Four Good Reasons Not to Read the Bible Literally
I’ve gotten a number of questions of late about the conservative, or literal, way of reading the Bible. It’s that way of reading the Bible that’s maybe best summed up in the bumper sticker, God Said It. I Believe It. That Settles It. Most of us, it seems, have at least one friend or family member who reads the Bible this way and although we may covet their confidence, we often don’t feel like that way of reading the Bible “fits” with us or “works” for us. I use quotation marks to name these feelings because it’s often hard to describe what doesn’t seem accurate or faithful about reading the Bible literally. Sometimes it just feels like we need to check our brains at the door, rejecting all we know of evolution and the age of the earth, perhaps, or believing the story of Joshua stopping the sun in its tracks. Other times the result of such interpretation seems so harsh or judgmental that we just can’t square the mercy of Jesus with such interpretations. But apart from these strong if also somewhat vague objections, we aren’t quite sure why in our congregations we don’t read the Bible literally or, more importantly, what the alternative is.
Toward addressing this, I’m going to offer in this post offer four reasons not to read the Bible literally. Next week I’ll suggest another way to read the Bible as God’s word and truth to us in a way that engages both our heads and our hearts.
So, four good reasons not to read the Bible literally:
1) Nowhere Does the Bible Claim to be Inerrant
That’s right. At no place in its more than 30,000 verse does the Bible claim that it is factually accurate in terms of history, science, geography and all other matters (the technical definition of inerrancy). “Inerrant” itself is not a word found in the Bible or even known to Christian theologians for most of history. Rather, the word was coined in the middle of the 19th century as a defensive counter measure to the increased popularity of reading the Bible as one would other historical documents and the discovery of manifold internal inconsistencies and external inaccuracies.
The signature verse most literalists point to is 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” But one can confess that Scripture is inspired by God without resorting to claims that it contains no factual errors. We normally use the language of inspiration in just this way, describing a painting, a performance of a Bach symphony, or even a good lecture as inspired. What binds the various and sundry texts found in the Bible together may be precisely that they are all inspired by the authors’ experience of the living God. There is no hint that the authors of the Bible imagined that what they were writing was somehow supernaturally guaranteed to be factually accurate. Rather, biblical authors wrote in order to be persuasive, hoping that by reading their witness you would come to believe as they did (see John 20:30-31).
2) Reading the Bible Literally Distorts its Witness
In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus drives the moneychangers out of the Jerusalem Temple in the days immediately preceding his crucifixion. In the Gospel of John, he does this near the beginning of his ministry, two years before his death. Similarly, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the day Jesus is crucified is named as the Passover, while in John it is the Day of Preparation; that is, the day before Passover. Inconsistencies like this are part of what undermines claims to inerrancy of not just the gospels but also many other books in the Bible.
But if the primary intention of the biblical authors was not to record history – in the post-Enlightenment sense we take for granted today – but instead to confess faith, then these differences are not troubling inconsistencies to be reconciled but rather helpful clues to understanding the confession of the author. So rather than ask who got it right, we might instead wonder why John describes these events differently than the other Evangelists. As it turns out, both of these examples stem from John’s theological claim that Jesus is the new Passover lamb. For this reason, once he begins his ministry there is no need for Temple sacrifice, and he is crucified on the same day – indeed, at the exact hour – at which the Passover lambs were sacrificed on the Day of Preparation.
You can attempt to reconcile these and other discrepancies in the biblical witness, of course, and literalists have published books almost as long as the Bible attempting to do just that. In the case of the different timeframes for the cleansing of the Temple, for instance, one might suggest that Jesus did this twice, once at the beginning of his ministry and then again, for good measure, two years later. But far from “rescuing” the gospels such efforts distort their distinct confession of faith by rendering accounts of Jesus’ life that none of canonical accounts offers.
3) Most Christians Across History Have Not Read the Bible Literally
We tend to think of anything that is labeled “conservative” as being older and more traditional. Oddly enough, however, the doctrine of inerrancy that literalists aim to conserve is only about a century and a half old. Not only did many of the Christian Church’s brightest theologians not subscribe to anything like inerrancy, many adamantly opposed such a notion. St. Augustine – rarely described as a liberal – lived for many years at the margins of the church. An impediment to his conversation was precisely the notion that Christians took literally stories like that of Jonah spending three days in the belly of a whale. It was not until Ambrose, bishop of Milan, introduced Augustine to allegorical interpretation – that is, that stories can point metaphorically to spiritual realities rather than historical facts – that Augustine could contemplate taking the Bible (and those who read it) seriously.
The point isn’t that pre-modern Christians approached the Bible with the same historically conscious skepticism of the Bible’s factual and scientific veracity that modern interpreters possess. Earlier Christians – along with almost everyone else who lived prior to the advent of modernity – simply didn’t imagine that for something to be true it had to be factually accurate, a concern only advanced after the Enlightenment. Hence, four gospels that diverged at different points, far from troubling earlier Christians, was instead seen as a faithful and fitting recognition that God’s truth as revealed in Jesus was too large to be contained by only one perspective. Flattening the biblical witness to conform to a reductionist understanding of truth only limits the power of Scripture. As Karl Barth, arguably the twentieth century’s greatest theologian, once said, “I take the Bible too seriously to read it literally.”
4) Reading the Bible Literally Undermines a Chief Confession of the Bible About God
Read the Bible even for a little while and you’ll soon realize that most of the major characters are, shall we say, less than ideal. Abraham passes his wife off as his sister – twice! – in order to save his skin. Moses is a murderer. David sleeps around. Peter denies Jesus three times. Whatever their accomplishments, most of the “heroes of the faith” are complicated persons with feet of clay. And that’s the point: the God of the Bible regularly uses ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things.
Why, then, treat the Bible itself differently? Rather than imagine that the Bible was also written by ordinary, fallible people, inerrantists have made the Bible an other-wordly, supernatural document that runs contrary to the biblical affirmation that God chooses ordinary vessels – “jars of clay,” the Apostle Paul calls them – to bear an extraordinary message. In fact, literalists unwittingly ascribe to the Bible the status of being “fully human and fully divine” that is normally reserved only for Jesus.
So rather than read the Bible literally because of our own, post-Enlightenment concerns about truth and its relationship to historical or factual veracity, we need instead to embrace Scripture as possessing – and confessing! – a bigger kind of truth, the kind of truth that can actually change your life. We’ll turn to that next week.
Note: Much of the content of this post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.