted correctly.  Over the centuries, many horrific things have been done in the name of the Bible, spanish inquisition, crusades, slavery, repression of women, burning witches, etc.  The problem is not God, the problem is incorrect interpretation of scripture.

Literalists say, there is only one possible interpretation and that is the one I believe.

So whose interpretation are we supposed to accept?  How do you interpret the Bible correctly?

Only by much prayer, study, and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit

We never have had a complete or perfect understanding of God and God's laws.  So it is not surprising that things we used to think were wrong or right are now thought of differently.  Over the years our attitudes have changed dramatically toward things like mixed bathing, listening to the radio, dancing, alcohol consumption, divorce, slavery,  These changes don't mean that we are less moral or have abandoned God's laws, but rather that we have a better understanding of how God's laws apply in our lives today.  In addition it is reasonable to expect some things that are considered right today will be considered wrong in the future and that some things that are considered wrong today will be considered right at some time in the future.  It made good sense for there to be a law against eating pork in old testament times when most pork was infected with dangerous microorganisms.  But todays animal husbandry and food preparation techniques make that law irrelevant.

This sounds like "everybody does what is right in their own eyes"  It is not!!!  Gods laws are absolute, unchanging, eternal, and unfathomable.  However, the best we can ever hope for is a rough approximation to an understanding of Gods law.  Humans trying to understand and infinite God are like the blind men trying to understand an elephant.  At one point the elephant seems most like a snake, at another point it seems like a rope at another point it seems like a tree trunk.  But the elephant did not change.  The blind man's understanding of the elephant changed.  Similarly, our understanding of Gods will for our lives changes but His will does not.

For more on this topic see "Bibliolatry."



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Steve Falkenberg

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Copyright © 2002 Steve Falkenberg