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Home: Questions and Answers: What does it mean to believe the Bible literally?

What does it mean to believe the Bible literally?


Basically, the idea of taking the Bible literally is to read and understand the Bible in the normal, historical and grammatical context in which it was written. Where the Bible describes history, we are to understand that the history being described is a true record of the events that happened. Moreover, we can extend the idea of "reading the Bible literally" to encompass doctrine and theology. So, when a biblical writer discusses doctrine and theology, we are to understand that the doctrine and theology being discussed is relevant and authoritative for all Christian believers through out all ages of Church History as it was to the original audience that the writer of scripture was addressing.

Now, that is not to say that the Bible is absent any symbolism, poetic language and allegory, or that the biblical writers never spoke figuratively at times. The issue is that any symbolism and figurative speech can be understood with a proper approach to Bible study, which would include taking into consideration the historical and social context, as well as any grammatical and syntactical nuances of the original, biblical languages. Furthermore, the revelation God gives through such symbolic and figurative language is to be believed literally and is authoritative for all of Godís people for all times and in all cultures. That is why we as Christians believe Godís Word, with the appropriate application of biblical study, reveals doctrine, teaching, and principles that transcend both time and culture, that can be literally believed by any of Godís people in any social setting, and during any time in history.

In response to the above definition of "literal," there are initially two reactions to reading the Bible literally. The first comes from a secular point of view, and the second comes from within Christian circles.

Beginning with the first, the secular world has mixed views toward those who believe the Bible is to be taken literally. Some think it is just silly, because people are looking to an ancient book that is antiquated and irrelevant to the modern culture of the 21st century. In the opinion of these individuals, anyone believing the Bible is literal true is engaging in backward thinking that represents a superstitious culture from a thousand years ago. Still other secular folks go as far as to believe such literalists are dangerous, and are a threat to our society like Islamic fundamentalists and their global terrorism.

For instance, the secular world will say modern science contradicts believing God created the world in six ordinary, 24-hour days, or perhaps they will say the biblical condemnation of homosexuality is nonsensical in light of our modern day attitudes of tolerance. In addition to that, these secularists will attempt to point to what is perceived to be contradictions between passages in scripture to make their claim against reading the Bible literally. When it comes down to the truth in this matter, the opinions of these secularists against a literal reading of scripture are obviously driven by an anti-God bias and a general ignorance of the Bible and the theology behind it. That is why I always try to point out this bias and ignorance to any persons making these challenges against my "literalism," and if they are willing to listen and learn, attempt to teach them the truth.

The second reaction against taking a literal approach to reading the Bible ironically comes from within Christian circles. It is a rather long and complicated story as to why some believers reject a literal reading of the Bible, but it essentially involves a rejection of a separatistic mentality in early 20th century fundamentalism. Fundamentalism was a movement by Christians to oppose the radical departure from orthodox, biblical truth many denominations were making during that time. These denominations rejected the biblical teaching of Christís deity, His virgin birth, His resurrection, even His second coming; and they also rejected the generally authority of the Bible in areas of doctrinal practice within the Church. This was a concern with Christians, and the response was to move Godís people back to the foundational fundamentals that define Christianity. Initially, this fundamental movement was a tremendous blessing to the Church as a whole, because it helped to anchor believers to the truth of the scripture and its authority. Sadly, however, fundamentalism slowly fractured into various splinter groups, because fundamentalist denominations would disagree with one another on points of doctrine. If one group believed one thing about a point of doctrine, and another group took a slightly different understanding to that same point of doctrine, the first group would "separate" from fellowshipping with the second, so as to maintain, what was considered in their minds, "doctrinal purity." Christians would separate from other Christians over disagreements concerning how to understand eschatology, the enforcement of congregational policies, how a Church is to be governed, and even evangelistic methodologies. Separatism became synonymous with fundamentalism. Furthermore, fundamentalism, as a movement, tended to be so rigid in its beliefs, that many fundamentalists viewed any meaningful and biblical reform with in a denomination as compromising the truth. Thus, secondary theological education for pastors was suspect, the learning of the original, biblical languages was deemed unnecessary, and the maintaining of legalistic codes of conduct, that really amounted to lists of preferences, was equated with personal holiness and true spirituality.

Because fundamental separatists held to a literal approach with reading the Bible, those Christians who did not wish to be identified with their unbiblical extremes, moved away from a literal understanding of scripture. A person who read the Bible literally, it was believed, was considered as naïve and anti-intellectual. These Christians, for instance, have no problem with reading evolutionary theories of origins into the Genesis narrative of creation, or they downplay the use of scripture in apologetic encounters with secular thought, even to the point that they may never bring up the Bibleís teaching on a specific subject. This is unfortunate, because, like the secularists, their rejection of a literal understanding of scripture is born out of a general ignorance of the Bible and a wrong view of theology.

To sum up, I do not believe Christians need to afraid of literally reading the Bible. Reading the Bible literally does not lead to the "boogey men" beliefs the detractors to a literal approach claim it does. It is my hope that Christians would recognize that God has given His word to be read and understood, and the only approach to properly handling it is to read it literally.

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