Biblical literalists?

bible5.gifA common label thrown at Bible-believing Christians is that they are “Biblical literalists,” that is, they interpret every part of the Bible in a completely literal, rigid fashion. Sadly, this charge is often made within the church. I was in a class at my church last Spring where nearly all the members were shocked that I believed that the original writings of the Bible were inspired by God. I was accused of being a literalist (eek!).  I thought I had gone to the Unitarian church by mistake.

Sometimes the charge has merit, such as when someone takes a given passage in a wooden fashion and causes unnecessary divisions. Interpreting the Book of Revelation is an example, where in my opinion some are too literal with their end times predictions.  Sometimes people take verses out of context to “prove” something they favor.  Some Bible reading tips to help avoid this are located here.

But I think the charge is mostly aimed at those who take the Bible seriously and who believe that the original writings were inspired by God. The Bible claims to speak for God several thousand times, so one would think that anyone calling themselves a Christian wouldn’t find it controversial to claim that the Bible is God’s Word.

Jesus used hyperbole, or extreme exaggeration, in saying it was better to gouge out our eyes or cut off our hands if that would stop us from sinning (at least I hope He was exaggerating!).  He also said to love your enemies and hate your parents.  But the passage where he said to hate your parents is also hyperbole.  He was making the point that we should love him so much more than other people and things that relatively speaking it would look like hate.  He obviously didn’t mean that literally.

Sometimes the criticisms are leveled at those who think Noah and Jonah are real people. But when you read those passages, do they sound like allegories or real events? If God made the universe and everything in it, is any miracle in the Bible too hard for him?

Ironically, those who hurl the literalist label are usually the first to take a verse literally and out of context. The favorite verse of some Christians (and non-Christians) appears to be Matthew 7:1, where Jesus says, “Do not judge.” They use this as an excuse for any and all behavior and to deflect criticism. If they would keep reading they would see that Jesus meant not to judge hypocritically.  He even says it is OK to judge once you’ve removed the plank from your eye!

Also, there are plenty of verses teaching that we need to make sound judgments, such as John 7:24 (“Stop judging on mere appearances and make a right judgment.”)

In an additional irony, they use this verse to judge those who make judgments. If anyone ever throws that verse at you out of context, then just reply by asking, “If it is wrong to judge, why are you judging me right now?”

6 thoughts on “Biblical literalists?”

  1. I agree, However, I think the generalization that conservatives are “literalists” simply because we believe in Biblical inerrancy and infallibility is as incorrect as the generalization that progressives don’t take the Bible seriously. Unfortunately both generalizations are relied upon way too much in the Church today.


  2. “… at least I hope He was exaggerating!”

    So you are not sure?

    “He obviously didn’t mean that literally.”

    Why is it obvious this time?

    On what grounds do you decide when Jesus is exaggerating and when he is not? Isn’t that cherry-picking?

    Neil said: It is called reading things in context. People do it all the time with all sorts of literature. When the sports page says, “Bears maul Rams,” do you take it literally? Is that cherry-picking?

    I think those statements were hyperbole for other reasons as well. Literally removing your eyes wouldn’t necessarily stop you from sinning with your thoughts, for example. And there are no examples of people following that advice literally, although there are many examples of people taking their sins more seriously because of Jesus’ statements.

    I try to read passages in the context of surrounding passages and the theme of the whole Bible.


  3. Neil said: It is called reading things in context. People do it all the time with all sorts of literature. When the sports page says, “Bears maul Rams,” do you take it literally? Is that cherry-picking?

    Your example is a bit out of focus. You need much more than context to understand a headline and the article attached to it.

    Neil said: No, it proves my point exactly. There are many things people don’t take literally.

    And this is exactly what any person who reads the bible today does. They apply their personal set of values to decide whether a verse in the bible should be taken literally, be interpreted as hyperbole or dismissed altogether.

    Actually that is cherry-picking.

    For example, when the bible talks about the duties of slaves or the rights a slave-master has over him, we do not take the context from the bible in order to interpret. We infer from our modern moral point of view that such a passage has no bearing on us, because it is something that is frowned upon today but was quite normal at the times of the old and new testament.

    If you read and understand the bible only within the context of the bible, you are bound to clash with today’s reality.

    Neil said: I agree that you should read in the context of those examples – e.g., women were treated as property then, so what Paul said (“Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church) was even more radical then than it is now.

    But that isn’t cherry-picking, that is reading in the context of surround passages, the whole Bible, who wrote it, to whom it was written, etc.

    Here’s more on slavery, for example –

    That is the reason why those people who have a literal understanding of the bible and claim its inerrancy are not taken seriously by sensible people.

    If you want to make use of the bible at all you have no alternative to cherry-picking.

    Neil said: I’m grieved that you don’t take me seriously. Why keep coming back?

    Seriously, your cherry-picking thing betrays your lack of understanding of hermeneutics.


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