Dec 8, 2014

Taking literalism too literally

William Saletan looks at a detailed new poll on beliefs about human origins and finds, among other things, that biblical literalism doesn't mean what it's commonly thought to mean:
These people affirmed, in one form or another, that the Bible is God's word. A majority, 51 percent of the entire sample, picked one of the top two options. But only 21 percent agreed that everything in the Bible is literally true. Thirty percent chose the second statement: that the Bible is 'without errors' but that 'some parts are meant to be symbolic.' This isn't what secular people tend to think inerrancy means. But it is what a lot of Christians apparently believe.
Part of the issue, here, is the difference between official dogma and what lay people believe. As a LifeWay Research poll recently found, evangelical Christians do not always adhere to the orthodoxy that their churches teach. About 20 percent say God the Father is more divine than Jesus and more than half say the Holy Ghost is not a personal being, neither of which are ideas acceptable to Trinitarian churches, which would include all evangelical ones.

Evangelicals "in the pews" (so to speak, since they're not normally in pews) don't always have as strict an interpretation of biblical literalism as their conservative churches' officially teach or even as strict as one might hear "from the pulpit" (so to speak, since many evangelical churches don't actually have pulpits).

But that's only a small part of the issue. Even the most official and most dogmatic statement of biblical literalism allows for symbolism. The Chicago Statement, for example, is a landmark statement of official conservative evangelical belief in biblical inerrancy, but it doesn't describe it like that.

Article XVIII, for instance, says, "WE AFFIRM that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture."

This means, specifically, that everything isn't to be taken literally. Historical statements are to be taken as empirical statements of fact, but there's a lot of poetry in the Bible too, and that can be read differently. It's completely possible to believe that the first two chapters of Genesis are inerrant and to think they're not scientific or historical descriptions of what happened.

To quote Saletan again, "This isn't what secular people tend to think inerrancy means." But whose fault is that?

The phrase "literalism" itself is partly to blame. It is misleading. No biblical literalist, reading that Jesus said "I am the door," was ever confused about whether or not that was a metaphor. That just isn't what "literalism" means. It'd be worthwhile to stop using the word. "Inerrant" is better, though that has separate issues that have to be dealt with. As long as "literalism" is used, though, it will be necessary to insist and insist repeatedly that "literalism" shouldn't be understood too literally.