IVP - Addenda & Errata - You Don’t Take the Bible Literally, Do You?

May 16, 2008

You Don’t Take the Bible Literally, Do You?

“You don’t take the Bible literally, do you?”

You’ve probably been asked something like this. How do you respond?

If you say Yes, you’re likely to be lumped with fundamentalists of the deepest dye. If you say No, you probably are trying to evade being lumped with fundamentalists of the deepest dye. Or there is the option of saying that you don’t take the Bible “hyper-literally” or “with extreme literalism,” which is another way of distancing yourself from those on the “far right” (and speaking a sort of nonsense at the same time).

Unfortunately, the question itself assumes a lot about the Bible and a lot about the meaning of “literal.” You probably want to respond with nuance. You’ve probably seen very smart Christians fall into this trap of literal vs. nonliteral.

What about trying some variant of the following: “I’ll tell you whether or not I take the Bible literally if you tell me whether or not you take the newspaper literally.” All but the most hasty or least reflective are going to suspect something is up. If this doesn’t provoke a quick response of “Of course!,” it might produce some reflection. And if your interrogator does choose the quick response (with perhaps a proviso regarding the reliability of journalists), you can take the following tack:

Really? What about the comics? Do you take them literally?
What about the political cartoons?
What about the horoscope? Oh, you do take it literally?
Well, what about the “personals”? Are all those claims to be HWP (height-weight proportional) to be taken literally?
Do you always take your most “love-to-hate” columnists literally? Say, Maureen Dowd or David Brooks or . . . ?
What about the weather forecast? Oh, gottcha!
What about the gossip column?
What about the advertisements?
What about economic predictions?

The point is not that the newspaper contains more crazy stuff than you realized, and so does the Bible! No, the point is that you read each portion of this variegated text called “the newspaper” according to the unspoken rules for each section. You know how to read the comics, the personals (if you do!), the Op Ed, the ads and the news items, and you unconsciously shift gears from feature to feature. There are not two modes—literal or nonliteral. There are a number of modes of reading, and they all depend on the textual signals embedded in the “letters.” And yet all these things are going on within something we refer to as one thing, “the newspaper.”

So then, you can go on to point out that it is only because we mistake the textual signals of, say, Genesis 1-2 or Daniel 7 or Song of Songs or Revelation 20 that we misread these texts. The Bible is made up of many genres and subgenres, and even within books there are different types of texts. Like the newspaper, it is not all uniform. Not at all! Reading it properly means reading by rules that might not be readily apparent to us, since they are rules of millennia ago. But they are rules that a certain people in a certain place would have understood intuitively. We could even call this "literal" reading.

Maybe the newspaper illustration will open up that conversation. I hardly think it’s original, and there's much else that could be said about this complex issue. But the illustration might be useful.

Posted by Dan Reid at May 16, 2008 10:54 AM Bookmark and Share


I like the basic thrust of this Dan. I feel I have finally been able to free myself after 40+ years in evangelical circles to talk without using conventional church language. We have to learn how to do this if we're going to have a meaningful conversation in the public square. This is only one example of using the stock and highly opinionated questions as an opportunity to force people to think in an entirely different language. In terms of the Bible, the most obvious is the thing we usually neglect to get across: it is basically a narrative from Genesis to Revelation. There is an incredible unity as well as continuity to Scripture, special revelation just like there is in the creation,natural revelation. Like all stories, it has a basic theme, definitely has a central character who turns out to be the hero of the story-the one person we really want others to come to know and set their heart of hearts on. We still, after all these years are fighting a battle with reality as much inside the church as outside the church. These ignorant and confusing ideas about the most basic things of the Biblical narrative are responsibile for the over whelming darkness anyone who sets out to renew and reform the American churches must confront.

I am deeply grateful for much good that IVP does, but I have to register here my disappointment that you are still publishing too many books that just don't help the cause in this sense; they sell and always will but they only add to the confusion. They clutter up our shelves and our minds, and are a waste of our resources.I don't suppose there is any hope in a market driven society for any responsible change. So thanks for at least showing us that you are aware of the complex issues facing the task of comunication of the blessed Christ and his glory in a meaningful way into this present growing darkness.

John Paul Todd

Comment by: John Paul Todd at May 16, 2008 10:38 AM

Comments are closed for this entry.

Get Email Updates

You'll get an email whenever a new entry is posted to Addenda & Errata

Subscribe to Feeds

Got a Book Idea?

Please follow our submissions guidelines. We cannot respond to book proposals or inquiries within the context of this blog.