What’s Wrong with Reading the Bible Literally?

Jason Micheli —  September 22, 2014 — 3 Comments

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

II. Witness

5. What’s Wrong with Reading the Bible Literally?

Biblical literalism attributes a supernatural origin to scripture. The bible, in this view, is the direct, unfiltered Word of God. It’s an approach to Christian scripture that has a correlative in how Muslims understand the Qu’ran as containing the very words God dictated to the Prophet.

Scripture, it is held, is as free of error as had it fallen from heaven printed and bound. This view of scripture is a modern belief, arising only in the late 19th century.

Such an absolute assertion of scripture’s divine origins and textual infallibility provoke several significant problems.

First, positing every word of scripture as the literal, inerrant word of God flattens the whole of scripture, making every word just as important and authoritative as any other. The purity of codes of Leviticus are now logically equivalent in importance to the sermon on the mount, God’s instructions to the take the holy land by bloodshed as critical as Christ’s self-sacrifice.

By flattening scripture and making it all of equal import, the central thread gets lost:

the One Word of God, Jesus Christ.

Biblicism makes Christian scripture, like the Qu’ran, into a collection of equally authoritative precepts, teachings and codes instead of diverse, polyvalent testimony to the saving love of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Second, demanding that every word of scripture be infallible forces the Christian in to a kind of cognitive dissonance where we must ignore or disavow what we learn in the natural world should our learning seem at odds with scripture. So then a literalistic rendering of the creation story, for example, forces some Christians to dismiss evolutionary theory or prehistoric life.

Gripping onto scripture’s infallibility can also lock Christians into defending or perpetuating the social mores of the cultural context in which scripture was first recorded.

Third, biblical literalism is an unmediated revelation.

Scripture is the Word of God with or without the testimony of faithful witnesses.

While, in the fundamentalist minds, this secures scripture from the acids of the modern world, it does so at the expense of any role for God’s People. Rather than the Word of God being mediated through the testimony of God’s People, and hence being inherently relational, it is instead presented in an authoritarian mode.

Scripture is something to which we must conform; it’s not something which invites us into a transformative relationship.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

– 2 Timothy 3.16


Jason Micheli


3 responses to What’s Wrong with Reading the Bible Literally?

  1. This is precisely my argument, Jason – only you have been more precise. 🙂
    Thank you!

  2. Plus no Bible literalist has ever been able to answer one simple question for me: if the Bible is the direct, unfiltered, literal word-for-word work of God, then exactly which version and translation is the authentic and infallible one? King James? NRSV? Old Testament in the original Hebrew? New Testament in the original Greek? Even though Jesus gave the sermon on the mount in Aramaic?

    Actually many Bible literalists somehow believe the King James Version is the “real” one, divinely delivered to 17th century England in the same way the 10 commandments were given to Moses.

  3. For me it’s as simple as biblicism is not even an understanding of Scripture consistent with its own theological content.

    The case for flattening the text comes from a dualism that comes from the sort of Platonism the reformers rejected.

    For me, it’s not a matter of heeding the authority of natural knowledge, etc but a matter of how offensive an inferred understanding of “Word” as “text” really is when it is clear the mediated Word is through Christ alone. Under the conceptual framework that Scripture’s truth is intrinsic to its words and sentences denies the extrinsic fact it bears witness to, God acting and speaking in history. It’s a dodge from actually having to be a witness and, rather, reduces the act of witnessing to their own natural, self-appointed authority.

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