Literal, Anachronistic, or Shallow?

This article will discuss different ways of interpreting the Bible, and it will seek to clarify what is meant by a, “literal interpretation.”

Christianity is hardly a homogenous thing. Even the secularists recognize the huge difference between, say, the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestants. More sophisticated connoisseurs of religion will distinguish between mainline protestantism and evangelicalism, which, to be fair, does also include Catholic evangelicals.

The varieties are greater by a magnitude for actual Christians and others who have spent considerable time witnessing innumerable dogmatic debates first hand. As varieties of Christianity multiply, it becomes easier to create a framework of Christianity and to learn to place a belief or denomination generally according to that framework if and when it is discovered, rather than to attempt to memorize all of the denominations beforehand. One such commonly used framework is the left-right paradigm, which is also referred to as the conservative-liberal, conservative-progressive, and by other terminologies, paradigm.

This paradigm spans more than religious application. It relates to political ideology, economic ideology, and more. In fact, it would be interesting to explore conservatism and leftism as holistic ideologies in their own rights, but we will only look at the Christian application of the terms here.

This framework is a spectrum of belief regarding the specific doctrine of how to interpret the Bible. The spectrum extends from an absolute literal interpretation on the right hand to an absolute subjective interpretation on the left hand. Semi-absolutist methodologies fill the middle, including historical method approach, other scientific approaches, and also philosophical and theological approaches with varying degrees of subjectivity in their applied philosophy of meaning.

The literal view is the right hand view and the more subjective the views belong to the progressive Christian. It is important to realize that many of the worldviews along this spectrum are complex and resist simplification. For example, a conservative Christian could be conflated with an Orthodox or Traditionalist Christian due to the nature of conservatism, but this would be inaccurate under this specific paradigm which is based on hermeneutics, or the manner in which one interprets texts including the Bible. On the other hand, a progressive Christian and a liberal Christian are subtly different when analyzed fully, but on this particular narrow bit of doctrine, the matter of hermeneutics, they overlap almost entirely. When discussing beliefs with others, it is important to clarify the specifics of the framework you are using.

Clearly if the choice is between a literal translation and a subjective translation then we should think that the literal one is more in line with the original meaning, right? Unfortunately, it is not so clear-cut, but it is the objective that we find the original meaning. One cannot reject the accuracy of the Bible, nor apply it properly, nor show any reason to prefer another interpretation, without first obtaining the original meaning.

Why would a literal translation not work? There are a few reasons:

  1. Specific instruction within the Bible that the text at hand is metaphorical, spiritual, a parable, intentionally mysterious, or otherwise non-literal.
  2. Missing or incorrect meaning implied by literal translation of idiom or figurative speech. Consider the following: “Jimmy hangs out with Sam. Sam is a drug addict. Birds of a feather flock together.” The obviously implied meaning to anyone familiar with the mannerism is that Jimmy is also a drug addict, but that might not be apparent using a literal translation.
  3. Literal and subjective are not always exclusive. Consider synonymous, or context-dependent terms. For example, the term “nomos” can be used to mean of or related to custom, tradition, or law; either secular or divine. Clearly there is a necessary judgement call here depending on the context.
  4. Some people will interpret a particular book of the Bible depending on the style in which it is written. For example, a history should be more literally interpreted than poetic verse, the idea goes. I’m not confident this matters, because it leads to the problem of an interpreter assuming his or her conclusion, but it is worth noting.
  5. Anachronism can be a problem for the literal view. A word may mean today something it didn’t mean in Old English. Likewise, a Greek or Hebrew word may be used in the Bible in such a way as was common at the time, but which means something else if translated literally today. This is also related to idiom. It may have been an idiom at that time and place even if it isn’t today and now.

The subjective interpretation, is just as bad if not worse:

    If everything is subjective then why bother with the Bible at all?Limited subjectivity leads to interpreter bias.

So what is a poor Bible reader to do? My approach:

  1. If you are studying seriously, use multiple interpretations of the Bible, including at least one literal and one meaning-based. Also, learn how to use concordances and translate terms on your own from the original languages.
  2. Read literally first. If it doesn’t make sense, or if you have a very strong reason to believe a literal translation isn’t true, then move on to other interpretations. Only if all interpretations are exhausted can a statement actually be called ‘false.’ Tread lightly though! Opting for a subjective interpretation when there is a meaningful literal interpretation can be a sign that you are placing your own ideas above the clear point of scripture, or in other words interpreting the wrong way.
  3. Learn the difference between an unlikely statement and an untrue statement. God does things that are unlikely all the time. He doesn’t dabble in untruth. An example would be Young Earth Creation. I’m not a proponent of YEC, but I do not deny it either. Why? Because although it seems unlikely, it is certainly not impossible.
  4. Learn the difference between essential and non-essential doctrine. Creation is not an essential doctrine, redemption through Jesus Christ is. Knowing these differences allows us to do three things:
    1. Be OK with not knowing everything!
    2. Know when it’s important to really pick a dogmatic fight, and when it’s OK to “agree to disagree,” or allow multiple interpretations.
    3. Prioritize our reading of scripture. It would be great if everyone knew the whole Bible, but if you only have 30 seconds to preach as someone is passing away, what would you say?
  5. Keep in mind that a biased reading doesn’t necessarily mean a wrong reading. Subjective interpretation may be considered suspicious compared to literal interpretation, and for that reason let’s prefer to use it as a last resort, but it’s very much possible to be biased towards the truth. For example, if I wrote a scholarly article on the divinity of Christ, you bet it would be biased! It would also be true. If you are biased towards the truth, then it’s completely acceptable.

So is the literal view anachronistic? Sometimes. Wrong? Sometimes. Shallow? Sometimes, but also why would you look for an ocean in a kiddie pool? Other times the Bible is plain to read. Don’t assume the plain reading is wrong! Instead, a good approach is to assume the plain reading is accurate unless you have a very, very good reason not to. I would even recommend at least acknowledging the literal interpretation as possibly true, even in extreme examples such as Young Earth Creationism, unless a literal reading is logically absurd or demonstrably false. It’s also good to utilize multiple translations and learn to use a concordance or a lexicon.

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