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.