Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Biblical Literalism Isn't Biblical

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
II Timothy 3:14-17

Biblical scholars tell us that the letters labeled as having been written by the apostle Paul to his younger colleague Timothy were not written by Paul. And they were not written to the same Timothy we meet in Acts and in the letters authored by Paul. These letters were written later, by someone claiming Paul’s theological and spiritual legacy and addressing issues in the church from a Pauline perspective.

It is ironic that in these letters which Paul did not write and Timothy did not receive, some Christians find the proof text for the idea of biblical inerrancy: “All scripture is inspired by God.” If the letters had actually been written by Paul, the “scripture” referred to would have been the Hebrew Bible, since the New Testament had not yet been written.

Of course, if you believe in biblical inerrancy, then neither biblical scholarship nor historical context makes any difference.

In a recent editorial in “Good News” magazine, publisher and President Rob Renfroe argues that the current conflict over “the issue of homosexuality” is really a much deeper division rooted in our understanding of biblical authority. He writes:

“Those of us who embrace orthodoxy believe that the Bible is ‘God-breathed,’ fully inspired and authoritative in determining moral and spiritual truth. On the other hand, our progressive colleagues are becoming more open to publicly admit that at least parts of the Bible (the parts they disagree with) cannot be trusted to reveal the heart and mind of God and may be disregarded.”

Renfroe is right that the underlying conflict is really about how we understand the Bible. Those who believe in biblical literalism claim that they have a “higher” view of biblical authority. Those of us on the other side believe that view is not higher, but it is different. We believe our reading of scripture is more consistent with what we find in the Bible itself.

And almost everyone who reads the Bible believes that there are some passages that “cannot be trusted to reveal the heart and mind of God.” Rev. Renfroe does not oppose the ordination of women and apparently disregards these verses from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth:

(As in all of the churches, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?)
I Corinthians 14:34-36

The parentheses are found in many translations to reflect the view of most New Testament scholars that Paul did not write those verses. They were added later and contradict the radical egalitarianism Paul (like Jesus) envisions in the Kingdom of God.

Leviticus 20:13 is one of the passages cited by Renfroe and others as evidence that homosexuality should be condemned. But as Adam Hamilton has pointed out, even the literalists don’t take the whole passage literally. The verse reads, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” Renfroe and others believe it is an abomination, but they don’t believe that those who engage in such acts should be put to death.

Narrow appeals to literalism as the only authentic way to read the Bible are fundamentally at odds with the biblical witness and they reject one of the core concepts of Methodism. Our approach to biblical interpretation and to ethical decision making rests on what we have come to call the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” Ten years ago, shortly before his death at age 97, Dean Walter Muelder of Boston University School of Theology, one of the pioneers in the field of Christian Social Ethics, addressed his fellow retirees in the New England Conference on precisely this issue.

“We need to remind the whole church,” he said, “that Methodism has a fourfold basis for making authoritative positions, namely: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. It is the coherence of these explorations that is authoritative. No literal appeal to isolated scripture passages is sufficient. We have to understand the historical nature of Scripture as a whole and relate any passage to the Bible as a whole, to the evolving tradition both within the Biblical period, to historical Methodism, to the best scientific reasoning, and to a comprehensive awareness of evolving experience. This fourfold coherence is essential for maintaining authoritative doctrine and practice.”

Let me repeat my favorite sentence, “It is the coherence of these explorations that is authoritative.”


  1. Just finished reading Adam Hamilton's book, "Making Sense of the Bible"..A must read for believers and non-believers..
    Always enjoy your blogs....Shalom..Allyson Woj grandad

  2. This is an excellent commentary. Of course, none of it makes any difference to the Rob Renfroes of the UMC, because they simply abhor homosexuality, and they'll use any twisted manner of thinking - and of politicking - to support their resistance to eliminating the "incompatibiity clause" and all related phrases from our Book of Discipline. So long as they think the African churches give them a leg up at General Conference, they will maintain their wall of biblical inerrancy, no matter how many people or churches it hurts or Christians (who follow their lead) it sends to perdition. (It's very sad!)

  3. The very, very tragic thing is that the same people who don't care about the facts of climate science don't care about the facts of Biblical scholarship. They enjoy the prejudices and power of their ignorance and the claim that special revelation confirming the status quo trumps all else and confirms for them that others are misled at best and demonic at worst.

    So LGBT people suffer their bigotry (as did Blacks, Jews, women and others in the past); the creation continues to be ravaged and destroyed, and their portrayal of The Church becomes for the broad population THE portrayal of The Church.

    It's a lose-lose-lose.