No one takes the Bible literally

With the Bible read through in full swing, I figured I should do a post about taking the Bible literally.

Generally speaking, Christians are categorised into groups, according to how similar they are in their beliefs. These classifications can come in different forms, for example the terms idealsists; preterists; futurists and historicists would be used to categorise Christians according to their understanding of prophecy.

Classification of people is almost always an exercise in stereotyping, whether intended or not, and you’re bound to find people who don’t really fit any group, or are vague enough to fit into any group, some people can be very precise about their beliefs, some of which will fit them firmly into one camp, and others that will put them firmly into another camp. This said, let me start with the stereotyping classification. 😉

Christianity is broken down into two major camps Catholic and Protestant. (This is a serious simplification, so if you’re orthodox don’t get upset.) The orthodox denominations bear enough similarity to Catholicism for us to include them together for our purposes here. Catholics (and the others I’ve unfairly bundled in with them) believe the Bible and Tradition serve as the two great pillars on which to build their faith and doctrine. Protestants on the other hand grew out of the reformation which had the principle of sola scriptura, or the Bible only. For this discussion I’m going to focus on the second group, and their classification, so I get to my actual topic before you get bored and go elsewhere.

Evangelical protestantism can be classified basically into fundamentalists and liberals (you also get progressive Christianity, which seems to be quite liberal). Both of these terms are swear words, if you say them to the wrong person. Some people don’t want to be called liberal, due to political overtones, even if their religious views are liberal. Some people who hold very fundamentalist views don’t want the title as it conjures up images of people taking their religion so far as to stoning others, or stuff like that.

In general, these two groups are often defined according to how literally they take the Bible. You wouldn’t really think of a theistic evolutionist as a fundamentalist. Fundamentalists generally take a hard line on things like anti-smoking, pro-life, six day creation, homosexuality, tattoos, and so on, because this is how they understand the Bible and there’s no compromise. This is the group I need to focus on, since people often straw man them due to the idea that they take the Bible literally.

Nobody, not even that nutty crowd of us who believe in keeping the Sabbath, takes everything in the Bible literally. Normally, a contextual reason will be given for not taking something literally, and sometimes a bad reason is given. The point is, most Christians who would be classified as Fundamentalists don’t believe in stoning people to death, or smashing Iraqi children into rocks head first. They have quite good reasons for not believing these thing to be virtuous.

There are times when the Bible is simply reporting a human’s belief at the time. Times when someone’s emotions are expressed as they plead with God, and their own ideas will dominate and God’s opinions on the matter aren’t clear, a good example is Job and his friends, who stumble through the story with no knowledge of the devil’s role, or what is really happening. There are also times when words come directly from God and seem to be scientifically incorrect, yet can normally be explained within the context of people’s understanding, thus God isn’t overly interested in taxonomy, so may classify things according to how they are understood and linguistic categorisation, not directly according to a modern scientific taxonomical system.

When God speaks on issues of morality, then we need to think quite carefully. Food; shaving; planting; cattle breeding; clothing etc, all need to be examined in line of purpose and context. Questions need to be asked: why did God have this law? Does the New Covenant mitigate it? Often the second question here is not asked sincerely, and people will write off Old Testament stuff as Old/Mosaic Covenant without giving it much thought. Laws on things like food; tattoos; beard trimming and hair care; fabric mixing; crop sowing; livestock breeding and land management all probably had reasons motivating them.

I was once told that the reasons for God having laws against eating certain foods are completely irrelevant to the discussion as to whether they still stand or not, because they are Old Testament, and Old Covenant. Somehow this person defended corporal punishment because of reasons they saw as still being valid, and wasn’t just willing to rule it out as Old Testament. The point here isn’t to convince you corporal punishment and eating pork or lobster are wrong, it’s to show how easy it is to apply different reasoning to different things in the Bible to support our own biases. This is one reason we need to acknowledge that none of us take the Bible literally and check to see if the validity of our interpretations is correct, before running off and condemning everyone else.

Taking everything in the Bible literally could lead to a seriously distorted view of the world, serious self mutilation or any number of problematic things, and thus we should read our Bibles with care, and in prayer.

What do you think? What have I missed? Who did I upset?

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5 thoughts on “No one takes the Bible literally”

  1. The problem here is the entire concept of sola scriptura, my history might not be perfect but for 300 or so years after the crucifixion the church was only based on tradition, that was until the catholic church decided on which books should be in the bible. So how can we have a bible without that tradition on which its built?

    1. Yes, and the Pharisees would have pointed out that the Masoretic text was compiled by tradition, and thus they were the authority, being of that tradition. I think given a basic lesson in the New Testament view of tradition and pharisees, this is a rather week argument.

      Mat 15 and Mark 7 (same incident), Jesus favours scripture over tradition. In Galatians 1:14 Paul had to be separated from the traditions of his fathers. Paul was a pharisee, and thus followed the Priestly traditions, from which he needed separating. Colossians 2:8 has a reference to the traditions of men, which also doesn’t favour tradition. You may argue that the church represents the tradition of God, but how do we know, unless scripture is greater than that tradition, and than then be the litmus test for a valid tradition. 2 Thesssalonians 3:6 also a derogatory statement about tradition. 1 Peter 1:18 again tradition isn’t painted as anything positive. Thus you are left only with 2 Thessalonians 2:15 painting tradition in a good light. The scripture speaks of through “word” or “epistle.” Now we aren’t really sure what tradition they were taught, we’re sure that what is recorded in the New Testament is the basis of that tradition, but we can’t be sure of is that decrees made later, for example in the 6th century by a political appointee of Justinian’s, are anything to do with that tradition, yet the Catholic Church is left having to accept politically appointed Popes like Vigilus as part of their tradition.

      Furthermore, whose tradition? Roman Catholic; Eastern Orthodox; Coptic? The Coptics were around before the other 2 (if I’m not mistaken), surely their’s is the best claim to being the correct tradition.

      Another issue is that the texts that the Church assembled, merely represented the texts in use at the time, the gnostic gospels were ommited because at the time they were likely to be known as new and fraudulent, and any church accepting them would likely have been rejected. I’m also sceptical about whether we should really call that crowd Roman Catholic, but I’m not getting into that, since I don’t need to, the priesthood of David’s time seemed to be pretty much what they were supposed to be, while the priesthood spoken of in Ezekiel was at the forefront of the idolatory that characterised that period.

      You could perhaps use the argument that Jesus made Peter head of the Church, and all those who follow in his footsteps receive the powers Catholicism claims were granted to him. We can’t really reliably trace which of the various “traditional” church’s now bear the rightful claim to that tradition. If you could, it still wouldn’t help since, reliably tracing the Levitical priesthood was easy, and they, despite being set up by God, signified by fire from Heaven, were incredibly apostate.

      I’m afraid, I still think scripture is the litmus test, tradition can’t overrule it.

  2. Who cares what flavours christians come in – it’s a mind virus in remission… dying an asthmatic halitosis-ridden death. 2035 is the predicted date that religion is projected to cease to be a force.
    We – scientists – now own the earth. As a group of meek individualists, at least the bible can console itself with having this one prediction come right – the meek have indeed inherited the earth.

    1. I don’t suppose you see the irony in saying that you’re meek after such an arrogant tirade.

      Well, the Bible predicted that the universe had an origin, I believe atheist scientists got that one wrong.

      The structure of orion and the pleidades? I’m pretty sure the Bible got that right. The fact that people would be killed in Christ’s name, the Bible got that right. That that Babylon was predicted to fall, and be followed by a dual kingdom; then by a fast growing kingdom, then by a powerful kingdom (represented by iron, the principle mineral of the Roman Empire) and that this kingdom would be divided among ten, which fits the ten major germanic tribes occupying Roman territory. Itt also predicted that thre of those groups would be conquered, and guess what, the Ostrogoths; Vandals and Heruli were. I could go on, but I think the point is, you’ve decided the Bible hasn’t made any correct predictions without checking your facts.

    2. Let’s assume atheists are right, just for argument sake, then pre-theistic people were eradicated by natural selection before they even learnt to write. Thus we owe all knowledge, and indeed the survival of the human race to theistic ideas. It would then follow that being an atheist is actually counter productive to the survival of humankind. It also follows that you’ve piggy backed on theists and now you’re saying they are useless, perhaps you should have the grace, humility, and the meekness you’ve claimed to have to acknowledge this..

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