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14But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it,15and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17)

Literalism, Nationalism, and Politicism: The struggle of Christianity in the United States.

OR

Did Christendom make Christians dumb?
Part 1 - Literalism

The Bible, or the “Good Book” as it is sometimes known, is a collection of various types of literature and genres (poetry, history, wisdom sayings, apocalyptic visions, pastoral letters, law & gospel) that primarily began as oral tradition and in time was written down. These various writings (thanks to the work of ancient scribes and meetings of ecumenical church councils) were ultimately gathered, debated, critiqued and finally compiled into the collection of books that makes up the Bible as we know it today. Indeed the history of the Bible itself could be its own article, but for now, let us just agree to accept the fact that the Bible did not simply fall out of the sky in the form of the King James English Version, but rather it was the work of many decades of labor.

As the primary book of the Christian faith (and an immensely important book to other faiths as well) the Bible is valuable for the many insights it provides into the work of God among us, the relationship between God and creation, and our purpose as God’s creation in this world. Perhaps most of all, for Christians, the Bible is home to the many stories of Jesus of Nazareth and the life he lived among us here on earth as well as the life he promises to those who believe in Him for all eternity.

While today’s modern Bibles come in various translations and include commentaries, introductions, concordances, maps, illustrations, tables of contents, and appendices; something they often do not come with is instructions. Thus, it is left entirely up to the reader to choose how they are going to read the Bible (i.e. Do I begin with Genesis or go straight to the Gospels?) and how they are going to interpret its meaning (i.e. Was the world actually created in six 24-hour days, or does each day represent a much longer period of time?) as it applies to their lives.
In modern Christendom, especially in the United States, it has become entirely fashionable to read and interpret the whole of the Bible literally regardless of where one begins reading (Genesis or the Gospels) or of what is being read (poetry or prophecy or apocalyptic visions). Yet interestingly enough, this modern practice of absolute literalistic interpretation is just that, a modern practice.

As literary critic and cultural historian Catherine M. Wallace PhD would tell us:

“Furthermore, in the ancient world—in the times when biblical documents were being written, edited, rewritten, re-edited, and assembled into The Book, the literal meaning of any serious or sophisticated text was regarded as its least important level of meaning. The literal meaning wasn’t the core. It was a shell, a surface, something to entertain the crowds maybe, but not remotely serious intellectually. In the ancient world, the serious dimensions of meaning were what today we call the metaphorical, the symbolic, and the moral.”
(Wallace, Catherine M. “The Cultural History of Biblical Fundamentalism”)

As it turns out early Christians struggled against an utterly literal interpretation of the Bible because it often negated science and discovery and it also conflicted with the various truths and insights found within figurative and symbolic interpretations of texts.

A great historical example of this is St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430CE) who highlighted several problems that came with a strictly literal interpretation of the creation account in Genesis. Augustine wrote:

“In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different Interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.
Often, a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances, … and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, which people see as ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn.”
(St. Augustine of Hippo, The Literal Meaning of Genesis. vol. 1, Ancient Christian Writers.)

Looking back at the long history of teachings and practices of biblical interpretation, one quickly discovers that it was not until sometime after the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century that a strict Biblical literalism began to slowly gain popularity among certain constituents of the Christian faith. The reason for this growth in popularity was due to increasing concern over scientific theories, secular discoveries, and the skeptical view of religion and Holy Scripture that began to flourish during the 18th century Age of Enlightenment.

Now, while I strongly believe that the intentions of the literalistic movement were for the protection of the faithful, the results of the movement thus far into our own day have been questionable if not disastrous when it comes to things like: the unfortunate wedge that literalists insist on driving between science and religion, the growth in Biblical illiteracy due to a lack of contextual research or critical scholarship, and the constant fear-mongering and repetitive end of world predictions of literalistic interpreters of apocalyptic texts.

Indeed the main result of such strict literalism has been to turn the Bible into a cage; one that forbids the Holy Spirit from moving the church forward or inspiring change, and what’s more, it has had the effect of deifying the Bible such that the Bible itself becomes the central object of worship rather than the God who inspired its creation.

The way that the early church and our spiritual ancestors like Augustine avoided making such a mistake, as has been caused by rampant Biblical literalism, was to embrace a certain amount of humble flexibility when it came to interpreting the Biblical text; recognizing the simple and literal meaning as merely one facet of a multitude of interpretative options.

Perhaps where this can best inspire us today is to encourage us to read the Bible with a more open mind; to ask more questions about the text and its possible variety of meanings, not only caring about how the Bible speaks to our own day, but also considering and taking into account what it might have meant for the first listeners and hearers of the text.

In taking the time to read the Bible with care; recognizing the vast differences between the culture of Biblical times and our own, and considering the variety of thoughts and interpretative commentaries of God’s people over the ages; we will not only come to a much better understanding of the text as it applies to our lives, but we will also develop a greater appreciation for how the Bible is a “living word,” one that is always relevant because it has been inspired by the very Spirit of God.

Your brother in Christ,
Pastor Michael

 

 

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Rev. Michael Ware

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