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Why Biblical Literalism Leads to Biblical Illiteracy

Why Biblical Literalism Leads to Biblical Illiteracy September 12, 2021

My previous post on Biblical Illiteracy drew a few good criticisms. Some readers thought I cut the article short. The nature of blogging makes for shorter writing pieces. It is frustrating sometimes. But it is good discipline as well. I left off in the discussion of proof texting as the means many use to establish “biblical teaching.” The old adage; “it means what it says, and says what it means” does not clarify what’s said. It merely sounds like it does. I will discuss in this post some other pitfalls of reading the Bible from a doctrine of biblical literalism that ends in biblical illiteracy.

Textbooks And Illiteracy

Textbooks are a means of getting an overview of a subject. Many of us have been trained by our schooling to read textbooks more than any other type of book. If you only read math textbooks in school, then you may believe the textbook is the primary way mathematics is studied or discussed. Few textbooks of History encourage readers to consult source documents to better understand the subject. Textbook reading gives a person a vague assurance of “this is how it is.” And that assurance is often false. It makes people believe something about themselves that is not true.

Reading the Bible for factual information on any historical, theological, or moral subject ultimately fails. The “facts” within the Bible will be contradictory. Matthew 16 and Mark 8 agree that Peter makes the Good Confession in Caesarea Philippi whereas Luke 9 indicates it is near Bethsaida. Matthew’s version has Peter claiming Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Mark and Luke agree Peter says Jesus is “the Messiah of God.” The issue is not the “historical fact” of the event. Is it the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)? Or is it the Sermon on a Level Place (Luke 6)? Does it matter? Only for a literalist. Reading the Bible in this way causes the reader to miss the point.

Literalism Causes Avoidance

Biblical literalists acknowledge the different forms of literary expression. But when a text can not be interpreted literally it is ignored. Poetic language does not lend itself to developing doctrinal positions that give assurance of getting it right. In the case of the “pro-life” political position, the poetry of Psalm 139 is ignored to proof-text verses 13-16. However, the same approach is not taken to the text for the last verse of Psalm 137. That is the one where the writer declares beatitude to those who “take your little ones and dash them against the rocks.” Biblical literalism causes the reader to avoid the implications of the imprecatory psalms. It is a necessary trick in order to keep the claim.

The same avoidance occurs with the genocidal texts of Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua. Since September 11, 2001, there has been some discussion about the violence advocated in both the Quran and the Bible. Some biblical literalists attempt to downplay the fact that the Bible contains a lot more advocacy for violence than the Quran. But as Philip Jenkins demonstrates, the Bible’s more violent texts have been applied in recent history to justify terrible crimes.

Illiteracy Misunderstanding and Violence

Even the good ideas in the Bible can be used to justify evil. Forgiveness is a good idea, most of the time. But it can be applied in dangerous ways when it is considered absolute. Should a battered spouse or abused child seek a relationship with the abuser? Does not the Bible say we should “forgive as we are forgiven?” Should marriages be preserved at all cost? The Bible says, “what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Violence and evil abound in such literalism. And then there is the whole subject of slaves being obedient to masters. Does this mean workers should not stand up for themselves?

Does the fact the 12 apostles were male mean Jesus thinks less of women? No. But is anything assumed about being male when women are forbidden serving a church leaders? Yes. Patriarchy assumes male superiority. There is no way around that. So we handle the Bible with care. Doctrines that promote Biblical literalism should be discarded.

The Scriptures inform and guide. The Scriptures do not take the place of God. The Bible does not redeem, reform, create, or heal. These are the works of the Spirit of God which moves within everything.

Using the Bible as lists of rules or textbook or a legal code makes Christian spirituality about tests and obedience. Ultimately force becomes the primary virtue. It makes coercion the means of bringing about obedience and conformity of thought. The dedicated reader of the Bible finds these approaches to Scripture fall short of Divine Glory. Such readers of Scripture know love is neither forced nor controlled.


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