Should the Bible be taken literally?
On a recent episode of a slightly irreverent show I enjoy on HBO, “Crashing”, the main character is a man of faith trying to make his way in the world of stand-up comedy.
This largely autobiographical program shows how Pete tries to navigate the comedy circuit without violating his faith. Several episodes focus on his participation in the “Good Faith” tour around the country. He is paid well and he travels with other performers of different types who all focus on “clean” acts that are intended not to offend the audiences who mostly gather at churches and other places of faith to see the tour.
In one of his performances, he talks about some of the outlandish things contained in the Bible that, if taken literally, would cause some challenges for us. His main point – which gets him fired from the “Good Faith” tour by none other than the tour manager played by Brady Bunch alumna Eve Plumb – is that it is probably not a good idea to read the book literally.
There are four good reasons for why it is probably not a good idea to read the Bible literally, as explained by David Lose, a senior pastor at the Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, in a recent article in the Huffington Post. First, at no place in its 30,000 verses does the Bible claim that it is factually accurate in terms of history, science, geography, and all other matters. 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. Rather, as Senior Pastor Lose explains, 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).
Second, reading the Bible literally distorts its witness. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus drives the moneychangers out of the Jerusalem Temple in the days immediately preceding the crucifixion. In the Gospel of John, he does this near the beginning of his ministry, two years before his death. Inconsistencies like this in the Bible that undermine any claim that you should read it literally. If the primary intention of the biblical authors was not to record history 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. So, rather than ask who got it right, Senior Pastor Lose contends that we might instead wonder why John describes these events differently than the other evangelists.
Third, most Christians across history have not read the Bible literally. Not only did many of the brightest theologians not subscribe to a literal reading of the Bible, many adamantly opposed such a notion, including St. Augustine. As Karl Barth, arguably the twentieth century’s greatest theologian, once said, “I take the Bible too seriously to read it literally.”
And, finally, reading the Bible literally undermines a chief confession of the Bible about God, according to Senior Pastor Lose. Read the Bible even for a little while and you will soon realize that many of the major characters are less than ideal. Peter, for example, denied Jesus three times while Abraham passes his wife off as his sister twice in order to save his skin. And that’s the point – the God of the Bible regularly uses ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things. Those who take the Bible literally unwittingly ascribe to the Bible the status of being “fully human and fully divine” that is normally reserved only for Jesus.
I hope these reflections are useful to you the next time you encounter the argument that the Bible should be read literally and to help you with meaningful context when you are immersing yourself in it.
Greg Fortsch, Sr. Warden