Sjolander Road Fellowship




Declaring the God of Unconditional Love

literalism

3/16/13

 

 

A large segment of Christendom adheres to the notion that the Bible should be interpreted literally, i.e. in accordance with the normal meaning of the words employed, unless a particular portion demands a more nuanced understanding. Non-literal interpretation is allowed when some portion of scripture seemingly contradicts another portion seen to be more basic and clear. In general, those favoring literalism see the scriptures as essentially straightforward and easily understood by the average individual. Literalism and evangelicalism are usually connected, since clarity is necessary if the church must teach and convert effectively, using the scriptures as the supporting text.

 

Naturally, any admission that even a small portion of scripture must be interpreted and applied in a way subordinate to other more axiomatic portions raises a fundamental question.  How do we identify what scripture is fundamental, i.e. clearly understood and therefore inviolate in church theology; and what portion must be adjusted from its literal interpretation in order to mesh with the fundamental?

 

Of course, the history of Christianity through the centuries demonstrates unequivocally that men have always disagreed on the message of the Bible. The constant squabbling and the existence of countless sects and denominations highlight this fact. No matter how much certain groups want to claim a clear, unchallengeable, i.e. infallible and inerrant interpretation of the scriptures, such a contention is never tenable to even a casual student of church history.

 

As noted above, the emphasis on literalism is driven by the focus on evangelism as the church mission. Evangelism as the primary function of the church necessarily demotes any passages which are not necessary to salvation. That demotion applies to most of the Bible in the typical understanding of salvation. This overwhelming emphasis on the salvation process allows the church to ignore much of the Bible and thereby avoid dealing with passages where a literal interpretation does not support the traditional church message.

 

Without a doubt there are passages in the Bible, which if taken literally and applied to our lives, are deeply troubling. The words of Jesus frequently fall into this category. If literalists were obliged to apply these passages literally in their teaching, the results on church doctrine and practice would be earth shattering.

 

The passages in question present a mindboggling challenge to anyone who takes the Bible seriously enough to study it and attempt an understanding. That is true of fundamentalists and others alike. To hear Jesus and pay real attention is no simple matter. Therefore, having a mental resistance to the message of Jesus is completely understandable and perhaps inevitable, at least initially. I cannot help scratching my head over the commandment to love one's enemies or to overcome evil with good. If these sounds a little too fanciful to you, you have a lot of company.

 

That being said, I am left to consider how to deal with my skepticism and maintain a respect for the Bible and its story. In other words, as one who proposes to interpret the Bible for myself, at least, how can I address these counter intuitive passages, where literalism as an interpretative approach leads in such an uncomfortable direction.

 

This is where I think we see subtly different methods in handling the Bible, approaches which have dramatically different impacts on one's attitude and worldview. Some apparently read the counter intuitive teachings of Jesus and idealize them away by concluding that because of Jesus' divine nature, He was able to enjoin and act in accordance with these principles; but normal humans are not capable of doing the same. Therefore the admonitions don't really apply. The ethical standards in these instructions are seen as other worldly, achievable, perhaps, in the hereafter. Those taking this approach can dismiss all counter intuitiveness as an unattainable target, held up merely to point to a utopian afterlife and having no relevance here on planet earth.

 

Another approach would be to consider Jesus' mystifying words as pointing to a real world possibility which is somehow hidden from our understanding by the base assumptions which guide our decisions and behaviors. To consider this interpretation does not eliminate the difficulty of internalizing the message, but neither does it allow us to simply ignore it. This more literal interpretation demands that I constantly re-evaluate my mindset in relation to these wrenching words, never allowing me to be comfortable with beliefs and assumptions just because they come easily and seem so unassailable.