How fundamentalists undermine the authority of scripture

Posted on 07/25/11 67 Comments

Christian fundamentalists like to trumpet the authority of scripture over all things. Unfortunately the way that fundamentalists read scripture tends to undermine that authority. The key problem is that fundamentalists widely subscribe to a hermeneutical (that is interpretive) principle that the text should be interpreted literally when possible. This is how George Marsden, perhaps the leading scholar on North American fundamentalism, puts it:

“fundamentalists do not hold that everything in the Bible is to be interpreted literally (the mountains do not literally clap their hands). Rather, ‘literal where possible’ is their interpretive rule. Whatever in the Bible can reasonably be given a literal reference should be interpreted as literal and accurate.” (George M. Marsden, “Fundamentalism and American Evangelicalism,” The Variety of American Evangelicalism, eds. Donald W. Dayton, Robert K. Johnston (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991), 25.)

John Walvoord, one of the most well know fundamentalist scholars of the twentieth century, put it like this:

“The most important point in interpretation of the Bible is to recognize that the Bible is normally a literal expression of what God wants to communicate.”

“A basic rule is to interpret the Bible in its natural sense unless there is good reason for believing that a figure of speech has been used.” (John Walvoord, “Interpretation,” in The Theological Wordbook, Don Campbell et. Al (Nashville: Word, 2000).

This “literal where possible” principle (henceforth the LPP) is so misguided that it is hard to know where to begin critiquing it. Nonetheless, I will note four problems with it in this short essay.

Problem 1: The LPP ignores the metaphor-laden nature of language.

Walvoord’s statement that “the Bible is normally a literal expression” is rooted in the assumption that human language is normatively literal expression which is ornamented (or clouded) by the occasional literary trope. Such a view harkens back to the perspective of philosophy of language in the age when the Eiffel Tower was still on its first coat of paint. But today we know that language crackles with literary tropes. Even if some scholars have gone too far by proclaiming “It’s all metaphor” it is nonetheless correct that metaphor is not merely a deviation off course from literal expression. (For an exercise, you might want to identify some of the literary tropes in this paragraph.)

I would add that while this may be a news flash to some fundamentalists, Christians with a liberal arts education rich in literature have long known that the LPP was absurd. Consider, for example, C.S. Lewis’ discussion of the metaphorical saturation of language in the 1940s.

Problem 2: The LPP does not define “where possible.

In Genesis 22 God interrupts Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac at the last moment with the declaration “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (v. 12) According to the LPP we should do our darndest to interpret this literally meaning that God learned how Abraham would act. And that entails in turn that God previously did
not know
how Abraham would act. God is, in other words, ignorant of at least certain future events. Perhaps a fundamentalist might counter that it is not possible to read the text this way but of course that is false as open theists have demonstrated. To put it bluntly, who defines where a literally reading is “possible”?

Problem 3: The LPP tends to adopt an atomistic reading of texts as sets of propositional claims while ignoring the genre of the text.

Consider popular young earth creationist Ken Ham on Genesis 1. Ham believes that the text narrates a “literal” creation event extended over six 24 hour days. And why is this? LPP lies in the background quietly doing its damage to the text while Ham stands in the foreground boldly proclaiming of the Hebrew word “yom” (or “day”) that “A day is a day!” In other words, if the text says “a day” then it means “a day”.

Of course both “day” in English and “yom” in Hebrew can mean many different things. But the more salient point for our discussion is this: the statement completely ignores the embedded genre. Imagine for a moment that you’re discussing the story of the tortoise and the hare. Your fundamentalist friend comes along and insists that the story requires us to believe there was literally a tortoise and hare based on LPP. And when you press him he replies “A tortoise is a tortoise!” True, it is, but that would completely miss the issue of literary genre. In the case of the tortoise and the hare we’re dealing with a moralistic fable, rather like a parable. What literary genre are we dealing with in Genesis 1? Sadly, fundamentalists don’t even try to find out because they think they can just read the text straight. (Okay then, did the omnipotent creator of all things really need to “rest” on the seventh day? Or is that literal reading suddenly not “possible”?)

Problem 4: The LPP is unjustified.

Unfortunately for John Walvoord nowhere in scripture does it say “Thou shalt interpret the Bible in its natural sense unless there is good reason for believing that a figure of speech has been used.” On the contrary, the dizzying range of literary genres contained within scripture coupled with the richly metaphorical nature of all human language should make it clear that the LPP is vacuous, false and unjustified. In other words, it achieves that rare accomplishment: the triumvirate of epistemic defeat.

In conclusion, it is important to appreciate how damaging the LPP is to our understanding of scripture. Imagine that you have a street map which you are committed to using to get to your destination. “I trust my street map as my sole authority in all matters of automotive navigation.” Unfortunately, you have chosen to read it by the LPP. As a result, you keep driving in circles looking for a road colored red because Main Street is colored red on the map. What a sorry picture. By following LPP you negate all the authority you place in the map because a map read in correctly is of no use. To the extent that fundamentalists are led by LPP to read scripture incorrectly they likewise undermine its authority.

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  • http://elbryanlibre.wordpress.com El Bryan Libre

    I didn’t see from your examples of LPP how it was damaging to our understanding of scripture, and it didn’t really seem to undermine the authority of scripture.

    Since you seem to define fundamentalists broadly, I don’t see them all having a bunch of problems because this type of hermeneutic.

    • randal

      El Bryan Libre,

      I didn’t define the term fundamentalist. My focus was on a hermeneutical principle common among fundamentalists which I called LPP. Of course it is possible to hold LPP and not be a fundamentalist or to be a fundamenatlist and not hold to LPP. So the spotlight is on LPP rather than fundamentalism per se.

      As for undermining the authority of scripture, we can distinguish between declarative authority and functional authority. A person may retain the declarative authority in a text (a map, the Bible) but if the person consistently misuses (e.g. misreads) substantial portions of the text based on faulty hermeneutical principles then they have effectively negated much of the text’s functional authority.

      As for damage of one’s understanding of scripture, if you read a moralistic fable as a literally true account you’ve done damage to the text. Mutatis mutandis for the various genres of scripture.

      • http://elbryanlibre.wordpress.com El Bryan Libre

        Randal,
        You’re right you didn’t define the term fundamentalist I mistook John Walvoord for a mainstream Evangelical scholar and were assuming that you lumped Evangelicals in with fundamentalists. My mistake.

        If misreading portions of the scripture negates its authority then we’re all in the same boat whether we subscribe to LPP or something else since none of us interprets the Bible perfectly. The fundamentalist who subscribes to LPP is really not that worse off.

        But I still wonder if you might have some examples of these misreadings that have an actual impact on fundamentalists who are trying to worship God and live by what they read in the Bible that causes them to actually undermine the text’s authority instead?

        • randal

          “If misreading portions of the scripture negates its authority then we’re all in the same boat …”

          To an extent. But if you abandon LPP then you can begin to read scripture better. The fact that everybody sins doesn’t mean that there’s no difference between mass murder and punching your brother. Mutatis mutandis for reading texts.

          I already provided an example in fundamentalist readings of Genesis 1. The assumption that Genesis is inconsistent with the old age of the earth and biological common descent has brought great harm on a generation of young Christians, many of which have walked away from the faith after learning the science.

          • http://elbryanlibre.wordpress.com El Bryan Libre

            Randal,

            “The fact that everybody sins doesn’t mean that there’s no difference between mass murder and punching your brother. Mutatis mutandis for reading texts.”

            Yes but is LPP the equivalent of mass murder and what you’re advocating (whatever it is) hitting your brother in the arm? I’m wondering if you’re not over selling the alternative to LPP. If the principle is read the text literally unless there is a good reason not to (such as it is obviously figurative speech or it doesn’t make sense literally) then that leaves the interpreter with a lot of room. It’s a principle not a law. If someone when faced with a better reading than a straight literal reading decides not to abandon their literal reading then the problem is that they’re stubborn and don’t want to think critically about a text. I don’t know if you can blame the hermeneutic for that.

            “I already provided an example in fundamentalist readings of Genesis 1.”

            I think the Genesis 1 example is too easy a target. Where else does it show up in a way that matters to a Christians day to day life? Most of the conservative/fundamentalist Christians I know could care less about evolution and don’t think about it in their everyday lives and that’s why they’re content to continue beleiving in the literal reading of Genesis 1. Really if Genesis 1 is the only place that LPP really matters then it it doesn’t really seem to matter.

            “The assumption that Genesis is inconsistent with the old age of the earth and biological common descent has brought great harm on a generation of young Christians, many of which have walked away from the faith after learning the science.”

            People come to faith for all sorts of reasons and they walk away from their faith for all sorts of reasons. If they walk away from their faith simply because they come to believe that the earth was really old and evolution is how we got here then what was their faith really based on? Really I have to wonder what was holding up a person’s faith if the age of the earth and evolution were able to destroy it. I don’t know that you can put the responsibility for loss of faith on a hermeneutic principle. Can LPP be held responsible for people coming to faith too?

            • randal

              I already argued that literal is not the default setting of language. No philosopher of language holds that view anymore. (Note my metaphor of a default setting for example.) So LPP is completely wrong-headed.

              Look at how New Testament writers interpret the Old Testament. They know absolutely nothing of LPP.

              If you’d like another example than Genesis 1 then look to biblical prophecy. If we adopt the LPP we have to think that Ezekiel’s predictions of the temple being restored are only fulfilled when the temple is rebuilt in Jersualem. How much blood has been spilt over that one I cannot even begin to say. But Jesus provides us another interpretive framework which tramples LPP: his body is the temple.

              To your final question: “Can LPP be held responsible for people coming to faith too?”

              Yes, but so can Christian bumperstickers. That doesn’t mean we should put them on our cars.

              • http://elbryanlibre.wordpress.com El Bryan Libre

                Randal,

                “I already argued that literal is not the default setting of language. No philosopher of language holds that view anymore. (Note my metaphor of a default setting for example.) So LPP is completely wrong-headed.”

                Yes but in most day to day reading and application of the Bible it probably doesn’t make much of a difference and the Bible’s authority is not undermined.

                “Look at how New Testament writers interpret the Old Testament. They know absolutely nothing of LPP.”

                In some places they do interpret it literally and in some places they don’t. Are you advocating that we interpret the Bible the way the NT writers do?

                That raises another question. What if they were interpreting it overly literal in a way similar to how a lawyer might interpret the Bible?

                “If you’d like another example than Genesis 1 then look to biblical prophecy. If we adopt the LPP we have to think that Ezekiel’s predictions of the temple being restored are only fulfilled when the temple is rebuilt in Jersualem.”

                We don’t have to believe that. Plenty of people choose not to follow you down that road. Again, it’s a principle and you can’t dictate how people must use that principle as if it were a rule. Again people are given quite a bit of freedom and discretion with that principle. And further, even if people do believe that the temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem doesn’t mean that they have to support the modern state of Israel against the Palestinians. That’s going quite a bit further than just applying LPP to the bible when reading it.

                “To your final question: “Can LPP be held responsible for people coming to faith too?”

                Yes, but so can Christian bumperstickers. That doesn’t mean we should put them on our cars.”

                But that raises a question, if someone were to come to faith because of a bumper sticker and then lost their faith because of another bumper sticker then what was lost? Without that bumper sticker they wouldn’t have come to faith in the first place. The same with LPP. However if lots of people come to faith because of LPP and only 1% them lose their faith because of something that contradicted LPP then it seems like it it does much more good than harm and nothing is really lost in the end because those that fell away wouldn’t have come to faith in the first place were it not for LPP. ; )

                • randal

                  “Yes but in most day to day reading and application of the Bible it probably doesn’t make much of a difference and the Bible’s authority is not undermined.”

                  If only this were true. When religious conservatives blindly side with the modern state of Israel and its human rights abuses based on an application of LPP to prophecy, that has real world consequences. When Christians redupidate neo-Darwinism and big bang cosmology based on an application of LPP to Genesis, that has real world consequences.

                  “Are you advocating that we interpret the Bible the way the NT writers do?”

                  Your question is ambiguous. Do you mean should we accept their interpretation or should we interpret the OT using similar methods? It doesn’t matter though, because either way LPP is shown to be false.

                  “further, even if people do believe that the temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem doesn’t mean that they have to support the modern state of Israel against the Palestinians. That’s going quite a bit further than just applying LPP to the bible when reading it.”

                  I didn’t say that LPP leads necessarily to a particular view of the modern state of Israel. But it is indisputable that those who take this view are buttressed by their reading of prophecy based on LPP.

                  • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

                    When Christians repudiate neo-Darwinism and big bang cosmology based on an application of LPP to Genesis, that has real world consequences.

                    [...]

                    It is indisputable that those who take this view are buttressed by their reading [...] based on LPP.

                    Obviously the latter part of this quote was a reference to views of Israel, not cosmology, but it made me curious. Do you think that anyone who repudiates evolution or big bang cosmogony (cosmology deals with how things are, not how things began) does so out of allegiance to LPP? I can think of quite a few counterexamples to that belief. For that matter, I can think of quite a few counterexamples to the far-right position on Israel being “indisputably” buttressed by allegiance to LPP.

                    • randal

                      “Do you think that anyone who repudiates evolution or big bang cosmogony (cosmology deals with how things are, not how things began) does so out of allegiance to LPP?”

                      No. I also don’t know that all members of the Michigan Militia are libertarian. But libertarianism is widely held among members of the Michigan Militia.

                      As for your terminological quibble, if the term “big bang cosmology” is good enough for NASA, it is good enough for me. (Study of the nature of the universe as it is now inevitably encompasses a study of how it came to be.)

  • Christian Missionary

    Randal, You said (… did the omnipotent creator of all things really need to “rest” on the seventh day? …)

    God rested from His labour which was creating the heavens and the earth.(Gen 1:31, Gen 2:1-3)

    • randal

      Yes Christian Missionary, but if one reads that text literally they run afoul of many of the most fundamental confessions in the Christian doctrine of God including divine omnipotence and divine aseity. And that leads one swiftly into a baldly heretical understanding of God as a glorified creature who is subject to the laws of thermodynamics. This is a great example why LPP is so damaging to scriptural reading and doctrinal formulation.

  • Christian Missionary

    Randal – Regarding Abraham

    God tempted Abraham when He told him that He wanted him to sacrifice his one and only son Issac. Abraham loved his son, Issac. God was testing Abraham to see if he loved his son more than he loved God.

    Of course, God already knew what Abraham would do but He wanted Abraham to choose between his son or obediance to God. Abraham probably had some moments of wanting to choose his son over obediance to God. Afterall, Abraham was human. (In Jesus’ humanity, He didn’t want to go to the cross but chose to obey the will of God instead because He loved the Father.) But Abraham, who had walked with God for many, many years, and learned that he could trust God, chose to be obediant to God knowing that God was quite capable of resurrecting his son.

    Many times God will challenge our flesh to see if we love God more than we love ourselves.

    • randal

      “Of course, God already knew what Abraham would do….”

      Not according to Genesis 22. Read what open theists say about this text. The problem, as I already pointed out, is that those who appeal to LPP have no clear criteria as to its application.

      • Christian Missionary

        God is all knowing. He knew what every human would do and think before the world was ever created.

        • http://www.retheology.net Jared

          So no free will eh?

          If God knew what everyone was going to do has he just been toying with us through this whole project? Moreover what of the problem of theodicy? God knew the holocaust was going to happen? He knew that someone was going to walk into a camp full of Norwegian kids and open fire? If you want to say that, that’s fine… but know what camp you’re setting up your tent in. If God is all knowing as you’ve defined it, then the problem of pain is a much bigger hurdle for you than it is for me.

          • Christian Missionary

            Jared – You have a free will as does everyone else. God knew before He laid the foundation of the world what choices you and everyone else would make.

            • http://damian.peterson.net.nz Damian

              That doesn’t make sense to me. Imagine I were to write on a piece of paper what you were going to say next, handed it to you folded whereupon you said “cowabunga dude!”, unfolded the paper and saw that I’d written “cowabunga dude!” on it. If I were able to repeatedly demonstrate this do you really think you would have free will? Could you have chosen any other phrase?

              If God knows every action you will take in advance could you do otherwise? If you couldn’t do otherwise then do you really have free will?

  • http://www.retheology.net Jared

    Interesting post Randal… Just a couple of questions:

    re: The Tortoise and Hare analogy, the supernatural nature of Genesis (not the mention its placement within an abundantly metaphysical book) seems a little bit different to me than a fable where LPP would be concerned. If the literalist would not necessarily read the “mountains clapping their hands” literally, they would they would not be required to apply LPP to that story and would not reply, as you have suggested “a tortoise is a tortoise” since tortoises do not regularly speak. Yet days do transpire and everything that was created has a creator so it could follow that the creation account ‘could’ conceivably be read literally.

    Secondly, doesn’t good scholarship require us to use the hermeneutic that is closest to that of the writers? Consider that the author of Hebrews translates the Hebrew ‘yom’ into “hmera” – the same word that is used to describe the three days after which Jesus rose. Admittedly, day can still be used in wide poetic strokes, similar to Yom – but hmera lends itself to a much more literal reading. (I find it similar to the issue of ‘virgin’ in Isaiah’s prophecies – that in Hebrew could conceivably translate as “young maiden” – but in Luke is very clearly “Virgin”)

    I am not, however a literalist. I think you’ve said it well (elsewhere): Literal where appropriate is a much fairer approach to the text.

    Just my thoughts…

    • randal

      Serpents don’t regularly speak either yet that doesn’t stop conservatives from reading Genesis 2-3 as a straightforward historical narrative.

      We should not be interested in the question of whether a text could “conceivably” be read in a certain way (literal or otherwise). Rather, we should be concerned with what is the best, most appropriate way to read the text in light of what we know about the specific text and the genre(s) that it seems to exemplify.

      I’m not deying that “day” in Genesis 1 refers to a day. So it is quite irrelevant what Greek equivalent is used. The point rather is that the genre of an ANE cosmogonic creation narrative should not be read like we read the newspaper. So I heartily agree when you write “good scholarship require[s] us to use the hermeneutic that is closest to that of the writers….”

  • Christian Missionary

    No believer should ever read the Word of God without first asking God to help them understand it.

    • http://www.retheology.net Jared

      Sure… and maybe that learning/leading comes from someone with a good seminary education…

      • Christian Missionary

        Not so.

        • http://www.retheology.net Jared

          Never?

          Ever been the doctor? Do you just pray for healing, follow James’ advice and call the elders to anoint you with Oil and pray the prayer of faith (whatever that is … I find Greek and Aramaic very hard to memorize) – or do you trust that God’s Spirit has been at work in the skill and learning of those with more wisdom than you? Why would it be different for the study of the Bible?

          • Christian Missionary

            No, Jared, I don’t go to the Doctor. I go to God with whatever ails me.God has done many many healings for me, for my animals and other people’s animals, and for people I have prayed for. Yes, I have called for the elders of the church to anoint me with oil and to pray for my healing and God has responded to their prayers by healing me.

            • http://www.retheology.net Jared

              I applaud your faith and wish that more of us could be as blessed as you are. You have a remarkable testimony that you should share.

              God bless

              • Christian Missionary

                When I was about 8 yrs old God revealed to my heart that hell was real. I knew in my heart that Jesus died for my sins. I asked Jesus to save me. After I was baptized my life changed however I didn’t make Jesus Lord of my life and led a life of sin. My sin grew over time. God allowed my sin to destroy my life intellectually, socially, and emotionally. After receiving my grades at the conclusion of my first quarter in grad school at Fla Inst of Tech I was worried. I was worried that I would flunk out of school, not be able to get a good paying job, and would have to go back home to live with my mother and return to my low paying job as a junior draftsman in a shipping yard. I picked up a Bible and began to flip through the pages and couldn’t read anywhere until I came to Matt 6:25-33. Jesus used that passage to reveal to my heart that I was living my life apart from Him, that I had sinned against Him and Him alone, and that it was my sins that destroyed my life. Immediately after He revealed all this to my heart, I began to pray and confessed to Him that I have been living my life apart from Him, that I made a mess out of it, and told Him that I would put Him first in my life, which all I knew at the time was to go to Church and tithe. When I was faithful to my commitment, God supernaturally changed my life. I went from being a lousy student to being one of the department’s better students. I became a better teacher. I was an introvert and became an extrovert. I use to be entertained by sinful programs on TV. No longer did sin entertain me and I stopped watching TV. My study habits changed. God increased my finances by giving me a tutoring job. I graduated from FIT and got a good paying job with a NASA contractor. God indeed took care of what I was worried about.

                After I went to work for a NASA contractor, I began to have problems again but this time it was with my relationsghips with people. God used again Matt 6:25-33. He told me to put His will first in my life and He would take care of what I was worried about. I surrendered to Him in prayer and He changed my life again. He helped my with my relationship problems, brought healing to my wounded spirit through helping me to forgive the offender. All this happened between August 1980 to Nov 1980. On Dec 31, 1980, as the new year approached, I made four prayer requests to God for what I wanted to see take place in my life. They were, 1) I wanted to be a woman of prayer, 2) I wanted to grow in the knowledge and wisdom of the Lord, 3) I wanted to know what my spiritual gift was and to use it, and 4) I wanted to be a soul winner. God was faithful and in a unique way began to bring answers to my prayers.

                In Sept 1986 I wanted to be a missionary, told God this, and made it public in my Church during invitataion time. I have been serving God and my Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ, since Jan 1981.

                In my walk with God I have learned to lean on God for understanding of His Word, for depending on Him for healing, and etc.

      • Christian Missionary

        Everyone first starts out leaning on what the Pastor, Sunday School Teacher, mama and papa, a TV or radio Christian personality, a Christian that they have respect for, or a Christian who writes books on Christianity and Christian related topics has to say about God. However, as a believer grows in their walk with God he/she should lean less on them and more on God. Believers should be encouraged to look to God for understanding of the Word of God and not man.

        John 14:26 – “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your rememberance, whatsoever I have said unto you.”

        John 16:13 – “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself, but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come.”

  • Christian Missionary

    Jared – Seminaries are nothing more than, for the most part, cemetaries. It is a place where believers go to have their faith destroyed by unbelieving professors who think they are more wise than God.

    • Brad Haggard

      Not true. I’m at a seminary studying right now and that deep study in the Bible has actually grown my faith and amazement at God’s work. This is also true for my classmates and professors.

      • randal

        Yea and Amen!

    • randal

      I have taught in a seminary for almost a decade now. I have seen many times where students have brought false and harmful beliefs and belief systems to seminary which were gradually deconstructed to a more biblical and Christian perspective. But never once have I seen anyone whose faith was destroyed.

      • Jerry Rivard

        Matt Dillahunty?

        (I realize that if I take your words literally that you may not have seen that particular case, but the implication of your statement is that it doesn’t happen, and I’ve heard and read that it does.)

        • randal

          I didn’t take that to be the implication of my statement. I simply said that I have never seen a case at the seminary where I taught of a student losing their faith.

  • http://www.retheology.net Jared

    Alright, well thanks for playing along…

  • Brad Haggard

    Mega dittos, Randal. You could find a lot more oddities in the prophecy Bibles where they try to apply the LPP to apocalyptic passages.

  • chris

    Randal,

    It it currently my understanding that as AIG often points out, Jesus quoted from Genesis quite regularly and interpreted Genesis literally, as well as the rest of the books of Moses.

    How do you respond to this?

    • randal

      This issue will come up again shortly when I finally review chapter 1 of Thom Stark’s book. But in the interim, Jesus the man had a human psychology, taking on as he did the limitations of a first century Jew. Although one can maintain that as the divine Word he remained omniscient, as the human man he would inevitably have had false beliefs. For example, he may have learned from his mother’s knee the three storied universe with a vault in the heavens that holds back the waters above. We now know that this is a completely false picture of the world, but it is one that the ancient Hebrews and other ancient peoples accepted. Jesus likewise would have learned it and in his humanity come to accept it. (Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that error equates to moral culpability. They are very different.) So is it possible that Jesus could have read a text in light of his first century perspective while getting certain aspects of the interpretation wrong. Sure, why not? And thus he could have read Genesis 1 in a way that we now know is incorrent from a historical and scientific perspective. But even inerrantists like Charles Hodge could have invoked the distinction between what scripture records and what it teaches. It may have recorded particular views that Jesus held in accord with his culture without teaching those views, and further insight into the nature of the universe would have made that distinction clear.

      Second, it doesn’t follow from the fact that Jesus refers to Adam and Eve that he understood them to be historical persons. As Thom Stark points out, a person can refer to Frodo to make a point while teaching without assuming that Frodo was necessarily a historical person.

      Third, Jesus could have known that a particular reading of Genesis 1-3 was incorrect but nonetheless used that incorrect reading to make another point rather than getting side-tracked. Teachers do this all the time.

      • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

        What evidence do you have that Jesus would have learned “from his mother’s knee” the “three-storied universe” cosmography? By the first century AD, such antiquated notions were thoroughly discarded in the ancient Near East. It can be safely assumed that Jesus would not have ever believed that the earth was flat.

        However, Jesus still made statements like this one in Mark 13:

        And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

        If, then, Jesus made statements like this, knowing that the earth is not flat, how do you think he interpreted Old Testament passages like Isaiah 40:22 (“It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in”) — as a metaphor for accurate cosmology, like your “fundamentalists” do, or as a “literal” explanation of inaccurate Babylonian cosmography, like you might do?

        • randal

          “What evidence do you have that Jesus would have learned “from his mother’s knee” the “three-storied universe” cosmography? By the first century AD, such antiquated notions were thoroughly discarded in the ancient Near East. It can be safely assumed that Jesus would not have ever believed that the earth was flat.”

          Whether or not Jesus would have believed the earth was a sphere is irrelevant to a three-storied cosmology. That cosmology adopted to the Ptolemaic cosmology that came after Jesus which continued to place hell and hades in the inner bowels of the earth and the heavens beyond the upper reaches of the spheres.

  • http://thelordgodexists.com/ Mike

    CM: God instructing believers to have elders pray for them does not entail that one cannot utilize medical advances; many of these medicinal developments are the direct or indirect fruit of the biblical worldview. Many medical resources, used with wisdom and counsel, are wonderful blessings from the Lord and the application of His truth. Prayer is essential and modern medicine is a blessing. Additionally, most of the men I know who attend, have attended seminaries, or who are professors are faithful men of God and they love the Lord Jesus Christ and attempt to live according to His word.

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  • Jerry Rivard

    I would make a distinction between a literal and a factual reading of a text (any text). For instance, if I read “The sun spit morning in Julian’s face” I am not being told that the sun actually spit or that morning actually landed on Julian’s face (personification metaphors) but I am being told that it was morning and that Julian wasn’t particular pleased about it (facts)?

    I’m no bible scholar, of course, but my understanding has always been that the bible was meant to be read factually, and that only when the facts it reports were later shown to be incorrect did believers begin to interpret it metaphorically. Am I wrong in my belief that, at the time it was written, its adherents believed the facts it reported (e.g. six day creation, the flood, the tower of Babel, Abraham’s would-be sacrifice of Isaac, etc.? Was there never a time when these stories were intended to be believed factually? Or is the answer to my question lost to history?

    • MGT2

      The writers of Biblical texts utilized the literary genre of their times and would have been appropriately understood by their contemporary readers.

      Texts more ancient than their times would require some interpretation as in the case of Ezra’s interpretation during the time of Nehemiah.

      If by “factual” you mean literal, I do not think any of those readers thought that mountains had literal clapping hands.

      • Jerry Rivard

        No, I specifically made a distinction between factual and literal, for which I provided an example.

        Here are some specific applications of the question.

        1) When originally written, was the story of 6 day creation meant to be taken as a fact?

        2) When originally written, was the story of the flood meant to be taken as a fact?

        3) When originally written, was the story of the tower of Babel meant to be taken as a fact?

        What I’m asking is, when did the interpretation that these and other stories are not meant to be taken factually come into play? Was it only after they were proven to be factually incorrect? Can you cite an example to the contrary?

        • MGT2

          At the time of their writing the events were meant to be factual, meaning that creation occured over a period of time, there was a flood, and there was a common language. The distance between the events and their documentation might have allowed for mytholization, but that should not detract from the factuality of the events.

          I do not know that any of these events have been proven to be false. Unless you take the position that Jesus believed, and by extension, taught wrong things, He spoke of these events (at least A&E, and Noah) as if they were factual. The apostle Paul also seemed to hold to their factuality.

          • Jerry Rivard

            So I take it that you believe these events to be true? If so, what is your explanation why God stopped man from building a tower so high that it would reach the heavens, but hasn’t stopped us from exploring space, or from building many skyscrapers since? And how would you account for the apparent discrepancy between Genesis 10:5 and Genesis 11:1?

            • MGT2

              It is just an apparent discrepancy, but not a real one. This is in fact a very good portion of scripture to demonstrate the mistakes many critics make. The first mistake is to think that the accounts are strict chronological events, that is, Gen 10:5 is followed historically by Gen 11:1. The second mistake is to take two unrelated verses from their contexts and make them equals.

              But if you look at chapter 10, it is clearly nothing more than a listing of the genealogies of Noah’s sons, and verse 5 was simply saying that Japheth’s son Javan, had sons from which the coastal Gentiles descended and separated according to language. What it is NOT saying is WHEN this separation took place. This method was repeated for the descendants of Ham and Shem. When you get to verse 32 it reads “These were the families of the sons of Noah, according to their generations, in their nations; and from these the nations were divided on the earth after the flood.” Immediately following that verse is Gen 11:1 which says “Now the whole earth had one language and one speech.” This verse brings the narrative back the entire world population before the event described in Gen 11:2-9, that tells us WHEN the various languages appeared.

              Another mistake critics make is the failure to recognize the author’s writing style. Gen 11:10 lists only one descendant of Shem, Arphaxad, and describes it as “This is the genealogy of Shem.” Yet in Gen 10:22, Arphaxad was one of at least five sons of Shem. The purpose for this is to show the line from which Abraham (Abram), and consequently, Jesus, would descend. This was a move from the general to the specifics. Some overzealous critics would be quick to say that this is two different accounts and/or two different genealogies, much like they mistakenly do with the creation narrative of Gen 1 and 2. In similar fashion these critics see a discrepancy between the Matthew and Luke genealogies by ignoring the purpose and style of the authors.

              • Jerry Rivard

                Thanks for clearing that up. I can accept that the chronology of the bible is not linear and that this provides an explanation of how these two passages can co-exist without discrepancy.

                But my first two questions remain unanswered. Do you believe that at some point in the past, men were building a tower with the intent that it would rise tall enough to reach the heavens, and that God stopped them by making them all speak different languages so that they could no longer cooperate? (If my wording mischaracterizes the story, please correct me, but please answer whether you do in fact believe this really happened.)

                Assuming you do believe that, it does beg the question of why God has not stopped us from exploring space, or even from building other skyscrapers which I would assume would be taller than the tower of Babel given our far more advanced technology. I understand that in order to really answer, I’m asking you to know the mind of God. But I just want to know what you think – what’s your working hypothesis for why subsequent attempts by man to “reach the heavens” weren’t also thwarted. Thanks in advance.

                • MGT2

                  Here again is where many fail to recognize the metaphorical language utilized by the Bible authors. The text does not intend to say an actual building reaching the heights of outer space (I am not aware of any scholar that thinks that). They wanted to build a monumental structure as a memorial to themselves, a kind of self-worship/self-gratification.

                  I am sensing that you may be wondering whether they thought it was possible to build such a structure from earth into space, something that we know is a physical impossibility.

                  The metaphor is similar to God telling Abraham that his descendants would number as much as the stars or as the grains of sand. We all understand that to mean he would have much more descendants than ever thought he could.

                  Another metaphor is when Jesus said that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (which was not an actual needle, but a very narrow gate) than for a rich man to enter heaven. That was just a metaphor for the immense difficulty it poses for a person to let go of material wealth.

                  Having said that, it is obvious that I do not think the Tower of Babel was an attempt to reach into space, and does not bear one way or the other on God allowing man to explore the cosmos.

                  It should also be obvious that I believe they actually started building their monument. The ziggurats an pyramids found all across the globe may well be remnants of that dream maintained by the scattered people.

    • randal

      “my understanding has always been that the bible was meant to be read factually, and that only when the facts it reports were later shown to be incorrect did believers begin to interpret it metaphorically.”

      The Bible is a vast collection of different literary genres. It doesn’t make much sense to talk about whether the Psalms are “factual” or not.

      To talk about original authorial intent and the interpretation(s) of an original audience is much more complex than you seem to suppose. Obviously texts are intended to convey information (among other functions) but precisely what that information was is often not as readily discerned as one might think. I’d also note that the original interpretation, if it could be identified, would not necessarily be the correct interpretation. Often later interpretations are the more reliable ones.

  • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

    I feel that the title of this post is a little misleading. It probably ought to be something like How the “literal when possible” principle undermines the authority of scripture. That’s because “fundamentalist” is such a varied description and doesn’t automatically represent LPP to your audience. For example, when I think about a “fundamentalist”, I see someone who has defined the faith as a set of beliefs and has missed the importance of experiencing God. While that group of people probably intersects with your group of LLPers, they are certainly not one and the same.

    I wholeheartedly agree that LPP is a terribly damaging and foolish hermeneutic. That’s because “literal” and “possible” are both incredibly polysemic terms, and this approach ultimately makes interpretation dependent on what the individual considers to be “possible”. It’s clearly a very dangerous place to be.

    However, your caricature of Ken Ham is, sadly, quite misleading and not at all accurate. Ham does not stand in the foreground endlessly proclaiming, “a day is a day.” Instead, he gives a very specific list of reasons why he believes yom in Genesis 1 must be interpreted as a 24-hour period based on the original text, parallel usage, and contextual considerations. We may agree or disagree with his reasons, but we mustn’t make the mistake of ridiculing him on the basis that he is using LPP.

    Indeed, Answers in Genesis emphatically denies “Walvoordian” LPP in favor of “the historical-grammatical approach”. This approach explicitly takes into account the very considerations you insist on: awareness of literary genre and of cultural understandings.

    We try to find the meaning of the words based on an understanding of the historical and cultural settings in which the book was written. We then follow standard rules of grammar, according to the particular genre, to arrive at an interpretation.

    Taken (edits made; see below) from here.

    This approach is muddied (and even mistaken for LPP) because of misconceptions about the meaning of the word literal. Literal is a word, and like all words it is a metaphor. It can mean different things based on context just like any other metaphor; if I say that “the mountains clapping their hands” is literally a metaphor, I’m being perfectly honest (if a little obtuse).

    When Answers in Genesis uses the word “literal” (and they do; I intentionally excised it from the quote above because it’s confusing), they define it to mean the plain understanding that is subject to context. The “literal interpretation” of metaphor is metaphorical; the “literal interpretation” of history is historical; the “literal interpretation” of poetry is poetic.

    I submit that we ought to do away with using the word “literal” in reference to Scripture altogether, and simply explain how and why we reach the conclusions that we do. While I don’t automatically agree with all of the conclusions AiG makes, I must admit that they are pretty darn good at explaining “why” without depending on something as nutty as LPP.

    • chris

      Interesting that we are now having discussion of misleading titles because of the use of “fundamentalist” when we’ve had so many recent discussions on the errors in marginalizing groups of people and trying to lump groups together…

      • randal

        I for one have used the term fundamentalist with respect to its historical and sociological usage rather than as a rhetorical device of social marginalization.

    • randal

      “I feel that the title of this post is a little misleading.”

      LPP is a prevalent hermeneutic among the group that historians like Marsden identify as fundamentalists.

      “However, your caricature of Ken Ham is, sadly, quite misleading and not at all accurate. Ham does not stand in the foreground endlessly proclaiming, “a day is a day.””

      I have seen Ham give a church presentation and drill into the audience that a day is a day in precisely the way I described. His other trump card for repudiating big bang cosmology and evolutionary biology is to get his audience to chant the question “Were you there?” To say that question represents a crass philosophy of science is to be guilty of gross understatement.

      “Answers in Genesis emphatically denies “Walvoordian” LPP in favor of “the historical-grammatical approach”.”

      Thanks for the clarification. It is beyond the purview of the article to go into the various token expressions of LPP but it is good to know.

      It is not true that all words are metaphors.

      • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

        I, too, have seen a wide variety of Ken Ham’s presentations. While he definitely makes use of humor in his presentations, it is a mischaracterization to present him as saying “a day is a day is a day”.

        This video (skip to 4:24 and watch for a minute or two) presents a very brief example of his approach to hermeneutics. I’ll quote one section:

        Well, [the word "yom"] can mean an ordinary day, right? It’s not a matter of whether it can or can’t mean an ordinary day; it’s a matter of when does the word “day” mean day?

        You know, any word has two or more meanings depending upon context.

        So how do we study Scripture? Well, you say “This was originally written in Hebrew” or “This was originally written in Greek” so you look up a Hebrew dictionary, and you say “Ah, this word means this in this context, this with this verb….and so in this particular verse here, the meaning is such-and-such because I understand the grammar and all the rest of it” — isn’t that what we do?

        It’s clear that Ham very much appreciates the need for examining context, genre, grammar and so on in order to come up with an accurate interpretation. He is actually arguing against LPP.

        People who use LPP are likely to say, “Well, we’re interpreting everything literally when possible, but science makes it impossible to interpret Genesis 1 literally, so we don’t.” He’s saying, “No, you don’t interpret things literally, you interpret them contextually based on context for objective reasons.”

        So I repeat, your caricature of Ken Ham is woefully inaccurate.

        As far as “every word being a metaphor”, I was just going all Nietzsche on you. :)

        • randal

          David, you’re a fine hamapologist. I think Ken Ham has done enormous damage to the body of Christ and helped set countless children up to have their faith shattered in university and he has bizarrely linked Neo-Darwinian evolution with just about every evil imaginable, and he has repeatedly invoked a bizarre observational philosophy of science in his popular presentations … but he is not apparently a card-carrying advocate of LPP. (However, many people in his audience are.)

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    Christian Missionary wrote: “God already knew what Abraham would do but He wanted Abraham to choose between his son or obediance to God”.

    C’mon, you sound like a reasonable person. If anyone other than Yahweh asked someone to kill their child as a sign of their obedience, I trust you will agree it would be defined as sociopathic behavior. Why do you give your Lord a free pass?

    • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

      Well, for one thing, no one other than YHWH could be reasonably relied upon to prevent the parent from completing the assigned task. So that’s the first difference.

      You will no doubt say that this doesn’t make any difference; you’ll say that assigning a morally reprehensible task is a morally reprehensible order even if the task has been rendered impossible to complete. But I disagree. Here’s an analogy to explain why.

      Let’s say that I have perfected the design of an invisible bulletproof energy shield. Let’s further say that my brother is a police officer in downtown Chicago.

      I tell my brother that I have created something that will save hundred of lives and help protect the public. I hand him a loaded 9mm Glock, turn on my energy shield, and tell him to unload the clip into me from where he stands. He protests, saying that it would be wrong to shoot me, but I insist, asking him, “Just trust me.”

      Now, I cannot expect my brother to trust me on something as dangerous as this, because I’m fallible. It would be wrong to put my brother through this — what if the shield fails and he kills me? However, if I wasn’t fallible, and if my brother believed that I was infallible and had implicit trust in me, then this exercise might be quite useful.

      In the account of Abraham and Isaac, God has a different lesson to teach — he isn’t demonstrating a new gadget — but the principle is the same.

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    Australian appellate judge David Hodgson nailed this one: http://users.tpg.com.au/raeda/website/Dawkins.htm

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  • DrG

    I think that the issue is not so much how we interpret the Bible, but rather what we do with that interpretation. Consider the following statement:

    “The Earth is round”

    This is a statement that everyone (I hope) believes is absolutely true. What, however, does ’round’ mean? While we know the Earth is an elliptical sphere, it does not stop us from recreating the Earth in pictures and models as a circular sphere.

    In this case there is no real harm because it gets the idea across that the world is not flat but round. The question was asked how does LLP impact everyday life; simple, look at all the different demonstration of Christianity! They all stem from a different interpretation of the words found in the Bible. Does the wafer REALLY become the body of Christ (thus making Christians cannibals?) or is a figurative transformation…how many different branches of Christianity are split over that single example?

    This is my point of “what we do with it.” In the Catholic Church I, as a Christian (raised Baptist, now Lutheran), was not welcome at the Lord’s table because I held a different interpretation of the scripture. It is this type of behavior that is the problem.

    Another example is the argument of creationism vs. evolution. Why does it have to be ‘vs’? Furthermore, why must we ban evolution from schools? Again this is simple fact of what we do with the interpretation and how “sure” we are that our’s is the right one.

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  • nick

    Randal I think those who read this article perhaps have not studied hermeneutics in any depth. There lies the problem. As one who has I think you are right on the money. I went to a multi-demonational based bible college. I quickly realised that I knew very little about real Biblical issues. My opinion is like yours. in fact the more you learn the more developed your understanding becomes, as with all study.

    Unfortunately the fundamentalists tend to do as you say weaken the message, by simplification of the reading. At the same time they have a strong emphasis of the ‘authority’ of Scripture within they midst. They don’t tend to learn about context and content or the authors intention, the readers situation, cultural issues etc.

    Interestingly, you know would Gordon Fee, and his book he co-authored with Stuart. For those who do not the title is ‘How to Read the Bible for all it’s worth’. I went to a fundamentalist Biblical studies class once that was based on their book. I thought this be a great opportunity for the people I knew who went to the class to hear some sound yet lay friendly material that would really aid their comprehension of Scripture. The class was totally different from the book and I could not see any solid connect with the books content at all.
    The opposite was true, sincere people taught as best they could. Often with a strong emphasis on their own presuppositions.

    From my many experiences I would agree. This may seem unfair but they do choose to limit their of knowledge. This is a shame when so much information available in our era alone.

    I would challenge anyone to read the book listed above. For those who reject christian belief. Read it, you will learn something. Perhaps you know less about the Biblical studies than you realised.

  • nick

    When I say Stuart I mean Stuart Guthie

  • Alejandro Rodríguez

    What everyone should understand is that it is not just about reading the Bible but also knowing how to interpret it.

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