The Pitfalls of Literalism

I am Inerrantist, but not a Literalist, and here are some rambling thoughts on the matter.

A few weeks ago, we watched exemplified on the world stage the worse of biblical literalism, in which someone fails to see the disconnect between the Law of Judgment and Wrath and the Law of Grace. The Bible is not a flat document, whatsoever, nor should it be taken always overly literal. What? I’m a heretic, you say? Surely, then, I am not an inerrantist and I am bound for hell and will arrive before anyone else.

The problem with reading the bible as a flat document and not allowing for different styles, for progressive revelation, for genres, is what it creates the slippery slope of fundamentalism. I believe that the Scriptures are inspired and inerrant in its original purpose. We often times put such a weight on the Scriptures which the original authors did not intend. Does the bible have to read literally? Always?  Well, it can, but then it creates problems wherein we find that people often see problems in the text and quickly loose their faith. Where is their faith if they find an ‘error’ in the Scriptures, and give up on God. Or better, where is their faith if they believe that the bible must be perfect for God to real?

Who defines perfect and inerrant anyway? Most often, it comes down to the person to define the words as he or she chooses.

The problem is, is that far too often we forget those who have gone before and become our own theologians. This is the point of Tradition – not as a sacred equal to the bible, but as a curtail against modern innovations towards doctrine and interpretation. I think at some point, we must first understand that the bible was not written by our peers or contemporaries, but people alive thousands of years ago in a culture or cultures far, far removed from our own. Believe it or not, people simply aren’t the same as they were then, as we have progressed, live in different cultures, and indeed, have become separated from much of what caused those people to write.

This is not to say that we cannot understand the bible, but that it is necessary for us to remember that the bible is a foreign book to our culture and minds and to read it as if it was written yesterday destroys it. Paul told Timothy to study, and yet, most people deem it necessary only to take the bible up, read, and exegete.

One of the problems of flat literalism is that it creates contradictions, errors, and indeed a very slippery slope. For example,

I will give you what you asked for! I will give you a wise and understanding heart such as no one else has had or ever will have! (1Ki 3:12 NLT)

Is Solomon wiser than Christ?

Or what the several different Creation accounts in the bible? Genesis 1; Genesis 2-3; Psalm 74:12-17; Psalm 89:9-14.

Do we not understand hyperbole? Surely we understand that in the context of the Near East and Middle East, hyperbole is a method of discussion, even today. Or parables, allegories, and prophetic language?

I believe that we should look at context, style, historical setting, and even historical interpretation. I think that if we fail to understand the bible as something not of us, we destroy it and if we deem it necessary that the bible has to be perfect, or God is false, then where is our faith?

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9 Replies to “The Pitfalls of Literalism”

  1. VanHoozer stated that “the literal sense is the literary sense.” In other words, the context and usage of words and terms determine how a text is understood. A literal reading of a poem is to read it as such.
    I think that one must distinguish between literalism and literalistic, which is a wooden literalism that knows no differences in genre and speech.

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