The Problem of Literalism

Over the 60-plus years that I have read and studied the Bible, one thing of which I became convinced was that the tendency toward literalism that seems characteristic of what is termed “Western theology” is often incongruent with the nature of Scripture itself. This becomes a serious impediment for understanding many Old Testament Scriptures and New Testament books such as The Revelation of John, and it also becomes problematic in many New Testament passages.

Of course, I’m not the only person who has addressed this issue. An internet search on the topic of literalism in Biblical interpretation will turn up a number of books on the topic with widely differing views. I have not read any of these books. What follows is simply a summary of some of my thoughts on the subject.

One of the best general treatments of this issue that I have read is presented in Chapter 2 of Walter Brueggemann’s book Theology of the Old Testament (Fortress, 1997). My summary in what follows of a few of the ideas presented by Brueggemann does not nearly capture the depth of his treatment of the issues under consideration. However, his thoughts very accurately reflect the incongruities in various interpretations that I have noticed in my studies.

Everyone who studies the Bible knows that metaphor is a frequently-used literary device in our Scriptures. However, most of us don’t appreciate the degree to which metaphor is an important concept when reading Scripture. “The use of metaphor again calls our attention to the playful, open quality of Israel’s most serious speech and its theological imagination.” (Brueggemann, p. 70) He then gives some ideas presented by Sallie McFague :

First, McFague emphasizes that metaphor includes an understanding that the noun is the metaphor-for example, “Yahweh is a shepherd”-but at the same time, the noun is not the metaphor-“Yahweh is not a shepherd.” Thus speech is kept open, in the awareness that the noun, in our theological case Yahweh, resists any articulation that gives excessive closure. Metaphor is yet another case in point indicating that Israel’s theological rhetoric is at its best evocative and not descriptive. {Emphasis mine)

Second, McFague concludes that a monotheistic faith must practice metaphor in order not to become idolatrous…….Thus metaphor becomes a strategy whereby Israel’s faith, in its monotheistic tendency, can allow for the richness, diversity, and variegated character of Yahweh.

The use of metaphor is just one example of the pervasive use of figurative language and symbolism in the Bible. Brueggemann concludes: “In sum, then, our postmodern situation, which refuses to acknowledge a settled essence behind our pluralistic claims, must make a major and intentional investment in the practice of rhetoric, for the shape of reality finally depends on the power of speech.” (op. cit. p. 71)

The concept of the Jewish mindset is presented by Brueggemann in a section entitled Jewishness of the Text (op. cit. p. 80) What follows is a significantly summarized excerpt from his text:

… the end, a Christian interpretation must of necessity treat what is concretely Jewish in a paradigmatic or typological way. The particularity of the Jewishness of the text, however, requires that in any use of the text, one must take great care against universalizing the text-particularly, in our present situation, against universalizing the text so that it is read in a generically Western way. Like every classic text, this text is expansive in its claim and wants its prism to be ever-wideningly definitional. In its expansiveness, however, it wants never to compromise or forfeit its particularity concerning this community or its God. Thus expansiveness moves toward universalizing, but never at the cost of particularity.

Second, and more specifically, it is important to recognize the Jewish modes of discourse through which the text proceeds….such discourse is characteristically polyvalent, open to a variety of meanings, not insistent on a single interpretation, and on the whole refusing to give closure or clear explanation. …..I intend only to contrast this particularistic, polyvalent mode of discourse with the pervasive Western, Christian propensity to flatten, to refuse ambiguity, to lose density, and to give universalizing closure. [Emphasis mine] This particularistic and polyvalent propensity shows itself in a variety of ways. FIrst, we may notice that many texts, in and of themselves, are enigmatic, whether by design or not. One cannot easily make out what is intended, and a great deal of work is left to the hearer in order to complete the text. It may be that the interpreter will invest in one particular, possible reading of a text, but this leaves open and available much that anyone interpreter does not explore…….The matter becomes clearer, however, and more important when this mode of discourse is contrasted with the methods of classical Western theological discourse, which wants to overcome all ambiguity and give closure in the interest of certitude.” [Emphasis mine.]

In other words, when one interprets literally Bible passages that are highly, intentionally, symbolic, it is extremely difficult to avoid inserting the reader’s own bias or mindset into that interpretation. Where the Jewish mindset understands that one’s understanding has its limits, the literalist tends to imply a large, perhaps improper, degree of exactness.

This issue is most important when interpreting books like The Revelation of John, Daniel, and Ezekiel. It is obvious that these books intentionally use highly figurative language and symbolism, but the literalist usually imposes, often without even realizing it, an interpretation that says “This is exactly what this book says.” A true scholar knows that this approach is highly problematic and often intentionally deceptive. However, someone who simply refuses to accept the clear teaching of Scripture and leans toward a strictly personalized view, ignoring the Scriptural context and prior scholarship, literal or not, is also in serious trouble and differs little from the one who chooses to ignore Scripture entirely or to denigrate it.

One website that has some interesting and helpful content on this topic is de Verbo vitae – Concerning the Word of Life. While I may not agree with all of the theology of the author of this material, he certainly has some good insights and discusses the issues involved in a literal interpretation of Scripture. The featured image on this page is from that website.

My plea is this: Study the Bible yourself. Use other resources as you feel the need, but try to come to your own conclusions as to what the Biblical text says. Consider carefully the historical context of the Scriptures you read. Examine your own life practices and views and see how they compare with what the Bible seems to say to you. Seek spiritual guidance from a professional pastor. Make any changes in your life the Scriptures seem to suggest that do not conflict with reasoned reality. The results may surprise you.

By DoctorG15 on September 25, 2018