Reading the Bible Literally

One of the issues that comes up often concerns how literal to read the Bible.  Often times our view of interpretation is defined by our attitude toward inspiration.  Some liberals take the Bible as just various authors and editors’ personal opinions on God and spirituality and so the Bible need not be taken literally.  Some conservatives treat the Bible as if it just dropped out of heaven as the perfect book, thus making it our primary science and history textbook besides being our guide for faith.

I cringe when people ask me if I take the Bible literally.  Are the census lists in Numbers and the descriptions of armies in the Old Testament to be taken literally?  Was there a worldwide flood or just a local flood that affected the known world of the relatively small population of the earth at the time?  Should we calculate the age of the earth by adding up the geneologies of the Bible?  What does it mean when the Bible says that God stopped the movement of the sun?  Did God really make the movement of the universe stop for that one battle?  When the Bible says that all of Judea went to listen to John the Baptist, did that whole province show up at the Jordan?  I have questions about these statements, some stronger than others.

But if I say that I do not take the Bible literally, I open myself up to serious problems of interpretation.  Do I interpret the Bible as pure allegory as people like Tom Harpur have chosen?  Do I jettison all historical value?  Am I free to pick and choose what teachings of Jesus are true?  Do I deny the miracles of Jesus as they are hard for us to understand?  What do I do with the resurrection?

This is a serious issue for Christians.  I believe that taking the Bible as pure allegory is dangerous (even Origen did not reject the historical basis of the Bible).  But I believe a wooden literalism is also a mistake and that it has led to the abandonment of the faith by people like Bart Ehrman.  My solution to this is to accept the Bible in the form that it was written.  It is not a modern scientific book nor is it a modern history book and it should not be held to such standards.  I believe that God accomadated his revelation to the context of that day with spiritual truth that is timeless.  The Bible is historical, but it is history as it was written thousands of years ago and not today.  There was a literal Moses, David, Jesus and so on, who did the things the Bible describes.  But those records are given in the style of ancient history and are to be held to those standards.  I affirm with all my being the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible.  But I believe that the Bible calls us to use our minds in interpretation.  Look at archaeology and other historical records.  See where the differences are and ask questions.  When are the authors using hyperbole to make a point?  When are the authors using numbers as symbols?  When are they rearranging historical events to emphasize a theme?  I believe that we need to have a balanced way of interpreting the Bible, rejecting both pure allegory and wooden literalism for a contextual interpretation that respects the forms in which God revealed his Word to us.

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24 thoughts on “Reading the Bible Literally”

  1. I enjoyed reading your recent blog. I see that you assert your assumptions quite freely. This is a major issue in Critical Thinking, the problem of unexamined assumptions. Or have you examined yours? Can you spot your assumptions? Here’s my take on Critical Thinking:

    At the age of 20 I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, was born-again and baptized-in-the-Holy-Spirit, all in the same moment. It was a thrilling experience. Since then I have been a devoted Christian, active in a large Spirit-filled church and in several different ministries. I love the Lord and His people, and they love me. Filled with the Holy Spirit, I walk daily with the Lord, and actively seek His Truth wherever I can find it. I believe that all Truth is God’s Truth and that all Truth originates with God.

    Therefore, I have taken up the study of Critical Thinking and in the process have learned quite a bit about myself and about the seeking of Truth. Here’s a portion of what I’ve learned as the Spirit has been leading, guiding and teaching me:

    Critical Thinking is about being both willing and able to think, about developing two aspects of God’s gift of Reason to us: our Critical Thinking skills, and the disposition to use those skills to form good judgments.

    Disposition means developing the habitual intention of being truth-seeking, open-minded, systematic, analytical, inquisitive, confident in reasoning, and prudent in making judgments.

    Those who are ambivalent on one or more of those aspects, or who have the opposite disposition [biased, prejudiced, intolerant, disorganized, heedless of consequences, indifferent toward new information, mistrustful of reasoning, imprudence] are far less likely to use their God-given gift of Reason for Truth-seeking.

    I’ll leave it there for now. I look forward to hearing any thoughts from you and anyone else.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments! You have given me much food for thought. Here’s my true story:

    At the age of 20 I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, was born-again and baptized-in-the-Holy-Spirit, all in the same moment. It was a thrilling experience. Since then I have been a devoted Christian, active in a large Spirit-filled church and in several different ministries. I love the Lord and His people, and they love me. Filled with the Holy Spirit, I walk daily with the Lord, and actively seek His Truth wherever I can find it. I believe that all Truth is God’s Truth and that all Truth originates with God.

    Therefore, I have taken up the study of Critical Thinking and in the process have learned quite a bit about myself and about the seeking of Truth. Here’s a portion of what I’ve learned as the Spirit has been leading, guiding and teaching me:

    Critical Thinking is about being both willing and able to think, about developing two aspects of God’s gift of Reason to us: our Critical Thinking skills, and the disposition to use those skills to form good judgments.

    Disposition means developing the habitual intention of being truth-seeking, open-minded, systematic, analytical, inquisitive, confident in reasoning, and prudent in making judgments.

    Those who are ambivalent on one or more of those aspects, or who have the opposite disposition [biased, prejudiced, intolerant, disorganized, heedless of consequences, indifferent toward new information, mistrustful of reasoning, imprudence] are far less likely to use their God-given gift of Reason for Truth-seeking.

    I’ll leave it there for now. I look forward to hearing any thoughts from you and any other brothers and sisters.

  3. Um..I’m confused. Archie is your second comment a response to an un-seen (at least by me) post, or did you re-post the same comment with a slight edit?

  4. I have to approve comments by first time posters and I assume Archie thought his first post was lost when in fact it was just waiting for me to approve it.

  5. Ah, that makes sense. I remember thinking the same thing when I first posted. Thankyou for the clarification Stephen.

  6. Taking the Bible literally can also be quite dangerous. You mention Origen, but did you know that he adopted a largely allegorical approach to the Bible only after a period in his life when he took it too literally, and in obedience to the command in the Sermon on the Mount to cast off offending members, actually castrated himself. I’m not telling this story to be crude, and whenever we speak of stories attached to church fathers, we must always be cautious about their apocryphal nature, but this part of Origen’s biography has been with him for a very long time, and illustrates a problematic element in all Biblical literalism.

  7. Origen is often misunderstood. Yes, later on (after a painful mistake), Origen focused on the allegorical. But even at that stage, he reminded people that there was a historical core. It was not a manner of plain sense vs. alleogorical but both together. While in same cases literal can be dangerous, I accept Origen’s statement that there is a historical core that must be taken serious. I prefer a plain sense reading that looks to the context than a wooden literalism.

  8. There is good evidence Ceasar, Herod even Pilot existed but absolutely nothing at all that Jesus did. We have books Ceasar wrote, statues, coins, detailed accounts of people who knew him. No accounts of any one who met Jesus, not one. Some say Josephus heard of a Jesus. Thats it. even his account does not descibe him or any of the miracles or back ground.
    No accident most Christians are of European decent. Why would a god ignore most of the people of the world. Asians, Africans and Aboriginals are a majority. You are arguing a small tribe on the edge of the Roman empire was the vehical for gods message to humanity? Kind of a parochial thought is it not? Yes you have a relationship with God, but that feeling you have is a well understood human psychological phenomena shared by devote Hindus, Jews, Muslims and others. We only believe in the magic we want to. Yes to Jesus no to other forms. Its easy to say a God even one with unlimited power would stop the sun to win a battle. All of the wonderful stories of the Old Testament are not needed for a God to send a message to humans so that they would be better humans so that they can go to heaven? Why? He needed to have Jonah swallowed by a whale so that we would be better people? That didn’t work out so well and He would have known that before he did it.
    And once we accept devine intervention in our lives we can become very dangerous. As Hitchens says after alchemy comes chemistry, astrology astronomy, religion philosphy.
    Today 2,000 years later how did God’s plan work out? Not even professing Christians have made much of a dent in the iniquity of this sad world.

  9. I would love to see the extensive evidence for Pilate. Compared to most historical figures of the time, we have very good evidence for Jesus. Try to prove the existence of the Jewish rabbi Hillel, and yet no one claims he did not exist.

    As for most Christians being of European descent, you are way off. Christianity began in Asia and even today, there are many more Christians in South America, Africa and China than in North America or Europe.

    How did God’s plan work out? Ask people who benefit from the Salvation Army. Ask slaves who received freedom because of the hard work of Christians. Ask people who are helped by World Vision. Ask lonely people who are reached out to by Christians.

    How did atheism work out? Let’s ask people from Stalinist Soviet Union and Maoist China?

  10. Here we go. But why bother there are Roman records of Pilot but so what. You know the South American Christians are also of European decent. The native popuations small and dominated. In China the numbers are tiny as they are in India . Aftricans by post colonial influence and all of the Christians only began due to colonial conquest. Christianity spread North and is completley due to Roman infuence. And of course Stalin was headed for the priesthood always a good start for dictators. And as to the salvation army (I am a supprter) how is it Hindus Muslems Jews etc all have charity. Not to mention Oxfam, Unesco, Unitarians Care etc etc etc.

  11. What do believers call evidence? How do we know any historical figure existed. Go back 1,000 years. We have letters Henry the 8th wrote and letters wirtten to him. Thats good. Ceaser we have books he worte and many many documents contemporaries wrote to and about him. Very few lessor people certainly less than 1,000 any court would admit as evidence from any person living 2,000 years ago. The gospels claim Jesus spoke to thousands, angles sang in the sky at his birth, yet no first person account exists of any writer who saw or met him. Certainly any person rasing the dead making actual miracles rising himself would have attracted some local ocntent. No one knows even who wrote the gospels. We only have copies of copies. The names were assigned after the fact by if I recall the Bishop of Lyon at Nicea. There are four gospels because there are 4 pillars that hold up the earth. This is the “son of the creator of the earth!!!!” Pretty slim stuff. A few contested lines about a “man” named Jesus in Josephus. Believers claim that those lines are evidence of a divine person sent by God to save humanity. Really? Thats it? And of course all the evidence that other cultures has sons of god with magical numbers. 3 days, 3 gods, 3 crows of the cock, 12 disciples its goes on and on, magic, mythology, great stories told to get us through the night.

  12. Does any one deny that many Christians do good work? But why do non Christians? Slavery was defended by Christians and even segregation in the US and South Africa in our life time. Read early speechs by the great senator Jesse Helms. Christ, the bible tells us how to treat our slaves. Did you know the OT instrusts us that we are not suposed to sexually abuse our slaves if they are married? Slavery is an economic phenomena the world over through out history.

  13. I am betting that you could not name the actual evidence for Pilate, you are assuming the Roman records. It is actually fairl slim although I certainly believe he existed. My point is that if you apply the same standards that people do to Jesus, then most historical figures would be under suspicion. We have good evidence of the existence of Jesus from Paul and the Gospels that are within a generation of Jesus. Check out one day how long after Alexander the Great the first biography of him came out.

    I do not deny that people of other religions are involved in charity work. But the sheer number of Christian charities answers your question of what the results of Jesus’ appearing are. I do wonder why atheists are more interested in criticizing Christians than in helping people. As for Stalin, he was atheist before he left seminary.

    You are free to believe what you want to believe. I just want you to see that Jesus and Christianity are held to different standard than other individuals and groups.

  14. I imagine you believe America and Europe are wealthy because of Christianity. The number of Christian charities are because of the comparative wealth of the west. You are missing the principles. There are loving aethists and evil christians as there are the reverse.

  15. No I do not think that America and Europe are wealthy because of Christianity. Just as I do not believe that Saudi Arabia is wealthy because of Islam. The economic situation of a nation is much more complicated than that.

    I do not doubt that there are those who label themselves Christian who do bad things. Just as there are those who call themselves atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. who do good things. You asked about the legacy of Christ’s teachings and I responded by saying that many Christians follow Christ’s commands to love by helping people in need. It does not mean that other people do not do these things, just that Christians are heavily involved in these things.

  16. That is a fair question. The reason for being a Christian is that God is real and that he has decided to reconcile humanity to himself through Jesus Christ. The purpose of a Christian is to love God and love people. I am the first to admit that Christians do not always live up to this ideal. But the failing of some followers does not negate the truth of the message.

  17. Its just impossible for me to believe a god would create a three part god kill one part and make it alive again so that some palestinians and then some greeks and over a great deal of time some Europeans and eventually some Asians can feel better about some sins and then spend eternity as a spirit. A very weird notion with no real point.

  18. God did not kill Jesus, Jesus offered himself as the atonement for our sins. And we do not believe that we will spend eternity as spirits, we believe in the resurrection. You may not believe this and I respect your beliefs. But I find it much more believable than this universe, this world, this human race, this beautiful creations, is just an accident that came about by itself. I hope that one day it will be more believable to you.

  19. I just realized you are a local pastor. I guess I think you need to say these things. I am fascintated at how very intelligent people all over the world believe the strangest things. Its part of our human DNA religious, political and even sports fans all cling very strongly to their beliefs. Its a human thing.

  20. I will agree with you that people do believe the strangest things. I just don’t think that Christianity is strange as some other options.

    As for being a pastor, i would be saying these things anyway. This is what I truly believe.

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