TheTyranny of a Literal Inerrant Bible: 2. What is Literalism?

What does it mean to read the Bible literally? Many people who profess to read the Bible literally do not read it that way do not really read it literally.

 The word “literal” has several usages. Basically, to read literally involves the ordinary or usual meaning of a word. For example, the literal meaning of “know your ropes” means you “know a lot about ropes.” The figurative meaning of the phrase means “to know a lot about how to do something.”

 In writing to the believers in Rome, Paul writes that their faith is “spoken of throughout the whole world.” (Romans 12:8 KJV) Should we read that literally or figuratively? In order to be consistent, a literalist must believe that every person in the world was speaking about the faith of the Roman Christians for that is the literal meaning of the words used. To read it other wise is to read it figuratively. I believe that is hyperbole, a form of exaggeration to make a point and it cannot be read figuratively.

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, another use of the word “literal” means “completely true and accurate; not exaggerated.” Referring back to Paul’s statement, is it completely true, accurate, and not exaggerated?

 Both Matthew and Mark state, “everyone thought John was a prophet.” (Matthew 21:26; Mark 11:33) Does that mean everyone in Israel thought that or do the writers mean a large segment of the population thought that? There are many similar examples in both the Old and New Testaments.

 To read the Bible literally is to believe the Bible contains nothing but a collection of facts and that the writers never used literary devices like metaphor or hyperbole. Literal reading of the Bible means we discount the many sections that are poetic. Poetry, metaphor, hyperbole, and other literary types and devices are ways to express what is not easily and adequately expressed in factual statements. They cannot be read literally.

 The authors who penned the Bible were real people, writing in real places, and at real times. They had an
agenda. They had a story to tell about where we come from as humans, why we are here, and where we are going. Their writing reflects the style, vocabulary, and thought patterns of their day. Material was chosen that told their story and other material not essential to the story they wanted to tell was left out. They were not writing literally.

 For example, in 1 Kings 11: 41, the editors commented, “Everything else that Solomon did, his career, and his wisdom, are all recorded in The History of Solomon.”   In writing about King Hezekiah, the compilers commented: “Everything else that King Hezekiah did and his devotion to the Lord are recorded in The Vision of the Prophet Isaiah Son of Amoz and in The History of the Kings of Judah and Israel.” (2 Chronicles 32:32) Who wrote, edited, and/or compiled these other documents? No one knows and there are no copies available to us, but they were available to the authors and editors of the Old Testament.”

The New Testament writers also had documents that they researched, documents that are not available to us. For example, Luke comments that

 Many have done their best to write a report of the things that have taken place among us. They wrote what we have been told by those who saw these things from the beginning and who proclaimed the message . . . because I have carefully studied all these matters from their beginning, I thought it would be good to write an orderly account . . . so that you will know the full truth about everything which you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)

 In John’s Gospel, the writer tells us that “Jesus performed many other miracles that are not written down in this book.” The reason for writing the Gospel is “in order that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah the Son of God, and that through your faith in him you may have life.” (John 20:30) In conclusion, the Gospel writer states that “there are many other things that Jesus di. If they were all written down one by one, I suppose that the whole world could not hold the books that would be written.” (John 21:24)

 All this is to say that a literal Bible presents difficulties. For example, how many women were at the tomb on the first Easter morning? Two? (Matthew 28:1) Three? (Mark 16:1) Unspecified? (Luke 24:1) One? (John 20:1) Can each Gospel be literally true? There is a way of non-literal reading these different accounts with no discrepancies, but that will wait for a later blog.

 In the next blog I will discuss inerrancy. Stay tuned until next time!


The Tyranny of a Literal Inerrant Bible: 3. What is Inerrancy?

According to the online Webster-Merriam dictionary, the word “inerrant” means “free from error” and “Inerrancy” means “exemption from error.” The way the terms are used varies widely among conservative and fundamentalist theologians.

 Biblical inerrancy as formulated in the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” (1978), is the idea that the Bible “is without error or fault in all its teaching;” or, at least, that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.”

 When someone says they believe in an inerrant Bible we must ask what they mean by inerrancy. The term has many meanings, depending upon who is making the statement. Some equate inerrancy with infallibility. Others do not. Some people go beyond the Chicago Statement and believe the original documents have been preserved without error and passed down throughout time. Others would contend the King James version of the Bible contains the only authentic writings that have been preserved.

 We do not have copies of the original biblical autographs and the signers of the Chicago Statement admit that inspiration pertains only to those original writings. The Bibles we have today are based upon a careful reconstruction of the original documents so they are as close to the originals as possible. There are thousands of documents that are scraps of biblical verses or complete books of the Bible. Scholars are constantly working to ensure accuracy of materials in the original language sources used to translate our Bibles today and new things are discovered each year through archaeological digs at biblical sites that give more information about how words were used in the ancient world as well as non-biblical writings that parallel the Bible.

 If the Bible is without error, what is the extent of that inerrancy? Some would extend inerrancy to all areas of life: religion, chronology, science, history, philosophy, etc. Regardless of what scholars in these other disciplines discover and report, the biblical text (generally the King James text) is inerrant and anything else is discounted as “error.”

 For example, despite what physicists and astronomers are saying about a “Big Bang” being the way creation began, the inerrantist would still say that the biblical account in Genesis 1 and 2 is the only true explanation, that God created everything in six 24-hour days and there was no “Big Bang.” Other Christians believe that the Scriptures do not err only in fulfilling their primary purpose of revealing God, His vision, purposes, and good news to humanity.

 Textual criticism has shown us many textual differences between various manuscripts of the same scripture passage. These differences are “errors” because which manuscript is correct? They all can’t be correct. Footnotes in most modern biblical translations indicate where there are differences in text.  However, textual criticism has also shown that these errors do not change any basic teaching of Scripture.

 I do not have space to be more exhaustive. If you combine a literalism as I described in the preceding blog with an inerrantist position that the Bible is not in error in all areas of life, then that is intellectual and spiritual tyranny. It is not a tyranny imposed from the Bible itself or imposed by God, but by humans. It is a view that closes the mind to new discoveries. For example, I have read articles where carbon dating was an acceptable process for validating biblical archaeology. However, carbon dating was not an acceptable process for validating the existence of dinosaurs prior to the creation of humans or that the earth was formed millions of years ago rather than 4000. It is this kind of tyranny that turns many people away from the Bible and Christian faith.

 I will say more about this in later blogs, but my own position is the belief that the Bible is trustworthy and accurate in telling us about God, His desire for a people He can call His own, the plan of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the Christian walk of life.

The understanding I have of the biblical material, Its historical setting, and the kind of literature it is, allows me to accept both the Big Bang and Genesis 1 and 2. The beauty of Genesis is that it allows us a timeless and poetic way of celebrating God’s creation without being tied to any scientific theory. If Genesis 1 and 2 had been written from the perspective of the Newtonian understanding of the universe it would be out of date today. Currently, the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics have supplanted Newton’s views. In the years to come there will be further scientific probing into parallel universes and the attempt to harmonize the differences between quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity that will produce new explanations that could supplant both quantum mechanics and relativity.

 But Genesis will live on, showing us the beauty of God’s handiwork. To tie it to a particular scientific theory or law or to try and harmonize Genesis with a scientific theory or law destroys that beauty. I do not believe the Bible is literal, as I have described literal, or inerrant, in the sense that it is without error in every area of life. I prefer the terms “sufficient,” “trustworthy,” and “authoritative” rather than “inerrant.” Oh yes, I know. Someone is going to tell me it is these things because it is inerrant. Sorry, I have heard that before!