Editor's Postlude: No One Reads the Bible Literally

July 24, 2023
Black eyeglasses resting on a open Bible

We’ve got to stop being defensive about not reading the Bible literally and not believing it is the inerrant word of God.

Taking the Bible literally as the inerrant word of God is not “good old-time religion.” The approach only took root about 130 years ago, at “Believers Meetings for Bible Study” that met annually between 1876 and 1897. Here, the idea that the Bible should be read literally as the inerrant word of God solidified as a reaction to the perceived threat of growing scientific knowledge.

Within Judaism, it is expected that you question, debate, and bring your own reasoning to the discussions of scripture. Within Christianity, early church theologians did not approach scripture literally. Speaking about the creation stories, Origen said, “Who is so silly as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, planted a paradise eastward in Eden and set in it a visible and palpable tree of life.” Augustine of Hippo also urged the use of reason in interpreting scripture.

Reformer Martin Luther declared that scripture was the authority, not the Pope or the church. He understood scripture as inspired by God but, because it came through humans, such inspiration did not ensure that there were no errors (though these errors did not diminish the gospel).

The United Church’s approach to scripture comes from John Wesley. In the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the meaning of any scripture passage is discerned through considering other scripture, the tradition, your own experiences, and your own reasoning in the context of community. (See “Wesley’s Quadrilateral,” Gathering Pentecost 2, 2021, p. 83; also available at GatheringWorship.ca.)

Those who claim to take the Bible literally just don’t admit that they are interpreting the Bible. We can’t help but bring our own perspectives and biases to scripture. There is no “pure” way of reading the Bible and no “once and forever” interpretation of any passage.

For example, 1 Timothy 2:9 says that women should not wear gold or pearls and should dress modestly. Taken literally, gold and pearls would be out, but a woman could wear diamonds or silver. Some have interpreted this verse to mean that women should wear no jewellery and only muted colours. For women, “modest” for many years meant dresses that covered the ankles, wrists, and neck. (Heaven forbid that women wear pants.) Yet, few churches today, not just United Churches, take this passage literally, even if they claim to do so. It has been interpreted in each generation. Interesting, isn’t it, that only women’s dress is mandated, revealing a built-in bias in the scripture itself?

In the gospels, Jesus instructs the disciples to take no money, no bag, and no extra tunics or sandals on a trip. That may have worked in Jesus’ time, but I’m not going anywhere without money. Yet, maybe a credit card would be okay, since Jesus didn’t say anything about them. If you want to be literal, then in winter, we only should wear sandals, not snow boots. Yet, Christians have freely interpreted this passage to their context—which is fine, but that is not taking the Bible literally, if that’s what you say you do.

In Matthew 5, Jesus declares that one should remove a hand or eye if it causes you to sin. Yet the early Christian community was a community of joy and compassion, not one where everyone was literally removing eyes and hands. Jesus’ words were understood as hyperbole used to make a point.

The fear is that if we don’t take the Bible literally as inerrant, then the Bible will lose its authority and relevance. Yet, people who don’t want to check their intellect and education at the church door end up rejecting the Bible because they can’t take it literally or as inerrant.

There is nothing to fear in bringing one’s intellect, education, reasoning, and life experiences to the Bible. Reading the Bible seriously continues to offer us beauty, wonder, inspiration, and challenge. We don’t have to take the Bible literally to be comforted by Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd” or inspired by Ephesians 3 “God’s power at work within us can do infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine.”

We take the Bible seriously, not literally. Let’s declare it and celebrate it!

Susan Lukey, Editor