Thursday, January 27, 2005

Must We Read the Bible Literally?

No. A literal readings of the Bible is only one of many possible approaches. In fact, for the majority of the history of Christianity, the preferred method was to read the texts allegorically. The Bible, in other words, taught through images and symbols.

So how did we get from there to literalism?

The ideas of biblical inerrancy (the Bible is never wrong) and literalism (reading scripture on its "stated" or surface level of meaning) have a long history in Christianity, stretching all the way back to the NT, if one takes II Timothy 3:16-17 as a general statement of truth, rather than a more limited comment on scripture's usefulness.

The roots of modern biblical interpretation begin in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Scholars and laypeople alike began to have better access to literature in Greek, Hebrew and Latin, which fueled the surprisingly modern work of such intellectuals as Martin Luther or John Calvin. At the same time, the advent of the printing press and the ideology of the Reformation created a demand for translations of the Bible into modern languages.

The 1500s and 1600s therefore established two important precedents: the Bible was interpreted by scholars, but owned by the laity, who were expected to study it for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

Later developments gave rise to their own precedents. The first of these was pietism, a series of Christian movements that emphasized a "conversion of the heart" over faith lodged solely in the forebrain. Modern Baptists, Mennonites, Methodists and Quakers all owe their roots to various pietistic groups. Pietists encouraged devotional groups centered on reading the Bible for spiritual growth, and typically emphasized the egalitarian notion of the "priesthood of all believers." Many contemporary evangelicals still maintain these practices; while the Bible is read in community, its ultimate meaning is often left to the individual's "inner light," with only informal authority guiding the reading.

At the end of the 18th century, the writings of Immanuel Kant began to exert a tremendous influence. Kant was equal parts philosopher of science and theologian (he himself made no distinction between the two). His lasting influence was to change western epistemology—how we think about how we know.

Kant's deceptively simple starting point was that knowledge comes about by a mind perceiving external data. The reality of what we know, according to Kant, is always in that external thing. For example, we know what a rock is because we can see or touch a rock. That ability to experience the rock first-hand is what makes it real. Kant’s emphasis on sensory data, coupled with a demand for reproducible results, is the foundation of all modern science.

Okay, very interesting. But what does this have to do with the Bible?

We're getting there. According to Kant, the way we know God is through the perception of moral principals whose reality are available to us immediately—without needing a middleman. Kant didn't believe in a "personal" God, because he believed that if such a being existed, we would be able to experience him/her/it. Nor did he put much stock in tradition or clerical authority, because to his mind, tradition was no better than hearsay, and authority of any stripe simply got in the way. Instead, he thought, our inward sense of right and wrong indicates an external reality that can established absolutely and objectively.

Because we don’t need a middleman to know what’s right, Kant’s model puts a premium on individual insight. The community, to the extent it’s involved at all, is a voluntary association of individuals who sort through their various perspectives to find common ground, which is assumed to be universally applicable.

Again, what does this have to do with the Bible?

Hold your horses there, Charlie!

Kant's thought has been endlessly arguing and critiqued since the late 1700s. We're not going to go into it here, but if you're so inclined, check it out sometime. It really is fascinating stuff.


Okay, okay. The biblical scholarship that followed Kant emphasized historical interpretation, even though Kant himself didn’t. These scholars wanted to figure out what "really happened." Some of them did that because they wanted to show that the Bible was a historical book like any other—and not a particularly accurate history, either. Others thought that sturdy moral principles could only be worked out if objective information were available. In other words, the truth was defined as "facts," or scientific results.

This stream of thought has been given many names over the years. For the sake of clarity, we’ll call its reading of the Bible “modernist” (not to be confused with the later, secular literary school)

As scholars began to develop what they believed to be a progressively more coherent sense of the biblical message—particularly a coherent vision of the moral teachings of the "real" Jesus—that sense was translated into a corresponding political vision, which emphasized the “love ethic” as expressed in social reform. If only we could love one another as Jesus loved us, the thinking went, the world would be a better place. Since the Biblical historians were doing a better and better job of understanding what Jesus meant when he asked us to love one another, society was coming ever closer to perfection.

In Europe, this movement was called Christian liberalism or Christian Democracy. A related movement in the US was called the Social Gospel, which advocated for social reform and worker’s rights. In Europe, worker’s rights were also emphasized, as was the promise of a peaceful continent.

Seems like a good progressive approach to the Bible.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, there are some problems with it. First of all, it doesn’t do much to feed people’s spiritual needs. Agree or disagree with them, there are some folks who experience God in mystery, beyond the metrics of scientific inquiry or social action. Even today, one of the charges made against the Jesus Seminar is that it bleeds away “faith” in favor of the “Jesus of History.” They’re a bunch of pointy-headed intellectuals, in other words.

More important, as many critics of Kant and his followers pointed out, when people talk about their “objective” perception of God, they’re often talking about themselves, only bigger and better.

In fact, some of the heaviest-lifting intellectuals of the 19th century made just that critique. Kierkegaard made it, as did Karl Marx, particularly in his response to Feuerbach. Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” embodies a form of it, and Freud’s psychological theories arguably use it as an unstated assumption. See, we told you this stuff was interesting!

In any case, Christian liberalism met a disastrous end in World War I. Many of the governments of the time were run on "Christian principles," and they assured their publics that sustained conflict was no longer possible in Europe. Instead, the people received four years of the most senseless and brutal slaughter they had ever seen. The results of the war shook European Christianity to the core, a crisis from which it has arguably never recovered.

Where does fundamentalism come in?

One of the emphases of Christian liberalism was to find the "Historical Jesus" and decipher his true moral teachings. In 1909, Albert Schweitzer published a book along these lines called "The Quest of the Historical Jesus." It was translated into English in 1910, and provoked a storm of controversy.

Wait. Albert Schweitzer? That Albert Schweitzer?

The one and the same. Schweitzer came under such criticism for his work that he felt obliged to resign his professorship in New Testament studies, become an M.D., and move to Africa, where he founded a medical clinic. Playing the organ was just a hobby, we guess.

Can we get back to the main thread?


There was a movement of conservative Christians in the late 1800s who were bothered by Darwin's Theory of Evolution, and by modernist readings of the Bible, which often challenged traditional assumptions. Schweitzer kicked them into high gear.

An 1895 conference in Niagara, New York was the source of what these conservatives believed to be five "fundamental principles" of Christian belief:

  1. The verbal inerrancy of scripture;
  2. The divinity of Jesus Christ;
  3. The Virgin Birth;
  4. That Christ substituted himself for our sins in sacrificing himself on the cross; and
  5. That Christ will be physically resurrected at the end of time and return in the flesh to judge the world.

After "The Quest for the Historical Jesus," these "fundamentals" were distributed through a series of pamphlets addressing them one at a time. And so "fundamentalism" was born.

It's not our place to judge these beliefs, even if we don't agree with them.

Certainly we should not judge those who hold such beliefs. For one thing, fundamentalists are not necessarily stupid, nor are they illiterate. As scholars of Christian fundamentalism point out, the idea of biblical inerrancy is often misunderstood. It is not oracluraity, the belief that the Bible was dictated by God word-for-word. Nor is inerrancy the same thing as infallibility, the notion that the Bible never gives the wrong answer, morally or otherwise. Nor, lastly, is inerrancy the same as literalism, which demands a "surface" reading of scriptural meaning.

Many people who would subscribe to some or all of the tenets of fundamentalism are well educated and versed in the interpretation of literature. They often resent the caricature of them as dumb hillbillies, particularly when those stereotypes are based on misconceptions of their position. If you want to see just how sophisticated fundamentalism can be, check out The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

What we will point out is that the fundamentals share a factual outlook with both Christian liberalism and scientific perspectives. This takes the interpretation of scripture in a familiar (and in our opinion, a not particularly helpful) direction. Faith becomes the dogged defense of the literal meaning of scripture, rather than a participation in God's work of healing and transformation. That Noah's flood really happened, or that the world was created as described in Genesis, seems to us to be beside the point.

At the same time, if we’re empathetic, we can see the underlying need for a firm intellectual foundation. If the Bible is no reliable guide, a fundamentalist reasons, then what is? "God never lies" (Titus 1:2). In a world ever more weighed down with social dislocation and anxiety, the Bible can become a powerful touchstone that helps people orient themselves to reality as it inflicts itself upon them.

So how do you respond to such people?

By understanding their perspective a little more, for starters. For example, many fundamentalists believe that the Bible is not like any other book, and so can't be read in the same way. They believe that it has supernatural origins, and so isn't subject to the same kind of reality-based testing that you and I might be familiar with. Instead, many of them believe that it is the Holy Spirit dwelling within the believer that opens up the meaning of the Bible. So the ability to read the Bible in alignment with the fundamentals becomes a mark of—literally—a true believer.

Combine that with the idea that the world is a scary, uncomfortable place filled with people who just don't "get it," and you can see why fundamentalists often turn into inward-looking "us vs. them" groups. It's that inward focus that separates real fundamentalists from evangelicals who might agree with some of the principles, but don't apply them nearly as strictly. Evangelicalism is based on the notion that the Good News of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ is available to all people, not just the few. For them, the factuality or lack thereof is less important that the effect reading the Bible has on one's spirit. If you ever hope to have a meaningful conversation with a conservative Christian about their beliefs, you must understand the distinction, and proceed accordingly.

From our perspective, confrontation isn’t very effective, if you want to maintain a relationship. It makes folks defensive, particularly if they feel misunderstood, and it doesn’t exactly lead to great conversation. And let’s face it, there are some people who simply won’t change their minds no matter what. Even if you do get through defensiveness and stubbornness, confronting the obvious counter-factual claims of fundamentalism does nothing to address the anxiety that drives it.

Likewise, waving it all away with the magic wand of education isn’t very effective. Education doesn’t remove anxiety by itself, and even very educated people can believe very “stupid” things.

That's not to say that when fundamentalists try to force their beliefs on the rest of society, they shouldn’t be challenged. Intelligent Design isn’t science; it’s theology, and progressives have every right to object to it being taught in public schools. But in addressing people on an individual level, we suggest a two-pronged approach: address what’s causing the anxiety, and patiently engage the biblical perspective. Not even necessarily to change that perspective, since people are entitled to their beliefs, but to provide a reasonable alternative—and help them understand that there are alternatives.

For example, one of our secretaries used to think that we were a heathen for supporting gay rights. Initially, this was somewhat puzzling, since she had had gay friends, and seemed to think that it was all right to “live that way” in a big city.

Later on, we discovered that her family situation was very difficult: her father was an alcoholic, as was a sister-in-law, and a brother-in-law had died suddenly of a heart attack. On top of all that, she was holding down three part-time jobs and trying to keep up with the schedules of two active kids. All that left her feeling much too responsible for keeping her family going, and strict “biblical” morals provided a supportive structure for her life. When we found out about all of this, we began to provide a safe space for her to vent her frustrations and anxieties. After a few months, we were surprised to find that she was much better able to tolerate our differences of opinion about the role of gays and lesbians in the church.

What changed? Not much. She felt less anxious about her family situation because she could talk her problems through with someone. She also had decided to quit one of her jobs, which lowered her stress level considerably.

That opened up the opportunity for an informative conversation. Our secretary mentioned voting for Bush in 2004 in part because of his support of the Defense of Marriage Act. But almost in the same breath, she began to complain about her sister-in-law’s divorce from her brother, and the effect that had on their children.

“So your problem isn’t really same-sex marriage, is it?” I said. “It sounds like what you want is support for marriage, period.”

“Yeah,” she said. “It really hurts the kids...” And we were off on a different conversation. I can’t say for sure she’d vote against a ban on same-sex marriage, but at least the issue was framed in a different light.

And in the final analysis, that’s as good as we progressives can hope for: to change the conversation. Hoping to win a clear and decisive victory over ignorance in a battle of facts vs. facts only keeps alive the stalemate of modernism and fundamentalism. We need to find way to break the logjam in order to move beyond adversarial relationships into a cooperative diversity that allows the Bible to speak to us, but not necessarily for us.

How do we do that?

Let’s back up to the situation after World War I, which challenged the modernist reading of the Bible. Many alternatives percolated to the surface in the years that followed, including the fundamentalism discussed above.

You could simply throw scripture overboard, as many scientific or Marxist materialists did. If the literal content of the Bible didn't match up with facts on the ground, then something had to give. And since facts are scientifically reproducible and were deemed morally and politically neutral, what do you suppose got chucked?

Another response would be to try to reorient biblical interpretation. That's what a Swiss pastor and theologian named Karl Barth did when he wrote a commentary of Paul's Letter to the Romans. In that commentary (the Rommerbrief ) he flayed what he saw as the idolatry of modernist criticism, attacking in particular the search for the historical Jesus. Where the liberals and fundamentalists believed that we could know the mind of God perfectly, Barth thought we could know nothing of it.

Instead, Barth argued for a more traditional view: that Christ was both fully human and fully divine. Jesus the man of Nazareth may have been a historical figure, according to Barth, but his moral teachings do not constitute the whole of the Christian faith. Rather, the faith is rooted in worship of the resurrected Christ, who is fully God and therefore unknowable. God is different from us, said Barth, and thank God for that, because human tendencies run toward disastrous wars and other acts of self-damnation.

This theology as a whole is problematic. Much of Christian ethics is built on the presupposition of imago dei, that we were created in the image of God, and are therefore meant to imitate God’s nature in the world But if we can know nothing of God, it becomes impossible to build a moral model based on our understanding of who God is. This can lead to moral quietism, as we wait for God to act upon us, rather than striking out in possibly unjustified action. In particular, feminist and Third-World theologians have charged that emphasizing God's difference from humanity undermines the ways in which God stands in solidarity with humanity, particularly the poor and oppressed. It’s all very nice to defer action if one is a wealthy West European, they argue, but the poor and oppressed cannot wait for the next world to be vindicated, nor does the Bible ask them to do so.

Still, Barth's perspective carries a valuable reminder: God stands apart from and in judgment of our views of God. We risk idolatry with every statement we make about the divine; therefore we must proceed with caution and an alert sense of the many ways we have to fool ourselves.

Dude, that sounds heavy duty.

Yeah it is, and we still have a couple of responses left to go!

Working at about the same time as Barth was another pastor-turned-theologian, the American Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was primarily an ethicist, concerned with the moral underpinnings of social justice. In particular, Niebuhr's interest grew out of the labor movement in the 1920s and 30s, in which he was active. While he believed in the justness of the cause, Niebuhr was uncomfortable with the notion of giving a particular social group an unqualified stamp of moral approval, for many of the reasons we’ve outlined above.

At the same time, he was not ready to simply reject a biblical basis for social justice, and lapse into Barth's social silence or the fundamentalist's conservative retreat.

He chose a middle way, then: to take the Bible "seriously, but not literally." He did by looking at what he called the "mytho-poetic" truth of scripture, which is just an awful, awful name. What Niebuhr was looking for was truth on another dimension: the insight the Bible could provide into the moral fallibility of individuals and societies. For Niebuhr, one of the basic qualities of human nature was self-deception—particularly in regards to our capacity to control our nature and destiny—and Scripture was one of our primary means for correcting our distorted self-perception.

I think I've gone cross-eyed.

And you wonder why I get irate when people call Christians dumb. In any case, let's look at a model that I think ties it all together: Luke Johnson's method of reading the New Testament. (Luke was my NT professor in seminary, and this method can be found in his book Writings of the New Testament.)

Johnson says that a good model for reading the Bible would need to answer some questions about the texts: why do they exist in the first place? Why do they look the way they do? How do they function as works of literature? And how did they get into the version we know today?

To answer those questions, Johnson proposes four dimensions:

Anthropological—biblical texts are the work of human hands, and need to be understood in that context. That includes understanding history, literary traditions, and religious practice. Specifically, we need to understand how biblical texts arise out of a community, not just the mind of the individual writer.

Historical—Johnson draws a careful distinction between the historical method versus the historical model. His intent in reading the NT is not to discover what "really" happened, but to understand how its writers interpreted their own experience. Understanding the history of their age helps us to do that, but it does not—and should not—limit us to pursuing the "facts" as our only approach. To use one of Johnson's own analogies, Shakespeare wrote some wonderful plays, but is the history of Elizabethan England their only meaning?

Literary—biblical texts are works of literature, and need to be understood as such. As noted above, one of Johnson's first questions about a text is: what genre is this? Does it remind me of any other works of ancient literature that might shed light on its meaning?

Johnson uses a dialectic between experience and interpretation. That is to say, he believes the writers had some kind of religious experience, which was then shared and interpreted in community.

This has a couple of important corollaries: first, one of the reasons Johnson is not interested in the historical model is that he's convinced that what really happened is almost entirely lost to us. What did Jesus really say? What really happened on Calvary? Did Jesus really rise from the tomb? We'll never know, but from Johnson's perspective, that's not the point. The Christian faith is carried in the testament of the apostles and our experience of the resurrected Christ, not archeological findings in modern-day Israel.

Second, because biblical experience is tested and refined in community, for Johnson the proper way to read the Bible is in community. My interpretation is not necessarily better or more accurate than yours, and in any case, we don't have the Bible to haggle over intellectual propositions. Scripture is formative of life together, and should be understood in that light.

Religious—sounds like a no-brainer, doesn't it? Yet, we often forget that the Bible is a record and interpretation of religious experience. It tells us of a people's experience with God over the course of centuries, and attempts to answer the big questions: why are we here? What is our purpose in life? Why do bad things happen? Where are we headed? What does it all mean?

While Johnson interprets through the lens of religious practice in first-century Palestine, as a matter of faith, he doesn't feel bound to those practices. The NT, he argues, is rooted in a particular world of signs and symbols, but we inhabit a very different one. Recognizing that, we bear the burden of interpreting and re-interpreting biblical texts to see what matches up with our current understandings, and what does not.

We are invited, then, into conversation with the Bible, and with its writers. We are free to agree or disagree with them, but we ought to take what they have to say seriously. It speaks to us, as Niebuhr pointed out, of our own limitations, but also with words of insight, liberation, and surprising grace.

So how do we read the Bible?

Jeez Louise, haven't I put you to sleep yet? I mean—stayed tuned for more thrilling adventures! Next up is hermeneutics, and then we'll get down to interpreting some specific texts.

Whaddya mean you're sorry you asked?

At 8:43 PM, Blogger Rational Radical said...

Wow, what a great post!

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