googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Who is reading the Bible “literally”?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Who is reading the Bible “literally”?

I sometimes wonder if some critics of the Bible are intentionally being dishonest or if they are genuinely uninformed. Often times, criticism of the Bible is so weak that I'm sure it cannot be sincere. I came across just such an example online recently.

This person was posting on FaceBook under what I assume is his real name so I won't mention it here. He claimed to have been raised in a Christian home but later rejected the faith because “logic no longer allowed [him] to consider the bible to be more than a fiction.” He listed a few of his concerns, namely that he felt the Bible taught that the Earth is flat, that it sits on top of four columns, and it does not move. The person who posted this did not give any scripture references but I suspect he is referring to the following:

Psalm 104:5, “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. ” (NIV)
1 Samuel 2:8, “...for the pillars of the earth are the LORD's, and he hath set the world upon them. ” (KJV)

There is no verse in the Bible that states the world is flat (even figuratively). However, another poster in the same discussion offered this curious reference:

Isaiah 40:22, “It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in:”

I'm not sure how that equates to the earth being flat; perhaps there is some implied notion that He sees everything from such a vantage point thus an implication the world is flat? It's a stretch but I'll include it for the sake of argument.

As a young-earth creationist, I'm often accused that I'm wrong to read the Bible “literally.” I've written before (here) that I don't read it “literally” but rather understand the ordinary meaning of the words. Anyone who reads the above passages should be able to identify them for what they are. This person online claims to have rejected the Bible and Christianity because he couldn't believe verses like these! Incredible! Certainly this person has rejected Christ because of his own sin nature and not because he could not trust the Bible.

It hardly needs to be demonstrated how the above statements are not literal but the question could be raised: how can we tell which parts of the Bible are literal and which are not? Usually, literary devices are immediately apparent wherever they are used. If a single verse is ambiguous, then examine the entire context. Consider Isaiah 40:22 above. Do you notice the use of the word, “as”? The inhabitants are “as” grasshoppers; the heavens are stretched out “as” a curtain. The words “like” and “as” are key words frequently used to denote simile so we can see that the verse is not intended to be literal.

Also, one characteristic of Hebrew poetry is that certain words or phrases are repeated. In Isaiah, the heavens are stretched like a curtain and spread like a tent. Do you see the repetition? We can see here, then, that we are also dealing with a poetic passage. So the Lord sitting upon the circle of the earth is a metaphor. The Lord is not literally sitting upon the earth. It's a poetic reference to the fact that the Lord reigns over the earth and the heavens.

Of course, there are people at the other extreme who see every word in the Bible figuratively. For example, some Christians view much of the book of Genesis as poetry, allegory, or metaphor. I will talk about the literary genre of Genesis in a future post and conclude the point at hand.

The idea that the Bible if rife with errors stems in part from a tortured understanding that every word in the Bible is meant to be “literal.” It's a straw man of our understanding of the Bible. Critics use this to try to paint Christians into a corner: does the earth rest on pillars? No? Then the Bible must not be “literal.”

It's a false dichotomy. We are not forced to decide between all literal or all figurative. How's this for a dichotomy: anyone who presents this as an argument is either being disingenuous or cannot read.


Anonymous said...

I believe that your aquantiance (Facebook) has worded his arguemnt badly and has used the wrong exmaple. I can offer the example that is better suited to his argument:‘A woman should in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.’
This is a direct quote from the bible, i think that your aquantance is trying to suggest that the bible is in some parts illogical.
You can not deny that this quote is outragously ilogical, due to the fact that some of the best teahcers in the 20th and 21st centry are female, i am sure an individual with yoiur intelect will be able to think of someone...The bible does not run with the general belief of the 21st centry! There are many other examples similar to this and i am very much aniticpating your reply to my comment. J.B.Warren

RKBentley said...

J.B. Warren,

Thanks for your comment. I'm writing this reply on my Kindle so I apologize in advance for any misspellings.

Do I understand you tonsay that the Bible is somehow "wrong" because is does not comport well with 21st century social standards? For that to be a sound argument, you must be able to objectively demonstrate that modern social norms are,"correct." Are you able to do that?

In the context of 1 Cor 14, Paul is specifically talking about prophesying and speaking in tongues. The Bible is clear that the role of preaching belongs to the men. You may disagree but you have no objective standard to which you can appeal beyond your own opinion. So you have no grounds to say the Bible is wrong. Any attempt to discredit the Bible on the grounds of its morality suffers from this same flaw.

Thank you for your comments. God bless!!