Is Reading Scriptures Literally, Literally Wrong?

I came across a blog post today by Father Stephen, an Orthodox priest about the problems with taking scriptures literally. On this blog, I have tended to focus on how insisting on taking scriptures literally leaves us vulnerable to being unable or unwilling to deal with reality or to losing our faith altogether when our literal understanding comes into conflict with reality. Father Stephen points out another, probably more important problem with a literal approach to scriptures: it engenders a shallow reading of scripture. From his post:

The Scriptures, particularly those of the Old Testament, are frequently misread (from a classical Christian point of view) in a literal manner, on the simple evidence that the New Testament does not read the Old Testament in such a manner. Rather, as is clearly taught by Christ Himself, the Old Testament is “re-read” from a Christological point-of-view. Thus Jonah-in-the-belly-of-the-whale is read by the Church as Christ in Hades. The first Adam in the Garden is but a shadow and antitype of the Second Adam – the One who truly fulfills existence in the “image and likeness” of God. The Passover and the deliverance from Egypt are read as icons of the true Passover, Christ’s Pascha and the deliverance of all creation from its bondage to death and decay. Such a list could be lengthened until the whole of the Old Testament is retold in meanings that reveal Christ, or rather are revealed by Christ in His coming. . .

A “literal” reading of the Old Testament would never yield such a treasure. Instead, it becomes flattened, and rewoven into an historical rendering of Christ’s story in which creative inventions such as “Dispensationalism” are required in order to make all the pieces fit into a single, literal narrative. Such a rendering has created as well a cardboard target for modern historical-critical studies, which delights itself only in poking holes in absurdities created by such a flattened reading.”

Now, I do know that it is possible to see the deeper Christological meaning of the scripture stories while also maintaining a belief that these things are literally historical events, recorded in scriptures. And certainly there are certain things which we need to be literally true. For example, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”

However, I think that Father Stephen is right that by seeing much of scripture as a record of events which can be shaped into a literal narrative, there is a strong tendency to “flatten” scriptures into nothing more than an account of historical events. A person who takes a very literal view of scriptures, will often also find themselves spending a fair amount of time either defending their perspective or avoiding what can threaten their perspective. To the extent that they are willing to deal with ideas contrary to a historical view of scriptures, they do so through the reporting of those who agree with them.

I believe that scriptures themselves make it abundantly clear that in many places, the historical accuracy or lack thereof, is largely besides the point. We often miss it because we are reading translations, but a great deal of scriptures are written in poetic form. The use of imagery is widely used. There are places where we find hyperbole. Some stories are repeated and contradictory. Jesus himself taught using parables rather than finding “true” stories to illustrate his point. To insist that scriptures must be understood as historical accounts, even well written historical accounts, seems to me to be a violation of the very fabric of scriptures. Which again, is not to say that nothing in scriptures is literally true, and there are events such as the life, death and resurrection of Jesus which are supported by a variety of sources. But when we hang our faith on the idea that scriptures must be literally true, we are putting ourselves in grave danger of being left with a shallow, incurious faith which doesn’t reflect the full glory of an unlimited God.

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15 thoughts on “Is Reading Scriptures Literally, Literally Wrong?

  1. upside down world,

    I’m just an Orthodox priest – we don’t usually say Orthodox Catholic (lest we be confused with the Byzantine Catholics which is something else again).

    Good thoughts, thanks.

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  2. We err less taking every word literally than not.

    Before the 20th Century you could have made the OT dietary laws figurative but when science caught up to scripture, they are literally correct just as they were written.

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  3. Father, thanks for the correction. My mind pulled a blank, but I suppose what I meant to say is “Eastern Orthodox”. Would that be correct? The only reason I’m even looking for a descriptive qualifier is because with the divisions in the church, many people have started claiming the word “orthodox” to differentiate between themselves and more liberal members of their denominations. Of course you’d be Orthodox with a capital “O”. Anyhow.

    I’ve read and enjoyed your blog from time to time, btw. There are things which would keep me from converting to Orthodox Christianity. However, I am amazed to find how often a deep reading and understanding of the faith leads me to positions which are in agreement with the best teachings of Orthodox Christianity. I’ll chalk it up to the Holy Spirit at work:
    “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the Word of God boldly. All the believers were one in heart and mind.” Acts 4:31-32

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  4. Hi Rebecca,

    For the sake of clarification, would you be so kind and define “literal” as you use it in this article? Undefined it leaves room for confusion, as I know at least one defintion of “literal” which certainly does not exclude the poetic, the figurative or the metaphorical –when these are indeed in the primary meaning of a text.

    You wrote: “To insist that scriptures must be understood as historical accounts, even well written historical accounts, seems to me to be a violation of the very fabric of scriptures”. Right you are. But equating scriptures to historical accounts is certainly not what traditionally is defined as a literal exegetical approach.

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  5. Interesting points. I find that some accusations of being too literal are meant to deny passages that make us uncomfortable (though I don’t think you were doing that).

    I encourage people to read things in context. Was Jonah a real person? It sure reads that way, and references to him by Jesus and in other books support that. But I don’t view it as an essential that people consider him to be a literal person.

    Jesus also referred to Adam and Eve as literal people, and the geneologies sure do. And the doctrine of original sin would be meaningless if they are some type of metaphor.

    Parables don’t involve literal people, though the messages are literally true.

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  6. Literal interpretation is still a form of interpretation. You still have to decide what is literal and what is not. It is, despite beliefs to the contrary, an active process for the reader. For example, look at the Flood narrative. It gives different details of the exact same event side by side without reconciliation. You can read it “literally”, but then you are holding two discrepant accounts in your mind–if you chose to believe it really happened, you are going to only be able to stick to one. To say that the details aren’t important, or were forgotten, or something like that, only undermines the validity of the account, which sabotages the whole thing.

    “We err less taking every word literally than not.

    Before the 20th Century you could have made the OT dietary laws figurative but when science caught up to scripture, they are literally correct just as they were written.”

    Pork is unclean because pork is unclean, not because of some sacred science, but because of a sacred cultural edict ascribed to a divine source. Blood is unclean because blood is unclean for the same reason–but then you’ll see that blood was also key to Israelite worship and that, surprise, nearly all animals have blood, including people–does this make you unclean? All primitive societies–and all modern ones–have rules about what is clean and what isn’t. Dirt in your house is unclean. Dirt in your garden is not. Spit on the sidewalk is unclean, but everyone is swallowing saliva all day. Leviticus codifies these sometimes arbitrary psychological rules; it is not a scientific document. To read it as such is to trivialize its significance.

    Tangentially, for the first three centuries, before the Council of Nicea, many gospels consisted *only* of the sayings of Jesus–you didn’t have to worry about if you were getting the correct “literal” interpretation because they were full of ethical teachings and parables, not a sacred history.

    And furthermore, check out the Book of Acts–you’ll see right there that James and Peter agree that Leviticus isn’t necessary, but simply to avoid four basic things. Is that a threat to faith? A faith based on something so small-minded as a literal belief in the historical validity of many disparate narratives is a truly weak faith that can only survive by willed ignorance. Sometimes I wish you literalists would actually read the book and stop treating it like some unknowable alien god, worshiping it from afar.

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  7. Hello – I found your blog through your comments on the Gifted for Leadership blog. You have some great writing and enjoyable posts! I’ll be checking back.

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  8. I concur with Neil. The errant view that Scripture is not historical and is merely a large parable has crept into the Church and is rotting it from within.

    The Bible–every single word–is literally true when read in context. As Neil said, the compromising and contortions are made to deflect those parts some dislike or wish to deny.

    Stand firm. It is true. Literally.

    (Psalm 119:160): ‘Thy word is true from the beginning: and every one of thy righteous judgments endureth for ever.’

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  9. It is my opinion, that an insistence on the literal historical accuracy of scriptures is what is rotting the church from within. In addition to the problems of shallow readings of scriptures, there are many who leave because they cannot square reality with an literal reading of scriptures. There are many who will never consider joining for the same reason. If we believe, as Jesus says that you can judge something by the fruit it produces, I think there is more than enough evidence that a literal reading of scriptures is wrong. Nothing which drives people from God and closes the hearts and minds of those left behind can have something good as its source.

    I am living, breathing proof that a faith which does not see Adam and Eve as literal people, etc. can bear good fruit. It has been my experience that it is not coming to see scriptures as being something other than historical fact which drives people from the faith; rather it is being told that one cannot be a faithful Christian while accepting such things that drives people away. The idea that one cannot have a strong healthy faith unless one also holds that Adam and Eve were real people, that the sun literally stood still for Joshua or other such stories from scriptures is one that I intend to give lie to as long as I live.

    I accept that other people just can’t bring themselves to see it this way, but I refuse to allow them to put that on me. I further refuse to allow their voices to be the loudest ones in the marketplace claiming to speak for faithful, orthodox Christianity. It is my opinion that God’s people and church have suffered enough damage from this ideology.

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  10. I don’t think people have to believe in the historical accuracy of the Bible to be authentic Christians (I’m pretty sure the saved thief on the cross hadn’t led too many Bible studies).

    But Jesus held a very, very high view of the OT, quoted it often and had a habit of referring to what we consider the most controversial parts as if they really happened: Adam and Eve, Jonah, Daniel, Sodom, etc. So I don’t think we need to be so quick to abandon the claims for its accuracy. Many churches have tried that and woke up without a foundation one day.

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  11. You know, I have a habit of referring to the people and events in the OT as if they really existed/happened that way, even when I don’t actually think that to be so. Really, although I will take part in these conversations and advocate for my POV, I generally refrain from discussing issues of historical accuracy when discussing specific texts from the OT.

    First of all, I need to be humble enough not to insist that I know exactly what did or did not happen.

    Second of all, I do understand that it can be a big stumbling block for some people and prevent useful discussions and learning about the word of God.

    Finally, I generally find it to be irrelevant to the message of the text.

    So, for me these discussions are useful from a big picture perspective. However, when discussing specific texts, not so much. Really, I would be suspect of any pastor who made a big deal out of such things, one way or the other, from the pulpit.

    However, I maintain that it is not church’s “abandoning the claims for its accuracy” which results in the loss of a foundation or members. There are some who have used abandoning claims of historical accuracy to also abandon the claims for authority, which is a different thing altogether. There are many more, however, who have and are actively chasing off people with claims that faith and an accurate, scientific view of history are compatible. I personally stand against both of these positions.

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  12. Oops, that second to last line should read:

    “There are many more, however, who have and are actively chasing off people with claims that faith and an accurate, scientific view of history are INCOMPATIBLE.”

    I need and editor. 🙂

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  13. Nathan et al,

    Oh bubba you take yourself WAY to seriously.

    Intellectual arogance is no virtue, nor is slinging needless your predetermined conclusions to the tune of anyone who disagrees have not read the sciptures. Not honest or nice.

    Here is the bottom line:

    You get to chose your eternity. Pick as if your next billion plus years depend on it, because it does.

    But lighten up with we other humans, none as in zero of us, have all there is in the Bible down pat.

    Here is a good example:

    A man who goes to prision and has a life changing incounter with Chirst through the preaching of hell fire and damnation preaching from a hard shell Baptist evangelist there.

    He gets out to become an upstanding citizen, and miraculously a county judge, whereupon he teaches Sunday School to a class of 10 and 11 year old boys.

    Now in this church all the children are required to read the whole Bible before being bauptized.

    So the Excon now Judge leads the boys through every word of the Bible, using the enterpretations he gathered from his hell fire mentor in prison.

    The boys do not know what to think about the answers to their questions of scriptures, it’s all one doctrinal view.

    Confusing?

    The boys grow into men, and low and behold as they grow, go to school, marry, have families, etc in life, they individually go different ways.

    Years later you find each of the former judge’s Sunday School Class outstanding men in life in various fields, two of them pastors, with various professions represented.

    Not one of them adhears to the original doctrine of hell fire strips, but went off to different churches and have grown in their understanding and application of the Bible in their lives.

    God is well able to teach and correct men through the Holy Spirit, moving a man to another church and teaching, etc.

    So the work done by the old judge, however true or in error his interpretations of the scripture was or was not, was lasting and good.

    Do not get so carried away with yourself you miss the main event in Christ, or rip from yourself your own understanding and growth putting on aires.

    No one knows it all, but you have a choice to put your trust in Christ or not. It is that simple. God will tend to the rest.

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  14. In the name of all that is holy, just read the Scripture and quit arguing about what we should take literally. Stop dancing around the fact that Jesus revered the Old Testament and that it testified to the work of the Messiah. To quote Jesus: “Heaven and earth shall pass away but my words shall never pass away”. I will still revere the Scriptures and ignore man’s opinion. Please again just read the Scripture. Thanks

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