LITERALISM VERSUS SYMBOLISM: THE PHONY WAR OVER THE BIBLE

bibleWhy This Topic?

Literalism is a curious word. Here is the etymology of the root.

Add the “ism,” and we have what sounds like an ideology.

Those who speak of the Literalism generally intend to ridicule those who believe Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. To them we are like that robot (android) in the “Get Smart” television serious that spoofed the spy movies and TV shows. Like that robot we, supposedly, cannot decipher metaphors and idioms and such.   That is, the robot provided comedy by taking everything literally, and so do Bible-believing Christians.  And yet the critics do not laugh at Bible-believing Christians. Instead, they get angry. That is, the words of the critics do not accord with their mood.

So if it is not Literalism, what is the issue? How we communicate does indicate what we believe and vice versa. That is, because our language reflects cultural prejudices, our language makes it easier to believe some ideas rather than others. Nevertheless, when some one takes everything literally, they have a communications problem, not an ideological problem. Therefore, the argument is over how we interpret the Bible, which side is most correct.

Interested in communications theory? You may find these links informative.

Common Interpretation Errors

The Confusion of Context

When we read the Bible, we are eavesdroppers. The Bible was written for us, but it was not written to us.

When we overhear someone trying to tell someone else about something they have experienced, there are various contexts. Both the speaker and the information he is trying to convey have a separate context. The speaker’s audience also has a context. The speaker has to abstract his topic out of context, understand or model that abstraction with respect to his own context, and frame what he has abstracted appropriately to fit the context of his audience. The better the speaker understands his topic, himself, and his audience the more accurately he can convey his experience to his audience.

On the other hand, because we are eavesdroppers, there is little that speaker can do to convey his story to us. So we have to do some research if we want to understand what the speaker intended to say to his intended audience. Similarly, to understand the Bible, we must study the history that surrounds it. In addition to studying the Bible, we must consider:

  • The context of information.  What is the author’s source? Revelation?
  • The context of the author. Who is the author? When did he write. What was his experience?
  • The context of the audience. Who did the author address? What did he expect them to know? How did he expect them to react?

Once we understand what the author wanted his audience to believe, only then can we apply the words of the Bible to our own context.

The Degree of Abstraction

All communications take place through abstractions. That is words represent ideas and concepts. If someone says “horse,” “run,” and “fast”; our minds throw up the image of a speeding horse. When we use simple abstractions (or simple words and phrases) we ease communications. Complex abstractions may convey more information, but complexity increases the possibility of error. Therefore, it is foolish to use complex abstractions (metaphors and parables and such) when they are not needed.

Because the Bible’s authors sought to convey complex ideas, they could not avoid using complex abstractions to accurately communicate complex ideas. In fact, because of the complexity of what they taught, the Bible’s authors had to use parables to provide simple illustrations. Fortunately, the Bible’s authors employed complex abstractions quite skillfully. Moreover, the authors often explained the abstractions and the parables they used, leaving us little doubt as to the meaning.

Nevertheless, to understand the abstractions and the parables employed in the Bible, we must read the Bible carefully and study commentaries. We must also be careful. We can easily spiritualize what the authors intended to be literal or vice versa. Common extremes either render what is the literal truth into a “happy myth” of self-sacrificing love or make God out to be wrathful tyrant.

The Gospels

So how do we find the right balance? The central story of the Bible is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That story is repeated in four different books. Did Jesus die on the cross? Did He take our sins upon Himself? Did He rise from the dead? In order to live eternally with Jesus, must we accept the gift He offers us, the price He paid for our redemption?

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio.
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio. (from here)

With four different Gospels, we should be able to at least be able to tell whether the authors wanted to convey a myth or the simple, literal truth.

Because I believe the four Gospels, I believe I am a sinner. I believe I should hate my sins. I believe Jesus died and suffered on a cross as a sacrifice for my sins. Because the price has already been paid (and I could not pay it), I believe I would be ungrateful to refuse such a sacrifice.

How do I reach that conclusion? I have read the four Gospels and much of the history that surrounds them. I think the Gospels convey the unabstracted truth. I do not think Christians sacrificed their lives for the sake of a “happy myth.” I also think that any God who who sacrifice His Son for us loves us too much to be a wrathful tyrant.

Here is the introduction to Luke.

Luke 1:1-4 New King James Version (NKJV)

Dedication to Theophilus

Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled[a] among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.

The Gospel of Luke (The Book of Acts too)  purports to be a journalistic account of actual events. For that matter so do the other Gospels.

The Book of John ends with these words.

John 21:24-25 New King James Version (NKJV)

24 This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true.

25 And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.

Amen means “so be it.”

I am not a poet. At best, I am a technical writer.  My writing skills best lend themselves to abstracting what is real to paper, and I measure my success against my understanding of reality.  Yet I recognize I cannot wholly perceive what is real. Any competent scientist or engineer understands we don’t have that capacity. Our senses are incapable of detecting all the details that encompass reality. Our brains lack the capacity to comprehend reality.

Words do not convey reality. Therefore, experience teaches us the wisdom of distrusting words. Imagine you are a pilot. When you board an airplane, what is your first concern? Is the plane safe to fly? If that jet cannot get you and your passengers safely to your destination, then you don’t define it as an airplane. That plane may look like one, but until it passes inspection, you regard that airplane as a potential death trap.

Because the Four Gospels claim that Jesus died, paid the price for our sins, and rose from the dead, if what they say about Jesus is untrue, they are lies. If the accounts are true, then Jesus is the Son of God. If the accounts are false, then Jesus was either a liar or a madman.

That is why the Apostle Paul wrote these words.

1 Corinthians 15:12-19 New King James Version (NKJV)

The Risen Christ, Our Hope

12 Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. 14 And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. 15 Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise. 16 For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. 17 And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! 18 Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.

Take your pick. Believe or disbelieve, but don’t pretend your choice does not make a difference. Either believing in the Bible is a means of salvation or those who believe are of all men the most pitiable.

7 thoughts on “LITERALISM VERSUS SYMBOLISM: THE PHONY WAR OVER THE BIBLE

  1. I guess taking the way of the ancients and looking at the allegory, typology, tropology, and anagogy is out then?

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    1. @mastersamwise

      I don’t know how I actually excluded any of the that. Are not each of our lives part of the tapestry of the story that our Lord writes?

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  2. As someone who has written on this very topic at some length, I congratulate you on your clear and incisive explanation. Every statement in the Bible is true, but not every statement in the Bible is literally true. The needed skill is to learn to interpret what the Author and the writers intended, as you have demonstrated very well. J.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh very well said Tom! Thank you too for clarifying the concept of literalism vs parables and why the Bible uses both, that was very helpful as I often stumble with this.

    And you are so right about taking the words in context! Many people believe God condones slavery because if the Old Testament passages on it. Back then slavery was rampant and legal due to men doing what they always try to do, which is control one another. It had nothing to do with God, who is of course all about freedom and who gives us the choice to live as we please, but you couldn’t very well write about events taking place then without mentioning such a common place practice.

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