Looking for an articulate explanation of literal interpretation of the bible vs. non-literal
December 23, 2012 7:29 PM   Subscribe

Bible filter: Question on biblical interpretation

For those who don't have a literal interpretation of the bible, but are a christian - how do you explain to those who do interpret the bible literally your point of view? For example how does an episcopalian explain to a baptist their reason for a broader interpretation of the bible. Any websites that shed light on this topic would be helpful as well. Thanks.
posted by BlueMartini7 to Religion & Philosophy (17 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Episcopalians believe in Biblical Inspiration. The bible was written by mere men inspired by the spirit of God, and is therefore an imperfect representation of spiritual truth.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:57 PM on December 23, 2012

I don't know what other people do, but I usually side-step the motivational problem a bit by pointing out that no one reads the whole Bible literally. Prophetic books like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Revelation cannot be understood if read literally. Similarly with Jesus' parables: Jesus isn't talking about bread when he says to avoid the yeast of the Pharisees. The question then gets turned back on the alleged literalist: Why adopt a non-literal reading of the parables or the prophetic books? Understanding why one adopts a non-literal reading of one part of the Bible often helps one understand why someone else might adopt a non-literal reading of some other part of the Bible.

The result of recognizing that everyone reads at least some of the Bible non-literally is to move the conversation from "Should one read the Bible literally or not?" to "Should one read this or that specific passage literally or not?"
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 8:01 PM on December 23, 2012 [7 favorites]

Genre matters:
The bad news is that if you want to read those 66 books, then you’ll still need to figure all that out. You need to figure out what kind of books these are because unless you know what kind of book you’re reading, you won’t know how to read it.

Generally, this is something we do almost unconsciously. We understand that there are different genres and different kinds of texts, and we’re usually pretty good at allowing the kind of text to provide the context for what we’re reading.

Thus if you were waiting in line at the store and you saw a headline reporting that “Obama Meets With Space Aliens,” you would react differently if that headline were in the Weekly World News than you would if it were in The New York Times. You realize, I hope, that the Times makes factual claims that it attempts to support and to confirm through investigation, while the Weekly World News makes the most outrageous claims it can dream up in the hopes of getting you to buy a copy on your way out of the store. If the latter reported on space aliens at the White House, you would ignore it. If the former reported the same thing, you would be excited because something important has just happened (either space aliens have landed, or the Times has lost its collective mind — either one would be Big News).
So, the conservative evangelical approach tends to see every book of the Bible as part of a coherent Instruction Manual For Life, where a more liberal approach tends to separate out what's meant as history, what's meant as poetry, what's meant as fable/parable -- Ecclesiastes is a very different book from Judges, and it doesn't necessarily work to read them all using the same framework.
posted by Jeanne at 8:05 PM on December 23, 2012

In theory, I give a full discussion of the documentary hypothesis and then work from there. Mostly because my minister (Disciples of Christ) gave some really interesting sermons about it when I was young, and it just made sense to me. But once you've said "redactors" you've left the realm of literal interpretation, written by God, inspired by God, and so on.

In reality, I don't get very far in that at all before I realize that really, people have their own way of thinking about things, and faith is one of the most personal things of all. Even if someone says they want to learn more, usually they are just waiting politely for an opening to restate their beliefs. They ask as if they want to know, but really they want to argue the point. Which is annoying, because they are trying to lessen or control my beliefs.

Then I realize, if I'm talking documentary hypothesis, I'm doing that too. So I stop and try to remember that faith is just that -- a belief, not scientifically proven. Maybe I'm right. Maybe they are right. Maybe one of us is wrong, or neither of us are wrong. Who knows? But we each get to have our own faith.

(The person who really wants to learn more about something as commonplace as non-literal Biblical interpretation would probably look things up in Wikipedia rather than ask another to defend their belief.)
posted by Houstonian at 8:09 PM on December 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

To me, literal Biblical interpretation is simply not possible; the Bible contradicts itself, and the observed facts of the physical world, too often.

Which reduces the question to either "is it all a load of rubbish" or "is it a flawed document, but one in which people are attempting to express spiritual truths to the best of their ability, with the resources available to them"? As an Episcopalian, I choose the latter.

This blog post, and the related ones linked below, do a good job of articulating the Episcopalian position on biblical inerrancy.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:22 PM on December 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Slap*Happy has the most succinct explanation - that the Bible was transcribed by men, and mankind is imperfect. Therefore, you can't take everything in the Bible at face value. Mistakes may have been made, especially as the Bible has been translated again and again.

Discussing this with someone who interprets the Bible literally will also largely hinge on what they mean as literally. There are those that take the Bible literally literally - there will be actual horsemen at the apocalypse. Then there are others (like myself) that believe the Bible is the inherent Word of God, so why would He allow the imperfection of mankind work its way in? And as Jeanne described, genre does matter, even in a conservative interpretation. I believe the truth in the books of the prophets, but can also respect the metaphors used to convey the messages.
posted by youngergirl44 at 8:23 PM on December 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah, a really important point is to remember that the bible isn't a single cohesive document; it's a variety of documents that were written in different times, places and circumstances by different people for different reasons.

The works in the bible are collected together for both cultural and spiritual reasons. They provide context and expression of faith and experience of spirituality, physicality, and emotion, of human experience and divinity and different (and evolving) facets of the relationship between the human and the divine. The bible provides us with a demonstration of how our understanding of the divine has changed. It provides us with guidelines on living a holy life. It gives us permission to share all of our feelings- even anger at the Lord-- with god. It provides us with cultural and historical context to undestand Jesus's teaching. It provides poetry and prose, history and parable, metaphor and discourse. And so forth.

It is not a single continuous literary work; it is a variety of connected and related works, all of which are relevant, but not all of which serve the same purpose.

It would be foolish to read the song of solomon, a description of passionate romantic and erotic love, in the same frame of mind as reading paul's letters to the new church where he answers specific questions about how to practise the Lord's teachings. And it would be foolish to read any of that without taking into account the culture and society and circumstances at the time.
posted by windykites at 8:56 PM on December 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Over the years, I have transformed from a literalist to what I now call myself: an agnostic Christian. So I know very well what it's like to be on both sides.

I really don't debate belief with people, but when this issue comes up in conversation, I usually focus on the fact that everyone who claims to "obey the scriptures" does so selectively, regardless of how literal they claim to interpret the Bible. Literalists always have a reason for ignoring inconvenient or contradictory scriptures. (Examples: That's the Old Testament... That was a different culture... The original language means something else... That was before the Holy Spirit came... That was meant symbolically, etc. etc. etc.)

My point is that it's therefore inappropriate for someone to judge me for denying that the Bible is literal. I also explain that by focusing on whether a specific passage is literal, it's easy to miss the point of the story.

I also often paraphrase John Romer in his TV series Testament: the Bible is not a history book; it's a book about the history of faith. It records beliefs, but not necessarily facts.
posted by The Deej at 9:21 PM on December 23, 2012

One of the reasons that yours is a challenging question is that you would have to quality it: which Episcopalians? which Baptists? Some denominations have made issues of biblical literalism or biblical inerrency central to their theology (so, for example, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship split from the Southern Baptist Convention largely over issues of biblical interpretation). There are similar longstanding historical issues concerning biblical interpretation between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American and the Lutheran Church/Missouri Synod: they share common theological perspectives (as for example, on justification) but do not read/interpret biblical texts in the same way.

Episcopalians use the analogy of a "three-legged stool" of scripture, reason, and tradition as a way of describing their theological perspective; whereas those from a Fundamentalist perspective would respond that scripture alone was the basis of their theology and biblical interpretation. Catholics and Orthodox also invoke Tradition when interpreting the Bible. "Tradition" here isn't used in the sense of "we've always done it that way," but rather that reading and interpretation is done in community, which includes those of the past. Especially within Catholicism and Orthodoxy, there is also a recognition that the clergy (and in Catholicism, the Magisterium) have the responsibility to be the arbiters of interpretation; this contrasts with a far more individualistic (and sometimes idiosyncratic) approach on the part of many biblical literalists.

The modernist/fundamentalist split over biblical interpretation that underlies your question is a relatively recent issue in the 2000-year history of Christianity (i.e., over the past 150 years or so).

That said, within biblical studies, a key term for your research is 'history of interpretation,' which takes a long view of the interpretation of a passage, book, or canon over time, often over centuries. You might start with Richard Soulen's Sacred Scriptures: A Short History of Interpretation. I've just ordered The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously because it presents Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant interpretations of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.

There are many blogs ("biblioblogs") that discuss these kinds of issues: I'd google these names for starters: Peter Enns, James McGrath, Mark Goodacre. If you're interested in New Testament interpretation especially, try Goodacre's NT Pod. These are all produced from the perspective of modern biblical scholarship and regularly address biblical interpretation issues.
posted by apartment dweller at 9:25 PM on December 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am not religious and have never read the bible in any form, but I did read this book, The God Question: What Famous Thinkers from Plato to Dawkins Have Said About the Divine by Andrew Pessin a professor of Philosophy and I think it will provide some insight on how to frame a discussion.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:56 PM on December 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

how do you explain to those who do interpret the bible literally your point of view?

I am Eastern Orthodox. I explain that for most of its existence, literal interpretation of the canon simply was not done. I find it also helps to explain that the Bible is the product of the Church; it is not that the church is the product of the Bible. The Bible is not a Koran that we think dropped out of heaven that was dictated by an angel like I might dictate a letter to my secretary. And, for the first 300 years after Christ, there was no biblical canon, so a Christan with a question in AD 200 could not just say, "well, let's see what the bible says about it". Paul and the rest of the apostles never heard of the New Testament, but we would be hard-pressed not to call them Christians. The bible is properly understood through the Church that compiled it.

I also explain that just about every heresy, ever, is a result of people misinterpreting the bible. Most biblical literalists would agree, for example, that Jehovah's Witnesses are incorrect to say that Jesus is a creation of God the Father rather than a co-eternal member of the godhead. This is just an iteration of the ancient Arianist heresy (of which St. Nicholas slapped/punched Arius in the face). However, the biblical literalist is then hard-pressed to explain who they are to say that the JH is wrong in this respect, or more generally, explain how so many biblical literalists differ among themselves. The Holy Spirit cannot be guiding them to mutual exclusive conclusions.

Oh, and if you ever get a reply back that says, "well, in the original hebrew/greek, the word means X', ask that person to recite or write out the Hebrew or Greek alphabets. (you might also point out that the oldest extant OT texts are in Greek, not Hebrew)
posted by Tanizaki at 10:25 PM on December 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

a literal and a liberal interpretation of the bible are really two sides of the same coin. the literalist tries to take everything in the bible, or at least the new testament, and apply it universally to all people in all places at all times and declares it is all absolutely true. this will render the bible to be full of contradictions. want to stump a literalist? ask them why if they all are reading the "plain meaning" of the bible and yet they disagree and there are so many different denominations believing different things then how exactly is the meaning so plain?! the liberal does the opposite and says it is all up to the individual's interpretation and the bible as a whole is not true and contains mistakes. the problem now is there will be very little agreement on what the bible actually teaches because everyone comes up with their own private interpretation and who is to say what's correct.

there is a third way that tries to bypass some of these errors of modern thinking (i.e. modernism) that both approaches are based on. one can still believe the bible is true but also believe it needs to be interpreted in context. this means rather than declaring the bible is riddled with errors we look a bit deeper for the meaning. we consider things like the genre of the particular passage or book of scripture, original languages, what the entire bible says about a particular issue rather than just pulling individual verses or passages out of context, the progressive revelation of scripture, whether passages are descriptive (merely describing what happened e.g. women being grossly mistreated in the old testament which is just a description of events and not God condoning them) or prescriptive (declaring how we are to act and live), what was happening in 1st century jewish thinking, the cultural mores, etc. we also need to know when something was being instructed for the people of the time or people of all time or just the people in that one particular city.

it's also really important to interpret the bible according to the interpretive methods of the time. the bible is a premodern book but we are modern and postmodern people. when we apply modern interpretive criteria to a premodern book we really make a mess of things. for example, in biblical times telling a story chronologically was not that important so if we read the gospels and find that matthew tells a story in a different chronological order than luke it doesn't mean they don't agree and thus the bible must contain mistakes. same thing with numbers where in biblical times precise numbers were not required so in counts of the dead in old testament battles the numbers may not agree. in our modern world no one would report battle numbers of the deceased in rounded or approximate figures so again we think there is a mistake when there isn't.

we also need to realize that we see through a glass darkly and we won't have all the answers so we best be humble about what we do believe. it is wise to say "i don't know" when we don't know rather than do violence to the text in order to come up with a specious argument to win a theological debate. we have to allow room for mystery because there is plenty of mystery with God. this doesn't mean that we can't say anything is true though. humility is not relativism and there is much agreement in the bible when we approach it on its terms rather than our own.

finally, there is something called the weslyan quadrilateral which sounds fancy but is a fairly simple concept and quite helpful. it sees scripture as primary, but also sees tradition, reason and experience as keys to understanding what the bible teaches. when we have agreement among all four of those we are usually on the right path. of course, we always need the light of the holy spirit to guide our reading of the text.
posted by wildflower at 12:41 AM on December 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am religious, but it's pretty trivial to show inconsistencies, wrongness, and just plain craziness in any religious writings. If you can demonstrate that a certain verse would be impossible if taken literally, you can make a case for a figurative or symbolic interpretation.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:10 AM on December 24, 2012

Nobody reads the bible literally. Do they follow the hundreds of prescriptions in Leviticus against shellfish, pork, touching women during their period, etc? No? Why not? Most fundamentalists apply a dispensationalist interpretive framework in order to avoid these difficulties, but that is far from a literal interpretation. On the contrary, it is a complicated artificial theory with little to no biblical support.
posted by goethean at 8:09 AM on December 24, 2012

Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame, has attempted what you are asking about in his recent book The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.
posted by davemack at 12:58 PM on December 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do they follow the hundreds of prescriptions in Leviticus against shellfish, pork, touching women during their period, etc? No? Why not? Most fundamentalists apply a dispensationalist interpretive framework in order to avoid these difficulties, but that is far from a literal interpretation. On the contrary, it is a complicated artificial theory with little to no biblical support.

Assuming that this question is directed towards the actions of Christians, the answer is found in the Council of Jerusalem. The biblical support for the council is that it is described in the Acts of the Apostles, which includes the voices of those Christians wanted to continue adherence to the Levitical code. Most notably, it was Peter who was at least ambivalent to the idea of requiring gentiles to become Jews in order to become Christians. It wasn't their big chance to say, "hey, let's start eating ham!"

Of course, as stated in my previous comment, I am Eastern Orthodox so I am not an adherent of sola scriptura. But, for those who seek biblical support for no longer keeping the Levitical code, there you have it.
posted by Tanizaki at 11:42 AM on December 27, 2012

Hi Mary,

Do you have some more context for this question, i.e., a specific topic or closed-ended problem to be looked at from a Biblical perspective?

I will simply add to the voices of the Orthodox here, with whom I basically agree, that the Bible is not some arbitrary book to be interpretated as if it had no context or provenance; it's the book of the Church, produced through and as part of her Tradition, and not separable at all (even if a separation is claimed, facts will speak louder than words).

Here's what the Catholic Catechism says on this topic:


...I can also recommend the Pope's new (short!) book on the birth of Christ as an up-to-the-minute example of these principles in action :)

posted by KMH at 2:32 PM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

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