This could be the slipperiest yet most common question believers face today. If you say, “Yes. I take the Bible literally,” they may think you’re an unsophisticated Bible reader who doesn’t understand that you have to read a book according to its genre, or type of literature. We read the Psalms as poetry, 2 Chronicles as history, and we realize there’s a difference. (...I hope.) We don’t think that when Jesus says, “I am the door,” that he has a doorknob instead of a belly button. We recognize imagery and interpret it as the figure of speech it is. So there are good reasons not to say, “Yes. I take the Bible literally.”
But if we say, “No. I don’t take the Bible literally,” then what do they hear? They hear us saying, “Oh no. The Bible is a silly old book full of myths. We have to spiritualize it and make it mean what we want it to mean.” We risk misunderstanding whether we answer yes or no. It’s kind of like when someone asks you, “So, have you always been gay?” Answer yes or no and you’re in trouble. Some questions just need a longer answer. Here’s my answer to the question.
Do I take the Bible literally? Well, that would depend on what you mean when you say “literally.” Are you asking me whether I believe what the Bible teaches? Yes, I do. And so should you, because the Bible is the voice of God. You don’t exist for yourself, but for him. Unbelief is an ugly thing. I belong to the Lord, and I follow his voice.
But if you’re asking me if I read all biblical books as if they were laboratory logs, then the answer is no. The biblical books are communicative events in which human authors communicate to us God’s will through the working of God’s Spirit in them. Thus God used human language to let us know how he sees things. To understand the Bible, we need to understand the language the authors used, which includes lots of different types (genres) of literature—poetry, proverbs, histories, letters, laws.
This is really what we mean when we say we read the Bible literally. We take it according to its litera—according to its language and type of literature. In other words, we read the Bible according to its discourse meaning, the meaning the words had in the language in which they were originally written. Each of these types of literature carries its own rules. Hebrew proverbs, for example, spoke in couplets of two lines, while poetry used imagery that wasn’t meant to be taken literally. Historical books, however, don’t rely on this kind of imagery and are intended to be read literally. We read the gospels, for example, just like we’d read a history today.
If you’re asking me if I believe the Bible, again, my answer is yes. I believe it and work to understand it, especially since I know that God inspired it in human language so that I could gain this understanding by carefully studying that human language.
The key we have to realize that God was speaking to humanity when he spoke through the biblical authors. He used normal human language, so we read the Bible like any other book—just realizing that God is the ultimate author. The Bible isn’t like a work of modern art, where God just gives us an abstract canvas and says, “Here. I painted it. You interpret it.” The Bible is communication from God himself. I want to know what it really means. I don’t want to pour my own meaning into it, and thus miss what our Creator is filling us in on.
Don’t think that God speaks some different, super-spiritual language that we aren’t able to understand. Sometimes people say dumb things like, “Human words just cant hold lofty Divine thoughts.” God, being almighty, is more than able to communicate with us in whatever language he’s chosen. And thankfully for us, he chose human language—not some spiritual mystery-language that we’d have to “de-code”! Indeed, God has stooped down to our level so we’d understand—using what John Calvin in the sixteenth century called “the lisp of God”—literally, the God’s baby talk.
It was the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther who best answered the spiritualizers of his day. He explained, “God is a spirit, so his literal meaning is spiritual.” I know postmodern scholars have attacked the adequacy of human language to actually communicate from one person to another. But I also know that these same scholars have made names for themselves writing books about the inadequacy of human language to accurately communicate. And they’ve persuaded people through human language, which tells me they were wrong all along.
Even before Christians had individual Bibles of their own, they were very concerned to take every word of the Bible literally and to handle them with extreme care and precision. Before the printing press, published materials were very costly, and most churches only had one copy of the canonical writings, which were read and preached in worship and in classes. The culture was oral, so people relied much more heavily than we do on memorization. But they had their Bibles very well-memorized. Christians have always opposed teachers who would alter God’s Word in any way.
I remember coming across an instance that Augustine (about 400 A.D.) recounts in which a bishop in North Africa was shouted out of his pulpit by an angry congregation when he changed one word from an Old Testament text (...the pastor had just started using Jerome's translation from the Hebrew, rather than the Greek Septuagint). I remember another instance when a pastor was almost expelled by his congregation for substituting the Bible’s use of a common word for “chair” with a more elegant word like “chaise” or “divan.” Even before our brothers long ago had Bibles to take home with them, they had their Bibles memorized much better than we do, and they did not tolerate any alteration to the inerrant biblical text. God has spoken to us with literature, so we have to read it literally, lest we deceive ourselves into believing worthless ideas of our own making rather than the treasures that God has given us in the Scriptures.
Think about these discussion questions over the next week. You may want to jot down your thoughts.
1. What doubts about the Bible are most likely to plague you? What do you remind yourself of when those doubts come? What are the answers that most satisfy your heart? Which questions do you most need answers to?
2. Explain what circular reasoning is. How do we see this circular reasoning at work with the Jesus Seminar? What’s wrong with circular reasoning?
3. What was the project of Modernity? What did Modernity demand that religious studies become? How has that affected how religious scholars handle the Bible?
4. A Catholic friend says to you, “The bible is great, but the Bible was given to you by the Church. You’ll never understand the mysteries of the Bible until you become Catholic. How might you respond?
5. A friend tells you, “I really like what Jesus teaches, but I really hate Paul. He’s a sexist. I don’t believe him.” What points would you want to make in your continuing discussions with this friend?
6. “Surely you don’t take the Bible literally?” Discuss.