Take the Bible Literally

Take the Bible Literally September 1, 2015

James Barr Bible literalism mistake

N. T. Wrong reminded me of this great quote from James Barr:

In my opinion, it was a big mistake for many of the mainline religious organizations when they opposed the creationists by saying that the Bible should not be taken literally. This is not what the creationists do. It is, on the contrary, what the churches and other organisations should do: that is, to argue that, in this respect, the Bible’s figures should be taken literally, because it is when they are taken literally it becomes clear that they are not historically or scientifically true.
– James Barr

The point is a good one, and when liberal and progressive Christians say that the Bible should not be taken literally, they seem to mean precisely that – that the literal meaning is simply unacceptable, whether for scientific, historical, or ethical reasons. On that point, see the recent articles by Derek Penwell and Jennifer Grace Bird. What needs to be emphasized, in my opinion, is that, despite their claims, the fundamentalists are not Biblical literalists themselves. And the rhetoric of “literal” vs. “non-literal” can play into these false claims of fundamentalists. As Penwell writes:

What I want to challenge is the persistent and difficult-to-kill assumption that conservatives occupy some kind of religious and ethical high ground, and that any deviation from a particular kind of conservative orthodoxy isn’t merely a matter of interpretation, but is tantamount to initiating hostilities against God, motherhood, and the flag–all of which, interestingly enough, are conflated in some people’s minds. But that’s another article.

The smug certainty with which some conservative religious and political types believe not just that they occupy the side of truth on every issue, but that they occupy the side of God’s truth is alarming–not because they believe these things of themselves so uncritically (self-righteousness is a time-honored religious and political posture on both sides of the ideological divide, after all), but because so many in the culture agree to cede them this authoritative land of milk and honey.

Click through to read his whole article. And see too the post by Dan McClellan “On the Myth of Scriptural Literalism,” in which he writes:

Literalists are not literal about scripture, they’re literal about their ideology. Scripture is secondary. Religious groups don’t derive doctrine from the literal interpretation of scripture, they derive doctrine from negotiating between their group’s past, the needs of the present within a cultural context, and their interpretation (which is not literal) of scripture. It’s very important to keep in mind that that last item serves the other two. Scripture is the authority to which religionists appeal for their beliefs. It is not the source of their beliefs. It is flexible and ambiguous and malleable enough to say what religious groups need it to say. There are ideological literalists, and scripture is their paint and palette. There are no scriptural literalists.

Some part of that will definitely be turned into a meme here soon. In the meantime, click through to read the rest of the post.

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  • ANK

    If you allow the Bible to interpret itself, there are no contradictions & it agrees with true proven Science. Some of the Bible is to be taken literally, other parts are symbolic, other parts are history, then there is prophecy & why God permits wickedness & the innocent suffer while the evil prosper. “all things written afore time were written for our instruction, of whom the end of the system has arrived” It’s all there “if” you have the correct teacher. Otherwise, the Bible is a locked book.

    • If you mean that one must pay attention to genre, then of course. And so, for instance, when a story features a talking animal, that clues us in to the genre.

      But it sounds as though you are advocating the infamous conservative way of getting the Bible to say what they want, by starting with the parts that they like and then saying about any passages that say something different, “it cannot mean that, because you have to interpret scripture in light of scripture.”


      Obviously if you start by assuming that there are no contradictions, by defining scripture that way, then you certainly can deceive yourself into believing it, despite the evidence to the contrary that the Bible itself provides. But then you are allowing your doctrine about the Bible to be the supreme authority, rather than the Bible itself.

  • Chris Cottreau

    So what do you believe in? What the Bible tells you, or what other people tells you it says and means?. if that is your position, then interpretation is king and not the INSPIRED WORD OF GOD. It means what it says when it speaks of historical events, it means what it says in Proverbs when it tells us to wrap the Word of God around our necks and impart it deep within our hearts so that we will never depart from it, it means what it says when Jesus quotes and makes the claim that He was there during the Creation……. You mean to place a wedge between the church when they teach what it teaches.
    If Moses would have meant to say something different about the creation, then why would he have been so specific about it? why did he go to such lengths to describe the process in detail if it didn’t really matter?

    • Right – for instance, if you say that the Bible cannot actually give two different genealogies for Joseph, and two different sets of dates and geographic movements, in the infancy stories in Matthew and Luke, you are allowing a doctrine about Scripture to trump Scripture itself.

      • mxb

        one was Joseph’s mother side, one was Joseph’s father’s side.

        • That isn’t what the Gospels say. You are pretending to defend them and yet either do not know or do not care what they actually say. Hmmmm….

    • Phil Ledgerwood

      James’ point, among others, is that we all use “our interpretation.” There is no just reading the Bible and absorbing its “true meaning” directly into our brains. We read it and we form an idea in our heads of what it means.

      In that sense, our interpretation is king because that’s our only access to biblical meaning. Our interpretation is probably highly fallible, but it’s also all we’ve got, and one of the ways we mitigate the fallibility of our own interpretation is to compare it with others. But you can’t directly appeal to the INSPIRED WORD OF GOD because the second you read it, you’ve interpreted it. Your comment is full of interpretations. And that’s totally cool.

    • arcseconds

      What makes you think Moses said anything about the creation?

      • Chris Cottreau

        Maybe I should not give a sarcastic answer, but if you don’t know the answer to your question what are you doing in this discussion?

        • arcseconds

          What a strange response. Do you only answer questions to people who already know the answer?

          I want to know why you think this. As I have only just met you, and have no real idea of your background or what you know, and I can’t read minds, naturally I do not know why you think this, but I would like to find out.

          That’s, you know, why I asked the question.

          • mxb

            damn dude…Moses WROTE Genesis.

          • arcseconds

            Really? How do you know?

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Duh. Because Deuteronomy says, “I, Moses, obviously wrote all this,” after the passage that records his death.

      • Chris Cottreau

        He was the author of the first four books of the Bible, including Genesis. So that means God inspired him to write the specific historical events in Genesis.
        Sorry about the sarcasm.

        • arcseconds

          How do you know he was the author of the first four books of the Bible?

    • Hesed S.

      The Bible doesn’t claim to be the Word of God. It does, however, claim that Jesus is the Word.

      • mxb

        drop by 2 Timothy 3:16

        • You do realize that it (1) does not say what you claim, and (2) is not referring to a collection of writings that includes 2 Timothy, right?

          I am starting to get the impression that you are a troll…

  • Phil Ledgerwood


  • ken rose

    I believe the Bible has established it credibility as the only book inspired by the creator. I also believe that all the prophecy’s relating to this generation are all flashing Red

    • Believing something does not make it so, and asserting without evidence or argument is not persuasive.

    • Phil Ledgerwood

      There aren’t any prophecies relating to this generation. That would be weird.

      • Surely not weirder than trying to make the plural of “prophecy” by adding ‘s to the end! 🙂

        • Phil Ledgerwood

          For all intensive purposes, I think its perfectly good grammar per say.

          Wow, that hurt to write.

    • Gary
  • Madmouse

    I didn’t get past the quote and the first paragraph. The Bible is being proven every day to be literally correct. I hardly expected to see this level of apostasy here of all places.

    • arcseconds

      What do you mean ‘here of all places’?

      Sounds like you are entirely unfamiliar with what normally gets discussed here. There are at least two other posts making similar sorts of points in the last fortnight alone.

    • It is a pity you didn’t read further. It sounds like there are a lot of things in the rest of the post that you really, really need to read.

      In what ways is the Bible being proven to be literally correct every day?

      • mxb

        in a word… ROMANS.

        • As in “what have the Romans ever done for us”? Kindly stop trolling with one word answers. This blog is a place for serious discussion.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Dude, like, Romans says there are Romans, and today, there are also Romans. Inerrancy FTW!

        • PorlockJunior

          If Rome fell, why are there still Romans?

    • Phil Ledgerwood

      Yep. Every day I see that dragon chasing that woman around clothed with the sun.

  • Andrew of MO

    Barr was an amazing scholar. His work is still relevant, and surprisingly contemporary; reading it today is like reading someone in the midst of church as it is now.

  • markmatson

    I love this quote from Barr. Thanks, James.

    It fits with what I try to do…. get my students to read the text. We read, and then we ask how to explain the various tensions we find in the text.

    I don’t mind if some of those solutions seem to be harmonistic or imposing a theological “save” on tensions in the text, because at least now the students are thinking. But I do call out simple harmonizing for what it is, and challenge my students to think more critically.

    The problem I find is that my students read, but not closely. It takes a lot of time to simple read Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 carefully. But it’s worthwhile to teach how to read carefully.

  • arcseconds

    What an odd little interlude!

    For a few hours there we had a whole bunch of newcomers keen to tell us that the Bible is without contradictions and Moses wrote Genesis and Romans contains some kind of prophecy about the 21st century.

    This is unusual in itself, as James posts things about literalism rather frequently, and lately at any rate we’ve not seen many contrary opinions at all.

    And it’s been a good 24 hours since the last response, but none of them have stayed to chat!

    Did the post get published somewhere apart from the normal channels, I wonder?

    • That would be my guess. I wonder where it was shared, to garner this sort of commenting.