Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake
The hugely popular approach to Scripture known as biblical literalism has resulted in cultural and political impotence for the Church, and led to many false and harmful teachings. I explained this in detail in my book, Return to Genesis, and will happily do so more briefly below.
In a previous article, How to Study the Bible, I suggested some principles for us to keep in mind as we study God’s Word. The only one that might be be considered controversial by some is principle #1, on not bringing a literal bias to the text. Many Christians insist on doing exactly that, and sadly they are proud of it.
As the author of this “Premodern Wisdom” blog, I can assure you that from everything I know about the ancients, they were not inclined to literalism. They viewed the world holistically rather than atomistically. Since the people lived close to nature, they were natural poets, at least in comparison with most of us. They found a rich source of metaphors and symbols in everything from the seas, lands, and their animals below, to the sky and birds above.
Jesus spoke in parables to the crowds, and often used metaphors from the Old Testament when speaking to His disciples. Our Lord is also given direct credit for The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Rev. 1:1), which is rich in symbolism.
Somehow, Christian literalists have succeeded in making the New Testament mostly about Paul’s teachings, not those of our Lord Jesus.
I don’t doubt that most biblical literalists sincerely want to understand the Bible. Through their methodology, however, they unintentionally reduce its relevance and power. The problem is that in putting objective knowledge before subjective knowledge, they also put human reason before divine revelation.
Jesus said a tree will be known by its fruit. Whether we talk about Fundamentalist Christians, or strict Calvinists, all biblical literalists tend to be legalistic and judgmental. This all comes from the “tree” of using human reason as the primary, if not exclusive means of understanding God’s Word.
God wants us to use our ability to reason, but we can’t fully understand His Word without also using our hearts. Otherwise, even if we have the best intentions, we will limit God and marginalize His Word.
The Push to Marginalize the Bible
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the fact that we all bring our own preconceptions and biases to our study of God’s Word. There are some legitimate ones, which are listed in my post on How to Study the Bible. Anyway, I asked the Lord in prayer whether I was correct about all the biases and expectations that I bring to the Bible. For instance, more than most Christians, I find a lot of application and relevance in the Bible, including the Old Testament. I asked the Lord in prayer, “Is this right? And if so, how can I defend myself from any critics?”
After I had pondered the question for a few days, the Lord brought Mark 7:13 (KJV) to my remembrance:
Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.
I realize that even though this came as a revelation to me, it may seem obvious to you. We’ve all been told to apply the Scriptures. However, for me, nobody had ever tied it in with this verse.
This verse confirmed for me that general speaking, seeing the Bible as relevant for today is not a bad thing. This, of course, doesn’t justify every “relevant” or “practical” interpretation. As I had explained, we must take time to understand the context and rightly interpret the Word.
This verse also reminded me that people who are influenced by the sin nature want to think of the Bible as being mostly, if not entirely irrelevant. We can easily confirm this by taking a poll of nonbelievers. The same sin nature is present in all Christians.
Literalists Deny the Bible’s Relevance
Biblical literalists take pride in interpreting Bible passages literally when possible. While it is often possible to take a metaphor literally, that can make us look kind of silly. Moreover, literal readings often detract from the Bible’s relevance for believers, and for the world today.
Antichrist – from a fresco, Osogovo Monastery, Macedonia
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Even though Christ defeated sin and death, many literalists insist that Satan and his minions will always be the supreme rulers of this world. By putting off the kingdom of God to eternity future, they’ve absolved themselves of a great many earthly responsibilities. They and their followers’ defensive response to this evil world is to be good, engage in personal evangelism, and wait for Jesus to come back and rescue them.
In God’s Dominion and Christ’s Kingdom I explained, or rather allowed the Bible to explain, that God is establishing His kingdom in the here and now. Jesus received all authority in heaven and earth. Unlike many of us, He does not suffer from apathy and indifference. God both desires and intends to reign in this world.
God is so great that He is able to convert His enemies by His love through the Holy Spirit and the Church. If God had to forcibly conquer all enemies in order to reign, that would only mean that He had a better army, would it not? Let’s not forget that we were also enemies of Christ before He graciously revealed Himself to us. Are we somehow better, or more worthy than all the non-Christians?… Are we so much more “elect” that God will never save most of the “heathen”?
Biblical literalists also taught me, along with billions of other people, the racist nonsense that Gentile Christians are second class citizens who play only a minor role in God’s plans. Supposedly, ethnic Jews are the “apple” of God’s eyes, and are the true Israel. This teaching disempowers Gentile Christians by causing us to think we don’t have an important role in redemption history. Presumably, the Church won’t even lead the Jewish people to Christ since the Lord will have to return and do it Himself.
Incidentally, a big theme of the literalists is that Jesus is going to take care of everything. No, not Jesus working through the Church today, but the future Jesus in the clouds with His giant sword and His enormous army of angels. That’s the kind of Jesus that even Jews can respect! Sarcasm aside, we must accept responsibility for converting Jews through the preaching of the gospel.
There is only one true Israel. The promised seed of Abraham is Christ (Gal. 3:16). Therefore, anyone who is in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, is a member of the true Israel (Acts 10:34-35, Rom. 9:6-8, Gal. 3:27-29, 4:28, 6:15-16). Those who are of Israel according to the flesh seek physical land and political power. However, those who belong to spiritual Israel desire a heavenly country (Gal. 4:25-26, Heb. 11:13-16). Jesus Himself sought to abolish Jewish tribalism when He told the Jews that their physical descent was of no value (Matt. 3:9, 21:43, John 8:37-44, Rev. 2:9).
Literalists falsely boast that they look for, and believe in whatever is “plainly” taught in the Bible. The identity of God’s people is so transparent in God’s Word that it should be beyond dispute. Nonetheless, false teachers (of the “Dispensationalist” sect) constantly rail against biblical truth. They teach all people that Gentile Christians are an accident of history since God’s prophets (as they allege) knew nothing about us. They insist that God wants Christians to bless the “chosen people,” not so much by leading Jews to Christ, but by supporting pro-Zionist causes and the apartheid state of Israel.
Biblical literalists, under the influence of the human tradition known as Modernism, emphasized the individual over society, and objective knowledge over what they consider to be“subjective” knowledge. However, by definition, anything that we believe in by faith cannot be proven by objective means. Therefore, every Christian ought to be careful lest we give too prominent a place to objective knowledge rather than to faith in God.
Christian fundamentalists employ their literal bias in the belief that they’re both called and able to dissect and rationalize the Bible’s teachings. This has resulted in innumerable schisms and false teachings. The literalists have left the United States and other formerly Christian nations with a form of Christianity that is mostly irrelevant, impotent and in many cases, even counterproductive.
The Apostle Paul warned us about disempowering teachers with a shallow, pious form of spirituality in the following words:
Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. ~ 2 Timothy 3:5
Thankfully, some Evangelicals are less consistent than others in their emphasis on interpreting the Bible literally. For example, I “met” (through their writings at least) some Reformed teachers who had taken time to study the symbolism behind the Bible’s prophecies. This helped me understand what God is doing in the world today. To give you a hint, He’s not orchestrating “Armageddon.” Christians who don’t understand God’s plans for this world are like soldiers who have lost contact with their senior commander. To learn more about Bible prophecy, I recommend these articles.
I understand why Evangelicals embraced biblical literalism. The literalists do allow for some typology because they can’t deny that which is explicit in the Bible and because it confirms that Christ was prophesied in the Old Testament. However, they fear that if anyone were to find “too many” symbols, types, or patterns in a historical narrative, people would begin to challenge the historicity of that account—as if this is an uncommon occurrence.
This apparently means that we should always be looking in a “rear view mirror” at liberal skeptics, and even let that fear guide our Bible studies. In their own version of How to Study the Bible, any honest biblical literalist would have to include, “Be Very Afraid of Theological Liberals.”
I know all about the kind of pressures that liberals, Judaizers, atheists, and other groups like to put on Christians. Still, I don’t knowingly allow any fears to dictate how I study God’s Word!
People will think what they want about the Bible in terms of its historical reliability. Regardless, I’m not ashamed to tell them about its beautiful poetry and symbolism. As Christians learn more about the literary depth and artistry of the Bible, the Church will be strengthened, and we will lead more people to faith in Christ.
I hope you can see that it’s much more biblical and sensible to take a balanced approach to Bible interpretation than to focus on literal teachings at the expense of the poetry and symbolism. We can’t have it both ways.
You may be unsure about all this if you don’t consider yourself to be a “theologian.” If that is that case (or even if not), please share this post in Christian discussion forums and by using the social media buttons. This could pressure some literalists to respond. If that happens, please let me know. I will gladly respond to them if needed.
[You can find more detailed discussions of biblical literalism, the meaning of “Israel,” Jewish supremacism, and Bible poetry in Return to Genesis].