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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Is the Bible literally true?

Our definitions for the words we use are important.  One of the most noticeable examples of this when I moved to Ohio from Texas was how people up here referred to carbonated beverages.  In Texas, all carbonated beverages are referred to as “coke,” so down there if you order a coke at a restaurant, they’ll say, “What kind?”  Then you can answer "Coke," "Dr. Pepper," "Mountain Dew," "Diet Coke," etc.    However, in Ohio, a coke is always a Coke, and if you order a coke, you’re going to get a Coke every time no matter what you actually wanted.
Definitions matter.  This is why theologians will frequently begin a scholarly work by defining their terms.  They want to make sure people know what they mean by the words they are using. 
One word that could use some defining in the Church is the word literal.  I believe that some of the debate about the truth of the Word of God stems from people on either side of the issue all using the word literal in different ways, but perhaps not realizing it.  So let’s flesh this out a bit.
Some say that the Bible is 100% literally true.  These people may then be regarded as backward fundamentalists by those on the other side of the issue.  Others say the Bible is not 100% literally true and are then regarded as liberal pagans by their opponents.  So who is right?  It depends on whose definition you are using.
Those who deny that the Bible is 100% literally true typically understand literal to refer to the strict meanings of the words of the text, or the words taken at face value, regardless of the genre of the text.  In other words, literal as opposed to figurative.  By this definition, a literal understanding of “a woman clothed with the sun” in Revelation 12:1 is an actual human female actually wearing our sun as a garment.  So it is understandable that these people would deny that the Bible is 100% literally true because that would be mean, among other things, that Jesus is an actual vine and we are actual branches actually attached to Him with actual fruit growing out of us (John 15:1-7).
On the other hand, those in the other camp use the word literal differently.  To them, a literal interpretation is that sense which was intended by the author. (In this sense, a non-literal interpretation would be a hidden or subjective meaning.) If the author wrote in poetic language, he intended his writing to be interpreted figuratively.  If the author wrote an historical narrative, he intended the words to be taken at face value.  Both kinds are writing are to be taken literally, in that they are to be taken as the author intended.  So the literal interpretation of a text understands the words of that text figuratively or at face value, depending upon the genre of the text.  By this definition, a literal understanding of “a woman clothed with the sun” in Revelation 12:1 is that this is a description of a true sign, symbolized by a woman clothed with the sun.  So it is understandable that these people would affirm that the Bible is 100% literally true since it does describe actual events and truths in both historical and poetic language.
When you understand each side’s definition of the word literal, you see that they are both right.  They simply define literal differently.  However, it seems that the most natural understanding of literal in modern English is the first definition above, that is, a face value meaning.
Because this is what most people mean by literal, I would prefer to say, “The Bible is 100% true.”  All Biblical texts are true, whether they be poetic, apocalyptic, prophetic, historical, or figures of speech within an historical text. 
I believe that the Flood actually killed all mankind minus eight people (Gen 7:21-23).  I believe the Red Sea was actually parted (Ex 14:21).  I believe that giant hailstones actually killed the Amorite nations (Jos 10:11).  I believe that God created the earth and everything in it in 6 actual days (Gen 1:1-31).  I believe that Jesus was actually raised from the dead (Mat 28:6; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:6; John 20:11-18).  Why? Because each of those events were related in historical narrative portions of Scripture and for that reason should be taken at face value.  And in that way, they are true.
I do not believe that God is an actual shepherd, nor that He made David to lie down in actual green pastures, nor that He has an actual rod or staff that comforted David.  Why?  Those ideas come from the poetic literature of Psalm 23.  They are not to be taken at face value.  Rather, they speak figuratively of God’s providential care for David.  And in that way, they are true.
I do not believe that Jesus is an actual vine and that we believers are actual branches attached to Him (John 15:1-7).  I do not believe that Jesus wants me to pluck out my eyes or cut off my hands if they cause me to sin (Matt 5:29-30).  I do not believe that the Pharisees and Sadducees were actually vipers (Matt 3:7).  Why?  Because all of those things come from figures of speech within an historical narrative.  They are to be understood figuratively.  And in that way, they are true.
All of the Bible is true.  That truth is discerned when we interpret the Word according to its various genres of literature.  That is true no matter what your definition of literal.


Joy said...

Greg, thanks for this. Being a word person, I appreciate this explanation of why we should consider how others understand words before choosing the ones we use.

Quick question: somewhere along the way (I can't find it now but it may have been Peter Enns), I read that Genesis 1 is written as Hebrew poetry. This was offered as an explanation for some of the differences between the creation accounts in chapter 1 versus chapter 2. Not knowing Hebrew, I have no way of verifying that statement. Wondered what you know on that topic.

Greg Birdwell said...

Thanks, Joy. That's a good question. Genesis 1 is not poetry. There are a few scholars who claim that it is, but it seems they do so for theological reasons rather than textual ones. Gen 1 simply does not follow the generally accepted marks of Hebrew poetry.

A good way to be able to tell, even if you do not know Hebrew, is to look at the way the text is formatted. Several of the modern translations (NIV, NAS, ESV, NKJV) distinguish poetry by indenting the lines. A good example of this can be found in Judges 4-5. Both chapters relate the same events, but one is narrative and one is poetic. Ch4 is printed in block form, but in ch5 each line is indented.