Quote of the Day – Are There Really Any Biblical Literalists?

I don’t understand the argument that everything in the Bible should be taken literally. I see that argument used to support many ideas that lots of people have. I don’t hear it used to support ideas that few people have and that have become unmentionable, from burning adulterous women to having slaves to the difficulty of rich people getting to heaven, as Jesus is supposed to have said. I see people who claim to take the Bible literally adopting very different stances toward passages which fit their social ideology from other passages which contradict their economic self-interest.

The Bible is a sprawling document full of contradictions. So-called literalists choose which passages they want to take literally on the basis of principles which are very modern, far from the ideas and attitudes of Jews and Christians thousands of years ago.

— Steve Hochstadt, “Commentary: Can the Bible be taken literally?”

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  • Alex

    James – you post alot about this and I tend to just let it slide because it seems so silly to me. Can you find one fundamentalist of note who says “everything in the Bible ought to be taken literally.”?  

  • http://defunctidiom.wordpress.com/ Kerry

    Coincidentally, I’m currently quite close to someone who believes this. Needless to say we aren’t talking about it. We’ve already had one bad argument over it.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @b2245449a0a87c3fe07c5adb29fd5354:disqus , if you saw the blog post by Randall Rauser that I linked to recently, he illustrates one of the ways it is sometimes qualified – taking literally everything that can be, thus recognizing metaphors such as the trees of the field clapping their hands. But that qualification does not solve the problem – even those who claim to be maximal literalists of that sort rather than complete literalists are still not being true to their own principles, whether with respect to the dome in Genesis 1 or with respect to Jesus’ statement that no one can be his disciple without giving up all they have.

  • Alex

    James – for clarity’s sake, if a proponent of a view qualifies it, I think its best to qualify it when presenting the view. It can and often does make a big difference. The whole debate seems to be one big sloppy confusion of categories from both sides IMO. There can be literalism on a broader scale regarding genre, literalism with regards to individual sayings, etc. A self-described “biblical literalist” might see the Gospels as literally portraying Jesus’ miraculous ministry and resurrection, but still allow for hyperbole within his sayings, etc. In principle there’s nothing wrong with this. Everyone is a literalist to some extent. If you want to catch a literalist in a contradiction, you would have to show that *they* actually believe that the statement regarding giving up one’s possessions applies to everyone (then and now). They might think its literally true, but not necessarily addressed to anyone but those present when Jesus spoke, etc.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @b2245449a0a87c3fe07c5adb29fd5354:disqus , I think you are missing the point. There are people who treat the Bible at least much of the time as though one can quote it without discussing historical context, genre, or any other considerations and treat it as providing a definitive answer to a question – for instance, quoting Leviticus on homosexuality. Those same people will invoke the need to consider context and audience when the Bible says something the plain meaning of which they do not wish to accept – such as saying that the statement that “no one can be my disciple unless he gives up all that he possesses” (Luke 14:33) is said to have a narrower focus than a mere quotation of that verse would indicate. The issue is precisely this inconsistency – there is a naive literalism about some things but not others, and what is taken literally has at least as much to do with preference as with any principle.

  • Alex

    James – all groups (liberals included) will tend to pull for alternative interpretations via context, genre, literary device, etc. when the passage is hard to square with their own values. I would find it amazing if you thought this was exclusive to fundamentalist Christians.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @b2245449a0a87c3fe07c5adb29fd5354:disqus , I agree, but I am not sure that all across the spectrum from conservative to liberal, Christians are equally up front about the fact that they do this. What do you think?