“No one takes the Bible literally,” said a certain theology professor. I wasn’t sure what he meant. Was he espousing a radical, liberal method of reading the Bible? And, didn’t he know just how many Fundamentalists prided themselves on their literal interpretation?
Then, he asked me to hand over my car keys so he could have my car. Was he serious? I wasn’t giving him my keys. Then, he reminded me that Jesus taught his followers to let people have things if they ask for them. Am I not bound by the Scriptures to hand over my possessions when asked for them?
Well, of course not. Jesus wasn’t asking his followers to give their stuff away to any jerk who asks for it; interpreting the Bible isn’t so simple. So, in this little way, Christians have all agreed not to completely take the Bible literally, but, in doing so, are interpreting it as correctly as possible. There are plenty of other examples. Jesus called Herod a “fox,” but that doesn’t mean that the history books are in error for not describing Herod as a small mammal. Paul tells Timothy to drink wine to help his sick stomach, but we don’t dash out and get bottles of cabernet sauvignon whenever a church member has indigestion.
But, where does it stop? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? I’ve met people in church who didn’t think so – that part of the Bible was not to be taken literally, they said. And anyone who disagrees with some point in your theology is likely to simply interpret that section of Scripture as a metaphor in order to get around any thorny moral issues that a literal interpretation could bring about.
So, here’s how we can approach our understanding of the Bible (this applies to Believers, and non-Believers, alike) knowing that interpretation is largely a matter of deciding how literal something was intended.
Ask yourself if you know why you do, or don’t, take a certain Bible passage literally. Did you decide after much investigation and research? Or are you merely parroting the teachings you grew up with? Search each issue out and decide if your tradition is correct, or if it’s just the status quo. Find out what the theologians from different traditions have said and consider their arguments.
Also, are you being fair? Are you interpreting parts of the Bible figuratively only so you can get away with something? Or to sidestep a difficult issue? (Or to win an argument?)
Is proper Bible study a lot of work? You bet it is. But the Bible is a large collection of books from ancient times, and no one should think that understanding a book like that easy.
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)