Is Scripture To Be Read Literally?

Do we read the text literally? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

As we are going through the texts here to discuss the doctrine of God, one statement we will be given is that we are not taking the text literally. This is a favorite hangup of internet atheists. Many fundamentalists have the exact same approach. When I meet someone who says “We just read the Bible and believe what it says” then while I want to commend them for believing Scripture, I know they mean they interpret the text in a way they call literal.

Now you might be shocked to hear I think you should read the text literally. However, by literal, I mean according to the intent of the author, which is the true definition of literal. I call what many people today do reading the text literalistically.

The church fathers when reading the text asked what would be most fitting for the glory of God. Consider in Genesis 3, God walks through the garden in the cool of the day. Does that mean God has a literal body? Hopefully, we know that is not so. God is not limited in space and time. Some people could say this was an appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ. I could accept such a reading as well.

If we went back a little earlier even, we can read in the text that on the seventh day, God rested. Now whether you take the text as referring to a long period of time or 24-hour days or take Augustine’s doctrine of instant creation or idea of John Walton’s reading, all of these sides for the most part agree that God was not tired of creating and just needed to take a breather.

This is especially evident with some passages, especially the Psalms. God is said to be a shield and a rock in those passages. No one takes those passages to read God is literally a shield or literally a rock. The only exception might be Dake in his Dake’s Study Bible. I do not know if he went this far, but he tried to take the text literalistically and he is usually seen as holding heretical ideas.

If we went to Deuteronomy, God is described as a consuming fire. No one thinks God is a cosmic bunsen burner. Note also that none of this requires that you believe the text is true. If I approach the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon, which I do not believe, I should still try to read the text according to the intent of the author. It’s easy to read any text in any work to make something sound ridiculous, but it’s not showing charity to the author regardless, and yes, I don’t think highly of Muhammad or Joseph Smith, but I still want to try to be as charitable to their writings as possible.

Now keep in mind that I understand the followers of Islam and Mormonism respectively think that God is the ultimate author of those books. Christians believe in some way God is behind the text of Scripture, although very few hold to a dictation theory, certainly not in the scholarly world. An atheist reader will not believe that, but they still owe it to themselves to read the text fairly. If you are given a reading of the text that puts it in a bad light, but someone shows you one that puts in a better light, unless you have a strong argument against the latter argument, accept it.

A personal example of this is there is a part in the Qur’an that looks like it denies that Jesus was crucified. I was actually reading a Christian scholar of Islam on the topic once who gave a reading of that text that he thinks indicates that the Qur’an does not really argue that way. Now it would certainly be easy for me to say the Qur’an denies the crucifixion which would be a historical absurdity, but I can’t do that in good conscience. Unless I am shown a clear defeater, I will go with the kinder reading of the text. I would want them to do the same with my book.

This will happen more in the Bible when we get to passages that describe the body of God. If we take all of these in a literalistic way, God becomes quite a weird being. After all, some say if man and woman are in the image of God and that that image is physical, then God becomes a hermaphrodite.

Here’s where some people have problems. A lot of people will say, “Yeah. God doesn’t have a physical body in His nature” and read those texts accordingly, but when it comes to God having emotions, those texts are read to read God has actual emotions. I read those differently. When God is said to be angry, it means that God is acting in a way that we perceive as angry and thus can relate to and understand. I also think my position is more consistent. I don’t read either one literalistically. If you want to say one is and one isn’t, you need to give me a reason. I would actually have more respect for the person who says both are to be read literalistically, though even then I suspect they think they have to pick and choose which ones they read that way.

For atheist readers, I really hope there will be more attempts to read the text fairly. If you take a position out there and make it look absolutely absurd, odds are that you have not understood it. Most arguments against a position that are really simplistic are not well thought out and have been answered time and time again.

I also think I am reading the text fairly with all of this. For the Bible, there have been many different readings throughout history. I am not claiming to be conversant in all of them. I don’t think anyone really could be seeing as we have thousands of years of readings. You have pre-Christian thought like the Dead Sea Scrolls, post-Christian thought like Jewish writings beyond the DSS and the church fathers, medieval writings, Reformation writings, post-Reformation writings, etc., and then there are plenty of different cultures that have read the Bible differently. Still, we should strive to be as fair as we can with any text. It’s easy to go through something like the Book of Mormon and find anachronisms, but when I see something and I wonder if it was there or not in the new world at the time, I should be fair and look it up and if it was there, don’t mention it. It doesn’t mean I think Joseph Smith has an accurate account, but it means I’m being fair.

Keep this in mind as we look at the text. Will I interpret every text “literalistically”? No. Do I strive to be fair? Yes.

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)

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