Posted by: dswerling | June 20, 2008

“Interpreting the Bible Literally”

Since Ally died I’ve been focusing on reading the Bible and getting a better understanding of Holy Scripture. I’ve dropped much of the apologetic/philosophical work, so this is kind of a paradigm shift for me. However, entering into this new dimension on my Christian journey, there is one thing I’m noticing, which is that everyone is saying “well you can’t take the Bible literally,” and “that’s literal,” and “do you think that literally means that?” As Richard Dawkins once pointed out, “by what standard do you evaluate a passage as literal or non literal?!” I find the expression “literal” when combined with anything having to do with the Bible positively frustrating.

The way I see it, the Bible isn’t really literal or not literal, it just sort of is, and we have to make do with that the best we can. Talking about “interpreting the Bible literally” seems similar to “interpreting the United States Constitution literally” or “interpreting the Declaration of Independence literally.” If you’re wondering about whether God really created the Earth in seven days or Moses really writing the first five books of the Old Testament, then you’re wondering whether or not the Bible is historically accurate. Admittedly, that’s difficult, because the Bible contains both a lot of poetic literature and a lot of history, and figuring out which is which can be a problem. However, there’s no need for this silly nonsense about “interpreting the Bible literally” because that doesn’t mean anything.

I think when people want to know whether or not to interpret the Bible “literally,” they’re asking whether or not the Bible is complete. People want to know whether or not the Bible speaks in all circumstances for all times and situations. I can understand peoples’ concerns more in this regard. For myself, I do not hold the Bible to contain every truth ever revealed, or to speak on every possible situation and circumstance.  I think that trying to base all judgments in all situations off the Bible is not possible, because the Bible itself admits that it’s imcomplete. For instance,  “With many such parables he began to speak to them…”, “He began to teach them many things…”, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded here…” and finally “But there are also many other things Jesus did, were every one to be written, I suppose the world itself could not contain all the books that would be written…”. In all of these instances, we see the authors of the New Testament clearly saying that the Bible is not complete in its account of what Jesus said and did and what happened during His Ministry. This doesn’t mean that what we do have is irrelevant or shouldn’t be carefully studied and paid attention to, we should just bear in mind that it isn’t the whole story.

But how can we do this? We are confronted with many difficult questions, and have certain answers to them with regard to our faith. How do we justify those answers? The Roman Catholic solution to that problem is Sacred Tradition. I am not Roman Catholic, and I admit that I am somewhat averse to Sacred Tradition (and I know there are a thousand or so Bible verses that can be interpreted to support it so please don’t send any of them to me.) I think that keeping Church history in mind, and remembering the former answers to the questions we are confronted with is very important. We may find meditations on a difficult question from a Saint that lived many centuries ago, or be able to glean the feelings of early Christians with regards to the divinity of Jesus. For me, the only objection I have to Sacred Tradition is that I think it can lead to unecessary rigidness when it comes to Church practices. For example, after the early Church became centered in Rome, for a century or so Priests could marry (even the Popes had wives!) This practice fell by the wayside, and since is maintained through tradition. Personally, I object to this practice. I think it’s difficult for Priests to act as true spiritual advisors when they aren’t being confronted with many of the spiritual issues that arise from a very big part of most peoples’ lives. How can a Priest have a true appreciation for the sacredness of marriage if he has never had a real relationship with a woman, let alone been married? It seems like unnecessary complication to me. However, I think keeping Church history and lessons in mind is certainly worthwhile.

But as for “interpreting the Bible literally,” either interpret it or don’t, but don’t talk about it being “literal” or “not literal.” The Bible exists as both history and poetry, as moving and unmoving, as perfect and imperfect. In other words, the Bible exists as humans exist, with different focuses on different things, at times harsh, at times gentle, at times speaking, at times learning. We must keep this in mind, but to merely say the Bible is “literal” or “not literal” really doesn’t sum up the issue.



  1. Slightly curious that you know your journey is a Christian one. An alternative would be to journey and find out at the end of it that you are / are not a Christian. Does that make sense?

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