On Reading the Bible Literally (And Do Stop Signs Mean “Stop”?)

On Reading the Bible Literally (And Do Stop Signs Mean “Stop”?) May 14, 2019

This is the story of a stop sign and Scripture. A literal stop sign in my neighborhood that at one point rested in the elbow of a 90-degree angle between two streets. You could clearly see that another 2-3 streets were to be added, giving the little red octagon full value.

However, until the new streets came it had no purpose. There was no cross traffic, no one to look out for, only a line and a sign before a right hand turn. The question here (if you haven’t figured it out) is this:

Do you always stop at a stop sign?

Recently I’ve had a few conversations revolving around a literal interpretation of the Bible. I’m not going to draw this out too far, but when I hear people say “read the Scriptures literally” I understand what they mean. It sounds something like this:

Read the words.
Do the words.
Rinse and repeat.

This is a challenging way to read the Scriptures. Honestly, I’m going to leave behind for the moment the fact that “Do the words” is so problematic that I struggled to list it. The premise is that we simply read the Bible and do it and that is God’s will for everyone.

If you’ve read this blog before, what you know about me is that my heart is for the process of what we are “becoming.” Becoming is a matter not only of our doing but also of our being. The technical term “spiritual formation” is about what we are and are going to be, and how that “being” will bring light and hope into the world. Of course, our daily decisions and disciplines are the stuff of becoming as well.

So when I think about reading the Scriptures literally in the sense above, I have to ask the question: what kind of person will we become if we do that? Will we be wise, helpful, and generative? Or…? 

The conclusion I come to is this:

We will miss out on the life of wisdom if we only read the Scriptures literally.

There is of course another way to define “literally.” For that explanation, I come back to the stop sign.

First, I’m not advocating running stop signs. It is first and foremost a dangerous act and also quite expensive if you get caught. What I’m proposing is this: a stop sign gives us a chance to move away from literal living (see sign, do sign) into wise living (what’s the sign for in the first place? what should I do next?)

So, the stop sign says “Stop.” But then what? Don’t you at some point go again? Or is there a stop sign somewhere in the world with an infinite line of cars parked for all eternity? Of course, the stop sign is a long and full pause. Then, when it is wise, we go again.

But what about the instance of a four-way stop? Ah, now this is a question.

Yes, you stop. And yes, at some point you’ll go again. But there are different rules regulating four-way stops than say a two-way stop. At a four-way stop, if everyone arrives at the same time the rule is to yield to the person on your right. That is of course, unless they wave you through. Then, everyone at the intersection has to be okay with you moving out of turn, or else it’s chaos.

There can be no legalism at a four-way stop. It is a place for wisdom.

What I hope that overly long illustration helps us see is that reading the Scriptures like a simple “stop, then go” sign doesn’t help us cultivate wisdom. In fact, we don’t need wisdom at all in that reading.

We only need wisdom when reading the Scriptures if we’re willing to believe that God trusts our insight and creativity to know what to do with what we read. Here is where we get a better way of thinking about reading “literally.”

A literal way of reading Scripture, the one that is most useful to us in our journey to be wise followers of Jesus, is one that reads the Scripture as the author intended and constructed.

Granted, this can be problematic and can take time. It isn’t the easiest enterprise. Yet we make decisions about public policy, exclusionary practices regarding human sexuality, and ultimately the eternal fate of the world through reading the Bible.

I think that merits an extra step, no?

In practical terms, I don’t believe we can live wisely by reading the Bible literally as in the first definition. In that reading, spiritual formation is limited to a checklist and loses its generative power. We must learn to ask the questions we would ask of a stop sign.

Why is this here?
What is the point (meaning) we need to see?
What do I do with that?

The protest might be, “Well what about the ten commandments?” (Exodus 20) I think that’s a great question. The idea for example of “do not kill” is obviously important. It’s always a great idea not to kill someone.

However, what then do we do with war? Is that not killing?

What about the death penalty? People gathering to decide the fate of another human being and then taking that person’s life. Is that exempt from the commandment? If we say, “Well, it was in the Old Testament law, ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth'” then are we ready to read the rest of the Old Testament law literally?

How do Americans who hold to the 2nd amendment right to bear arms think about “Do not kill”? The purpose of a firearm in the home is for “protection,” with an unspoken commitment to “protect at any cost.” Is there an exemption to kill in cases of protection?

In any of the above cases, what we see is that even the command “not to kill” is not without interpretive questions. To wisely act in relationship to these questions is part of the journey of becoming. So what do we do?

I can also say the same of discussions as of late about whether women should be allowed to preach to a congregation of mixed genders. I watch these discussions: Scripture verses are thrown, accusations levied, on and on.

Paul does say, “I do not allow a women to teach or have authority over a man” (1 Tim 2:12) – but why is that “stop sign” there? Is it a four-way stop (until something changes) or is it a stop sign that once was relevant but now there’s a stop light an everything has changed? Is the whole passage of 1 Timothy 2 about women preaching, or is it about something else?

If we only read literally, we’ll never find out those very important questions.

And we’ll remain parked at the stop sign, wondering why we were asked to stop in the first place. Not to mention the fact that we’ll miss out on the beautiful voices of 50% of humanity pulling back the curtain on critical and helpful aspects of God’s character.

I believe for the sake of our growing wisdom and formation, there are two questions we ask when it comes to reading Scripture.

  • What does the Bible mean here, with respect to context and author’s intention?

We will be better off going beyond the words, beyond just the word “Stop” and trying to understand what the sign is there for. How does the “Stop” or even the “Go” apply when the streets are different than they used to be?

If you need a test case, note that even the strongest Biblical literalist won’t greet you with a “holy kiss,” (Romans 16:16) though it is a commandment in Scripture. I’m fine with that. It’s wise not to randomly kiss strangers (in America, that is) and for me a handshake will do.

The intention was to greet and welcome with love and respect. The wisdom then is for us to find ways to do the same thing in our gatherings. Which leads to the second question…

  • What is the wise step to take regarding what I’m reading?

As I pastor, I have talked with so many women who are suffering in physically and emotionally abusive relationships. Their kids at struggling at school, and their own physical and mental health are deteriorating. Sometimes the abuse has been going on for decades, and when they are confronted with the idea of leaving the response is nearly always the same.

But God hates divorce. 

The idea of offending God – and often the corresponding exile by a church community – is so strong that they take the punches and the words because of their faith.

They are stopped at a stop sign, never to move again.

So what do we do in this moment? Those who read Scripture literally (in the first definition) might say “Stick it out. You’ll change his heart by your faithfulness.” The sin of divorce is given more weight than the health of the person.

I can’t disagree with this idea more. It is an unhealthy, destructive way of living that is at odds with the greater vision God has for human life. And this is where wisdom comes in. We read the texts about divorce, or whatever issue, but then we search for wisdom.

We ask wise people, and we read from the Christian voices having come before us. Praying, waiting, and searching we move forward with what we’ve heard and the decision in front of us. We can’t simply settle for the words in our life of becoming.

Sometimes “stop” doesn’t mean stop. Perhaps the intersection where there once was a stop sign now has a stop light, and to abide by the stop sign would get you killed.

Instead, we are invited by a God who trusts us to read and engage with this wild story of Scripture. We then get in the car, turn the keys, and figure out what the stop signs mean along the way.

Then, in the meantime, we become more than just readers and doers. We find our way to life.

(Photo by Sam Xu on Unsplash)



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