Monday, September 16, 2013

The Bible and the Problem of Literalism

God has made us ministers of a new covenant, 
not of letter but of spirit;
for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.

II Corinthians 3:6

Recently, a woman from Georgia wrote a letter to United Methodist Insight, an online journal of news and commentary, to protest the promotion of literalism in United Methodist Churches. In the letter, she writes:

As Methodists, we vow to support the Methodist Church. Doesn't that support include teaching and preaching that which is in harmony with the Discipline and John Wesley's teaching? Why aren't preachers who call Holy Scriptures the Word of God and who dismiss reason brought before the Judicial Council? I can understand members being confused and mistakenly calling The Bible The Word of God and promoting the litany "The Word of God for the People of God. Praise be to God" after Bible readings. I can't understand why the clergy either remains silent or actively encourages those statements and ideas.

She contends that calling the Bible “the Word of God” and “dismissing reason is destroying the very core of Methodism.” Literalism, she argues, “leads to a deep pit of ignorance and radicalism.”

As any student of the Bible knows, from a biblical perspective, the biggest problem with literalism is not that it dismisses reason, (although that can be a huge problem) but that it is unbiblical. When the biblical writers speak of other passages in the Bible, they interpret them symbolically and theologically rather than literally. The Bible is about meaning; not history or science. The Bible is about deep things of the spirit, and literalism means swimming in the shallow end of the pool.

The woman from Georgia is clearly right in her basic points. Literalism is a menace. And reason is “the very core of Methodism.” The great Methodist preachers of the twentieth century, Henry Hitt Crane, Ernest Freemont Tittle, Harold Bosley, Halford Luccock, and a host of others, would be appalled to see the ways in which biblical literalism has displaced reason in many of our United Methodist churches, and in Protestantism generally.

Her letter also contains a mistake which is highly instructive; one which pastors and worship leaders should take seriously.

She assumes that preachers who call the Bible “the Word of God” are endorsing biblical literalism. But when we call the Bible the Word of God, we do not mean that it is literally “the words of God.” We mean that it is inspired.

Ironically, our letter writer takes the “Word of God” statement literally, when it is meant to be taken symbolically.

When the liturgist concludes the reading of scripture and says, “The Word of God for the people of God,” and the congregation responds by saying, “Thanks be to God,” that is not an affirmation of biblical literalism. But the problem is that to many of those in the congregation it sounds like an endorsement of biblical literalism.

For many years I did not believe this. I was sure that “everybody” knew that when we used that litany we were giving thanks for the inspiration of the Bible, not declaring it to be inerrant or meant as “literal” truth.

Eventually on a study retreat a colleague convinced of what my wife, Elaine, had been telling me for decades: “People don’t think that means what you think it means.”

Now, after the Bible is read, the leader says, “As we hear what the Spirit says to the church,” and the people respond, “May our hearts be open.”

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