Barriers to Belief: The Word of God and the Literal Truth

One of the pillars of Christian faith is the belief that the Bible is the Word of God and, as one church denomination puts it, “…the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine and conduct.”

The notion of the “Word of God” is tossed about as though that to which it refers is clear and obvious. It is a strange concept to the modern mind — that God (if he exists) wrote a book(?) At best, the concept is often misunderstood; at worst it is regarded as sheer nonsense. There are a lot of nuances to it, but, in essence, it’s not the physical words themselves that constitute the Word of God but the thoughts and ideas behind the words. The Bible was written in the ancient Hebrew and Greek languages, but the thoughts and ideas expressed by the text transcends the words themselves. For believers, reading the Word of God is, in effect, reading the Mind of God. There is much more to the notion of the Word of God which will be have to wait for a later post; for the purposes here this will suffice.

From this pillar or core belief come the doctrines of inerrancy and infallibility. The two are related — inerrancy meaning the biblical text is without error and infallibility meaning the biblical teachings from the text are correct and not subject to modification. For the Bible to be the Word of God this is necessarily so. These doctrines have been scrutinized over the years not only by atheists and skeptics but by some within the church and have been found wanting.

The doctrines are important but highly technical; how they play out in Christian practice does not always stay true to the doctrines themselves. The oft-repeated phrase, “the Bible is the literal Word of God” or “the Bible is literally the Word of God” is meant to brace the doctrines against the arguments of the skeptics but carries with it some baggage that gets in the way of understanding the text. The “literal” interpretation has become shorthand for the doctrines of inerrancy and infallibility.

Questions about the literalness of the Bible have become litmus tests. The response to the question, “do you believe the Bible is the literal Word of God?” makes the responder either one of “us” or one of “them” and does nothing to clarify things. A more appropriate response to the question would be, “which part?” or, “to what do you refer?”

When literalism is imposed on the text rather than drawn from it misinterpretation is the inevitable result. The irony is that, in a effort to uphold the authority of the Bible in this manner, the doctrines of inerrancy and infallibility themselves can be undermined. The Bible itself, or, more precisely, the way it is read and interpreted, can become a barrier to belief.

To be clear, the point here is to examine the Bible as the Word of God — literally or otherwise. Some biblical passages are clearly literal while others are clearly not. Others are opaque and it is not always clear whether they should be taken literally or not, or, more importantly, to what degree. As we will see it is more difficult than a simple “yes” or “no” and each passage should be taken on its own terms.

There are further ironies.

The first is that this strictly literalistic approach among many Christians is rooted in secular notions of the modern mind. To the modern mind a story can only be considered true if it can be empirically or historically verified. There must be some sort of physical evidence confirming the truth, as in, whether it “really” happened. Otherwise, it can be set aside or otherwise dismissed or ignored. But this isn’t how truth works. Not everything that is true can be empirically or historically verified in the modern sense of the terms.

On January 10, 49 BCE, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and started the Roman civil war. This is one of the most well attested events in ancient history; it “really” happened. However, the Roman historian Suetonius wrote that Caesar was undecided as he approached the river until an “apparition” appeared:

The apparition snatched a trumpet from one of them, rushed to the river, and sounding the war-note with mighty blast, strode to the opposite bank. Then Caesar cried: “Take we the course which the signs of the gods and the false dealings of our foes point out. The die is cast,” said he.
Suetonius LIfe of Julius Caesar Chapter 32

This creates a dilemma for the modern mind. Is the appearance of the apparition part of the truth? Did that part really happen? If not, does it cast doubt on the fact that the river was crossed? If so, doesn’t it imply there may be more going on than the literal truth, that other forces are at play? For the modern mind the easiest way out is to simply ignore it or brush it aside — that’s just how they saw their world — and move on.

But Suetonius didn’t see the world the way we think he did. Apparently, he was not the superstitious sort and did not believe in things like gods and goddess as he writes elsewhere,

If you did not know at age five that the gods are made up beings and the myths made up stories, you are a fool.

It appears that Suetonius had a more “modern” outlook than we imagine and yet still reported the existence of an apparition. The modern difficulty with this is due to the presupposition that reality or the truth about the reality is only made from elements in the material world. But the motivations, inspirations or other such causes for actions like Caesar’s are a part of the truth and cannot be disregarded. Regardless of whether the apparition was real or a vision or a figment of the imagination or something else entirely Suetonius (as well as Caesar) apparently considered it part of the reality, so it needs to be taken into account.

So, the substance of truth is not always found in or is not completely found in the material world. The modern mind accepts the fact of Caesar crossing the Rubicon despite the appearance of the apparition not because of it as the ancients did. It is considered true without all of it being considered literally(?) true. The substance of truth isn’t always easy to identify.

Did ancient people take everything literally as we suppose? It all depends on what the text intended to communicate. This brings up the problem of category mistakes — mistaking statements of one kind for statements of another. Suppose someone (the questioner) were watching another (the observer) stare at a sunset as he or she gazed at the beauty of it and then asked them if what they saw was literally true — yes or no. After all, the sun doesn’t actually set. The earth’s rotation only makes it appear as if if does. So, strictly speaking, the fact of the matter is that the sun “setting” is not literally true. The questioner would only get a strange look back from the observer (“Well, of course not!”). The purpose of the observer is not to examine or describe the physics of it but the beauty. The mistake is not with the observer but with the questioner.

The same is true of the more opaque biblical passages mentioned earlier. For starters, the parables of Jesus are not meant to be taken literally but are still regarded as true even though they didn’t actually “happen.” To take them literally risks missing the point.

Likewise, some of the more fantastic stories of Jesus, such as him walking on the water, present even greater challenges to the modern mind but only if they are set up as literal litmus tests. What if the original author and his ancient audience themselves didn’t consider the story to be literally true? What if they understood things differently? Like the question about the sunset, if we were to go back in time to ask if the story were literally true would we be greeted by more puzzled looks?

To get to the heart of the story, set the literalness question aside for the moment; reserve judgement on it. If this is done the focus shifts and raises a different set of questions. For example, the version of the story in the book of Mark concludes as follows,

…And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
‭‭Mark‬ ‭6:48-52‬ ‭ESV‬‬

In the preceding passage Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. This text ties Jesus’ walking on the water with the previous story, and at first blush they have nothing to do with each other. What exactly did they not understand? Well, okay…what about those loaves? What is their significance here? And what about their hearts being hardened? Hardened? What does that mean? Hardened against what?

The book of Mark and the other Gospels are full of allusions to Old Testament characters and history. The preceding passage depicts Jesus as a new kind of Moses. The people follow him into a “…desolate place…,” a wilderness, as did the people of Israel follow Moses during their escape from Egypt. Jesus sits the people down “…by fifties and hundreds…” in the same manner as Moses in the wilderness in the book of Exodus. Jesus also has compassion on them because “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus’s statement wasn’t simply a pastoral reference to grazing animals but was full of allusions to Israel’s history. The notion of a shepherd has a long history with social, religious and political overtones in the ancient Jewish mind as outlined in Kenneth Bailey’s book, The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament.

Ancient minds would have recognized the overtones of the language of sheep and the shepherds immediately. Consider this passage from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel:

“The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.”
‭‭Ezekiel‬ ‭34:1-6‬ ‭ESV‬‬

The language is concrete but it is clear that he isn’t speaking about sheep at all. Ezekiel continues,

““For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God.”
‭‭Ezekiel‬ ‭34:11-15‬ ‭ESV‬‬

The depiction of Jesus as a shepherd is a “typological” reference; we will expand this notion in a later post. For now, with just a flavor of what may have occupied the minds of those ancient people being like “sheep” being fed by a “shepherd,” it should be clear that there is more going on with these texts than meets the eye — and certainly more than a strict literalistic approach allows.

Imposing literalism on the ancient text shoehorns the Word of God into a structure of meaning that just doesn’t fit the Mind of God. Rather than upholding and reinforcing the inerrancy and the infallibility of the Word of God strict literalism undermines it and creates a barrier to belief. Truth cannot be constrained by literalism — it is much bigger than that.

Next, the Word of God and the Condescending Truth.

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