Is Reading Scriptures Literally, Literally Wrong?*

I came across a blog post 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.

*Originally posted May 2008.

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