…You’d take the Bible literally. Right?
I know that by adding “Right” there, I’m immediately alienating most theologically conservative and/or fundamentalist Christians right off the bat. I can just hear it now: “Ben’s become one of them crazy liberal types.” Sackcloth. Ashes. Gnashing of teeth. But here’s why I am willing to go public against one of the most deeply-rooted shibboleths in modern conservative Christianity: I love the heart expressed by the phrase, but I think there are far more accurate and responsible ways to verbalize it.
First, the Heart
When people say that Christians must “Take the Bible literally,” what I really hear is that we must read the Bible through the lens of belief in its authority, inspiration, accuracy, truthfulness, beauty, and relevance. I agree! As a student of God’s Word, each morning I strive to approach scripture seriously and submissively, even when it would be easier if I didn’t. If the Bible describes greed, arrogance, material excess, homsexuality, self-centeredness, alcoholism, abuse, lack of good stewardship, abortion, et. al. as sin (either explicitly or implicitly), then I feel compelled to agree. Those are sins, and when they describe me, then I must conclude that I am a sinner along with all the requisite consequences sin entails. It is not my job to seek out a way in which I am exempted, or in which my friend is an exception to the rule, or in which a particular sin is simply a cultural-historical artifact. To do so would be to ignore my affirmation of Scripture’s authority over me.
Second, the Problem
Hopefully I’ve asserted myself clearly enough that what I say next won’t be simply written off as crazy liberal hogwash. Here is my issue with taking the Bible literally: we don’t actually do so. Before you close this tab, let me elaborate. As Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family helpfully explains,
As we read it seriously and truthfully, we don’t believe that God is literally a rock, much less my rock. If so, how big is He? Is He igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic? God says He’s my fortress. Is he stone or wooden? How tall are his walls? What’s his configuration? Am I being disrespectful to God with such questions? It seems like it. And that’s the point. We dishonor God and much of His Word by trying to take it literally.
But is God literally my salvation? Oh my, YES! And I tremble at the literal truth of it.
Am I trying to say that we shouldn’t take the Bible literally at all? Absolutely not. The Bible asserts that Jesus is literally God and that he literally died and literally rose from the dead. Jesus will never be content as a mere metaphor for “a greater spiritual truth.” But does that mean that the Bible doesn’t include any metaphors for greater spiritual truth? To say so would be ridiculous. When Psalm 103 tells us that God removes our transgressions from us “As far as the east is from the west,” we immediately understand that God’s forgiveness of our sin is complete and absolute. The fact that David uses a simile shouldn’t perturb us because while it is a non-literal comparison, it is nevertheless plain what is meant.
We don’t speak literally in everyday life because to do so would be obtuse and dull. For example, if you tell me that I am really dense it would be rather silly of me to understand that I have more mass per square inch than an average human body. Such a misconception would be forgivable in a brand new English speaker, but for those who know the language well it would border on insanity. If we allow ourselves the freedom to speak rhetorically, poetically, symbolically, or in any other non-literal way, why do we not allow the Bible the same freedom?
Last, a Bit of a Suggestion
What if we just said that we believed the Bible to be authoritative, inspired, accurate, truthful, beautiful, and relevant? What if we came to a place where it was less about what watchwords we used to prove our conservativism and more about the presence of fruit in a life shaped by the Holy Spirit as our minds are renewed by God’s Word? In my experience, reciting the shibboleth to prove that we’re “in” leads less often to worship and more often to controversy and quibbling over words which, as Titus suggests, isn’t the point. I’ll let someone else have the final word.