Core to the whole issue of progressive Christianity is what is the nature of the Bible? What role does it play in Christendom?

Many evangelicals will state to some effect that they believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, or that the Bible must be interpreted literally, etc. It’s quite simple to demonstrate they don’t think all of the Bible is to be taken literally. They just don’t realize this sometimes. How many Christians think that when Jesus returns that his tongue will actually be a double-edged sword? (Rev19:15). Who thinks Jesus advocates suicide when he says “…he who loses his life for me shall find it”? (Mt10:39, Mt16:25, Mk8:35, Lk9:24) How many Christian men struggle constantly with pornography addictions? How many of them have plucked out their eyes or cut off their hands? (Mk9:43-47)

Let me take a moment to clarify. Semantics can get in the way of this. When I say “literal” I’m using the lay-definition, which I would characterize as: “The meaning conveyed by words without regard to the literary context or function.” That is without regard to the words being used as metaphor, parable, poetry, idiom, etc.

In order to develop a more robust faith one must employ a much more rigorous investigation than literal reading. This more rigorous investigation should be one that not only takes the literary function into account, but cultural background and lexical information as well. While some may call this a “literal” approach, I would term it a “literary” approach, and I would like to make that distinction at the outset. So with that in mind let us look at literal interpretation.

The question is not whether the Bible is to be taken non-literally at all, but when is it appropriate to take it non-literally? There is no easy answer. One must take each passage one at a time. The interesting thing is those who insist the loudest that it must be taken literally, pay the least attention to the linguistics of it. So without getting into a super-detailed exposition about any specific passage, here are some rules-of-thumb to keep in mind when reading any passage in the Bible.

  • It wasn’t written in English!
  • There was no such thing as “science” when it was written!
  • What is the style of writing? (poetry, parable, history, vision, exhortation, etc)
  • What is the authors point? (warning, rhetoric, affirmation, praise, etc)
  • It wasn’t written in English!
  • There was no such thing as “science” when it was written!
  • What is the cultural context of the passage (the speaker’s, the audience’s)
  • Are there any know textual difficulties? (words only in some manuscripts, uncertain definitions (search for authenteo), copyist errors, incorporated glosses, etc)
  • Has a cultural trait influenced the transmission of the manuscripts? (e.g. Hellenist philosophies invading the Septuagint).
  • It wasn’t written in English!
  • There was no such thing as “science” when it was written!

You are probably seeing a pattern :-) But seriously, (Manuscript) Textual criticism is an amazing endeavor, a blending art and science. If you want to know more about the process or the implications of studying it, I will list some links at the end of this section. The Bible is a tricky thing. People failing to take its study seriously enough is what has lead to Christianity’s sordid history. Just simply “taking the Bible literally” might mean actually switching your brain off, and the consequences might not be pleasant. If you read information from the links I have at the end of this section you should get an appreciation for what it means to study the Bible with a healthy amount of attention paid to liguistics.

But why do we study it? What is it’s nature? How is it authoritative? That will be covered in Part II. But before that here are some links of further interest:

Bruce Metzger

Christian Think-Tank.com

John Sailhamer’s excellent treatmen of Genesis

Part II: The Authority of Scripture
While some might read my line of reasoning against taking-the-Bible-literally-all-the-time as an attempt to downplay the importance of the Bible, I believe the opposite to be true. To simply accept what any given translation the Bible says on the surface is how one downplays the Bible. To read it glibly and call it the Word of God is doing a great disservice to the Bible, and to one’s own faith (not to say that such a reading will always lead to the wrong conclusion).

The importance of the Bible, then, is manifest in how it “holds authority” for us and for our lives. But what does “holding authority” mean? What does it look like? How can such a thing be accomplished with a book? These are matters addressed beautifully by N.T. Wright is his article How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?

I would ask everyone interested in these matters to please review that article. I will attempt to do it justice by offering a ‘digest’ of it, for brevity’s sake. But, as such, it will lose depth and some beautiful points. It is not my attempt to do a disservice to his work, but to summarize only certain key points that are pertinent to the discussions I write about. I would like to think my summary is in keeping with the spirit in which he wrote the original. Even though this is a summary it is still quite long.

Also, I must note I have compiled his quotes but they are not all in the order of his lecture. Since I am trying only to hit the highlights of his work, I am forced to rearrange the topical flow somewhat. The original structure flows through many sub-topics and sub-sub-topics, as well as being broken into two sections that somewhat repeat themselves. So in a effort to streamline the discussion to the high-level aspects, some rearrangement was necessary. Again, I attempted this in the same spirit in which it was written and I hope the result is acceptable. And again, I encourage all interested parties to read the original so they can examine this topic in the manner the author originally intended

Definition of Authority

He opens with a discussion about the idea of “authority”. One of the first things to note is there is no set meaning to authority, it changes according to environment. For example what does authority mean in a lecture hall? At a business? In a court of law? In the military? In a group of friends going to dinner? Does it have meaning in all circumstances? Therefore he says:

“The meaning of ‘authority’, then, varies considerably according to the context within which the discourse is taking place.”

So the crux of these questions lie in how we define ‘scripture’, how we define ‘authority’ and how those definitions are derived from one another. In the past:

“…we have tended to let the word ‘authority’ be the fixed point and have adjusted ‘scripture’ to meet it, instead of the other way round. … There is, indeed, an evangelical assumption, common in some circles, that evangelicals do not have any tradition. We simply open the scripture, read what it says, and take it as applying to ourselves: there the matter ends, and we do not have any ‘tradition’.”

But there is an inherent danger to this. He says:

“First, there is an implied, and quite unwarranted, positivism: we imagine that we are ‘reading the text, straight’, and that if somebody disagrees with us it must be because they, unlike we ourselves, are secretly using ‘presuppositions’ of this or that sort. This is simply naïve, and actually astonishingly arrogant and dangerous.”

“…evangelicals often use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ when they mean the authority of evangelical, or Protestant, theology, since the assumption is made that we (evangelicals, or Protestants) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is saying.”

Can you not see the hubris in this? I see this all the time and it is part of why I was unsatisfied in my faith. I may challenge conventional modes of evangelical thinking. But I don’t, for a second, think that I have arrived at the “right” or final answer.

Having said that let’s look at the meanings of authority. He says: “When people in the church talk about authority they are very often talking about controlling people or situations. …Is that really what the Bible is for? Is it there to control the church?”

“As we read the Bible we discover that the answer to these questions seems in fact to be ‘no’. Most of the Bible does not consist of rules and regulations—lists of commands to be obeyed. Nor does it consist of creeds—lists of things to be believed. And often, when there ARE lists of rules or of creedal statements, they seem to be somewhat incidental to the purpose of the writing in question.”

“One might even say, in one (admittedly limited) sense, that there is no biblical doctrine of the authority of the Bible. … If we look in scripture to find out where in practice authority is held to lie, the answer on page after page does not address our regular antitheses at all. As we shall see, in the Bible all authority lies with God himself.”

Authoritative Narrative?

A survey of the Bible demonstrates that it is predominantly a narrative, not an ancient rule-book or a required doctrinal check-list. So the problem becomes:

“How can an ancient narrative text be authoritative? How, for instance, can the book of Judges, or the book of Acts, be authoritative? It is one thing to go to your commanding officer first thing in the morning and have a string of commands barked at you. But what would you do if, instead, he began ‘Once upon a time . . .’?”

Furthermore: “…the Reformers, I think, never worked out a satisfactory answer to the question, how can the literal sense of stories—which purport to describe events in (say) first century Palestine—how can that be authoritative?”

So – to the point – how can narrative be authoritative? He continues: “Somehow, the authority which God has invested in this book is an authority that is wielded and exercised through the people of God telling and retelling their story as the story of the world, telling the covenant story as the true story of creation. Somehow, this authority is also wielded through his people singing psalms. Somehow, it is wielded (it seems) in particular through God’s people telling the story of Jesus. We must look, then, at the question of stories. What sort of authority might they possess?”

“Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost. The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearean actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.”

“Consider the result. The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted ‘authority’ for
the task in hand. That is, anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that this or that character was now behaving inconsistently, or that this or that sub-plot or theme, adumbrated earlier, had not reached its proper resolution. This ‘authority’ of the first four acts would not consist in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier pans of the play over and over again. It would consist in the fact of an as-yet unfinished drama, which contained its own impetus, its own forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in the proper manner but which required of the actors a responsible entering in to the story as it stood, in order first to understand how the threads could appropriately be drawn together, and then to put that understanding into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency.”

Quite an a mental exercise! But this is more than a mere illustration. Wright carries his analogy further: “…[see] the five acts as follows: (1) Creation; (2) Fall; (3) Israel; (4) Jesus. The New Testament would then form the first scene in the fifth act, giving hints as well (Rom 8; 1Car 15; parts of the Apocalypse) of how the play is supposed to end. The church would then live under the ‘authority’ of the extant story, being required to offer something between an improvisation and an actual performance of the final act.”

“…[such an offering] would of course require sensitivity of a high order to the whole nature of the story and to the ways in which it would be… inappropriate simply to repeat verbatim passages from earlier sections. Such sensitivity… is precisely what one would have expected to be required; did we ever imagine that the application of biblical authority ought to be something that could be done by a well-programmed computer?”

“That, in fact, is (I believe) one of the reasons why God has given us so much story, so much narrative in scripture. Story authority, as Jesus knew only too well, is the authority that really works. Throw a rule book at people’s head, or offer them a list of doctrines, and they can duck or avoid it, or simply disagree and go away. Tell them a story, though, and you invite them to come into a different world…”

“God wants us to be people, not puppets; to love him with our mind as well as our soul and our strength. And it is scripture that enables us to do that, not by crushing us into an alien mold but by giving us the fully authoritative four acts, and the start of the fifth, which set us free to become the church afresh in each generation.”

Mistreatment of the Bible in Spite of Claiming it to be Authoritative

Let us first look out how we have wrongly treated narrative, though we still claim it is authoritative. Wright gives the example that in modern tradition it is as if we try to make the gospels fit the epistles. We try to dissect narrative into some kind of systematic theology. But this is backwards. The gospels are the new beginning. It is that narrative that informs the epistles, not the other way around. So, in regard to the gospels, “…we have come to them as we have come to the whole Bible, looking for particular answers to particular questions. And we have thereby made the Bible into something which it basically is not. … to treat the Bible like that is, in fact, simply to take your place in a very long tradition of Christians who have tried to make the Bible into a set of abstract truths and rules—abstract devotional doctrinal, or evangelistic, snippets here and there.”

He gives other examples of ways we treat the text then says: “…such uses in and of themselves are not what is primarily meant when we say that the Bible is authoritative: or, if they are, they thereby belittle the Bible and fail to do justice to the book as we actually have it” (emphasis mine).

“The problem with all such solutions, as to how to use the Bible, is that they belittle the Bible and exalt something else. Basically they imply…that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book and it is our job to turn it into the right sort of book by engaging in these hermeneutical moves, translation procedures or whatever.”

Authority Exercised by a Book?

Regarding, then, the nature of the Bible, he says: “The Bible, then, is designed to function through human beings, through the church, through people who, living still by the Spirit, have their life molded by this Spirit-inspired book. What for? Well, as Jesus said in John 20, ‘As the Father sent me, even so I send you’. He sends the church into the world,in other words, to be and do for the world what he was and did for Israel.”

“Why is authority like this? Why does it have to be like that? Because God … wants to catch human beings up in the work that he is doing. He doesn’t want to do it by-passing us; he wants us to be involved in his work. And as we are involved, so we ourselves are being remade.”

“…again and again, we find that, as we submit to scripture, as we wrestle with the bits that don’t make sense, and as we hand through to a new sense that we haven’t thought of or seen before, God breathes into our nostrils his own breath—the breath of life. And we become living beings—a church recreated in his image, more fully human, thinking, alive beings.”

So how is God’s authority exercised by the Bible? Wright continues:

“First, we have to let the Bible be the Bible in all its historical oddness and otherness. We have again and again, not done that.”

Often while teaching on a difficult or unusual passage we are tempted to read it, then immediately say “…’ What Jesus was really meaning in this passage was..’—and then what has happened is a translation of something which is beautiful, and fragile, and unique, into something which is commonplace and boring…”

“God forgive us that we have taken the Bible and have made it ordinary—that we have cut it down to our size. We have reduced it, so that whatever text we preach on it will say basically the same things.”

“What we are seeing in such preaching is not the authority of scripture at work, but the authority of a tradition, or even a mere convention masquerading as the authority of scripture-which is much worse, because it has thereby lost the possibility of a critique or inbuilt self-correction coming to it from scripture itself.”

“In other words, as we let the Bible be the Bible, God works through us and it to do what he intends to do in and for the church and the world.”

He gives a good illustration about how, in examining the Bible, God’s authority and power come through:

“Sit at a piano, hold down the loud pedal, strike a low note loudly, and listen. You will hear all kinds of higher notes, harmonics, shimmering above the note originally struck. In the same way, the retelling of the story that the Bible actually contains is to function as the striking of the low note, the basic fundamental note of God’s story with his world. As we retell this story there will be harmonics audible for those, at least, with ears to hear. The problem, of course, is that historical criticism of the Bible has insisted on striking the fundamental notes with the soft pedal on, as though by thus screening out the harmonics it might ensure that the fundamental really made its own point – and then Christians have grumbled that such criticism makes the Bible irrelevant. The equal and opposite danger is that pious Christians have only been interested in the harmonics themselves, and then by actually striking them instead of the fundamentals have produced a narrower range of tone, making up in shrillness what it lacks in historical depth and basic substance.”

“In private reading, and in informal group meetings, we need again to experiment with new ways of reading scripture. Anyone who has heard an entire biblical book read… will realize that such things as chapter-divisions, or almost any divisions at all, can be simply unhelpful. We need to recapture a sense of scripture as a whole, telling and retelling stories as wholes.”

“I take it as a method in my biblical studies that if I turn a corner and find myself saying, ‘Well, in that case, that verse is wrong’ that I must have turned a wrong corner somewhere. But that does not mean that I impose what I think is right on to that bit of the Bible. It means, instead, that I am forced to live with that text uncomfortably, sometimes literally for years (this is sober autobiography), until suddenly I come round a different corner and that verse makes a lot of sense; sense that I wouldn’t have got if I had insisted on imposing my initial view on it from day one.”

“So, we have to tell the story within the world and the church; because the church is always in danger of getting too like the world. I have already said that this happens in relation to authority; we use the world’s authority models instead of the God-given authority models. And scripture demands, in fact, to be read in the context of traditions within the church, precisely in order that it may judge and redeem the traditions of the church. Not that it may blunder them: the traditions… are the stones that form the grid through which we read scripture; we can’t do without them, but they need regular checking.”

Authority Exercised Through Humans

How does God exercise his authority, manifest in the scriptures? “Again and again, in the biblical story itself we see that he does so through human agents anointed and equipped by the Holy Spirit.”

In 1 Kings 22 there is a prophet, Micaiah. There was also the wicked king Ahab who wanted to go to war against the people of Ramoth-giliad. This was against the will of God. Ahab and the religious establishment had found that religion was a great means of controlling people and exercising power. Ahab paid lip-service to God and called the nation’s prophets and councilors together to advise him on this matter. But they were all like him; interested in the power and control the government and religion could give them. They all wanted war, none of them cared about God’s will.

The false prophets and advisors, so gathered, appeared to have everything on their side. Wright details this. They quoted scripture to support their recommendations. They had the tradition of God fighting for Israel. The had logic on their side (greater military numbers).

God sent Micaiah to this meeting. Micaiah had none of their assurances. But he had the leading of the Spirit of God. He warned Ahab not to go, that if he did God would strike him down to remove him as King.

As Wright summarized of Micaiah: “He put his life and liberty on the line, like Daniel and so many others. That is how God brought his authority to bear on Israel: not by revealing to them a set of timeless truths, but by delegating his authority to obedient men through whose words he brought judgment and salvation to Israel and the world. And how much more must we say of Jesus.”

So God’s authority is grated to men, these men write the scriptures. Therefore the authority in the scriptures must be of the same nature as the authority of God as described above. Consequently, the authority the Bible contains is the same authority we can share in, and serve in, today because the Holy Spirit grants all authority to us.

So just as the authority of the Bible can be usurped and paraded by those lording religion over others, the source of the authority is present in humble men and women seeking God’s will. This authority God delegates is the means by which everything is critiqued and reproved, whether the object of the critique is an interpretation or a misrepresentation of the Bible.

Wright continues: “Suffice it to note that the individual world-views and God-views of Christians, as much as anybody else, need to be constantly adjusted and straightened out in the light of the story which is told in scripture. But this is not to say that there is one, or even that there are twenty-one, ‘right’ ways of this being done.”

A New Way of Looking at Biblical Authority

“Of course the Bible is inspired, and if you’re using it like this there won’t be any question in your mind that the Bible is inspired. But, you will be set free to explore ways of articulating that belief which do not fall into the old rationalist traps of 18th or 19th or 20th century. Actually using the Bible in this way is a far sounder thing than mouthing lots of words beginning with ‘in-’ but still imprisoning the Bible within evangelical tradition (which is what some of those ‘in-’ words seem almost designed to do).”

“The Bible is the book of personal renewal, the book of tears and laughter, the book through which God resonates with our pain and joy, and enables us to resonate with his pain and joy. This is the really powerful authority of the Bible, to be distinguished from the merely manipulative or the crassly confrontational ‘use’ of scripture.”

Wright summarized that the notion of the ‘authority of scripture’ is a shorthand expression for God’s authority somehow exercised through scripture. Scripture must be allowed to be itself in exercising its own authority. It must not be turned into something it is not in order to better fit what the church, or the world, might think ‘authority’ looks like. It is the meaning of ‘authority’ that is unknown in this situation, not the meaning of ‘scripture’. Once “…this unknown is discovered it challenges head on the various notions and practices of authority endemic in the world and, alas, in the church also.”

“The Bible is not an end in itself. It is there so that, by its proper use, the creator may be glorified and the creation may be healed. It is our task to be the people through whom this extraordinary vision comes to pass.”

“The Bible is the Word of God contained in the words of men.” - Desmond Tutu, “God Has a Dream”

“The primary object of faith is not the proposition, but the reality (it designates).” – Thomas Aquinas, “Nature and Grace”

“The Bible is thus the story of God’s struggle with human beings to make himself understandable to them over the course of time; but it is also the story of their struggle to seize hold of God over the course of time.”
Cardinal Ratzinger – Now Pope Benedict XVI – “”In the Beginning….” : A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall”

4 Responses to “Taking the Bible Literally”

  1. Omar Says:

    For all these arguments, one thing for sure: GOD exists, HIS IRREFUTABLE CLAIMS AND PROPHECIES ARE THERE, THE DNA SPEAKS ABOUT HIM, and millions of proofs about His presence in and around all of us. Romans 1:19-20. Try this – explain how a person can even think, or even prove his existence and his purpose, from molecular movements, etc. and see if there be anyhting meaningful about your possible conclusions. God never plays games with anyone.

  2. Hoopy Frood Says:

    The above comment seems to be a bit of a non-sequitur regarding the nature of scripture and how we can approach it. Perhaps I’m missing something?

    My article certainly is nothing like an argument for the ontological existence of God. It is impossible for such arguments to factually demonstrate God’s existence and, therefore, are of limited use in my opinion.

  3. melaly Says:

    well this is a very interesting article. i have always argued with my family mambers about this issue. taking the bible literally takes away from there life due to being too afraid to commite any insane sin. it also underminds other people who are seen to be doing something wrong. ex. adam and eve i believe is a story about sex. it is a simple metaphor. humans reproduced and had to leave the “garden” or “animal kingdom” to find there new ways of living. they spread as evolution did until we came about homo sapiens sapiens. depending on the person you are, you derive your ouwn conclusions about what the bible is trying to say or what it is saying.

  4. Hoopy Frood Says:

    I’m glad you liked it. There certainly must be latitude allowed in discussing the Bible because there is no such thing as an objective interpretation.

    But I hope no one takes the discussion of “non-literalism” to mean “anything goes” or the Bible isn’t important or that it’s okay to be flippant when interpreting its material.

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