How to read the Bible: Part III

Part III: Is the Bible inerrant? Is it meant to be taken literally?

by Jim Vitale

 

Is the Bible meant to be taken literally? If so, what do we do with passages that seem to contradict modern science?

These are big and popular questions in the present day. We want to know if the Bible is right, if it is true (by which we mean factual), if it supersedes the discoveries of science. Are we meant to read it literally?

To answer this question we need to look at two things: genre and history.

 

Genre

If you remember from our last post, we talked about how the Bible was not written by any one person. Not only does the Bible have multiple authors, it also has several different genres. There are histories (Genesis, parts of Exodus, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Acts), there are fables (Ruth, Jonah, Job, the first half of Daniel), there are prophetic words (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the minor prophets, Revelation, the second half of Daniel), there are law texts (parts of Exodus, all of Leviticus, parts of Numbers and Deuteronomy), there are proverbial writings (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes), there are letters (all of the epistles that make up the second half of the New Testament), there is a genre called gospel (four of those), and poetry galore (the first creation story in Genesis, Psalms, Song of Songs, most of Job, much of the prophets, even Paul uses some). And many of the books of the Bible blur the lines between these genres (or employ several of them). All of these different books and genres were written by different people trying to capture their understanding and experience of God. But the main character remains God.

So when asking if the Bible should be taken literally, we first need to see what genre we’re dealing with. The most obvious example of this text is the story of creation from Genesis 1. Did God create the universe in six literal days? What about evidence from science that points to a much longer creation?

Well, what genre is that first chapter of Genesis? Is it a history? A fable? It’s actually poetry. The opening story of the Bible is highly poetic. How do we know? Several factors clue us in. Numerology (attributing significance to numbers) was huge for the ancient Hebrews. The first chapter of Genesis is loaded with numerological meaning, the total number of words in the Hebrew version being a multiple of seven.

Secondly, the structure of the days follows a poetic pattern. The days are coupled by category.

Days one and four are all about light and darkness
Day one: light and dark are separated
Day four: the sun, moon, and stars are created

Days two and five are all about sky and water
Day two: the water in the sky is separated from the water on land
Day five: the inhabitants of the water are created

Days three and six are all about the dry land.
Day three: the dry land is separated from the ocean
Day six: the inhabitants of the land are created

You may find it helpful to see it all divided out like this:

 DomainsInhabitants
Days 1 & 4Light / DarknessSun / Moon
Days 2 & 5Sky / WaterBirds / Fish
Days 3 & 6Dry landAnimals, humanity

 

We can already see that the author of this poem was less concerned about historical accuracy but rather more concerned with order and structure.

In ancient times, chaos was considered to be the image of evil and order the image of goodness. What we have in this story, then, is the image of God bringing order out of chaos, bringing a world of evil into an ordered world of good. The author demonstrates this not only in the content of the poem (talking about how God made order) but also in the structure of the poem (giving the poem a meaningful order of its own).

So is Genesis 1 meant to be taken literally? I think not. Genesis 1 is not a scientific text; that is not its genre. It’s genre is poetry, and poetry is all about using creative and imaginative images to express the truth. The poem tells us that one God created the whole world (contrary to what most ancient cultures believed). The poem tells us that this God called creation good (contrary to what most ancient cultures believed). The poem tells us that God has the ability to create order out of chaos (contrary to what most ancient cultures believed). The poem tells us that God genuinely cares for and enjoys God’s creation (contrary to what most ancient cultures believed). The poem tells us that God rested and valued rest (contrary to what most ancient cultures believed).

The poem may not be factual (a literal six-day creation) but it is truthful in what it tells us about God. It uses creative images to speak the truth about God. Whether God actually created the universe in six days is beside the point. That’s not what the author is trying to tell us. The author is trying to tell us who God is and what God is like. Genesis 1 is a great example of how a myth or a fantasy or a fairytale can actually get closer to the truth than a history. The story of the big bang and evolution, while it may be factual, does not convey nearly as much truth about who God is as Genesis 1 does. Poetry (like all art) gives us a close view of the truth even if it isn’t always factual.

 

History

It is only in the last few hundred years that we have become interested in this question of facts and literal interpretations. For the first 1700 years after Jesus’ earthly ministry, people almost never read the bible literally. If you go back to the ancient church fathers, to someone like Augustine, you find them reading the Bible almost always allegorically. Ancient readers of the Bible believed that every passage, regardless of its genre, was meant to be read as an allegory, as a metaphor with hidden meanings. For them the creation story isn’t even really about the creation of the physical world but rather the creation of the spiritual and moral world. For example, light and darkness are not physical light and darkness but rather good and evil.

It wasn’t until the Enlightenment (1700 and 1800s) that people wanted to start taking things literally. The 1700s hailed the birth of science as we know it, a time when people were interested in facts based only on what is observable. Enlightenment effectively hailed the end of taking things on faith. The revelation of scripture stopped being acceptable because it was not observable. It had to be proven real through facts and observations.

As a response, some in the church started trying to take the Bible literally and prove its factual accuracy. Folks like Lee Strobel and Ken Ham are good modern examples of this approach, trying to engage the Enlightenment on its own terms. They use scientific and historical research to try to back up the stories of the Bible (particularly Genesis 1). The problem, though, is that in doing so the church accepted the Enlightenment’s fundamental assertion that “faith” (trust in what cannot be seen or known or proven) is invalid. We have, effectively, substituted faith for proof. But, as Hebrews reminds us, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (1:1). Likewise Paul says, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

We Christians were never in the business of taking things literally, of trying to prove the existence of God, or the resurrection of Jesus, or whatever else modern Christians are attempting to use science to prove. We walk by faith. We take the revelation of scripture on faith. We trust that, while it might not always be factually or scientifically accurate, it is still the truth. And we believe this not because of what our eyes, ears, and hands can tell us, but by what our spirit hopes for, what our hearts long for, and what our souls experience: a relationship with God, a brush with the mystical, a spiritual experience we cannot quite explain.

There is more to this world than meets the eye and a literal interpretation of the Bible, in addition to not being a traditional interpretation, blocks us from all that faith and hope can reveal.

So when we read our Bibles, let’s not ask “did this happen exactly the way the author says it happened?” and instead ask: “What truth about God in Christ Jesus is being revealed here by the power of the Holy Spirit?” Let us open ourselves up to the mystery of faith, the belief in things unseen, the trust in things that cannot be understood, the movement that goes beyond mere scientific fact and into truth.