LITERALISM: With the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment which occurred in Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries, humans (at least, some of them) began to emphasize reason and science in their interpretation of the world. Superstition gave way to a more objective pursuit of knowledge and truth. Over time, the scientific method became the way scientists investigated and interpreted the universe.
The scientific method demands that facts be replicated. In other words, as a scientist you must be able to demonstrate in some tangible way that what you are proposing is true, and you must provide the experiment or evidence that other scientists can use to obtain the same result. The scientific method is based on observation and experimentation. Using those observations and experiments, scientists offer hypotheses which are educated guesses or speculations as to why things are as they propose. After a period of study, further observation, and experimentation done repeatedly with the same results, scientists come up with a theory which remains the best explanation for whatever is being studied as long as the theory proves to be valid. If it is disproven, the theory is trashed, and other hypotheses are sought. Let’s say that you are a researcher, and you claim you have discovered a cure for cancer. All your evidence, data, and experiments must be made available to other scientists. If they can overwhelmingly duplicate your results using your methods, then you can claim to have discovered a cure for cancer. If they can’t duplicate your results, then something was bogus about your research. That’s the way science works. It is always correcting itself. A theory works only as long as it makes sense and explains the facts as we know them. That’s why science is constantly evolving.
The scientific method limits science to questions of “What, When, Where, and How (as in cause and effect)”. The one question science cannot answer is the question of “Why” in the sense of purpose, intention, and ultimate cause. It can tell us how the universe works as far as scientists currently understand. It can tell us how old the universe is. It can measure the distance between planets, stars, and galaxies. It can tell us the chemical make-up of matter including our bodies. But it can’t tell us why we are here. It can’t tell us the ultimate purpose of the universe. It can’t tell us if there is anything after death. It can’t tell us if there is a God or what kind of God may be behind everything that exists. It can’t explain consciousness. It can’t tell us if our little lives matter in the larger scheme of things. It can’t even tell us why we do things, love, or wonder about life and creation.
In some extreme cases there are scientists who have forgotten these limitations of science. They assume that only what can be observed, measured and proven is real. If it can’t be observed, measured, or proven, then it does not exist. That’s called scientific positivism. With such logic, since one can’t prove or measure God, God does not exist. But the scientific method states that science is not able to make judgments about those things beyond its scope and competency. About such things it must remain silent.
You may be wondering what all this has to do with how Christians so often get it so wrong. Here’s the connection. With the Enlightenment and the dominance of rational science, many modern humans have defined truth as factual—factual in the sense that what is real must be proven to literally exist to be valid. When Christians apply this approach to truth to the Bible, many of them insist that the Scriptures must be literally, historically, and scientifically true. For example, the world must have been created in seven days. Despite all the scientific evidence, evolution cannot be true. The Garden of Eden was literally a place somewhere in the ancient world and not a literary setting for a story. There had to be a flood which covered the whole earth and destroyed all life except those on an ark which could hold some of each type of animal and a family of humans.
With such reasoning (or lack thereof), the Bible is often understood to be infallible and inerrant. The whole Christian Fundamentalist movement is dependent on this assumption. The reasoning goes like this: “The Bible is the Word of God. God is infallible and inerrant. Therefore, the Bible must be infallible and inerrant.” However, there are major problems with this reasoning. The Bible never claims to be infallible and inerrant. (The quote from II Timothy 3:16 is about inspiration, not infallibility or inerrancy. Anyone can be inspired.) From a Christian perspective, Jesus is the Word (See John 1). Christianity is a religion based on a person, not a book. Furthermore, any objective approach to the Bible reveals a progression in theology. The Bible often corrects itself as more truth about God and more revelation from God is discovered. However, the Bible is not a science or a history book. It is a book of faith reflecting limited human understandings of God.
It’s also a book which appreciates that there can be a difference between facts and truth. Stories (like the parables of Jesus) can contain profound truth, but they are not factual in the sense that the events of the stories literally happened. Indigenous Elders often begin their stories saying, “I don’t know if this really happened, but it’s true.” Profound truth which addresses the questions of “Why” are rarely truths that can be proven in a lab. And yet, these are the questions which make us human. They are the questions which haunt our minds and souls. And the answers we discover to these questions are what provide worthy reasons for us being in this world.
The irony is that so many Christians have bought into the assumption of scientific positivism that only the material and provable can be valid and real in our world. With that assumption, they are unable to understand, appreciate, and appropriate the profound insights of Scripture because they don’t see the truth contained in metaphors, poetry, and stories. The first eleven chapters of Genesis contain deep wisdom and guidance for humanity. However, much of that is missed when we become sidetracked by trying to defend those stories as actual science and history. One reason young people are deserting the church is precisely because they are told they must believe something they know isn’t true regarding the Bible and specifically the opening chapters of Genesis.
Any insistence that the Bible must be read as infallible and inerrant in everything is says (historically and scientifically) is challenged by the following observations:
- There are contradictions and conflicting perspectives in the Bible. It even begins with two creation stories which are not reconcilable. Attempts to explain away these contradictions involve what I call “pretzel logic”—a reasoning so convoluted and twisted that no one with any objectivity could accept.
- There is a progression or trajectory in the Bible which the Christian faith assumes as it sees that movement culminating in Jesus. For example, Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, do not resist with violence anyone who is evil.” The “eye for an eye/tooth for a tooth” saying is found in three places in the Pentateuch (Exodus 21:23-24; Leviticus 24:19-20; and Deuteronomy 19:21). The Pentateuch was understood by the Jews to come from God through Moses. It was considered the most sacred part of the Hebrew Scriptures. And yet, Jesus rejects the retaliatory nature of this ancient teaching found three places in the Torah! If we as Christians accept Jesus as God’s greatest revelation, such an acceptance understands all other revelations to be lesser, inadequate, or questionable (at least, for those who profess Jesus as the Christ).
- Suppose the Bible contained all scientific truth. No one so far in human history would be able to understand it. The people of Biblical times didn’t know about astrophysics, the size of the universe, bacteria, viruses, mental illnesses, quantum physics, etc. We today also have a limited understanding of the universe. Until the 1920s, scientists assumed that the universe was limited to the Milky Way Galaxy. Today, we know that this galaxy is only one of many hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. Ninety-five percent of the universe is made up of dark matter and dark energy. We haven’t a clue as to what they are and how they operate. We know more about the surface of the moon than the bottom of the oceans. If the Bible contained all (and only) the scientific “knowledge” we have available today, some of that “knowledge” could eventually be proven wrong as our current theories about the universe are replaced by future knowledge and discoveries.
- The Bible reveals as much about the nature of our humanity as it reveals the nature of God. For example, several times in the Hebrew Scriptures, God is understood by the Israelites to require the killing of men, women, children, and domestic animals as a “devotion” to God. (Deuteronomy 7:2; 20:16-17a; Joshua 6:21; Numbers 31:17; I Samuel 15) Jesus, however, tells us to love our enemies because God loves Her enemies. Jesus denounces violence. Anyone who believes that the God who commanded genocide in the Old Testament is the same God Jesus revealed worships a schizophrenic God. What those passages in the Hebrew Scriptures reveal is that it’s possible for a people to conveniently view God in ways which confirm their violent, arrogant, and greedy goals. I do not believe for one second that the God Jesus revealed ordered such a terrible massacre of human beings. What I learn from these Old Testament passages is that humans tend to create images of God which reflect their own prejudices and sinful nature. Such a lesson should help keep us from repeating this horrible mistake. (I am aware of the pathetic attempts of those who assume the Bible is infallible and inerrant to justify these genocidal passages. I am not persuaded by their “logic.”)
- In John 16:12-13, Jesus says to his disciples, “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” There was much that the disciples, even after a prolonged time with Jesus, were still not able to bear. The full truth is more than any of us can bear or comprehend. The Spirit continues to reveal depths of truth beyond our present understanding. As the UCC says, “God is still speaking.” The relevant question is “Are we still listening, or do we wrongly think we have nothing more to learn?”
- When Paul refers to the Bible, he means the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament did not yet exist during Paul’s ministry. (His letters are the earliest parts of the New Testament to be written.) And yet Paul sees Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament and as superseding the Law of Judaism. He would have agreed with John Dominic Crossan who says that whenever the Bible disagrees with Jesus, “Jesus trumps the Bible.” Paul understands his tradition through the Christ Event. “Jesus trumps the Bible” is a helpful guide for interpreting and applying Scripture. Such a motto also assumes the Bible is not infallible and inerrant.
- The Bible plays a very important and irreplaceable role in our faith. We claim that God has acted in history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Through the incarnation and resurrection, that divine involvement in the human saga is affirmed. We are tethered to the revelation of God in Jesus, and that historical revelation can only be found in Scripture. However, we must constantly struggle to discern the truth in Scripture. Why? Because it comes to us as a collection of testimonies to the perceived presence, actions, and intentions of God in this world given by fallible and imperfect humans. The essence of Christianity is not “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” The essence of Christianity is taking seriously both the unconditional love of God revealed in Christ and the call of Jesus, “Follow me.” Such love and following always take precedence over all theology, including whatever theories we may have about the Bible.
The Bible is as much a mirror reflecting human nature (the good, the bad, and the ugly) as it is a window allowing us to see a good and loving God—or even better, a door through which we might enter a deeper experience and relationship with our Maker. Misogyny, slavery, racism, patriarchy, war, genocide, child abuse, homophobic acts of cruelty, unconscionable greed, and many other evils have been justified by quoting Scripture. Recognizing the nature of Scripture as testimonies which are influenced by human limitations will keep us from what is called bibliolatry—the idolatrous worship of a book instead of the worship of the God who strives to reveal the divine nature through “earthen vessels.” The future of the church depends on a mature appreciation of both the value and the limitations of the Bible. Christian Fundamentalism, cursed by literalism, is a modern heresy grounded in fear and doomed to extinction.