“Literalists” are stupid. Or at least, they are uneducated. If they knew what we know, if they had only been properly, adequately educated, they would be progressive critical thinkers like us. Sound familiar?
But who or what exactly do we mean by “literalist”? Strictly speaking, bona fide Biblical literalists are extremely rare. Not even the most fire-breathing Baptist believes that the Beast in Revelation 13 will be a literal snarling beast. Indeed, in his book The Time Is at Hand, PCA author Jay Adams finds almost nothing in Revelation that he takes literally other than the return of Christ himself.
A large share of accused literalists do not follow a literal six-day creation. Some have less-than-literal views of some of the large numbers in the Bible. So is literal interpretation of the Bible really the issue, or is “literalism” merely a code word for orthodoxy?
Do those who reject “literalism” have a problem believing that Jesus was conceived without human sperm, or that he performed actual miracles that defied natural law, or that he paid the price for sin on the cross, or that his crucified body was raised and witnessed by his followers, or that he ascended into the sky, or that he will actually return to earth in bodily form at the end of time? If so, then what we really have is antagonism toward orthodoxy.
What is mistakenly called Biblical “literalism” is an approach that one might call an evangelical Ockham’s Razor: “If the plain sense of the Bible makes good sense, seek no other sense.” Such has been the “literalist” approach to sexual ethics that some so strenuously object to. An evangelical Ockham’s Razor finds the attempts to explain away the Bible’s clear teaching on sex to be much harder to believe than to accept that teaching at face value. To their credit, some progressives are courageous enough to admit this.
Ironically, an anti-literalist approach may end up taking the Bible too literally at times. The Bible says, “Do not be drunk with wine”, but does that mean it’s OK to be drunk with whiskey or marijuana? Jesus tells us not to call our neighbor Reqa (“Emptyhead”) or Moron, but does that mean it’s OK to call him/her an S.O.B.? What are we to make of the Bible’s lack of condemnation toward sex with a minor? If we take that silence too literally, it must be OK. Worst of all, we dare not take the Golden Rule too literally; otherwise, well-meaning hosts may feed me fish because they like it, even though I can’t stand the stuff.
It is arrogant to claim that we are smarter than the great minds of the past (such as Blaise Pascal) who held to an essentially literal approach to the Bible. In some cases, we may have more data than they did, but even these gains of knowledge have not changed the basic picture on the issues that divide us. The claims that same-sex attraction is created by God and can be loving and mutual, for instance, are not new information; those claims are as old as Plato and Lucian. The NT simply rejected such claims.
The modern “critical” viewpoint was already held by the ancient Epicureans, who believed that the universe was created by a chance meeting of atoms, that hell does not exist, that nothing is intrinsically evil, and that God is not needed to explain anything that happens around us. One rabbi says in the Mishnah (Aboth 2:14) that every Jew should know Scripture well enough “to refute the Epicurean.” Again, this modern “critical” view was both known and rejected by the NT authors.
The whole issue boils down to what justifies rejection of the face value of a given scripture. Here, smart people can draw different conclusions without calling each other stupid. A corollary tenet of “literalism” is the attitude that the Bible is trustworthy until proven otherwise, rather than vice versa. For further defense of “literalism”, I refer you to my three-part series “Historicity: Does It Matter?” in the Outlook archives.
TOM HOBSON of Belleville, Ill., a PC(USA) pastor for 30 years, is Chair of Biblical Studies at Morthland College, West Frankfort, IL, and author of What’s on God’s Sin List for Today? (Wipf and Stock, 2011).