Friday, February 26, 2010

What Happens When We Take the Bible "Literally"?

Every church I've been to in the Evangelical tradition claims that they make the Bible the authority on deciding matters of faith and godliness; indeed, on every matter in life. Sola scriptura and all that. But as N.T. Wright so brilliantly points out, when a church claims that the Bible is the ultimate authority, they often mean something else entirely:
"First, there is an implied, and quite unwarranted, positivism: we imagine that we are ‘reading the text, straight’, and that if somebody disagrees with us it must be because they, unlike we ourselves, are secretly using ‘presuppositions’ of this or that sort. This is simply naïve, and actually astonishingly arrogant and dangerous. It fuels the second point, which is that evangelicals often use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ when they mean the authority of evangelical, or Protestant, theology, since the assumption is made that we (evangelicals, or Protestants) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is saying. And, though there is more than a grain of truth in such claims, they are by no means the whole truth, and to imagine that they are is to move from theology to ideology. If we are not careful, the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ can, by such routes, come to mean simply ‘the authority of evangelical tradition, as opposed to Catholic or rationalist ones.’"
We say we take the Bible as our authority, but we really mean we take our interpretation of the Bible as our authority, all the while thinking, as Wright says, we are "reading the text, straight."

That in and of itself can lead to lots of problems, but the problems are further complicated when a church (or group or person) claims to take the Bible "literally." Any good Bible scholar will tell you that you need to take the time, place, and cultural contexts into consideration when examining the Biblical text and how it might apply to us today. Yet in our zealousness for "the Word" and its "authority," we sometimes try to make ancient words fit our modern world in ways that are not only clumsy but harmful.

I came across a blog the other day from a woman who has left the so-called "Quiverfull" movement-- the idea that the man is the ruler of the house and the family, that the woman's job is to have babies and as many as possible, and--here's the kicker-- that this is the only way to obediently serve God in our roles as men and women. There's more to the philosophy than that, and different families apply it differently, but patriarchy with absolute female submission and no birth control are the distinguishing features as I understand it. (This philosophy is not all that foreign to me, as it closely resembles the philosophy my husband and I subscribed to when we first got married. Somewhere along the way we discovered it was a disastrous way to run a marriage, and we're still dealing with the fall-out in counseling years later.)

What struck me about this woman's story was she was so sure she and her husband were following the Bible, that even though her husband abused her and the children, she stoically carried on for years, all in the name of obedience. It took her oldest daughter's attempt at suicide to finally decide there was something wrong with the "Biblical" way they were living. It's easy from our outside perspective to say, "Well, obviously, God didn't mean to submit to abuse." But, if we are to take a completely literal, take-the-text-as-it-is approach, we'd have to come to the same conclusion she did-- she would have to submit to his authority regardless of what he does. We would have to take the stance that the only Biblically-allowable reason for divorce would be marital unfaithfulness in its strictest sense. To put it bluntly, women who get the crap beat out of them (whether physically or emotionally) and divorce their husbands would be sinning, if we take the Bible literally.

I found another case of "literal-Bible-reading-gone-bad" on another blog, which told of a recent death of one child and hospitalization of another, caused by their parents disciplining (i.e. beating) them. They were following a "Christian" parenting method that advocates beating your child into submission with plastic tubing. Horrendous, you say? What about a literal interpretation of Proverbs 13:24, 22:15, and 23:13-14? "Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death." These parents took that literally and beat their child to physical death. Mortifying, you say? But is that not what a literal interpretation of the Biblical text gives us?

Our initial reaction may be, "Yes, those are extreme examples, but those folks were misapplying the Bible. That's not what those verses mean..." Ah, but there's the trouble. Our interpretation of those verses do not lead us to the same conclusions as their interpretations did. But they are making the Bible their "ultimate authority," just as we claim to do.

"But we have to take the whole context of the Bible," we say. "We can take it literally within its place in all of scripture." Think of the abused woman, though. What comfort or direction would she get from 1 Peter 3:5-6? Sarah sucked it up and dealt with it, honey, so you can too! (Not to say that Abraham beat Sarah, but he certainly abused her by lying about her not being his wife, thus making her vulnerable to sexual abuse.)

Let's be honest-- we arrive at many of our positions not from literal reading of the text, but from inferring things from the text, from the nature of God, and from the actions of Jesus during His time on earth. For example, the Bible says husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church. It does not say that women only have to submit when their husbands are loving. It just says submit. But we would not (I hope) counsel a woman getting beat up by her husband to submit to him and take the beatings night after night (although I know, sadly, that this IS the counsel many women get from churches). We have no specific, literal verse to back us up on counseling this woman to leave. We just point to the loving nature of God who despises violence against the innocent and who created marriage to be mutual submission, and we go with our gut feeling knowing that abuse like that is just plain wrong.

I use these examples because they are a little more clear-cut, but the principle applies to other areas of Bible reading. We post-Enlightenment Western types are big into being literal. (What does it mean? Well, what does it say? It means what it says, of course!) Then we like to pick and choose which parts we are going to take literally and which we are going to consider symbolism and allegory. (Side note-- ever find it funny that so many Christians take Genesis and Revelation literally while chalking most of Jesus' own words up to allegory?) We lose sight of the fact that the Bible is an ancient document written in a completely different time. While God may have designed it to be instrumental in the life of the believer and the Church, the Bible is not our ultimate authority. God is our ultimate authority. We can't read the Bible and extricate our understanding and application of it from the work of the Holy Spirit and the counsel and wisdom of the Church universal and historical.

We're going to get it wrong part of the time, no doubt about it. But I'm starting to think we ought to be done with this "taking the Bible literally" nonsense.


Dan Martin said...

It'll come as no surprise to you that I agree, Leesha. ;{) I love your point about literal Genesis & Revelation vs. allegory and symbolism for Jesus' own words...quite a telling contrast!

Though I have not got the time or resources to do the historical research that is needed, I believe a lot of the error may come from the framing of the Bible as "the word of God." As I argued in the first of my many posts on Biblical inspiration, the Biblical texts do not support such a claim, but rather contain a variety of writings only some of which are represented to be God's words. The failure to parse which is which leads to many (though by no means all) of Christianity's major errors. But it's nearly impossible to get most Evangelicals to acknowledge the simple truth that the claim of verbal inspiration of our current canon, can only be made by relying on extrabiblical sources. It's not something the Father, or Jesus, or the Biblical authors themselves, ever said.

Dan Martin said...

Put more bluntly, you can't get the doctrine of verbal and plenary inspiration from a literal reading of the fact, a literal reading strongly militates AGAINST that doctrine!

E. A. Harvey said...

Your linked post brings out something that the N.T. Wright article I linked to does as well-- that by taking the Bible for what it presents itself to be (versus elevating it to something it is not), we are actually taking a higher view of scripture than those who militantly defend its inerrancy and inspiration. I had previously feared to voice these sorts of thoughts and questions lest I be seen as some higher criticism liberal who thinks the Bible is just some quaint old story book that has no use or relevancy for today. On the contrary, I think it is vitally important, but we have to handle it correctly! We can't treat it like a glass ornament that will break if we question is, poke it, or test it. It seems to be more like an amorphous material. (Is it solid? Is it liquid? What the heck is it?!?!) Whatever it is, it certainly doesn't like to be pinned down.

jaigner said...

I'll write more later if I can, but I've got a room full of 3rd graders now. You've very plainly articulated the difference between "sola scriptura" and "nuda scriptura."

You'd think people would understand. Unfortunately, the people who hold so tightly to the literalism you describe also tend to be KJV only, which is another can of worms.

Dan Martin said...

For other readers, that post I linked is the first of a series (currently standing at 14 posts) in which I tried to get at a bunch of issues surrounding the conventional Evangelical notions of inspiration, including the prooftext of 2 Tim. 3:16.

But for a much more scholarly approach than I can muster, may I recommend the article Inspiration, Inerrancy, and Dictation by Joel Stephen Williams.

Dan Martin said...

Whatever it is, it certainly doesn't like to be pinned down.

I like that, Leesha! True of the Bible, true also of God himself!

Dan Martin said...

And Jonathan, it's not just the KJVers, though they're part of it. In my circles they've gravitated to ESV, which is a version I also like reasonably well even though I don't hold to their theology.

The buzzword in our group is that the inspired Bible was "without error in the original autographs," which permits them to allow for limited textual analysis while preserving the essential nature of Verbal-Plenary Inspiration as a doctrine. Different wineskins, but same basic wine.

Laurie M. said...

I really enjoyed this post. From your profile, well, we seem to look at things very similarly. I look forward to reading your thoughts in the future.

E. A. Harvey said...

Laurie- Thanks for stopping by! I am very glad to have come across your blog as well. :-)

Dan- I'm going to admit that I throw the "without error in the original autographs" terminology around myself, but you raise a very good point that it is a dressed-up version of the same theology. I've used it because it's an easy way to say, "Look, I know our English translation has some major issues and shortcomings, but I think the Bible is really, really, important... so here's how we get around that..." Now I'm going to have to rethink that approach!

Dan Martin said...

Well, it depends partly on what you mean by "without error," too. The VPE crowd means every little throwaway phrase is literally true (the way THEY interpret it, of course) unless it's one of the ones THEY identify as symbolic. This is why a comment that occurs without explanation only twice (reigning for 1000 years) becomes the foundation for a whole "millenial" theology, for example. Of course, Jesus didn't mean we should literally love our enemies 'cause you can't love people who "hate our way of life," right? Or at least if we love them it's just because if they got "saved" they would not be our enemies any more. . .well, you know!

But if we accept these two propositions:

1) Application of the term "word of God" to the canon is extrabiblical and not what God ever intended; and

2) Given a more limited view of the canon, it was not an error to include the writings that were included;

then "without error" takes on a different connotation entirely. It's still not a phrase I choose to use, because I think the best it can do is muddy the waters, and it is unnecessary to my theology. As I've written before, I choose to characterize the Bible as a faithful witness to the words and works of Jesus and the Father as they have interacted with humanity. As such, it is the "final authority for faith and practice" within the context of the community of believers. For me, that's enough.

Come to think of it, I don't know that I ever summarized it that well on my own blog series. I should do that. . .

jaigner said...

Recently heard in a sermon: "The Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it."

That may hold in some of the more salient cases, but I wonder if these people can recognize that there are other people who love and follow God, take the Bible seriously, and rely on the Holy Spirit. It's drawing a very dangerous line in the sand. It's saying "if you don't come to the same conclusion as me, you must not be listening to the Spirit."

Of course, I'm ashamed to admit I was once that kind of person. But I moved from Waco, Texas to Wheaton, Illinois as a judgmental son-of-a-gun and moved back to Texas a totally changed person. So I need to have more grace for that mindset, even though it makes me want to puke.

My beautiful and insightful wife once told me that "if the Bible didn't mean a certain thing to a certain people at a certain time, then it doesn't mean anything to anyone ever." At least she said something like that.