>“I Just read the Bible”

Posted: 17/09/2009 in the bible

>One thing that I continually come across in the world of the wired is a particular approach to Biblical interpretation. When confronted with the complexities of Christian tradition, contemporary issues, and of course hermeneutics, many Christians respond in a way that sounds incredibly pious. They might say something like this: I just believe what the Bible says. I take it literally. This may be expanded into a principle that says Take the Bible literally until you have to take it metaphorically.

This kind of approach is motivated by a sincere desire to be faithful to scripture. It is often supported by appeals that the Bible should be understood by the common man. The idea then is dispense with the “academic” hermeneutics and arguments about tradition and simply get into God’s word while the Holy Spirit is your guide.

As good as that may sound, it simply does not work. Here are a couple reasons why.

One of the problems, I think, is what it means to read the Bible “literally.” Literal often meant that this simply means “in the sense of the letter.” So if I read something literally, it means I read it according to its genre. Thus, a “literal” reading of the Bible will mean different things in different sections. The Gospels will not be understood like the psalms. Neither will Revelation be understood like the epistles. This is all done for the same reason that phonebooks are not understood like adventure novels.

What this means is that there may be metaphors within scripture and reading it “literally” will give you clues as to when something is metaphorical or not. Because of this, there is no simply dichotomy between “literal” readings and “metaphorical” readings. Interpretation is more complex than that and requires more background knowledge –knowledge that is surprisingly basic, but often ignored.

When I have seen people insist on taking the Bible literally, I think they really mean something else. Typically, taking the Bible literally is an attempt to read the Bible, only the Bible, and not have any “interference” from any kind of tradition, hermeneutic principle, 1st century Palestinian context or whatever. When people say they take the Bible “literally,” they are trying to say that they read the Bible with no hermeneutic or assumptions at all. Scripture, after all, is sufficient right?

It seems that a literal reading of passages like 2 Tim 3:16-17 indicate this: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching for reproof, for corrections for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” Or how about Hebrews 4:12 “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Other examples abound, such as Isegesis 24:7) Scriptures like these are often propped up to show that all we need to do is just read the Bible –hermeneutical tools/knowledge are therefore superfluous.

Both of these verses, by themselves, do not prove what is hoped for. Nonetheless, I think there is a stronger argument against the idea that we can, or should, read the Bible free of any kind of assumptions, tools or method, for interpretation.

A close look at some hard-to-understand verses might help. In look at these, we see that nobody reads the Bible so plainly. Here’s my favorite from John 6 (this is Jesus talking by the way).

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out heave, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh. Then the Jews began to argue with one another saying, “how can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, Turly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life in yourselves.
John 6:48-53 NASB

What does the Bible literally say here? It means that we must eat of the Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood –literally. After all, it is not as if Jesus corrected their misunderstanding when the Jews restated what he just said. But the point I am trying to make is not one about the real presence of God via communion.

My point is this: Why do those who invoke 2 Tim 3:16 and others who want to “just believe the Bible” resist this so much? After all, if we can take 2 Tim 3:16 to support the sufficiency of scripture, without further discussion, why do people resist so strongly when someone else reads the Bible so plainly in John 6:53? It is because (like all Christians) they have assumptions, a hermeneutic, and an interpretive method, even if they deny it or are unaware of it.

There is another great example that I think literalists often stumble on. Luke 14:25-26

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26″If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:25-26 NASB

Again, no literalist thinks that being a disciple means we must hate our parents our children, or other members, of our family. Jesus didn’t literally mean that we should hate the sacred bonds of the nuclear family because….. well because why? Whatever reason someone offers to explain why Jesus meant something different is an appeal to some assumption or interpretative method. If a person does not believe hating the family is what Jesus meant, then they are denying the same “just read the Bible” approach that a equally plain reading of 2 Tim 3:16 was supposed to support.

There is no such thing as a “just read the Bible.” There is no taking it literally, so we can ignore all interpretative methods, traditions, etc. No one is free from assumptions when they read the Bible, no matter how hard they try. So what is common man to do?

My suggestion is similar to what the Reformers in Geneva thought. Then, they realized that the common man was illiterate. Their solution was, “let the Common man learn to read.” Today, the common man should learn to read well. Learning how to interpret the Bible is not some esoteric, mystical, discipline reserved for Monks on mountain tops or pipe-smoking scholars at Ivy leagues. It’s actually fairly simple. It does take time and a few resources, but considering the amount of books that flow thorough a Bible book store, I don’t doubt that anyone lacks the time or the resources to learn a little bit about reading the Bible well.

And I think it’s when we do that is when we really get to where the literalists hope to go.

Thanks for reading.


  1. r. k. says:

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