Beware. That first step on the slippery slope to Liberalism can be very dangerous. So goes the warning to Evangelicals trying to broaden their intellectual horizons. And compromising on a literal view of scripture is seen as the most dangerous step of all. So how can Evangelicals accept modern scientific theories of origins that seem to directly contradict the literal scriptural account of creation in Genesis? If we compromise on the literal interpretation of scripture, isn’t this a sell-out? Aren’t we left with relativistic hermeneutic rules that allow us to make the bible say anything we want? If it’s not a literal interpretation, isn’t it a liberal one? I believe this choice between a liberal and literal interpretation of scripture, like the
Evangelicals have been at odds with liberal Protestantism since the 19th century when the Liberals, claim Evangelicals, “sold out” to biblical criticism. Liberals for the most part accepted modern biblical scholarship, including radical new understandings of the bible’s source, formation, and interpretation. Evangelicals strongly rejected both the conclusions and the evidence of this modern scholarship. In the 19th century this defense included the definition of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. More recently the focus has been on the “literal” interpretation of scripture. Even though I disagree with the Evangelical tendency to reject the evidence of biblical criticism and modern biblical scholarship, and the movement's outright hostility to liberalism, I am unquestionably in the Evangelical camp on the place of the scriptures. I take a very high view of the bible and wholeheartedly acknowledge its divine inspiration. My concern is that in reacting to a Liberal interpretation of scripture Evangelicals have chosen a method (ie. Literal interpretation only) that may be just as theologically damaging (heretical?) as the Liberal method.
Not so Literally Literal
Though many Evangelicals claim that they hold a “literal” view of scripture, very few are uncompromising literalists. Very few still believe that the earth is a flat, immovable disk floating on the ocean, even though this is what the ancient Hebrews biblical writers believed and implied in scripture (See Psalm 93:1, Psalm 104, and 1Chr 16:30). Neither do we believe that the sky is a solid dome like structure, which is the logical conclusion based on a literal interpretation of the Old Testament. Almost everyone agrees that the earth revolves around the Sun, even though the ancient Hebrews thought the Sun moved across the sky and then raced back to east to start another day. (See Psalm 19:6 and Eccl 1:5). Very few Christians maintain that a literal interpretation of these passages is required. Young Earth Creationists do claim to interpret the bible literally, but they do so in a very liberal way. (One commentator described flat-earthers, geocentrists, and young-earthers as the conservative, moderate, and liberal factions within the biblical literalist camp).
Focus on Science and History
When someone declares that they interpret the Bible literally, they are generally referring to the science and the history in the bible. I think this betrays a modern bias, where historical and scientific facts are the highest form of truth. Modern western culture has elevated historical and scientific knowledge to the point where other forms of knowledge are deemed less important, and less reliable. But this is not the perspective of the bible. To the wise man or woman, it is the knowledge of God that is important.
The bible does contain history. It provides narrative accounts of real historical events that were part of God’s ongoing work with his people. In fact, recent biblical scholarship demonstrates that the bible faithfully represents ancient history as defined by the people of that time, and is not, as claimed by some biblical scholars, a much more recent historical fabrication. But we should be careful not to judge an ancient view of history by modern historiographical standards. The bible also contains a type of science since scripture describes how God’s creation worked. However, these scientific ideas are ancient, not modern. We may call these ideas outdated, or even wrong, but that does not compromise the authority of the scripture to speak in matters of faith or practice. The historic view of the church fathers (eg. Clement and Augustine) and reformers (eg. Calvin, Luther) was that God accommodates his message to humanity through the scriptures. That is, the bible is the revelation of an unlimited God accommodating himself to limited humanity using humanity’s limited language and ideas. The bible uses some of these scientific ideas to communicate God’s message, but it never tries to teach science.
Science and history may be contained in the scripture, but these are not the point of scripture. The purpose of the written Word is to reveal God’s message to humanity, and not to provide a complete history of the world. Its purpose is to reveal how God works in the lives of his people, and not how God’s creation works. I believe that by insisting that all scriptural narratives be interpreted “literally” we not only depart from the traditional view of the church fathers and protestant reformers, but we make the bible say things it was never intended to say. By focusing on the literal interpretation of scripture, we may be missing the meaning of God’s message, even as the Pharisees focus on the letter of the Law, missed its spirit by a very wide margin.
What’s really important?
The important difference between an Evangelical and Liberal understanding of scripture is not a literal versus non-literal interpretation, but rather in the area of revelation. While Evangelicals view scripture as God’s self-disclosure to man, Liberals view scripture as man’s search for God. Therefore, in a Liberal view, the bible is certainly a holy book. However, its source is not divine revelation, but man’s yearning for the divine. The focus then is on human experience throughout history, and the meaning achieved from human interaction with the divine or divine ideals. For an Evangelical, the focus of the bible is on God’s plan of redemption. Jesus death is the culmination of this plan, and his resurrection is the final victory over death. These historical events are the source of meaning for man; it is not man’s experience that gives meaning to the events. The Liberal focus on the human aspect of the bible to the exclusion of the divine, not only misses the point, but by removing the source of life, sucks the life out of the Living Word.
Scripture: Both Human and Divine
On the other hand, the Evangelical focus on the divine source of scripture can lead us to minimize or ignore the fact that the bible is also a very human book. It is God-breathed, not God dictated. Evangelicals have spent an enormous amount of energy trying to understand what divine authorship, inspiration, and guidance really mean, and the implications of this divine source. The simple fact remains that many different human authors wrote the bible, authors with human limitations and human ideas, all living within cultural contexts and using literary conventions very different than our own. God accommodated his message to specific ancient cultures; he met them where they were and revealed himself in a manner that was understandable to them. Just because God accommodated his message to specific human cultures at specific times in history, using scientific and cultural ideas specific to that time, does not reduce the power of this message or the truth of his revelation.
Thus the bible needs to be recognized as having both a divine and human source, not as liberals would claim, a human-only source with a divine message, or as Evangelicals often imply, a divine-only source to a human audience. The early church grappled with the divinity and humanity of Christ, and concluded that neither a divine-only description nor human-only description was adequate. We agree that the “Word made flesh” is both fully human, and fully God, even though this seems to defy logical understanding. Why then does an acknowledgement of the humanity of the textual Word threaten or lessen the divine origin of the scriptures? God condescended to take on human form, experienced all the limitations of a human mind and body, spoke in ways standard for a specific local culture, and used the science of his day to communicate his message of love, forgiveness, and redemption. In the same manner, God also accommodated his message in the written word.
I believe that remaining faithful to the scriptures does not require us to interpret it literally in all cases. A non-literal interpretation does not minimize the truth and authority of the word. In some cases, it is surely the more faithful method of remaining true to the biblical message. This is definitely not always the case and we need to be careful in jumping to figurative conclusions, especially when they fit more nicely with what we want the bible to say. What the bible shows very clearly is that God will not limit his revelation to a single culture. Every culture has had its assumptions challenged as God gently, and sometimes not so gently, leads his people to the truth. We need to ensure that our theology does not lead us to interpretations of the text, but that the text leads us to the formation of our theology. Our theology should not limit us to literal (or figurative, or symbolic, or mythic!) interpretations of any text, including our interpretations of the creation accounts.
Some recommended Reading:
- “Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach” by Donald McKim and Jack Rogers: This book was very influential in my own re-evaluation on how scripture should be interpreted. It showed that the “conservative” view of scripture held by most Evangelicals was not really “conserving” the authority of scripture at all. Instead, this conservative view was a damaging, modern innovation.
- “Biblical Literalism: Constricting the Cosmic Dance” by Conrad Hyers: A more forceful and impassioned criticism of literalism. A romp of a read.
- “Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda” by Nancey Murphy: A personal top-10 of mine. Excellent historical overview of the formation of liberal and fundamentalist theology, what separates the two camps, and in what ways they are very similar.
- “The Heresies of American Evangelicalism, Part V: Holy Scripture” at The Fire and Rose Blog. So you think Liberals are Heretics? Wait until you look closely at an Evangelical view of scripture.