What does ‘biblical literalism’ mean?


For many people, the term “biblical literalism” implies someone who, at least cognitively, lives in the dark ages, envisions complete enmity between science and religion, and who has failed to adapt their outdated religious views to contemporary culture. In some circles, being called a biblical literalist is about the worst thing you could say about someone. You may as well have insulted their mother. For others, though, the term is a welcome label and they wear it gladly.

The problem is that the term “biblical literalism” is often used without clarification and without definition. As a result, saying someone is a biblical literalist doesn’t actually mean much of anything at all anymore. The problem is further exacerbated in that too many people use the term as a “waste-basket” (i.e., catch-all) term to refer to anyone who upholds any part of the Bible as being true, but especially the parts with which they themselves disagree. For example, opponents of gay marriage are often derogatorily labeled “biblical literalists.” The implication usually is that even if the Bible does not allow for homosexuality, then Christians should simply adapt their understanding of the Bible to fit better with our modern culture. They should chuck aside their “literal” interpretation and adopt a more widely accepted view. This, in fact, was precisely the argument made in a recent NYTimes column.

The problem with calling someone a biblical literalist in a derogatory fashion, and just because their views are unpopular, lies in that there is simply no necessary connection between the number of people who believe something and whether or not that thing is actually true. In other words, something could be true even if no one believed it. Consensus and truthfulness have zero necessary correlations. Many a mob has been wildly wrong. And so, when people toss around the term “biblical literalist” in a thoughtless manner and use it to mean that someone’s beliefs are archaic, what they’re really doing is trying to paint them into a dark corner of anti-intellectualism. The term, used this way, is simply a red herring meant to shut down dialogue. The irony in this is of course that nothing is more anti-intellectual than an unwillingness to engage in honest debate and dialogue.

A better way to understand biblical literalism is to understand the Bible as containing a wide array of types of literature and the most faithful interpretation takes each type or genre on its own terms. For example, a literal understanding of Psalm 98:8, which says “let the rivers clap their hands,” does not result in the necessity of rivers actually having hands. Such an interpretation would be nonsense. Rather, it is evident that the writer is using figurative language because the genre in question is Hebraic poetry.

When Sylvia Plath says in her poem Metaphors, “I’m an…elephant,” she doesn’t mean that she’s actually a pachyderm. Her poem is about pregnancy, and well, its fairly easy to understand what she’s getting at. A person who wishes to interpret Plath’s poem most faithfully then must understand what she, as the author, intended to say, and that means understanding that she was talking about what it feels like to be pregnant. Importantly, those who have been pregnant would likely agree that Plath is teaching something true through her use of metaphors. In other words, figurative language does not imply the absence of truth.

This task of discerning the figurative speech and its intended referent is admittedly easier in some texts than in others. We don’t have to do too much investigative work to figure out what Plath is getting at. The same is true with the Psalms because the Psalms are entirely poetic. But some books mix genres, such as the Gospels, which contain a good bit of historical narrative, metaphors, and symbolic language.

Biblical literalism, properly understood, actually has nothing to do with any particular conclusions about the meaning of a text. Instead, it ought to refer to a method of reading the Bible that is in concert with the way we read everything else that is written. Biblical literalism is no more of an anomaly than New York Times literalism or Earnest Hemmingway literalism, all of which simply mean that we read things according to the type of literature they are and interpret them on that basis. To read the Bible literally is to take those portions that use literal language at face value according to its genre, and to likewise respect the use of figurative language, all the while understanding that even figurative speech can be used to teach important truths. In no field of knowledge, including biblical studies, does literalism mean interpreting a text to say something that it doesn’t say. There are biblical literalists and critics of biblical literalist alike who would be well-served in learning this distinction.






2 thoughts on “What does ‘biblical literalism’ mean?

  1. Hey Jerry,

    I am enjoying your blog. Concerning biblical literalism, I have some questions concerning interpreting mythical genre stories like the beginning of Genesis, the book of Job, Jonah etc. We may agree or disagree about the genre. At times, we tend to read the Scriptures through our modernistic, empiricist, scientific lens. Is there room in Biblical Literalism for a reading of a narrative that discounts it’s historicity but affirms the point of the text or what it is trying to communicate about God or the world in which we live?

  2. Great question. I think you are exactly right friend! I think we do tend to read the Bible through a modern lens, and tend to expect the text to meet standards it was never intended to meet. The trouble is, when we do this, we tend to move away from a faithful interpretation of the text. If Job is ancient poetry, the a high view of Scripture does not demand that Job be a historical person in order to uphold the text as inspired Scripture any more than it requires the prodigal son to be a historical person. The most faithful interpretation is always the interpretation that begins with understanding the text the way its original audience would have understood it, and that could include a whole host of genres and literary forms. What is problematic though is when some want to deny the historicity of a text not because its genre demands it, but rather because they have an anti-supernatural bias (as in liberal theology, Jesus Seminar, et. al.). But can surely convey timeless and fully inspired truths through poetry as well as through historical narrative (the Psalms and Songs are prime examples, and in my view, Job may be as well).

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