07 September 2011

For God's Sake, Think! - Biblical Literalism

"Hermeneutics” is a fancy word to describe the process by which someone interprets the Bible. Every so often I blog about contexts behind certain biblical passages so that we can better understand God’s Word. I invite you to think critically about what the biblical writers are trying to communicate as I explain a passage’s background material.


Bart Ehrman has been a loud voice in New Testament study as of late. His recent book, Misquoting Jesus, claims that scribes actually changed the Bible so that it adhered to their own personal beliefs. People read Ehrman and think that he's the only voice on the issue, when in reality even secular scholars don't like him because of his poor scholarship. How did this man get such a loud microphone? I would argue that it's because he's voicing what our own culture is thinking. We're apprehensive about metanarratives and thus accept the other "marginalized," drowned-out voices from the Pseudepigrapha (books that were not accepted into the Biblical canon). Ehrman is voicing what we want to hear so we listen and accept it.

I would argue, however, that Ehrman does the same thing that he claims the New Testament does - he filters his scholarship through only one perspective. Not only this, but he adheres to the same kind of Biblical literalism he critiques.

Biblical literalism, both on the secular and religious sides, is possibly one of the most dangerous thoughts affecting Christianity today.

The interesting thing about Ehrman is that he began as a very rigid Biblical literalist. He attended Moody and then Wheaton, two schools that push the absolute inerrancy issue. It wasn't until he went to Princeton and came across a textual error in Mark that things went further downhill. He decided that, if the Bible is absolutely and completely inerrant, it cannot be true because he just found an error. Biblical literalism is always all or nothing.

It's really poor scholarship on his part to conclude this when there is such strong textual support for the NT. Here's why:
1. Spelling errors account for three-fourths of the errors. An error, yes, but not problematic.
2. Other errors include variance among manuscripts of synonyms and pronouns.
3. The only errors that are actually meaningful and vital account for 1%. Even then, they don't change our theology too much. For instance, a large portion of this 1% is the woman caught in adultery in John 8. Scholars are sure that this is not original. Without it, do we still know that Jesus is forgiving? Yes. It does not alter our picture of Jesus at all.

Ehrman is wasting his time on these.
The real issue is when we read the Bible and find literary inconsistencies. Christians plug their ears and close their minds, claiming that they must both be true and thus committing logical suicide. Secularists critically point them out and gather them up as further proof that the Bible is not to be trusted.

Like I said before, Biblical literalism on both sides is dangerous.

These two parties are completely missing the point. Literalism is a very modern phenomena that surfaced during the Enlightenment period. The creation story, for instance, was predominantly interpreted figuratively up until the Enlightenment. Augustine was a large proponent of interpreting Genesis 1-2 figuratively. Prior to the Scopes trial, Christians even accepted a figurative rendition of the gap theory so that the Bible could be consistent with scientific, evolutionary findings.

The Bible is a PRE-modern book. Let's read it as such. Let's be faithful to its historical setting. Let's be faithful to its ancient literary style.

We don't have to default to an "all or nothing" theology. God can still be the inspiration behind and imperfect, error-filled book. God can inspire fallible human writers and influence the theology behind their limited, human words.

God is bigger than errors... And his story about his interactions with humankind can still be treated as a beautiful, God-inspired text even if it contains some post-Enlightenment errors.


Kris said...

Good stuff, as always.

Because we tend to project, we also project our culture onto the Bible, which has proven to be dangerous. This is why for so many centuries the Scriptures were only interpreted by the trained.

Sadly, the modern era has produced the belief that God just can't be God if he doesn't conform to our ideas of who he is and how he operates. Whether it's Ehrman or Ham we always seem to apply our modern filters to pre-modern sources.

Unknown said...

very well put. but that may be a very important 1% you speak of -- a 1% upon which a (desperately needed) feminizing revolution (or recovery) hinges. do you have any thoughts on this? http://ramon_k_jusino.tripod.com/magdalene.html