Thursday, 10 September 2009

The Bible - Literally True?

I have changed the order and decided to tackle literalism next.

One of the things that really annoys me is when people claim that the Bible is literally true – every word directly inspired by God and absolutely correct. It annoys me for many reasons but mainly because a literal reading of the Bible gives rise to 7 day Creationism which, in my opinion, damages the Church’s witness by making us look stupid and old fashioned.

Of course the first question is which Bible? The Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Slavonic all have different books in the Old Testament so if you say the Bible is literally true you need to say which Bible you mean. Besides what we have are only translations and even then we don’t have a single original text. This in itself puts the idea of a literal Bible on shaky ground.

The really odd thing is that taking the Bible literally is a relatively modern idea that wouldn’t have occurred to earlier generations. As far as I can tell people who unwitting brought this about are John Wycliffe, the Reformers, Robert Raikes – who isn’t as well known today as he should be – and, oddly Islam.

John Wycliffe had the dangerous idea of translating the Bible into English and the translation that bears his name is the forerunner of the King James Bible – the first official translation made available to those who could read. Of course this wasn’t many of the population in the 17th century and this is where Robert Raikes comes into the story as he is regarded as the founder of the Sunday School movement. Now this wasn’t Sunday School as I remember it but it also included teaching all the children to read and write leading to a situation where the common people could increasingly read the Bible.

The Reformers, as I mentioned in looking at the Bible as the Word of God, decided that scripture alone was the guide for the Christian Church (Sola Scriptura) and promptly threw out books in the Old Testament which they didn’t think came up to scratch; Martin Luther even questioned some books in the New Testament. They had placed the Bible at the centre of their faith and encouraged everyone who could to read it in their own language while ignoring the historic tradition of what constituted the Bible.

The Reformers were, generally, educated men who had been taught to read The Bible as literature and to read the truth within the literature not within the words. Let me explain that; in my dictionary there are 4 consecutive words; literal, literary, literate and literature which all stem from the same Latin word ‘littera’ – letter. When the reformers talked about truth in the Bible they, as literate men of letters, were talking about it being literarily true (truth contained within the literature) and not literally true (truth contained within the words.)

I think Islam comes into the picture at this stage as they believe the Koran was literally dictated to Mohammad and, somehow, this idea has moved into Christianity with some Christians believing that the Bible is, in effect, dictated directly by God word for word – despite most of reading a translation.

Since the Enlightenment the Bible has been read as it was a text book full of facts which is not the way the Jews or the Early Church would have read it. The Old Testament is a story about the relationship between God and the Jews; a love story that, in common with a lot of love stories, it is written in poetic, not literal language. The story of the creation, to the Jews, is just that, a story, but one which contained the truth that God created and that He saw that it was good. Talking of the creation stories I have never worked out how the literalist can explain man and woman being created in Genesis 1 and then again in chapter 2.

The Bible should be read as a story which tells God’s story (not ours) and, like the parables of Jesus, isn’t meant to be literal – what would the bride look like in the Song of Solomon if it was meant to literally true! Beside do you really think the Pharisees walked round with planks in their eyes?

I therefore do not believe in the Bible literally but literarily – looking for the truth intended by the original writers to tell God’s story – and using this to guide us on our walk of faith.

I believe that God the Holy Spirit can speak to us through the Bible in ways we cannot understand or foretell, surprising us and pointing us to Jesus, God in human form, and guiding us to live our lives like His. It tells the story of God’s relationship with the Jews leading up to the climatic moment of the crucifixion. In view of this I believe that reading and studying the Bible are an important part of the Christian life.


Alastair said...

A great post, Hugh.

I've been struck be two things I've read recently in this area. First was a quote in the book by Dave Tomlinson I've just finished reading ("Reenchanting Christianity"). I can't remember the quote exactly, but the gist of it is that it is only through reinterpreting the Scriptures that we actually get closer to God.

I experienced an example of this as I was reading the interpretation of Genesis in Brian McLaren's "The Story we find ourselves in". I've never really found Genesis a particularly beautiful book, but the explanation of Adam and Eve and Cain and Able was mind-blowing! It just made me think, why on earth didn't I think of it that way before?! That is Brian McLaren's peculiar skill... I won't spoil it, as I don't think you've read this one yet, but it's fantastic.

Brian Genda said...

Wow, great points! I've been thinking those things for a while but you articulated it in a way that makes sense---including the bit about the Koran, because I've done quite a bit of study on it and Islamic culture and one thing that struck me ever since I did, was that the Koran explicitly states over and over that it is intended to be interpreted literally, every word, but the Bible never does and yet fundamentalist Christians interpret it that way.

I also like how you tied the reformers into the issue, in that fundamentalist protestants look at the reformers for their "literal" interpretations, despite the fact that the reformers did quite a bit of their own changes on the Bible itself.

Still Breathing said...

Brian, Thank you for your comments. My thinking has gone a bit further since I wrote this and I now think that the British Empire, particularly in India, might be partly to blame.
Some Hindus believe the Vedas to be holy and in Sikhism the Guru Granth Sahib is regarded as a living guru. I can just imagine the Christian confronted by these holy books responding by saying that the Bible is their holy book.
The point, essentially, remains the same.