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)

Autism Awareness Month: Literal Language

How are your words being understood? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

I remember growing up being often confused about what was being said. I would be riding with my Dad in the car and he would be driving, naturally, and have something like a cup of coffee with him. Why? That’s wrong. After all, I had seen enough commercials that said to not drink and drive. Why is he doing just that?

I used to also hear about plays that took place on Broadway and all these performances. I never saw them. I didn’t understand it. Fountain City was an area that was about half an hour away and the main road going through it was Broadway. How come I never saw any of these performances going on there?

Now some of this could be the way children think, but it’s also a tendency I have to deal with from time to time even as an adult. It is surprising to some people I am sure since many of my interpretations of Scripture are “non-literal.” My mind tends to read statements in a very wooden sense.

Sometimes, I can do something like this for fun. A pizza restaurant I used to go to had a sign in the bathroom that said “Employees must wash hands.” I had some fun with this and went to the counter after going one time and said, “I just wanted to make sure about something. I was waiting in the bathroom after I saw your sign and no employee ever came in to wash my hands. I went and did it myself. Is that okay?”

Sometimes when Allie would ride with me, I would see a sign that said something like “Watch for falling rocks” and I would immediately start looking around me and saying that I didn’t see them. Also humorous would be the billboards that would say something like “McDonald’s. Exit now.” Sure. There’s a forest right there and no road, but the sign says to exit now.

For me, it’s humorous, but it’s not humorous for a lot of other people who have a much harder time separating literal from figurative language. As a Christian apologist, one area I definitely want to be aware of this on is our Christian language in a church. Too many of us speak in what is called Christianese. This is the inner circle language Christians understand, but doesn’t make much sense to others.

Imagine if you have someone who is on the spectrum and doesn’t know Christianity well, but a friend they have has invited them to church. Someone speaks to them and says “Tell me friend, are you washed in the blood?” Now imagine the many horrifying scenarios the visitor has going through their head.

This isn’t just good for reaching people on the spectrum, but reaching outsiders period. We can often speak like we’re in a clique. If we’re in a private Bible study and everyone knows everyone, this can be fine, but if we’re in the main service, we should try to act as if our person we’re interacting with we don’t know won’t know what we’re talking about.

If you are with someone on the spectrum, keep in mind their natural inclination will be to take what you say literally. Watch what is said in a church service. It couldn’t hurt everyone really to take some time to explain what you mean when you say XYZ. This is also not to say that language should never be taken in what is understood as a “literal” meaning. It is just saying to watch what you say because it could be taken that way when you intend nothing of the sort.

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)
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Does It Matter If The Resurrection Is A Metaphor?

Does it matter if the resurrection was literal? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Wednesday night, I was at the debate between my father-in-law, Mike Licona, and John Dominic Crossan about who the historical Jesus was and how he saw himself. I hate to say it, but it really wasn’t much of a debate because I don’t think anyone really understood what Crossan was arguing. Crossan was putting practically everything into the world of metaphor and saying that the message was a metaphor and that he would die for a metaphor and if the resurrection is literal, what difference would it make? The real question is are we living resurrected lives.

When I got up to ask a question, I said my wife and I enjoy being married. Still, we wonder what will happen when our time comes. Will we be together forever? I replied that a literal resurrection can assure us that we will be. What hope can a metaphor give us?

The reply was something along the lines of how the message was not the resurrection of individuals but that the human race would overcome. The violence of Rome would be overthrown by non-violence. This is supposedly the good news of Jesus.

There are a number of things I wonder about this, such as how this Jesus got crucified. Despite that, there is one thing I want to focus on. The resurrection. Does it make a difference if it’s a metaphor or literal?

I’m not going to go into making a whole case for the resurrection. That has been done plenty of times elsewhere. I am going to be emphasizing the difference it makes and to be fair, it is easy to miss this many times.

One big difference is that we live in a world where death is a reality. We see it all around us. We know that when the game over comes for someone, it really is game over barring a miracle. It’s a sad reality. When we bury a loved one, they are dead, and the relationship is not the same.

Will it ever be? Is that it?

We live in a world of injustice. Recently here in Atlanta, we had a police officer shot who died from that and his killer was found within 48 hours and also died when he pulled out a weapon on police officers. There are many crimes that take place and sadly, the culprit is never found. Some people seem to go free.

Will there ever be justice?

Sometimes people die from disease. Our friend, Nabeel Qureshi, died from stomach cancer at an extremely young age. Just today in my Facebook memories I saw something about a friend who passed away last year. She was an older lady, but it’s still hard to see.

Will this ever be righted?

What about our universe itself? Some of you out there I am sure believe we are responsible for some climate change. We live in a world there does seem to be a lot of destruction. We want to colonize other planets, but even if we do, the universe is destined to die a cold death and take us with it.

Is there any point?

What about our bodies themselves? Do they matter? Are human beings just objects. Does it matter what I do with my body? Does it matter how I behave sexually or how my diet is?

What difference does it make?

This is why the resurrection matters? Will we live again and see each other again? Yes. Will evil be judged and good rewarded? Yes. Will lives be redeemed that died from tragic disease? Yes. Will the Earth and the universe be renewed and made eternal paradises? Yes. Do our bodies matter and how we treat them? Yes.

The resurrection matters.

It matters that it’s literal.

I think I’ll stick with the literal resurrection. That’s the good news that overcame the Earth. Christianity isn’t just a nice story. It’s a reality about the world and everything in it.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Those interested in the debate can listen to it here.

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

Book Plunge: Language for God in Patristic Tradition

What do I think about Mark Sheridan’s book published by IVP? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

How do you interpret a text of Scripture? The ways it’s done throughout history have changed and this book by Mark Sheridan is a fascinating look at the earliest interpreters. Today, we often have an idea that we have to get at the “literal” meaning of the text, but a look at the church fathers shows they were quite different. In fact, it looks like many times the last thing they wanted to do was to take the text “literally.” The first point was to take the text in a manner that was fitting to God. This would mean that you had to avoid things that would seem like emotional outbursts on the part of the deity. If the text said God was angry, you had to interpret that differently because the deity does not get angry. While I agree with that point, it is irrelevant to the thesis of the book as well. You can say that fathers were wrong in that belief, but the reality is that is still how they interpreted the text.

It wasn’t just them. They got this also from Philo who before Christianity followed the same kind of path with looking at the work we call the Old Testament today, even to the point of thinking philosophers like Plato had read Moses. Philo wanted to make sure the text was also being read in a way that was fitting to God and this would often mean a strong allegorical interpretation. The church fathers followed in suit with the allegory and sometimes, it looks quite amazing. We can look at what the church fathers said in their day and wonder how it could be that someone would come to that interpretation.

For instance, consider Psalm 137 where we are told about Babylon that happy is he who takes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. It’s not just moderns today who have a hard time interpreting the passage. The ancients did too. Their viewpoint was that the children of Babylon are the sins that we struggle with. The rock that the babies then were dashed against was Christ. The message the Psalmist was giving then was that we should take our sins and dash them against the rock of Christ so that they could be destroyed. Most of us today look at that and say “Huh?”, but in the time of the Fathers, this would have been seen as a valid interpretation.

Other passages were also troubling to them. What about what Abraham did with Hagar? What are we to do with that? What about the imprecatory Psalms? What are we to do with those? What about the conquest of Canaan? How do we handle that? The ancients struggled with this just like we do. Sheridan takes us through many of the church fathers to see how they interpreted these passages. In the end then, he takes us up to our modern era to show how we handle them today. Do we necessarily have a clear interpretation? Maybe not, but it is important to see how this has gone on throughout history and to realize that our hang-up on literalism is really a more modern one than anything else.

I do encourage those interested in the history of interpretation to read Sheridan’s book. You’ll quite likely disagree with your Christian ancestors, but it will be well worth the read.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Reading The Bible As Literature

Is there a reason so many debates about the Bible just miss the point? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Okay. We get it in the atheism/theism debates. Some people believe the Bible is reliable. Some do not. That’s fine and until the return of Christ, that’s not going to change. Yet I have been pondering lately that the way we talk about the Bible is part of the problem, and this isn’t just how atheists talk about it, but also how theists talk about it.

It seems while we speak about if the claims of the Bible are true, which we should, there is a lack of the recognition that the Bible is a piece of literature. It speaks with allegory, hyperbole, metaphor, simile, etc. It uses poetry and narrative and proverbs and apocalypses to make its point. The Bible exists in one book, but it is itself a collection of many books, books written by different authors in different times and locations.

Considering all of this, the Bible is not going to be an easy book to understand! Add in that it comes from languages different from our own, a culture different from our own, a time different from our own, and a place different from our own.

I started pondering this the most recent time I saw someone describe the Bible as a book of fairy tales. This is a common claim, but quite frankly a strange one. Fairy tales are really wonderful works of literature that show a richness of imagination and insight into the human predicament. What kind of person would laugh at a fairy tale for being a fairy tale? Yet this kind of statement is not an insult to the Bible alone, but it is also a lowering of the kind of writing that is a fairy tale.

Now why do many atheists say this? I suspect it’s because our culture has been heavily influenced by scientism. We have this idea that all truth should be amenable to the sciences and that science is the highest way of knowing anything if not the only way of knowing anything. We expect then the Bible to speak in scientific language because we are a scientific people.

It doesn’t, and that’s not because the Bible is anti-science. Many of us are not anti-science and we don’t speak in scientific language. The Bible has a totally different purpose. Even if you don’t think it is from God, the authors at least were really trying to make a message about God and they did not have to do it in a way that is convenient to modern listeners. They would write in ways their immediate audience would understand.

Besides, how many of us would really like to have many events described in scientific language? Consider for instance the union of man and woman in the act of sex. Which account would you rather here to describe what happens in the event? Would you prefer a purely scientific account or would you prefer to get an account perhaps from the lovers themselves? (Naturally after they’re done. There won’t be much desire to explain in the midst of the act.)

If you choose the first one, I pity you. I really do.

What needs to be done is to wrestle with the literary forms of the Bible and see if maybe our modern ideas of what the text means are wrong. Perhaps the Bible is not interested in the questions we are interested in. Perhaps one really needs to wrestle with the text to understand it. Still want to disbelieve it? Fine. At least do your part to really try to understand it as a text.

I’ve spoken about the atheists, but frankly, I think the theists are just as guilty. In fact, in many ways, I think my fellow theists are more guilty than the atheists are because we’ve set the standard that the atheist will follow.

For us, it really boils down to one word.

Literal.

Immediately, some people reading this who are Christians are going into a defensive stance because I have just made a statement that is going to dare to suggest that we don’t take the Bible literally. Why I must just be a liberal Christian who rejects miracles and inerrancy and everything else.

On the contrary, I believe we should ALWAYS take the Bible literally.

Why?

Because literal really means “According to the intent of the author.” If the author meant the text to be taken straight forwardly, then do so. If he meant it to be a narrative, then do so. If he meant it to be a metaphor or an apocalypse or a generality, then take it that way as well.

Too often, we have taken literal to mean something more like a wooden reading of the text. That’s not what a literal meaning is. That’s why in today’s parlance if I was asked if the Bible is the Word of God to be interpreted literally, I would say no, because sometimes the Bible is not straight forward.

Why should this surprise us? Jesus told his own parables in a confusing manner. In fact, he did so purposely. Job in his book talked about the search for wisdom and compared it to mining and digging deep for great wealth. It would not be easy to understand and considering all we’ve said about the Bible, why should it be?

Thus, when we hear Christians talk about the literal interpretation, too often it sets up atheists who think that this is always the way the Bible should be read and when read in that sense, they reject most of it as nonsense, and who can blame them? In fact, none of us take it that way or else in reading the words of Jesus, we’d all be blind and have no hands. (Too many people heavy into inerrancy fall into this trap of literal interpretation.)

In fact, when I put a short form of this up on Facebook, what happened immediately but a debate started about Genesis 1, which shows the problem! It’s immediately jumped to that Genesis 1 must be read in scientific terms! Surely this is what the author of the text meant to convey!

But maybe it wasn’t! Could it be someone like John Walton is right with his interpretation of Genesis One. Of course he could be wrong, but isn’t it worth listening to to consider first instead of assuming our presupposition is correct?

The theist, you see, is often guilty of not treating the Bible as literature as well and not really being able to wrestle with the text and ask the hard questions of the text. Some of us have this idea that we should not question the Bible. I disagree entirely. We should question the Bible with every question we can bring to it. In doing so, we can best find out what it is the text is saying.

Ironically, the two sides mentioned both have similar mindsets. Both of them tend to view the Bible always in a straight forward sense and both assume the Bible was written in a way that is directly fitted for modern 20th and 21st century people in a Western civilization.

Maybe it isn’t.

That’s not the fault of the Bible then. That’s the fault of us for wrestling with the text.

If you are on a debate site and you are arguing about the Bible, then for this part, it doesn’t really matter what side you’re on. You owe it to yourself to wrestle with the text as literature and seek to find out what it means and why you think it means what it means. If someone questions that, then it’s up to you to defend your position and if you can’t, be open to changing your mind.

Will we still disagree about the truth claims of the Bible? Absolutely! Yet if we follow a procedure like this, hopefully some of us will have instead better informed disagreements as to the nature of the text and what it is saying rather than a quick dismissal of it all or a quick embrace of it all.

In Christ,
Nick Peters