Monday, February 9, 2009

In Defense of Biblical Non-Literalism

A very touchy subject for today's post, so let me begin with a disclaimer. I'm not trying to tell anyone how to read the Bible, and I'm not forcing my opinion on anyone else. Feel free to disagree with me. It just seems that for some, the Bible must be read literally or not at all; to read the Bible non-literally is seen almost as an act of cowardice, as though the non-literal reader can't face the truth. I very much disagree with that claim. I think that non-literal readings of the Bible are equally as valid as literal readings, and that taking a "middle way" with respect to the Scriptures can have very positive consequences. As I say, I do not intend to change minds with this post, but merely to explain my own position.

The ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for those who don't know) recently published a little book about reading the Bible titled Opening the Book of Faith. In it, one of the authors, Mark Allan Powell, addresses the question "Do you believe the Bible? Do you believe it literally?"

He responds, "I'm not sure how to answer that. I believe the literal parts literally. And I believe the metaphorical parts metaphorically. When the Bible says, 'The Lord is my shepherd' (Ps 23:1), I believe that, but I don't think I believe it literally. If the Lord were literally my Shepherd, then wouldn't I have to be a literal sheep? And I'm not. The Bible says God is a rock (Ps 18:31). I believe that. But I don't believe it literally."

This already assumes, of course, that some parts of the Bible are meant to be read differently than other parts—that some parts are literal, others metaphorical. Then there are disagreements over which parts (if any) are indeed literal. Some scholars take a very radical view of what texts are metaphorical, even doubting if Jesus' life has any historical basis. I find it helpful to think about what was the author's likely intention. Obviously, this cannot be known with certainty; but much of the Biblical criticism that I have to study here at the seminary is concerned with those sorts of questions. Studying a text in this way will probably never lead to complete consensus over how it should be read, but it allows one to make informed decisions for one's self. Part of the reason I find studying Hebrew so fascinating is because of the insights it offers into the society of the Old Testament, which allows me to better understand how the Old Testament might have been meant by the people who wrote it.

What does it mean to say that the Bible is the Word of God? Does it mean that every word has equal value and must be taken literally? Or does it mean that the Scriptures give a faithful witness to who God is and how God acts in the world, without requiring that every verse is taken at face value? I'm inclined to believe the latter. In Opening the Book of Faith, Powell says, "[By 'The word of God'], we do not mean, 'the Bible is a book that contains no errors or contradictions'. We mean, 'the Bible is the book that tells us what God wants to say to us'. That puts a different spin on things. For the most part, Lutherans are more interested in understanding the Bible than they are in defending it. We don't think that we have to prove that the Bible is the word of God—we just believe that it is the Word of God, and then we focus on asking, 'What does God have to say to us?'"

I agree with Powell's perspective. I find it far more fruitful to read the Bible and try to understand what it says to me, to my Christian community, to the world—accepting that not every verse will speak to me in the same way or at the same time—than to try to hold the Scriptures together as an inerrant monolith that has to be taken whole cloth or not at all. You certainly don't have to agree with this way of reading the Bible. But consider that it may be a very lively and faithful way of listening to God's Word.

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