Friday, February 01, 2008

The Bible Tells Me So: Implications

In the last few weeks, on Friday, I've been thinking about the idea of taking Scripture seriously if not always literally. I've talked about my thoughts on the Old Testament and also why I tend to take the New Testament more literally. So for the final thoughts on this, I wanted to think about the implications of this mindset.

In my mind, there are basically three ways of interpreting Scripture, each with flaws.
  • Entirely literally, which can lead to such things as believing that God (or Satan) planted the dinosaur fossils to challenge our faith and make it difficult to believe in God and the Bible.
  • Entirely figuratively, which in my mind loses much of the value of Scripture, particularly when it comes to Jesus and His Resurrection, something I view as central to Christian faith.
  • And then the way that I've been thinking, a combination of literal and figurative, which as I discussed in the first installment of this whole thing, can lead to cherry picking which Scripture we decide are literal and which are figurative, although .
In thinking about the third way, I freely admit that there are flaws and subjectivity within that perspective, but in a way I think it's harder than the other two. If you decide to take the Bible completely literally or figuratively, all of your decisions are made. There's very little discernment in that part. You then have to decide how you're going to enact those beliefs.

With the third way, there's discernment and study that have to go into determining what is intended to be taken literally and figuratively. In a way, this mindset would seem to free up the Bible to be what it seems like it was meant to be, not completely a rule book or law book to be followed completely (which almost no one does). To me, it is a way to acknowledge Scripture both as God breathed and human influenced, because I don't think the two are mutually exclusive.


Brent said...

One problem with all three is the Christian tendency to figure out what scripture does and does not mean. This is a problem that has been ongoing since Luther and movable type.

IMHO, I think the best thing to do instead of feeling the need to figure it all out, is to leave all options on the table. It is dangerous when someone claims to know exactly what scripture means because it leads to close-mindedness, exclusivity, arrogance, and dissention. This close-minded approach has caused many Christians to put their hands over their ears and say, "nah, nah, nah, nah, I can't hear you..."

So, I say that interpreting scripture should be an ongoing discussion. All should be welcome to the table whether they are liberal, conservative, orthodox, traditional, fundamentalist, catholic, deist, atheist, agnostic, unchurched, young, old, scholarly, layman, etc.


Keith Brenton said...

I view the Bible as the way God intended to tell us what he wants us to know.

Sometimes that's story. Sometimes it's law. Sometimes it's poetry. Sometimes it's history.

Other times, it's legend, poetry, prophecy, census, biography, or even silence. (About 400 years of it at a time, between covenants!)

We don't have a problem with the idea that the Bible had as many as 40 authors. Why should we object to the idea that it can encompass many different literary and writing styles - all inspired by the same Author?

Thomas+ said...

I love you Phil. But you are going about this from a direction that I just can't even begin to get on board with.

You are becoming the king of the false dichotomy. You are misusing the words "literal" and "figurative." You are putting so many false assumptions on the text that I can not begin to list them here.

I feel like you are reducing arguments to straw men and bumper stickers. I know, I sound harsher than I mean to sound, but I just don't know how else to say it.

Sorry, like I said, I love you. But I just have to challenge the whole way you are having this discussion.

Keith Brenton said...

Thomas, you're not critiquing or criticizing here. You're not carrying forward the conversation. Let me be plain: You're not helping Phil when you say, "You are putting so many false assumptions on the text that I can not begin to list them here."


List a couple.

I understand if you must say, "I just don't know how else to say it."

But try.

Phil's trying to make sense of something that doesn't always make sense to him - and that's common to all of us. I've reached a point in my life where I can accept that God doesn't always make sense; that it is not always rational to have faith in Him; that some of the things that happen in scripture and in life are entirely the result of His passion for us. They're mysteries. They're like the questions God puts before Job, implying "I could tell you the answers, but you still couldn't understand them."

So, against all common sense, I believe - because that passion, in a completely inexplicable way, does make sense to me when nothing else will.

Thomas+ said...

OK, Keith. That is fair. And I hear Phil's struggle.

OK, I'll try.

The Psalms. Where do they fall in the literal vs. figurative fight? They are "literally" psalms, they are "literally" meant to be sung. They "literally" praise God, or cry out to him, or chastise him.

But they use "figurative" images. Metaphors are found all over the Psalms.

So, how does a literal vs. figurative debate have any meaning in the Psalms? I don't think it does.

But there is plenty to struggle with. Are the psalms meant to be prophetic? Does that matter? What about the psalms that call for violence? Is that God calling for violence, or the psalmist, or both? What if the psalms "of David?" Are those written by David, even if the text is unclear. Does it matter?

Those questions have nothing to do with literal vs. figurative, but they are important questions of interpretation and application.

And I could use any book of the Bible and do the same thing. Most of the things Phil is struggling with have little to do with literal vs. figurative. The dinosaur comment he makes, for instance. There is no mention in the Bible of anyone doing anything with dinosaur bones, so what kind of literal vs. figurative debate can you have?

My point is similar to Keith's previous post. You have to deal, or you should deal, with each issue in context.

Ultimately, I think Phil's problems have little to do with literal vs. figurative. It sounds much more like he is concerned about the character of God. He sounds like he would prefer a "kinder, gentler" god than the one he sometimes sees in the Bible. I understand that, having felt the same way many times.

But I think he is hiding behind figurative vs. literal. I could be wrong, certainly, but I think this is more about the God of the Bible than the Bible itself.

Justin said...


I think part of the problem is that we're coming from completely different situations. Evangelical and High Church understandings are quite different. We have differing understandings of the words we use. When Phil is saying literal, he's referring to (and I don't mean to put words in his mouth) people that believe that everything in the bible must be taken as complete truth, that there isn't room for nuance, basically. The dinosaur bones reference comes from something I heard just recently, people that believe that the bible not only is God's word, but that its authoritative for science as well, meaning, that the earth was created in 6 literal days and the earth is only appx 6000 years old. This belief, and understanding of the bible means that they must reject empirical fact, such as the fact that dinosaurs existed or that the earth isn't 6000 years old. They come up with ideas, like that the devil put dinosaur bones in the earth to trick us, or that God made things look really old for the same reason. There's nothing in the bible to back up this understanding, but when your faith is based on the bible being authoritative on all subjects, you really have no choice but to invent insane conspiracies involving God in order to make your faith valid.

Phil said...

Just a quick update: I'm going to be talking about some of the issues raised here on this Friday's post. I think Thomas has said some very integral things about why I'm asking the things I am. I think you're splitting hairs a bit too and making some straw men out of my straw men, but that doesn't negate the insights.

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