The Problem of Biblical Literalists

The Problem of Biblical Literalists February 27, 2023

All Biblical literalists have a problem. They cannot teach us anything. It took me a while to figure this out. After all, I was brought up in a literalist tradition. I learned a lot about the Bible. I read and studied commentaries written by literalists. But what I really learned was how to use the Bible to argue for certain doctrinal positions. Proof-texting and universalizing certain ideas about the nature of holy scripture allows literalists to develop a circular “worldview.”

Literalists Lose Openness

A parishioner came to me in the middle of an argument with his son. “Isn’t all the teachings of Jesus that are not in the gospels in the other books of the New Testament?” Where does this question come from? It is simple. The literalist assumes the teachings of Jesus are faithfully transmitted by the writers. The writers wanted to communicate how the teaching of Jesus applied. St. Paul makes this point 3 times in 1 Corinthians 7. He does not have a clear command “from the lord.” But he is offering his opinion as one who believes it is a correct one. He concludes, “And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” (1 Corinthians 7:40b)

Paul is expressing an openness that goes beyond the words he has from Jesus. Literalists argue that Paul claims the Spirit inspires his teaching. But Paul does nothing of the sort. He hopes he is teaching what is according to the guidance of the Spirit. Literalists are caught in a bind here. If Paul’s opinion is as authoritative as settled upon teaching of Jesus, then his doubt must also be authoritative. That is not possible within the doctrine of the literalists. Do we know Paul’s mind better than Paul? I doubt it. But by avoiding doubt literalists lose the openness expressed by Paul.

Stories As Histories

History is an old pursuit. In our era, we argue whether it is a social science or one of the humanities. Ancient historians were not social scientists. They were collectors of stories from the past. Herodotus and Thucydides are entertaining works of History. But they are nothing like the work of a modern historian except for the fact, a story must be told. A modern historian must rely on authoritative texts, letters, tables of exchange, and possibly photographs of people and events. Ancient historians had very little beyond reliable stories to describe what happened.

Essentially, ancient historians are retelling stories. Biblical literalists insist the stories of the Bible be accepted as that told by any modern historian. The Garden of Eden had to exist. Snakes used to speak. Noah and his family repopulated the earth. Literalists argue this all happened despite everything we know about human genetics, reptilian brains, and Geography. This insistence keeps the stories from being approached as something other than History. Stories mean something to the teller and the hearer even if they entertain. Literalists lose the value of the story by attempting to replicate Noah’s ark. They also lose the ability to consider the potential meanings of Noah and his ark.

Literalists Cannot Be Taught

Learning is a conversation. People who cannot be taught cannot teach. There are no one-way conversations. We give and take. Fundamentalists approach teaching as only providing information. Learning is absorbing this information. Here is the explanation for why they get concerned about public schools. To this mindset, there is no distinction between indoctrination and education. Conservative congregations complain about liberal clergy because they do not hear the received information repeated. My parishioner did not want me to honestly answer his question. He wanted me to confirm what he believed.

The truth is I did neither. I asked why he bothered arguing with his son. There was the real problem. Why should his adult child conform to his beliefs? Could his son be accountable to God for himself? Being closed off in such a way creates barriers for God to get over. Paul already took the path of being so sure of what he thought he was ready to destroy other people. As follower of Jesus, making room for his doubt when asked for advice demonstrates grace toward himself and others. If we cannot learn this sort of grace from literalists, what can we learn from them?

The answer is nothing.

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