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Interpreting the Bible VIII: Biblical Literalism, Attitude, and Avoidance

This is a continuation of my series on interpreting the Bible. The first post in the series is Interpreting the Bible I: Obvious Exegesis, while the most recent one was Interpreting the Bible VII: Christians Contribute to Confusion.

As a reminder, my starting point was a number of comments that suggested that those who take the Bible less literally are thereby less serious Christians. These suggestions were not coming from conservative Christians, but from non-Christians. In some cases, I question the motivation of such suggestions. I believe that Richard Dawkins, for example, prefers to debate hard-line fundamentalists, and so would like to dismiss the rest of us from the Christian faith.

What I believe I have done so far is to show that interpreting the Bible, broadly called hermeneutics, is a bit more complex than these folks would like, and that just taking the Bible literally, as best as I can understand what they mean by “literally,” is not the way Christians have read the Bible historically. I have further noted that even basic exegesis, which I define as looking for the text as it was intended to be understood by the original audience, is more complex than these folks let on.

Those who are eagerly waiting for me to solve issues such as the violent passages in the Bible or gay and lesbian marriage will still have to wait. While I will discuss those issues, my primary purpose here is to look at the method. I believe that our discussions of the Bible would be much more profitable if we would simply think and talk more about how we come to our understanding, rather than simply trying to defend that understanding. Two people may mean very different things by saying that a concept is “Biblical.”

Let me reiterate here, as I believe has been demonstrated previously with the help of commenters, that the issues I’m discussing do not hinge on belief in inerrancy. Belief that the Bible is inerrant does not limit one with reference to determining what type of literature a particular passage is.

I want to clarify this further by using a couple of examples. Two controversial books amongst conservatives are Jonah and Job. There are quite a number of people, even conservatives, who will claim that these books are fiction. To make that claim doesn’t mean that the books contain error. Rather, it means that they intentionally present whatever it is they present in fictional form. Now there are those who regard fiction itself as evil, but that is a different argument.

Let’s say you have a historical novel, written with the intent of accurately portraying a certain place and time in history, but doing so using fictional characters in a fictional narrative. What would constitute an error? Well, if one introduced an historical event connecting to the story, and placed this event at the wrong time, it might be an error. Suppose one had an historical building, and it didn’t exist at the time in question. That might be an error as well.

The key in all of these points would be the author’s intent. Such an author might well introduce a house or a small street that was not historical, but wouldn’t presumably introduce a new city hall. There are things that the historical novel wishes to convey that are facts, and there is a story to be enjoyed along the way. Similarly, C. S. Lewis is not in error in the Screwtape Letters if there is no demon named Screwtape, nor is he in error in the Chronicles of Narnia if there is no Narnia.

I find this comparison to be of interest in the books of Jonah and Job, because I think we often get to argument about little houses and back streets in the story, while missing the big things.

In Jonah, I frequently hear discussions of two major issues: First, was Jonah really swallowed by a “great fish” or a “whale”? Second, was Nineveh really so big it would take three days to walk across it. (Those who know some Hebrew may laugh a bit at the particular rendering there–I’m using the form in which I normally hear the question.) But are those really the questions?

I would suggest several themes in the book of Jonah:

  1. God can call you to uncomfortable places and missions on which you would rather not go.
  2. Even when you’re going the other direction, God is likely to take note.
  3. Intervention may be uncomfortable–note how Jonah ends up on shore.
  4. God offers repentance even to people I may hate.
  5. God is gracious and merciful, even to the worst of sinners.

… and a few more, none of which are really impacted by whether the story is fictional. All of these points have annoyed someone at some time, and indeed according to the story, they annoyed Jonah, and presumably were controversial amongst the readers of the book. I am not here trying to argue these points. I’m simply saying that finding fiction in the Bible is not the same thing as finding error.

I consider Job even more interesting. If the book is historical, then we have an individual who suffered because God allowed him to be attacked and tormented. This may, of course, be extended by analogy or in principle to others. On the other hand, if the story is fictional, then one would have to assume that Job is presented as a type of sufferer, and that it is quite possible that God might call on me–or you–to suffer to make a demonstration for him. Are you concerned that bad things seem to happen to good and bad people alike? Here are some bad things that happen specifically to good people.

Now you can get that second idea while reading Job as historical, though I have heard some folks argue that this is something that happened only once (they forget about Jesus, apparently), but I think that if you read it as a fictional account, you are forced to the conclusion that it applies broadly in principle–God’s servants may be called to suffer in the fight against evil, and they may never know just why. Note that Job never receives an explanation of his suffering.

So you note here that the issue is not whether the text is in error or not, or whether one takes it literally or not, but rather just what are the literary characteristics, what is meant by them, and just how that might apply. If I could delete one statement from the vocabulary of Christian conservatives it would be: “I take the Bible literally.” If I could delete one statement from the vocabulary of liberal Christians: “I don’t take the Bible that literally.” Both are misleading. (As I note in my review of his book How to Study the Bible for Yourself, Tim LaHaye makes this his first rule of hermeneutics. Needless to say, I disagree; in fact, I regard it as one of the worst rules.)

If I might pound this point into the ground a bit, some interpreters, including LaHaye, have applied this to the book of Revelation. But just what should one take “literally” in the book of Revelation? Personally, I tend to take the introduction quite literally when it uses a variety of literary indicators to show that John saw a vision. Once we’re in a vision, I take things as a vision, which may have varying degrees of attachment to physical things, and I believe that is the correct way to take them. Even where there are likely literal connections, such as with the churches, or with a number of symbols, the vision context warns us to look for more than meets the eye. Revelation 12 & 13, for example, while containing symbols that may be attached to specifics, also provide a very good general appreciation of the battle between good and evil, and numerous principles for living in the midst of such a battle. The literal/non-literal dichotomy is terribly inadequate to the task of understanding such a passage.

Some may be wondering how one would take the vision framework non-literally. There are many commentators who would treat the “vision” as a literary device used to present a set of symbols. It is quite possible to understand it in that way, though I disagree. In fact, I think assuming an ecstatic state, in vision, for some of the writing of Revelation will explain some literary and linguistic peculiarities, but that is a completely different topic.

Now I would maintain that conservatives, liberals, and those between are all susceptible to coming up with ad hoc interpretations that allow one to avoid the impact of a text, or to make a text have an inappropriate impact. Let me start with a controversial one.

Leviticus 18:22 is commonly presented as a text demonstrating that homosexuality is sin and unacceptable. (Note that “I don’t take it that literally” doesn’t seem to work here. It’s pretty literal.) I like to present people with Leviticus 19:33-34, which says to treat an alien living among you as one of your own citizen. Now I’m not arguing what applies here and what doesn’t. Both are literal commands given in the same general body of law. A valid approach would be to ask just how commands given to Israel in Leviticus apply to others.

But avoiding all of those issues, it’s very interesting to watch people’s responses to this connection. First, it is almost universally assumed that simply because I present Leviticus 19:33-34 I believe that Leviticus 18:22 is not applicable. Liberal audiences often assume that because they want to; conservative audiences assume that because they can’t imagine why I would present them with such an alternative text if it isn’t to undermine the impact of the first text.

But the real question here is why and how either text should apply. I would suggest that there are similar tasks of interpretation and application that need to be used in both cases. In actuality, however, with most lay audiences I find that these two texts apply according to cultural inclinations. Those who favor gay and lesbian inclusion exclude 18:22 and very often the same people are delighted to include 19:33-34. Those who oppose homosexuality accept 18:22 as applicable, but will explain that 19:33-34 was for a different time and place.

I would suggest that the processes of interpretation and application for both are complex, and that in neither case is the best approach simply trying to interpret the individual text. If your question is how should our nation treat aliens residing in the country, I doubt you will find clear direction as to what the law should be. If the question is how you, as an individual Christian, should treat aliens, I think you will find many scriptures that you can group together in finding the proper principles to guide your behavior. Similarly with homosexuality, I think the approach that says, essentially, “How many texts are there that forbid homosexual acts, and how can I (or can I not) explain them,” is precisely the wrong approach. A better approach to any question is to try to discover God’s ideal, and then look at how we might approach that.

To continue with my examples, however, let me look at another passage:

32Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. — Acts 4:32-35

Here again you have a verse that can split interpreters right in the middle! Out of the characteristics of the early church just what are we supposed to apply today. Many of my more liberal brethren are pretty happy with the common ownership thing, and there being nobody in need in the church. They will take various attitudes toward the rest, such as whether this should be done entirely by the church, testimony to the resurrection, and so forth. There are many who would make Christianity a matter of the distribution of wealth, without any regard for the testimony to the resurrection.

On the other hand, I can cite my own uncle, Don F. Neufeld, an interpreter in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, associate editor of the SDA Bible Commentary and editor of the SDA Bible Dictionary. In a personal conversation he was quick to point out to me that this practice was quickly abandoned by the church and didn’t appear to be the norm in Paul’s congregations, for example. This strikes me as an example of finding trajectories in scripture, something I think is quite appropriate, yet is often criticized as too subjective.

I have heard many other explanations for common ownership, most aimed at keeping the early church from being too socialist. So here we have otherwise conservative interpreters finding the exit ramp in the middle of this verse. But liberals need not crow, because Christian unity, power, and mutual support is inextricably linked to the testimony of Jesus risen from the dead, and I think it would be difficult to build a case that the author of Luke-Acts would think it possible for it to be any other way.

(I am aware that liberals do not necessarily deny the resurrection, though many do deny a physical resurrection. I am called liberal, and I personally accept a physcial–or bodily–resurrection. Nonetheless I believe that it is a liberal weakness to attempt to separate good works from the incarnation, and that is a weakness I see as ultimately fatal to Christianity.)

The issue, I think, is our attitude in approaching scripture. There can be quite a variety of approaches to understanding scripture, and none of them are necessarily related to whether we take scripture seriously. What I would say characterizes a distinctly Christian approach to (Christian) scripture is the attitude of openness to correction. Each approach to interpretation can be used as a means of avoiding things I don’t like, i.e. of making scripture simply the excuse for what I wanted to do anyway.

Liberal and conservative Christians don’t differ so much on the basic desire to avoid certain passages as on which passages they avoid and how they go about avoiding them.

(I will continue next time by trying to look faithfully at some of the violent passages in the Old Testament. Don’t get impatient–this series will go on for a long time. Apologies to those who want a quick answer; I don’t believe in quick answers.)

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  1. Andrew says:

    [It’s still legal – and always God-honoring – to air messages like the following. (See Ezekiel 3:18-19.) In light of government backing of raunchy behavior (such offenders were even executed in early America!), maybe the separation we really need is the “separation of raunch and state”!]

    In Luke 17 in the New Testament, Jesus said that one of the big “signs” that will happen shortly before His return to earth as Judge will be a repeat of the “days of Lot” (see Genesis 19 for details). So gays are actually helping to fulfill this same worldwide “sign” (and making the Bible even more believable!) and thus hurrying up the return of the Judge! They are accomplishing what many preachers haven’t accomplished! Gays couldn’t have accomplished this by just coming out of closets into bedrooms. Instead, they invented new architecture – you know, closets opening on to Main Streets where little kids would be able to watch naked men having sex with each other at festivals in places like San Francisco (where their underground saint – San Andreas – may soon get a big jolt out of what’s going on over his head!). Thanks, gays, for figuring out how to bring back our resurrected Saviour even quicker!

  2. OK, Andrew, your post is legal, though the censorship you should be concerned with here is mine. Since I have an “almost no censorship” policy, your comment will stay.

    But you do a fabulous job of illustrating one of the reason for this series. Because this is a post with words like “gay,” “lesbian,” and “homosexual” in it, you can’t seem to resist writing a broadside against gays in the comments.

    The problem with that is that I use the issue of homosexuality as an example in discussing how one interprets the Bible, all the while trying to explain to people how they need to look carefully at how they are using scripture in coming to supposedly Biblical conclusions.

    But to people who are in the heat of a debate, such detailed work doesn’t appear attractive. They’d rather just quote texts, such as Genesis 19, for example, in which the primary sin was a lack of hospitality.

    49 Behold, this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: pride, fullness of bread, and prosperous ease was in her and in her daughters; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. (Ezekiel 16:49 WEB)

    Now, in our modern world is homosexuality more pervasive than pride? Than gluttony? Then neglect of the poor and needy?

    One way to misinterpret scripture is to choose your own agenda and then focus on those parts of the Bible that seem to support what you already care about.

    But every item on the list of Sodom’s sins in Ezekiel 16:49 (and I’m aware of the word “abomination” in verse 50), is discussed much more frequently and in much more detail in the Bible than is homosexuality. Does the emphasis of the Biblical writers have meaning in the way we apply their words?

    Perhaps we should think more about how a neglect of the poor and needy is a sign of the end.

  3. Martin LaBar says:

    Thanks for another good job.

    Christ, Himself, said, in Matthew 11:20-24, when Capernaum rejected His teaching, that they were worse than the inhabitants of ancient Sodom, and, in Luke 10:1-12, that any town that did not receive the seventy-two disciples, was worse than Sodom.

  4. Larry B says:

    Thanks for continuing these posts Henry. I enjoyed reading this one and look forward to further posts on the subject.

  5. Sean+ Lotz says:

    I’ll just say “thank you very much.” And how about “I’m pretty impressed.” And maybe I’ll add, “I’ll be back for more.”

    You know what’s funny? More “conservative” Christians think I am frightfully liberal, probably not Christian at all. “Liberal” ones think I’m a bit too conservative for their tastes. I think I’m a scriptural literalist, one of the few I know. I think that most people who apply that title to themselves are no such beast at all. I always want to start with “What does this passage actually SAY?” Asking that does not mean that I believe that I would be able to see, e.g., Job in the fish/whale/monster, if I went back in a time machine. But it means I find the book of Job to be the most gloriously true thing ever written by a human. In terms of “literalism” there is a great difference between taking the test literally, reading it for what it says, and automatically assuming without noticing the assumption that the passage must therefore apply to 21st century America in any particular way, or that to be true it must be true in a particular way (historically).

    Well, sorry. That was a lot more than just “thank you.” So thank you for a great essay.

    — Sean+

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