“Sophisticated” theologians who urge a non-literal reading of the Bible always put themselves in a bind. And it is this: if the Bible is not to be read as a literal account of the truth, then how do we know which parts really are true, and which parts are fiction or metaphor? Nobody has ever found a convincing way to winnow the true from the metaphorical, and so it becomes an exercise in cherry-picking. I almost prefer the fundamentalist literalists (granted, nobody takes every Biblical word as literal truth) to those religious people who think, for no good reason, that they can discern the stories that are true (which always, of course, include Jesus’s divinity and resurrection) from those that are simply meant to impart “timeless truths.”
Over at HuffPo, David Lose, Director of the Center for Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, gives his rationale for Biblical cherry-picking in a piece called “Four good reasons not to read the Bible literally.” Here are his reasons, some better than others. All quotes are from Lose, except where indicated otherwise, are indented.
1) Nowhere does the Bible claim to be inerrant. . . . The signature verse most literalists point to is 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” But one can confess that Scripture is inspired by God without resorting to claims that it contains no factual errors. We normally use the language of inspiration in just this way, describing a painting, a performance of Chopin, or even a good lecture as inspired. What binds the various and sundry texts found in the Bible together may be precisely that they are all inspired by the authors’ experience of the living God. There is no hint that the authors of the Bible imagined that what they were writing was somehow supernaturally guaranteed to be factually accurate. Rather, biblical authors wrote in order to be persuasive, hoping that by reading their witness you would come to believe as they did (see John 20:30-31).
He’s right that the self-contained claims for Biblical inerrancy are week. But I’m not so sure that the authors wrote not to impart what they thought was true, but to be “persuasive” (and what does that mean anyway?). How can you persuade people, for example, of Jesus’s divinity without telling them that he was truly born of a virgin, resurrected, and performed miracles?
2) Reading the Bible literally distorts its witness. . . But if the primary intention of the biblical authors was not to record history — in the post-Enlightenment sense we take for granted today — but instead to confess faith, then these differences are not troubling inconsistencies to be reconciled but rather helpful clues to understanding the confession of the author.
Lose is right again that the different accounts of, say, things like the Resurrection are at serious odds with one another. And he’s not troubled by them. But he should be, for if the discrepancies are signs of “confessions of faith,” then they’re also signs that maybe what is described didn’t happen at all.
3) Most Christians across history have not read the Bible literally. We tend to think of anything that is labeled “conservative” as being older and more traditional. Oddly enough, however, the doctrine of inerrancy that literalists aim to conserve is only about a century and a half old. Not only did many of the Christian Church’s brightest theologians not subscribe to anything like inerrancy, many adamantly opposed such a notion. For instance, St. Augustine — rarely described as a liberal — lived for many years at the margins of the church. An impediment to his conversation was precisely the notion that Christians took literally stories like that of Jonah spending three days in the belly of a whale. . . Earlier Christians — along with almost everyone else who lived prior to the advent of modernity — simply didn’t imagine that for something to be true it had to be factually accurate, a concern only advanced after the Enlightenment.
This really ticks me off, for it’s complete crap. While many earlier Christians and church fathers may not have seen the Bible as totally inerrant, they certainly thought that many if not most of its stories were literally true. Anyone who studies the history of Christianity knows this, and it’s disingenuous for Lose to pretend otherwise.
And to prove this he trots out the old warhorse of St. Augustine. I’ve dealt with Augustine’s literalism in a previous post, and have also corresponded about it recently with my friend Grania Spingies, an ex-Catholic. Rather than paraphrase what she told me about Augustine, which verges on stealing her own ideas, I’ll simply present an excerpt from her email, quoted with permission:
The most that can be said for Augustine is that he was an educated man who was prepared to believe that those parts of the Bible that were evidently not literally true (at least to the extent of his knowledge at the time) could be interpreted as metaphorical. He was a philosopher and applied this to areas (such as eschatology) that had to be “fixed” as it was clear they were not accurate.
He was on the other hand very much a believer in the faith and therefore his reasoning was typical of theology today: trying to reverse-engineer an explanation to excuse obvious short-comings in their sacred texts. Even Aquinas said of Augustine, “Whenever Augustine, who was imbued with the theories of the Platonists, found in their writings anything consistent with the faith, he adopted it; and whatever he found contrary to the faith, he amended.”
In Augustine’s own words: “Faith goes before; understanding follows after.” In other words, he was a cherry-picker too.
Another thing he did was to take something that he believed was a literal and historical text and try to glean a further philosophical aphorism or truth from it. (This is common enough—priests do this all the time for their Sunday homilies). It didn’t mean that he didn’t think the words had a literal meaning or truth, just that they could also convey an extra moral lesson as well.
Here’s Augustine’s money quote, showing in his own words that he thought that a great deal of the Bible was to be taken literally: “But just as, I think, they err greatly who are of opinion that none of the records of affairs in that kind of writings mean anything more than that they so happened, so I think those very daring who contend that the whole gist of their contents lies in allegorical significations. ” (City of God, Book XVII, Chapter 3, paragraph 2)
And, there were plenty of things that Augustine believed in literally:
- Adam & Eve
- Jesus (Ha! the theologians never take him metaphorically!)
- Original Sin complete with serpent
- Creation of world by God from nothing as in Genesis
- The gospels (again his own words: “If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself. “
- Other Bible characters: “Who else save Joshua the son of Nun divided the stream of the Jordan for the people to pass over, and by the utterance of a prayer to God bridled and stopped the revolving sun? Who save Samson ever quenched his thirst with water flowing forth from the jawbone of a dead ass? Who save Elias was carried aloft in a chariot of fire?” (Tractates, XCI, Ch XV, 24-25, 2).
Quite a number of Augustine’s books are online here. But you have better things to do with your time than read them. He may well have been an intellectual giant of his day, but his ideas are so outdated and even then, so deliberately tendentious, that they are like much of modern theology—so much sophisticated hot air.
Finally, Lose’s last point:
4) Reading the Bible literally undermines a chief confession of the Bible about God. Read the Bible even for a little while and you’ll soon realize that most of the major characters are, shall we say, less than ideal. Abraham passes his wife off as his sister — twice! — in order to save his skin. Moses is a murderer. David sleeps around. Peter denies Jesus three times. Whatever their accomplishments, most of the “heroes of the faith” are complicated persons with feet of clay. And that’s the point: the God of the Bible regularly uses ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things.
Why, then, treat the Bible itself differently? Rather than imagine that the Bible was also written by ordinary, fallible people, inerrantists have made the Bible an other-wordly, supernatural document that runs contrary to the biblical affirmation that God chooses ordinary vessels — “jars of clay,” the Apostle Paul calls them — to bear an extraordinary message. In fact, literalists unwittingly ascribe to the Bible the status of being “fully human and fully divine” that is normally reserved only for Jesus.
But is that really the point? Is Moses really supposed to come off as a murderer? And, for that matter, is the Old Testament God supposed to come off as a genocidal and egocentric bully?
And was God himself supposed to be a “complicated person with feet of clay”? The most telling thing, though, is Lose’s final sentence here. While all the other stuff in the Bible could be metaphor, or fictional, Jesus himself is “fully human and fully divine” without a scintilla of doubt. If he wasn’t, then Christians like Lose might as well hang up their faith. Why is the truth reserved for Jesus’s story alone, while everything else is up for grabs? Clearly, some parts of the Bible are not negotiable.