Sjolander Road Fellowship

Declaring the God of Unconditional Love

Paradox and literalism



It's hard to be familiar with the Bible and not be aware of its paradoxical nature, especially in the NT writings. As a reminder, the dictionary defines a paradox as a statement that seems illogical or contradictory but which yet may be true. A specific example of a paradox is the fact that Jesus was proclaimed a King by the angels at his birth, but yet he was born in poverty and remained in that state till his death. Another might be Paul's assertion that in weakness he was made strong. There are numerous other examples which any reasonable Bible student will note.


All of these paradoxes call for an intense evaluation of just what is meant. In the case of the first example, quite often the explanation is that though Jesus was God's chosen King over Israel, his rejection by the Jews, one more instance of man's free will foiling God's original plan, caused a postponement of or change to the plan of God. Consequently, Jesus' work remains incomplete until some time in the future, when mankind will be destroyed and can no longer interfere with God's purpose.


Of course, one way to deal with the paradoxical words of the Bible is to simply ignore them. That, in fact, is the most prevalent approach. All Bible study and sermonizing involves selecting the passages to be addressed, and that demands that other portions be ignored, at least for the moment.


The paradoxical nature of the Bible, is much at odds with the insistence by many that literalism in interpreting the scriptures leads to the best and truest understanding of God's intentions. Thus when Jesus says "If you love me, keep my commandments" the literalists assume that obedience to rules and rituals is the way to gain God's love and favor. However, when He also says love your enemies and do good to those who despise you, something that is vastly paradoxical, suddenly the illogic of that admonition makes it something to be either ignored or redefined in some way that makes it more palatable and thus less counter intuitive.  


Literalism by implication says that those parts of the Bible which are taken literally are the important ones. Literal interpretation is supposedly simple and straight forward, leaving no doubt as to the meaning. Non-literal portions, wherever those may be admitted, are necessarily less easy to understand. Symbolism and paradox are clearly subject to individual interpretation, lending uncertainty of understanding, something that dogmatic Christians find uncomfortable or even unacceptable.


Many Bible students conclude that the Bible paradoxes are the real meat of the matter. For these, literalism as a interpretative focus is totally misplaced. Divine truth is not about historical and physical reality but rather the revelation of a counter intuitive truth which cannot be easily conveyed in human language, much less that insisted upon by literalists.