I Take Bible Too Seriously to Take It Literally

The only book we had in my childhood home was the Bible! Though my mother had only a sixth grade education, she read the Bible daily until her death at age 96.

In our home, the Bible was more than a book. It was a revered icon, a visible repository of God’s revelation. We learned its stories, memorized verses and entire chapters. It was the source of our ethical compass.

The church of my childhood proudly described itself as “fundamentalist.” The King James Bible reigned supreme as “God’s Word,” as though dictated by God rather than being published in 1611 under the direction of Anglican King James I.

One of my most dramatic and memorable childhood experiences was seeing a copy of the newly Revised Standard Version of the New Testament burned during worship. The preacher declared that “Communists and atheists” translators had “tampered with the Word of God.”

He proceeded to set the pages on fire so that this “corrupt” version of the Bible would burn, just as its translators would “burn in hell.”

The preacher’s point was clear: We must take this book seriously; tampering with it has drastic consequences!

His point is correct! The Bible is to be taken seriously. Failure to do so has far-reaching consequences.

The problem is this: “Seriously” to the preacher meant “literally.” He failed to realize that literalism can be a way of avoiding taking the Bible seriously, and the results can be devastating.

Literalism tends to rob the Bible of its depth, beauty, mystery, and imagination.   Taking it literally means you don’t have to probe its meaning because the meaning is self-evident (” the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” or “it means exactly what it says”).

Literalism can be an avoidance mechanism against the deeper meaning. Focusing on the details of whether a great fish really swallowed Jonah distracts from the harder truth of the story: God loves our enemies as much as God loves us!

Or, reading the first two chapters of Genesis as factual accounts of how creation came into existence enables us to avoid the question why and our role as participants in the ongoing nurturing of the earth.

In reality, we are all selective literalists. A participant in a Bible study challenged my assertion that one can believe in Genesis and in evolution.  He argued, “The Bible clearly says that God created the world in six days. Evolution contradicts the Bible and I believe the Bible. The Bible means exactly what it says!”

A few weeks later, we had moved to a discussion of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’s admonition to “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” and “go the second mile.” I asked, “What are the implications of these passages for our criminal justice system and the use of the death penalty.”

The man who had previously insisted on a “literal” interpretation of Genesis 1 responded: “Well, it can’t be taken literally or we would have to be pacifists.”  He obviously was being selective in his literalism.

Some passages should be taken literally: The Great Commandment, love your enemies, the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount, 1 Corinthians 13 to name a few. But even these have to be interpreted, amplified, explained.

Taking the Bible seriously requires that we interpret each part by the meaning of the whole. That is, every passage has to be viewed in terms of its relationship to the overall theme of the Bible–God’s mighty acts of salvation of human hearts, communities, and the entire cosmos.

Ripping verses from the Bible and using them as “proof texts” is tantamount to a surgeon removing an organ without knowing the organ’s relationship to the whole body. We would charge such a reckless surgeon with malpractice.

I firmly believe in the authority of Scripture! Its authority, however, does not reside in its verbal inerrancy.

Here is my understanding of the Bible’s authority: Its authentic witness to the Word-Made-Flesh and its power through the Holy Spirit in community to transform human hearts, relationships, communities, and the entire creation into the likeness of Jesus the eternal Christ.

Being transformed by the Bible requires more than superficial reading, like reading a fortune cookie or daily horoscope. It requires delving deeply into the context, language, nuance, ambiguity, contradictions, and mystery beyond the literal words.

Taking the Bible seriously involves the insights of the community, including the scholars who have devoted their lives to understanding the Scriptures.

Serious reading of Scripture requires putting ourselves in the stories and being changed by the message. Scripture interprets us as surely as we interpret Scripture. Only those willing to be transformed by the Holy Spirit speaking through Scripture take the Bible seriously.

So, the final test of how seriously we take the Bible is the character formed in us. Is the Bible —

  • shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, who is the true Word of God?
  • expanding our capacity to love, including those deemed the “other” or “enemy”?
  • deepening our commitment to and practice of compassion and justice?
  • empowering us to participate fully in God’s present and coming reign in Jesus Christ?
  • increasing our faith, hope, and courage to live God’s vision of a healed, just, and reconciled creation?

If the answer is “no,” we aren’t taking the Bible seriously, even if we literally “believe every word it says.”