Monday, June 06, 2005


Potential Pitfalls of Literal Interpretation

First of all, I want to make it clear from the beginning here that I believe in the inerrancy of scripture. However, this belief does not necessitate acknowledging that all scripture must be construed in an absolutely literal manner. In my opinion, allowing for some texts (particularly Genesis 1-11) to be interpreted metaphorically does not alter or lessen the meaning whatsoever. For instance, doing so does not, in any way, invalidate the story of the Origin Sin and the Fall of Man.

This topic is of concern to me for three reasons. First of all, I get frustrated when I see certain believers apply some sort of litmus test to gauge the sincerity of one’s beliefs by suggesting that if you do not believe in the literal interpretation of everything in the Bible, you are not a true believer.

This viewpoint is missing, or at least not acknowledging, any sort of nuance. By this I mean, you can believe in a metaphorical interpretation without diluting or refuting the meaning of Biblical passages. I believe along the same lines as C.S. Lewis, when he suggested the following in Miracles:

For me the Christian doctrines which are ‘metaphorical’ – or which have become metaphorical with the increase of abstract thought – mean something which is just as ‘supernatural’ or shocking after we have removed the ancient imagery as it was before.

My second concern is as follows: There are potentially adverse consequences to the “thought life” of Christians when they hold strictly to an absolutely literal interpretation. This is where many of the narrow-minded accusations originate from the secular world. For instance, if you believe the earth is 8,000 years old. Period. No questions asked. Then, it is likely you will find yourself on the defensive against nearly all scientists, anthropologists, geologists, etc. An “us against them” mentality inevitably arises.

It is also not surprising that an anti-intellectual mindset develops from this belief. I don’t think Christianity and science and the intellect should be at war with one another. Rather the scriptures, science, and nature are to be mutually dependent on each other.

Lastly, and most importantly, I fear that many Christians may experience a crisis of faith and actually turn away from Christianity due to firm, absolute beliefs in literal interpretation. When presented with vast evidence supporting at least some semblance of evolutionary theory or an “old earth” theory or questions revolving around the existence of dinosaurs, many people begin to question their faith.

This results in the combative attitude toward science that is so prevalent in much of Western Christianity. Do some or many scientists have an agenda that seeks to eradicate Christianity or go to war against it? Sure. And we, as believers, have every right to become indignant and defensive about that. But it does not follow that we should then come to view science itself as the enemy of Christianity.

In this vein, Blake Kennedy makes some very interesting points in a recent post entitled, “Easy Answers, Simplistic Thinking”. In it, he states:

I believe it is imperative for Christian leaders to present that there are differing worldviews who disagree with us in good faith. When we see, time and time again, the attack on the character, motives, or abilities of those who disagree, we are setting our people up for a fall. Eventually they will learn that the issues are not as cut-and-dried as the Church often portrays them, and the results to their faith can be catastrophic. (Emphasis Mine)

The question often arises from more fundamentalist types of believers as to why they should even consider the possibility for any sort of allegorical interpretation. I would say the primary danger in not doing so is that it could lead to crisis of faith.

I am not saying that an entirely literal, word-for-word interpretation is not possible. Rather I am suggesting that my own intellectual capacity is such that I could never fathom the creation of the world. And therefore it is certainly not something that I would want to stake my faith upon. God is so much more enormous and mysterious that any of us can grasp that I wonder how so many in the Western Christian church have come to believe that they can put him in a neat little theological box.

Now I notice I keep coming back to the need for humility. It's due to the fact that we really should never reach a point where we start to think we have it all figured out. The divinity is not a puzzle that we should be able to “solve” – at least not in this lifetime.

Unfortunately, it seems that many Christians don’t like the idea of so many unknown elements and, therefore, shy away from asking hard questions. Oftentimes the hard questions do not have any clear answers. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. In fact, I would consider the confrontation of such questions to be an essential step in maturing spiritually.

Well, Chad, far be it from me to post a disagreeing comment on a post where I'm favourably cited...

So I won't. Great post, dude! Thanks for "joining the chorus". :)
Hi Chad,
I see what you are saying. It is similar to the reason for the Intelligent Design idea. For me - I don't think of the Genesis passage you cite as metaphorical - it can still be interpreted literally without confining it to six days. It is interesting to look at what "days" means in Hebrew and how the same word is used elsewhere in Genesis and the bible. It can be interpreted as "stages" or periods of time.
Excellent post, Chad. I've had a similar post bouncing around in my head for sometime now. Time and the natural hesitancy to write what may seem heresy has, so far, kept me from doing so. After reading your post, I will now have to find the time . . .
That's a good distinction, Catez. The crux of my problem in espousing a rigid version of Creation from Genesis is its incapatibility with an "old age" earth theory. So when we suggest the idea that days may be interpreted more as "stages", it starts becoming a lot more compatible with the bulk of evidence from nature and science thus far. I guess in the big picture - to me - it still goes back to being open to an alternative way of interpreting the story without changing the underlying theme of it in any way.
Chad, you wouldn't be calling me a simpleton, would you? lol The main problem: pitting science against church or visa versa. That is not what it's about. God in a box? The locked world of naturalism is what concerns me. It is precisely the split between theology and science which create locked worlds. God created science--it is His! The twain are inseparable. Strict naturalists have tried taking it from Him.
Just as the church has various views, so does science. There are plenty of Creation scientists who believe and support all the hard evidence found so far by paleontologists.
Cut and dried? Closing the door on creationism is as much a shut-out as my literal view. (By the way, I have never disregarded the idea Catez puts forth, but there is no reason why God couldn't do six days either, like you said, it's possible--science has varying theories.) The real crisis of faith might be when the allegory theorists find out God meant what He said.
Where I would disagree with CVW warrior (respectfully) is that Creation Science provides hypotheses. Now I don't exclude that hard data may eventuate, but I think ID is better because it doesn't exclude the data from science that is available.
So Creation Science (6 days) is at this point proposing a philosophy of science based on hypotheses. Not really wanting to argue that or anything, but as a scientist I do find it difficult with the material put forward by the Creation folk.
Hey Chad, just a return from a long absence here to say well-written. I really value the moderation you seek to bring to these kind of questions. Cheers.
Just a clarification, CWV. While your recent posts have provided some inspiration for writing this, it is not intented as rebuttal to you in particular. You've at least facilitated some discussion of differing viewpoints (such as mine) and have not portrayed an arrogant sort of theology in your posts. That's more than I can say for some others.
G, Good to see you're back in the fray again. Hopefully, some occassional partisan humor here won't get in the way of those attempts thus far to moderate the dialogue. Our recent conversations have been really helpful to me thus far in trying to understand where you and some other progressives are coming from.

As an aside, I like your Europe photos. Belgium has some great beers and the fries covered in mayo are just fantastic.
Ah - I wasn't aware this sort of followed on from other discussions. I agree with you Chad - it is refreshing to be able to consider positions like this.
Me too! Great discussion. I'm glad you're not picking on me, Chad. ; )
Sorry my vocab is lacking. I didn't even know there is a distinction between "creation" science and ID. So I was lumping.
In general, I meant the studies beyond strict evolution...self-perpetuating development of nature and more specifically, origin of separate species.
Just to clarify - Creation science (6 days) is one group within ID. ID is really an umbrella which covers different groups. I used ID in the wide sense - as something incorporating the other groups, all of which share an Intelligent Design basis from Christianity.
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