We confess that we are driven to distraction when engaging in conversation with those who claim that they interpret Scripture literally. A literal interpretation of Scripture demands that every text is interpreted in the same manner. The following quote highlights the difficulties of this approach:
People should be allowed to believe what they wish, however, there’s a certain piety of fundamentalism that’s hard to live with. It’s a piety that insists we all should all hold the same simple, folksy interpretations that refute scholarly research and confirm church beliefs and customs. I understand that fundamentalists feel the same frustrations with those of us who long for reform, but the difference is that we are calling for our Church to live with diversity of theology.
Should the Bible be interpreted literally?
The Middle Ages and earlier
Throughout most of the Christian era, Bible reading and Bible interpretation were confined to religious professionals. Until the fifteenth century, the Bible was available only in Latin. Even when the Bible was translated into other languages, the scarcity and high cost of Bibles kept them out of the hands of ordinary people. Availability of Bibles was also restricted by church officials1.
During this era, the Bible was interpreted according to church beliefs and traditions. There was little or no attempt made to determine the original meanings of the Scripture. Difficult passages “were interpreted as having a figurative meaning, so that they convey, through a kind of code, deeper truths about God, the spiritual life, or the church2.”
Sixteenth to eighteenth centuries
Galileo. Christians have always believed the Bible is inspired by God and is authoritative on spiritual, moral and ethical matters. It wasn’t until science began to develop in the 16th century that questions and arguments arose about whether the Bible is also authoritative on scientific and historical matters.
The first major conflict was between the ancient view of the earth, as reflected in the Bible, and the Copernican theory, which held that the earth and the other planets revolve around the sun. The astronomer Galileo, using his telescope, found evidence to support the Copernican theory and began publishing his results in 1611. Church officials were alarmed because the Copernican theory seemed to contradict the Bible, and in 1616 Pope Paul V ordered Galileo to abandon the Copernican theory3.
Nineteenth and twentieth centuries
Darwin. By the nineteenth century, most Christians had come to accept the Copernican theory of the universe because of overwhelming scientific evidence. But a new crisis arose with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin proposed that species of plants and animals evolved through a process of natural selection. Darwin observed that there were variations among individual plants and animals. He proposed that, in the struggle to survive, the better adapted individuals would be more likely to survive and reproduce their characteristics in succeeding generations. Thus, over many generations, species would change by a process of evolution. Further, the process was said to work automatically, seemingly leaving little room for Divine guidance or design.
Darwin’s theory was seen by some Christians as a direct attack on the story of creation in the Bible book of Genesis (Genesis 1:1-31). It also spawned a number of atheistic movements both within the natural sciences and the social sciences that saw the universe as created and ruled simply by the impersonal forces of nature. “Darwinism” became associated with atheism in the minds of many Christians, and rejection of all of Darwin’s theories became almost a creed for some Christians.
Higher Criticism. In the late eighteenth century, scholars began studying the Bible as literature rather than as divine revelation. New techniques of literary analysis, archaeology and linguistics were used to study the Bible. Some in this “Higher Criticism” movement asserted that the Bible stories were little more than mythology, and by the end of the nineteenth century these ideas had become quite popular4.
Fundamentalism. In 1910, in reaction to Higher Criticism and Darwinism, a group of Presbyterian theologians proposed five essential beliefs of Christianity:
- the inerrancy of Scripture,
- the virgin birth of Christ,
- Christ’s atonement for our sins on the cross,
- His bodily resurrection,
- the objective reality of His miracles.
These became known as the The Fundamentals. They were widely distributed and formed the basis of the Fundamentalist movement within Christianity5.Literal Bible interpretation. Many fundamentalists believed the Holy Spirit dictated the Bible to its human authors word-for-word. They reasoned that “inerrancy of Scripture” meant that everything in the Bible must be absolutely, literally, scientifically and historically true. Anything less would be unworthy of God. According to this view, the Bible, in all its detail, is inerrant on matters of history and science, as well as doctrine. Any apparent conflict between the Bible and another source (science, history, etc.) should be resolved in favor of the Bible because of its Divine origin.
Bible verses such as these are often quoted to support the literal view:
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: (KJV, 2nd Timothy 3:16)
But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (NAS, 2nd Peter 1:20-21)
However, interpreting the entire Bible as literal divine revelation poses severe problems for serious Bible study. Besides the apparent conflicts with science and history, there is evidence within the Bible itself that it has both human and divine origins. Luke attributed his Gospel to his own research:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (NIV, Luke 1:1-4)
Paul’s letters (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, etc.) were originally written as letters to churches he had founded, not as part of Scripture. They dealt not only with divine revelation but also with many mundane matters like disputes among church factions. Paul often stated his own personal opinions:
To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. (NIV, 1 Corinthians 7:12)
There is also evidence within the Bible that portions of it are intended to be interpreted figuratively rather than literally (John 16:25, Galatians 4:24, Revelation 1:20, 17:18, etc.)
1Herbert Lockyer, Sr., ed., Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986, pp. 166-176.
2James L. Mays, ed., Harper’s Bible Commentary, Harper, 1988, pp. 8-9.
3Encyclopedia Americana, Americana Corporation, 1971, vol. 12, pp. 240-244
4Karen Armstrong, The Battle of God, Ballantine, 2000, pp. 95, 140.
5ibid., p. 171. Source