The Hang-Up Of Literalism

Can literalism be ┬ádanger? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Often times in debate, I am charged by atheists with ignoring the literal meaning of the text. Many Christians meanwhile think it’s a virtue to take very text as literally as possible. It’s ironic that both groups read the text the same way. All that differs really is the allegiance.

When we say literal, most often, people mean a straightforward idea. The text means what it says and says what it means. Of course, there are texts like that out there. There are also texts that are not like that. You know what other work of literature out there contains some pieces that are straightforward literal and some that are not?

Nearly every single other one that exists.

When I spoke of the Christian and the atheist above, both of these groups often forget the Bible is literature. Whatever else you think it is, be it you think it’s the Word of God or be it you think it is the “Buy-bull” as some atheists say, it is still a work of literature and should be treated as such. That means you will use many of the same techniques you use when reading other works of literature to read the Bible.

I once wrote a blog post where I went through the Gospel of John and showed that Jesus had immense difficulties with people who interpreted his text literally. Given that this was such a problem, perhaps we should not read Scripture that way. Yet as soon as I say that, there rises up an immediate question.

“How do you know which pieces are literal and which are not?”

Well, how do you do that with other literature?

There’s no magic bullet rule. Really. There isn’t. Most writers assume that their audience does not consist of fools. In fact, most of us assume some background knowledge on the part of the author. For instance, in my writing this series, for the most part I have not defined a single word. That might seem like a blatantly obvious point, but I also haven’t gone through saying “This is literal” or “This is hyperbole” or “This is a metaphor” or anything like that. I tend to leave it to you, the reader, to find out because I frankly don’t want to assume you don’t know how to read.

The Biblical writers were the same way with an important difference. First off, most anyone who could read their text had to be educated since literacy was not as abundant as it is today. Second, many of their texts would be read by the readers and would also be read to an audience. Often times, especially in the NT, this could include having commentary. When Phoebe delivers the letter to the Romans, chances are, she explained it as well.

Unfortunately, we in the West often think the Bible was written to us in our time and culture and language and place and can be totally separated from its own time and culture and language and place. No. It can’t. That background is different from ours very often. We can have a tendency to read our own ideas into the text.

One key example of this is when the Old Testament talks about slavery. Most people over here in the West today will think of the Civil War. Is that what the writer had in mind? Maybe. Maybe not. If you want to know what he had in mind, you have to study slavery in the Ancient Near East. That requires work. I’m not going to go into detail on it now. That will leave some work for you to do, but if you care about what the text means, it’s something you’ll likely do.

In fact, literal is itself misunderstood. The word really means “According to the intent of the author.” It requires work to try to get into the mind of the author, but that is work worth doing. As we continue looking at hermeneutics, we’ll learn some questions to ask and how to do the research.

In Christ,
Nick Peters