An Approach to Reading the Bible: Moderate Literalism and Methodological Plausibility

This article argues in favor of moderate literalism as an ideal mode for reading the Bible. I compare it to two other modes. I also discuss a concept called methodological plausibility which can be used outside of religion as a general thinking tool. Disclaimer: I’m not a trained theologian.

  • Moderate Literalism:
    • The Bible is true in expectation (any given statement is expected to be sufficiently true.)
      • The Bible is “God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” just as it claims to be
      • This approach is compatible with but does not require Biblical Inerrency
        • Even in the face of possible errors (for any reason from reader error to translation error to scribe error or whatever) this approach still holds for any given portion of the Bible to be true in expectation even if it is not true with certainty.
        • To be fair, I don’t know of any demonstrably false claims in the Bible (Bats are birds? PI = 3? Language differences and rounding, these are not errors.)
    • Considers certain parts of the Bible literal and others not, appropriately:
      • When the Bible says something is a parable, it need not be literal
      • The Psalms, as poetry, need not be literal
      • Is open to the possibility of (not certain of the reality of) historical genre. Eg the Old Testament, including Genesis.
        • Eg it is open to the possibility of YEC, but considers it methodologically implausible compared to OEC. (This is different from claiming either with certainty.)
      • Considers the Gospels literal (again, except where there is obvious use of parable or simile)
      • Overall, literal in expectation but not with certainty.
    • Considers sufficiency the key to the Gospel, not the totality of truth.
  • Hyperliteralism
    • Not just literal but overly literal, leading to internally inconsistent (and perhaps externally invalid) theological claims.
    • May be tightly bound to a single translation and fail to realize the possibility that the original language is an inexact match, may be a component of an idiom, may have a different cultural meaning, may be used poetically, and so on.
    • Examples:
      • With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” is interpreted as “Whenever the Bible says God did something in a day, it actually means he did it in exactly 1000 years.”
      • The Earth (and universe?) including all life was created in 6 adjacent periods of 24 hours. (Note that this contradicts the above point, which itself is based on an overly literal reading of scripture.)
  • Overabstraction / Theological Liberalism / Theological Progressivism
    • Under the extreme form, there is no specific set of beliefs identified as Christianity.
      • Any particular statement might be literal or non-literal. There is a selection problem as such Christians are not fully coordinated about what is and isn’t literal.
      • Jesus might not literally be divine or have literally resurrected. Hell might not literally exist. Salvation might not literally exist. Mary may not have actually been a virgin. God might be a clock-maker, an abstract concept leading to moral guidelines, or a natural force like physics instead of an intelligent agent.
      • 1 Corinthians 6:9 and related scripture which says homosexuals won’t go to heaven (when read in a moderately literal way) might “not really mean that” for one reason or another.
      • There isn’t much difference between an extremely liberal such Christian and, say, and atheist.
    • The reasons a verse might be considered non-literal are ad infinitum and a bit ad hoc. Often a result of a misapplication of good hermeneutic rather than obviously bad hermeneutic.
      • A common appeal is metaphor or poetic language.
        • The issue is when these are misapplied. Psalms is a collection of songs and validly understood to be poetic. Claiming a passage from the Gospels to be poetic is an implausible application of poetic language.
      • Another issue is “reading between the lines.” In this case theology is put above the straightforward reading of the Bible. A common example is the “deeper meaning” hermeneutic.
        • Eg Jesus said to even hate a man is as bad as murder, and so on with the other sins. Every physical action has a “deeper sin” which is rooted in motivation (so far I agree, but the next sentence is where I have an issue). So, even if a person physically does something bad, as long as their heart is in the right place it’s OK.
        • Consider the following: “An active and unrepentant homosexual is still a Christian and can go to heaven as long as they claim Jesus as their savior.”
        • I would consider the above claim methodologically implausible (see the next section for a thorough definition) based on a moderately literal reading of the Bible. That is, I’m not certain it’s false, but I do expect it to be false.
      • Differences in historical context are another way in which a straightforward reading might be wrong. This one is quite effective because it is often used correctly (and then sometimes not). That is, X meant something different in Biblical times compared to today.
        • Correct usage: Slavery in the Bible is not terribly comparable to American slavery. For example, Biblical slavery was often (usually? idk) a voluntary arrangement.
        • Incorrect usage (imho): Homosexuality being condemned in the Bible doesn’t mean it’s a sin today.

One theological problem is that we can’t just say “the buck stops here” with me as an individual. The Bible does not say God is there “wherever one is gathered in my name.” The church is the body of Christ and the collection of believers. So we might want to be super mainstream Christians, but at the same time the Bible emphasizes that many non-Christians will claim to be Christians (Matthew, Luke, different Matthew). What I’m curious about is whether the latter passage in Matthew means many (but not most) people who claim are not Scotsman, or whether it means many (indeed, most) people who claim to be Christian are not so. This would roughly inform the question: How radical should we be willing to get with our theology?

Methodological Plausibility

This practice results in rigorous expectations about claims, even when reproducible empirical data is unavailable:

  1. Something which is methodologically plausible is true in expectation, but not with certainty.
  2. Something which is methodologically implausible is false in expectation, but not with certainty.
  • Something is objectively implausible if, according to certain suppositions, it is logically unlikely. It may be strictly unlikely (< 50% chance) or relatively unlikely (some other explanation with a  higher chance).
  • Claims may be separately considered operationally probable or logically probable.
    • A coin toss if 50% operationally probable. (It is also 50% logically probable).
    • Young Earth Creationism is not operationally verifiable. It is not empirically verifiable. The operational probability is unknown, but we can still assess the logical validity of the concept.
    • Methodological Plausibility is a standardized and rigorous approach to logical analysis of concepts. The approach is most useful when the operational validity of some claim cannot be measured.
  • The logical probability (especially the comparative logical probability of multiple claims) can be assessed as follows:
    • Suppose a definite set of criteria.
    • Choose a “winner” for each item of criteria.
    • The most frequent winner is the most logically plausible. It is logically likely. It’s logical likelihood is mathematically measurable as the fraction of wins in the context of a particular set of criteria.
  • As an example:
    • Young Earth Creationism is empirically unverifiable and internally inconsistent.
    • Old Earth Creationism is empirically plausible and internally consistent (at least plausibly so if not perfectly so, and certainly comparatively so).
    • So Old Earth Creationism “wins” 2/2 criteria competitions. It is logically more likely to be true, given the particular set of criteria.
    • However is it actually or empirically more likely? No, because YEC can’t be measured, at least not without a time machine.
    • A time machine might be invented and some dude could go back and observe that YEC is actually / empirically / functionally / operationally true.
      • This would show that is it actually true despite being comparatively unlikely or false in expectation.
      • YEC would in that case be true despite the bad arguments for in, not with such arguments.
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