What does it mean to read the Bible literally? For many Christians reading the Bible literally is vital in taking the authority of Scripture seriously, and ensuring that we understand it objectively rather than interpreting it in a way that suits us. But what do we actually mean by this, do we do it in practice, and is it even possible?
I think a lot comes down to what we mean by a literal interpretation. None of us reads the Bible as a direct communication from God to us, without first filtering it through some kind of interpretive lens. To use an extreme example, I doubt many sincere Bible-believing Christians have taken seriously Paul’s request to bring him his coat, books and papers that he left in Troas. Given that we all interpret the Bible to some degree, the question then is not whether we are taking it literally or interpreting it for ourselves, but rather how we are interpreting it and whether we are doing so in a way that is faithful to the text, to the original authors, and ultimately to the Holy Spirit.
Christians will often talk about taking the plain meaning of the text, and not trying to explain it away (“You’re interpreting the Bible to make it say what you want it to, I’m just reading what it says”). Again this comes from a healthy motivation to take the Bible seriously, and is a right reaction to our tendency to try to mold the Bible to our preferences rather than changing our worldview to fit that of the Bible. But the problem I see with this is that even with apparently straightforward parts of the Bible, what may be for one person the obvious plain meaning might be for another a very unintuitive interpretation.
We all come to the Bible with our own pre-conceived ideas, and our own questions that we want answered. For a 21st century North American wanting to know what makes an individual Christian distinct from his or her non-Christian neighbours, the “plain meaning” of Paul’s words about election and predestination in Ephesians 1 may be quite different to that understood by a 1st century Gentile community struggling with the question of how they as newcomers to the faith relate to God’s chosen people Israel. Or for a 21st century European who wants to know how doing good relates to being saved, the “plain meaning” of Paul’s argument about faith and works in Galatians 3 may be quite different from that understood by 1st century Gentiles wondering how the traditional Jewish badges of identity and separation – circumcision and food laws – define or don’t define the new community whose identity comes from Jesus.
The problem is that what we believe to be the plain, obvious or literal meaning of the Bible may not be plain and obvious to everyone else! The plain meaning of Genesis 1 for a 21st century American for whom science and matter are the primary way of viewing the world may not have been at all obvious to a Jew 3,000 years ago living in a world of competing creation myths. The plain meaning of the story of the rich man and Lazarus to a poor person living in a slum in India may not be at all obvious to a modern-day European. This issue has caused countless splits in the church throughout history, particularly in western Protestantism which tends to reduce faith to simple incontrovertible truths with little tolerance for complexity, mystery or ambiguity.
Is there a way forward? Are we stuck in a post-modern mess where everyone has their own interpretation of the Bible, which says more about themselves than about God’s narrative of history? I would suggest that it is actually possible to move beyond this post-modern reaction to modern reductionism, to a more coherent solution.
- Firstly we need to realise that there are various ways to interpret the Bible, so this is a valid and very important conversation to have.
- Having said that, not every interpretation of the Bible is equally valid – some may do great injustice to the overall narrative and to God’s message.
- Having said that, God, by his grace and by the Holy Spirit, can and sometimes does still use our very limited interpretations to speak into our situations.
- But at the same time, if our desire is to know God and his redemptive story of creation and new creation, we need to seek as much as possible to understand the Bible on its own terms.
- This will mean, as much as possible, putting ourselves in the shoes of those to whom the various parts of the Bible were originally written, asking the questions they were asking and exploring the situations they were facing.
- As we try to do this, we will need to do so in humility and openness, and will be particularly helped by seeking out wisdom from people who see the world very differently from ourselves, reading the Bible with the global church.
What do you think?