Literalism and Absurdity

Literalism and Absurdity August 24, 2013

I came across this on Pinterest:

This obviously reflects, for the most part, the literalistic and contextless approach of fundamentalism. But now that religious viewpoint is treated with hostility – yet without in fact questioning its underlying assumptions.

Those who are willing to read into the text ideas that were not formulated until much later, such as the Trinity, will probably not find there to be any problem. They will envisage one person of the Godhead speaking when the others are present. Nothing weird there.

And even though the creation story in Genesis 1 does not have the Trinity in view (that concept was only formulated more than half a millennium later), it does seem to reflect the presence of multiple beings, when it says “Let us make…”

Failure to treat the text against the background of Ancient Near Eastern thought, and insisting on reading the text literally in at least some places, tends to lead to the text seeming even more absurd than it might have otherwise. When the text was written, the assumption was not that nothing at all other than God existed, but that there was chaos. God issues commands for the chaos to order itself. And whatever that chaos may have been like, without knowledge of the nature of atmosphere or that vibrations in it are required for speech to be transmitted, having God utter commands into empty space would not have seemed as problematic as it may to modern people with the knowledge that we have.

Nevertheless, even when background is taken seriously, excessive literalism creates problems. It is interesting to trace the history of literalism. Literal problems drove many ancient orthodox Christians to treat the text allegorically. Literal problems drove Gnostics to view the God who is depicted in Genesis 1 as a weirdo, among other things.

Modern literalism, whether practiced by fundamentalist Christians or the atheists they are prone to turn into, has more in common with Gnosticism than orthodox Christianity.


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  • Hello James,

    It is clear to me that the writers of Genesis gave their culturally conditioned human thoughts about God’s creation.

    However, since I believe in the trinity, I’m open to the possibility that people experienced some aspects of it before the time of Christ both inside and outside the biblical Canon.

    But it is completely ludicrous and laughable to pretend (like many evangelical apologists do) that Genesis should prove to Jews that God exists in three persons.

    “Modern literalism, whether practiced by fundamentalist Christians or the atheists they are prone to turn into”

    this is a WONDERFUL sentence which perfectly sums up what websites such as DebunkingChristianity are all about.

    The people there have been so severely abused by their fundamentalist upbringing during their childhood and youth that they have lost any way to be objective while assessing the Biblical material.

    For them, the fundamentalist interpretation is almost always the correct one, liberals are wrong, and the God of the Bible is CONSISTENTLY, (nearly) without contradiction depicted as being a gruesome moral monster.

    They have kept the same hatred and intolerance towards worldviews other than theirs.

    They are angry against a liberal Christian or a Deist in almost the same way they are angry against a nasty homosexual-hating fundamentalist.

    I like debates with respectful opponents, and while you can sometimes find such folks in these websites, most of the time the people I’ve interacted with turned out to be emotional bullies.

    EDIT: I must recognize that John Loftus, in spite of his strong moral indignation, does have some interesting ideas and arguments and doesn’t mock liberal Christians like he mocks fundamentalists.
    But many people following his blog are rather primitive in their approach.

    Now excuse me please for the length of my comment.

    Greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • TomS

    Literal problems drove many ancient orthodox Christians to treat the text allegorically.

    I wonder, wasn’t literalism a relatively late invention? I can imagine that from the earliest times the text was treated very loosely, and that people began to worry about grammatical details and precise vocabulary only somewhat later. Some of the early uses of Scripture that I’ve seen show what I would consider extremely loose readings of the text. Is it really that the ancients were driven to treat the text allegorically by literal problems, rather than non-literal treatment was the ordinary approach?

    • There were both schools of thought in ancient Christianity, associated with the schools in Alexandria and Antioch respectively. But even the non-allegorical approach was different from the modern so-called literalists who pick details and insist that scientists are wrong because of them. So it is less the case that there was no ancient literalism, as that it was something very different from modern literalism.

      • TomS

        I was thinking also of pre-Christian thought. Anyway, what is the earliest example of “literalism in the modern sense”?

        • Michael I

          At least some of the fringe figures in early Christianity who argued for a flat earth (e.g. Cosmas Indicopleustes in the sixth century C.E.) did so on Biblical grounds

        • I’m not sure what the earliest example is, but emphatic literalism is a response to the Enlightenment and thus not older than a few centuries.

  • I think you took your criticism of literalism in the wrong direction. Most non-Fundamentalist Christians also know that God inspired the writing of His Word, and that God knew Who He was back in Genesis 1.

    The plurality of God in Genesis 1 is not a literalist teaching per se because “us” cannot be translated in any other way. However, the literal, 24-hour day theory of Genesis 1 IS a literalist teaching because the word “day” can be translated in non-literal ways.

    Also, you talk about “half a millennium,” but 500 years is not a long time in biblical history. I think it was much longer than that, but you apparently accept the liberals’ dating of Genesis.

    I hope you will write further about the history of literalism and the “literal problems” that you spoke of. That would likely become a more meaningful critique of literalism.

    I presented a thorough critique of literalism in Part 1 of my book, Return to Genesis. I made the case that it should be rejected as a heresy. This would allow the Church to cast off dispensationalism and young earth creationism in one fell swoop. It’s presumptuous to think that we moderns are smarter than the Hebrews who wrote the text of the Bible. We shouldn’t bring a literal bias to our interpretation, but try to understand the original context and intention.

    • I don’t think that approach is helpful. The days in Genesis 1 are evening and morning, and so “literal” days – but they are part of a depiction of God engaging in a working week, with parallelism between days 1-3 and 4-6, and so the issue is not literal vs. non-literal days, but the genre of the entire creation account.

      Viewing the text as having meanings which its human authors could not have understood requires a view of inspiration that has God overriding the minds of the authors. That seems at odds with the clear evidence that the authors’ styles and linguistic abilities are fully reflected in the texts they composed, and so if God overrode their minds, he did so in an undetectable manner by imitating their individual styles, which makes the claim unverifiable.

      • Based on your identification of the days as GOD’s working days and the genre as poetry, I see no reason why you should think they are literal, 24-hour, human/solar days, as young earth creationists insist they are. After all, God didn’t even create the Sun until day 4! The plants grew from seed to maturity on day 3. Adam had time to become lonely on day 6. Also, as even young earthers agree, day 7 has no ending. Even the most ancient author would have been well aware of these and other apparent absurdities for literal-minded readers.

        Anthropomorphism is a literary device, which by definition makes this a non-literal understanding of the word “day.”

        Perhaps you label this as a “literal” account only to simultaneously reject it as pure mythology?

        Also, the doctrine of divine inspiration tells us that God revealed Himself in some measure to each author of the Bible. So the author of Genesis 1 knew there was a plurality within the Godhead. This doesn’t mean he fully understood the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (nor do I know anyone who claims that), but neither does it mean he was some kind of polytheist.

        • Another argument for the Trinity in Genesis 1 comes from John 1:1-14. John (or the author of this gospel) alluded to Genesis 1:1 while adding the idea that Jesus was present with the Father from the beginning. So it really comes down to whether or not a person believes the Bible was divinely inspired.

          • Even if the author of the Gospel of John had a Trinitarian understanding of Genesis, that isn’t an argument for the author of Genesis having had the Trinity in mind. It just shows how one first century author understood the text. This has nothing to do with whether one believes the Bible was divinely inspired, it has to do with whether one adopts, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, the view that God overrode the minds of the Bible’s human authors. The author of Genesis 1 is an emphatic monotheist, with no evidence of leaving room for a “godhead,” much less a plurality within one.

  • arcseconds

    I think the ‘let us create’ is more in lines of God talking to himself like a weirdo.

    ‘Let there be light’, as you say, is clearly a command addressed to the cosmos, if indeed it is correct to call it the cosmos ‘before it was adorned’ as one translation of some neoplatonic text I read once so delightfully put it.