The Bible: Literal Interpretation & Modern Politics Part. I

Should the Bible be taken literally and as an accurate account of history and human development?

Ok, I’m opening up Pandora’s box with this question. There are many that will say that everything word in the Bible should be taken at face value and then there is a school of thought that says that one must understand the intent of the writer and what that writer was trying to say about God. There are some that say that reading the intent of the author is making a literal interpretation.

So to narrow the scope of this discussion, I want to avoid the figurative language, simile and parable in the Bible and recognize that the author meant what he wrote and we have no reason to stray from that. So we don’t have to argue that when Jesus called himself a vine whether or not he meant an actual vine. I assume that most people recognize literature and figure of speech so there is no point in debating that.

I would rather focus on the content of the Bible. For example, when reading the book of Genesis, should we take it as literal? Can we actually believe that two people populated the earth? The spiritual aspect of Adam and Eve is rather simple because it ties in to the sacrifice of Jesus. Romans 5:17 illustrates this exactly:

For if by one man's offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ

So there is a reason for Adam and Eve but does that mean we should take it literal or take is as a spiritual lesson? And what of the great flood and Noah’s Ark? Many cultures had an account of a great flood. Is it the same one discussed in the Bible or did the Bible use the lessons of those cultures to highlight a spiritual lesson? There is one theory that an asteroid crashed into glaciers, melting them, hence covering the earth with water. And this may be the reason that so many different civilizations have an account of a flood.

This is an article of faith, which means that each of us must reconcile any questions on our own and move forward. However, there are practical applications to the Bible that have a profound impact on our lives depending on who is interpreting them and their ability to influence events.

Abortion, the death penalty, the role of women in the church, homosexuality, science versus religion and many other debates are the results of differing opinions that are linked to the way we view scripture. The problem with many that choosing on the literal interpretation of the Bible is the leapfrogging between the New and Old Testament in order to justify one’s position.

The book of Leviticus is a perfect example of how we pick and choose to follow a literal interpretation of the Bible. The Leviticus laws deal with ethical, ceremonial and moral issues – but the truth is that most of us couldn’t even comprehend a good portion of those laws. Why, because technology, society and human development has rendered them useless. So we are forced to pick and choose those that seem relevant and ignore others. Even those that believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible understand this – even if they won’t admit it. For example:

-Don't let cattle graze with other kinds of Cattle
-Don't have a variety of crops on the same field.
-Any person who curseth his mother or father, must be killed.
-If a man sleeps with his father's wife... both him and his father's wife is to be put to death. If a man sleeps with his wife and her mother they are all to be burnt to death
-If a priest's daughter is a whore, she is to be burnt at the stake.

Now, who is prepared to make a literal interpretation of those? But there are people that believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible. I guess one would have to take into account the times in which the book of Leviticus was written. So it is possible that those laws made absolute sense. There must be a reason that we no longer subscribe to them. But what of other versus that we choose to literally interpret:

"Women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but should be submissive, as the law also says." (1 Corinthians 14:34)

"But if ... evidences of virginity are not found for the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones..." (Deuteronomy 22:20,21)

"If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched." (Mark 9:43)

"One of illegitimate birth shall not enter the congregation of the Lord." (Deuteronomy 23:2)

"Slaves are to be submissive to their masters in everything, and to be well-pleasing, not talking back ." (Titus 2:9)

"Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel. " (1 Peter 2:18)

So clearly there are passages in the Bible that we do not apply to modern times. That being the case, how are do we go about choosing which scriptures to follow and which to use a historical reference and lessons for spiritual development?

Discussion Starters:
1. Are there particular teachings in the Bible that don’t seem to make sense?
2. Do you believe everything in the Bible as fact or as a combination of mythology, historical accounts and spiritual lessons?
3. Do you believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible? Why or Why Not?






28 Responses to The Bible: Literal Interpretation & Modern Politics Part. I

  1. Jaimie Says:
    Some things are to be taken literal, but not all. I tend to think that the Bible is a part of a specific time in history and is meant to be used as a tool to live by, somewhat like a pencil. A pencil is a means of writing, but there are also pens, markers, crayons, etc. We get the same result using any of these tools-we are able to write. The Bible is similar in that it is a tool to live by, and can be used in many different ways by many different people.

    Kind of like the plays of Shakespear: I don't know of anyone today in 2006 that speaks in Olde English, but I do know plenty of people who can relate to his sonnets and plays, considering that they deal with human relationships.

    Today we do not worry about cattle entering our front yards, but we do worry about other things: remaining faithful to our spouses. crime, etc; but do not handle such things with barbaric acts. Biblical times were highly violent, so what else would the Bible use other than violence to deal with anyone who strays from the appropriate path?
  2. James Manning Says:
    Thanks Jaimie, excellent summary.
  3. Diane S. Says:
    Wow! You're willing to let the genie out of the bottle.

    I finally gave myself permission to believe mutually exclusive things.

    So, I believe literally in the garden of Eden, in the Flood, in the historical accuracy of the Bible. However, I also believe in evolution. I just believe that God created the word in a methodical way, but a way that was also poetically and symbolically presented in the version of creation in Genesis. God likes symbols, and imagery.

    (I find the radicals who proclaim that the earth is only about 10,000 years old to be maddening.)

    I also believe the new covenant cancelled out the old. Jesus was an example of perfect submission to the will of God, yet he refused to allow Mary Magdeline to be stoned to death. Ergo, stoning adulterers must have been contrary to the will of God. He (God) had a better idea. It was mercy and love.

    We had to have the old idea first before we could get the new idea.

    The old testament was full of legalism, yet Christ came with contempt for those who most faithfully followed that legalism: the Pharisies. Moral: they missed the spirit of the law.

    Despite all of Paul's (and they are almost all from Paul) admonitions about who will get into heaven and who will not, I cling to these scriptures:

    He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.

    Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

    And most importantly:

    A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.

    As a Christian, I believe the obligation of that last commandment does not end with other Christians. In fact, I believe it is at its best exercise when extended to those outside of the faith.

    Jesus came because the sick need a doctor. He came to find the lost sheep. We are called upon to be the body of Christ.

    (Also, I take Paul with a grain of salt. I know, I know, but I do.)
  4. James Manning Says:
    Diane, thanks for your input. I make no arguments against your position. I think many folks have learn to reconcile the old and the new. However, I think there is an opening that creates the debate that I am bringing up.

    I believe Jesus did away with the adherence to the law as a means to salvation but there are some that believe that he did not do away with law as a moral and ethical standard. How do we determine which laws apply?

    I am reading Jimmy Carter's book and he has a quote in the book that goes: "There are only two things in the world that one has to worry about loving - God and the person that happens to be standing in front of you at that time." I think that is the creed that Jesus is asking us to live by.
  5. Cynthia Says:

    There are too many inconsistencies.
  6. stuffle Says:
    I don't think most of the stories in the bible were meant to be taken quite as literally as some people take them. The creation myth is a good example of that. I believe the creation myth is God explaining to his people how they got here, and why the world is not perfect, but is not meant as a scientific explanation because His people were not ready for that at the time He was telling them the story.

    The Levitical laws are a trickey thing, IMO. Some of the laws are moral codes, and some are just part of a legal structure that He needed to give His people at the time since they had no earthly system of government (at least until God granted them judges, and then later kings). It can be hard to decern the two. Some are obvious. The 10 commandments (yes, I know, Exodous, not Leviticus), are obviously moral codes and still apply today, whereas what punishment to hand out if someone kills your she-goat fall obviously into the latter and don't really apply now that we have earthly forms of government to create laws and determine just punishments, etc. It is the stuff in between those two extremes that gets us in trouble.

    I also think we get in trouble when we jump from specific verse to specific verse out of context (whether OT or NT or both) to justify actions rather than taking the work as a whole. Some verses do quite accuratly show the meaning of the whole quite well, even out of context. Others, however, can be twisted to mean something that has nothing to do with the story they are in. In that case, I always try to put the quotes back into both biblical and historical context when I can before buying (or dismissing) someone's argument.

    I like the quote that you have from Jimmy Carter.
  7. James Manning Says:

    You make a point that I am going to delve into in part II. How we got stuck in the middle and how political agendas determine which biblical text to illuminate.

    The problem with taking some of the biblical stories as myths and others as accurate accounts is that eventually you really won't know what part of the bible is which. How does one interpret the book of Daniels and Revelations, accurate accounts or myths?

    The truth is that each person has to come to some understanding on their own. The second part is how a person's interpretation direct their lives. And that is the part that I am looking at.
  8. Rell Says:
    you did open up pandora's box... therefore I can't comment :-)
  9. Dell Gines Says:
    I believe in the literal interpretation of the bible, and I think you are the first one I have heard addressing the issue that notes the distinction in 'literal' between figures of speech (the vine issue) and actually interpreting them as such. Good job.

    I will address this further in detail later but one of the key things to recognize is the the Levitical laws were for the children of Israel under a certain dispensation of time.

    They lived in a theocractic system where the central focus was the priesthood, the temple and the sacrifice. All the Levitical laws were not ever intended to be for those outside of the Hebrew faith, and were not intended for Christians today (such as the stoning of gays, and non-virgins etc). They were specifically set up for the purpose of God administering a theocratic government on the earth, until such a time as the savior (Christ) came and made the necessity of symbolic sacrifice (bulls and goats) null.

    So remember, the bible encompasses segments of time, and dispensations, and God revealed himself through the bible at different times through different means, with the central theme being ultimately faith and salvation through the perfect Sacrifice of Christ, and the redemption of Man to God through that.
  10. MEP Says:
    Those were great examples Jamie. I've always thought that the Bible was not meant to be taken literally. That's why so many people disagree about so many moral issues - because everyone has their own interpretation of what the scriptures say/mean/imply. I also believe that the language used in the Bible is culturally influenced. Like Jamie said, it's a part of a specific time in history and was impacted by the events/cultural practices/social norms of the time. A lot of those social norms and practices (i.e. patriarchy) have been preserved through books like this when people consider them out of the context in which they were written.

    And I love that quote by Jimmy Carter. When can we have a president that thinks like that again?
  11. Dave Miller Says:

    You have a ton of very interesting stuff here. Perhaps too much to deal with in a short response. This is the type of discussion I can only wish people in and outside of our churches and faith centers here in America could have without killing each other. My experience has led me to believe that civil discussion about faith issues is as difficult as civil discussions about politics because people approach the issues with such tightly held beliefs that it is hard to even consider another viewpoint, even for discussion. But I do want to attach something to your questions.

    1. Are there particular teachings in the Bible that don’t seem to make sense?

    Of course there are. And here is where it is tough for me personally. Some days many of the things the bible says don't make sense to me. I have resigned myself to the fact that I will never be able to understand it all and try to live the life I believe God has called me to live inspite of my inability to understand it all.

    2. Do you believe everything in the Bible as fact or as a combination of mythology, historical accounts and spiritual lessons?

    Yes. It is all facts. And it is all historical, mythical, and spiritual. And I say that knowing that my conservative friends who will follow me to your blog will struggle with my answer to that one. For many people, the bible must be an either/or kind of thing. I am certainly not in that camp. I can live with some ambiguity and mystery in my l;ife and faith.

    3. Do you believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible? Why or Why Not?

    If you mean it is interpreted as 100% historical, it all happened as it is written, there are no inconsistencies, probably not. Let's face it, we are still interpreting the bible today, depending on what your language is. And those interpretations and understandings are based on someones culture and their interpretations. Now if you are asking if I believe that the bible, in its' original form was and said exactly (100%) of what God desired it to be and say, the answer is a strong yes!
  12. stuffle Says:
    James wrote: stories as myths and others as accurate accounts

    Just a note that when I used the word myth in my response, I was using definition 1, (a story used to explain something), not definition 3 (fiction or half-truth).

    Thus, a "myth" can easily be an accurate and literal account, but does not have to be.

    Thus, when I say "creation myth", I don't mean it is a "myth" in the modern "myth busters" sense, but is a myth in the sense that it is a story that God used to explain that He created the universe, and the world is screwed up because of our sin, etc.

    Perhaps that is too much word parsing, but I just wanted to note that I was not using "myth" in the fair-tale, unicorn and rainbows sense...

    Anyhow, good topic, and interesting discussion so far.
  13. Dell Gines Says:
    Let me flip it on you guys...if the bible is NOT meant to be taking literally, then what is its true value for Christians?

    Consider that queston carefully.
  14. James Manning Says:
    I got you stuffle. Thanks for the comment, Dave. I think the more conservative among will argue against what you say but it makes sense to a lot of people.
  15. James Manning Says:
    Good question, Dell. My initial thought would be that Christianity would then be a means for living with one another and the Bible would then be simply a moral code no more relevant than in its teaching of value than a fairytale. But that in turn would elevate almost any moral standard to the level of Christianity and would lesson its virtue.

    So in a sense, it is important that we see the Bible as real and accurate. I may be off base with my assessment but that is the first thing that came to mind.
  16. Peace Says:
    OK, I got a headache even thinking about commenting... this is SUCH a BIG topic! But I will comment on the fact that Leviticus is in the Old testament.. talking about the OLD covenent between God and his people. The moment Christ died on the cross, the NEW covenent came into effect and all those "rules" became null and void (i.e. cows grazing w/ different cows, wearing different fabrics together etc..)
    In my opinion the Bible is a loosely based version of what really went on. The fact is, that a group of men met together and decided what to include in the Bible! This is a good link to look at
    How can we trust that everything that really went on got included? How do we know that they didnt twist words or misinterpret what the prophets, judges, disciples, Jesus and God were trying to say (good example is the demolishing of Mary Magdaline's reputation)? It's hard to accept the Bible word for word for me.... I just trust in my relationship with God, and try to do the right thing.
  17. Dell Gines Says:
    Let's consider this...

    For example, it has been suggest that the bible is merely a tool to live by, that parts are literal and other parts are not...right?

    So which parts are and which parts aren't? The parts you feel are right and should be "literal"?

    See what I am getting at is that once you remove at least the premise that it is infallible and literal then you devalue the whole bible from the perspective of it meaning anything.

    For example, when Christ says, "I am the way the truth and the light, the only way to get to the father is through the son". If that is not literal, then what is the true value of Jesus other than as an abstract feel good guy, with a philosophy that sounds good on paper?

    Let's make it more relevant from a practical perspective, with James & Jamies relationship. How stable would your relationship be if 3/4 of everthing James said was trust worthy and the rest of it you couldn't really tell. How would you tell which statement James made was trustworthy, if you already believe or felt you knew 1/4 of the time he would be lying? Would you ever be able to dogmatically say, 'Hey, James said this was going to happen, so I can for sure trust it'.

    That is what happens when you turn the bible into a 'relative' instrument, what part should we believe, and how shuold we apply it, and how do we know if that is the literal part, or the speculative part, or the false part. Once the bible becomes that, it becomes nothing but a book look another work of fiction, or speculation.

    If I believed that, I wouldn't even bother being a Christian, because how do I know that is what I should be if the bible isn't literal?
  18. stuffle Says:
    Chance wrote: talking about the OLD covenent between God and his people. The moment Christ died on the cross, the NEW covenent came into effect and all those "rules" became null and void

    As Jesus said in Matthew Ch 5, specifically, vs 17 & 18, the OT laws still apply:

    17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

    I personally believe that Jesus is speaking of the moral laws of the OT, and not the more "structural" laws on how to plant crops, how to graze cattle, etc. (OIW, the type of laws God gave the Isrealites in order to keep law until they were ready for the appointment of judges). Of course, I could be wrong...
  19. Dell Gines Says:
    You are not wrong Stuffle, but you also have to take your exegisis one step further, in the fulfillment of the law, Christ has taken the penalty of the law, therefore all though morality and God's system is still in place, we are not bound by the law because we are in Christ who fulfilled the law.

    Paul makes this clear.
  20. Malik Says:
    Fascinating stuff. I'm taking notes.
  21. stuffle Says:
    Ah, good point dell, thx...
  22. Little Miss Chatterbox Says:
    Pandora's box is definitely opened and there is a reason why you're not supposed to talk about politics and religion. Nevertheless I will tread onto this dangerous ground and give my opinion.

    From age 13 on up I have gone to Bible churches and have actively studied the Bible. The college I attended (Moody Bible Institute) is know as not just a Christian University but a Bible College.

    All of that to say I believe that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God. Many atheists have tried to disprove the Bible and not only have they been unable to but have usually become Christians in the process. There are certain things such as things in the Books of Revelation and Daniel that are prophecies and are prophetic rather than literal. The Bible needs to be taken in the context it was written in. The Book of Ephesus was written to the Church in Ephesus, etc. The Book of Proverbs has principles to live by which are probabilities not absolutes.

    That said there are a lot of things in the Bible that may seem impossible but are to be taken literally because they are done by the power of God. That is what faith is all about. If you don't believe God could part the Red Sea and heal a blind man then God isn't an all powerful God.

    There are also issues with the Old Testament and the New Testament. During Old Testament times we learn about God's character but the OT is mainly about the nation of Israel and was written to them. Although there are many principles that we glean from what we learn from reading it. During OT times we had the Law whereas the NT you have Christ and grace and the beginning of the Church. So just like Jesus didn't stone the woman for adultery He wouldn't expect us to do it now either.

    That is probably more info than you wanted but that is my take. I understand we live in a time when people want to pick and choose what they believe about the Bible. And many Bible passages can be interpreted differently by different people but there must be some consistency. I believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God. Do I disagree with how some people interpret the Bible sometimes? Yes.
  23. Dave Miller Says:
    Lots of good stuff here. It's like being in a room where people are really considering some tough stuff.

    I'd like to interject a few things into the discussion.

    It seems to me that there is a difference between those times when Jesus, Paul, or anyone else is directly speaking, and the stories that are in the bible so we can learn.

    For instance when Jesus says "no one comes to the father except through me", that is literal and true. It is not a teaching story. It is a statement that is meant to teach the truth contained in it.

    When Jesus teaches in parables, the good samaritan being a good example, that is not a literal story, but the teachings of it, love of our neighbor, are in fact literal.

    That stuff for me is pretty simple. Jesus does in fact clearly command us on some things, love your neighbor, go and make disciples, etc.

    Here though is where I struggle with a literal interpretation with everything. Paul says "I do not allow a woman to teach or hold authority over a man." I won't argue that he never said that. In that sense it is literal. My question is how do we determine if that was for the people of that time or place, or for all times, especially in light of Paul's own words saying that those are his words, not Gods?

    So the words are literally true. Paul believed that, then. Are they to be taken as such today? Everywhere? And what is your method for understanding all that?
  24. James Manning Says:
    Thanks Chatter,

    I didn't ruffle any feathers but it is a topic that could easily do that. I think we just have to happen commentors that rarely stray into the realm of rhetorical dogma. Unless we're talking about Bush :) Part II tomorrow.
  25. Outside the Box Says:
    Hey James, I hope you don't mind me contacting you this way. I've been torn to ask you or not, but since I respect your opinion (and "respect" is a word I don't use lightly) I figure you can handle it. I noticed on Chatterbox's blog you made a comment that I found unreasonable (which is certainly not you). You wrote, "The mother's trust has been shattered, and only God can heal that - and it may take years." Do you really mean that, or were you just being nice? Is it fair for me to say that if there actually is a God, he has nothing to do with earning trust. And the other part that bothered me is the contradiction "and it may take years." If what you say is true, why would it take God years? It takes people years, sure, but not God.

    I hope I make sense and I hope I come across as sincere.

    Thanks for the enormous effort you put into your blog. I don't know how you find the time.
  26. RWNeddo Says:
    Sorry, I'm having with my dashboard. I can't get signed in correctly. Just wanted to make sure you knew who was contacting you.
  27. James Manning Says:

    I think it is a matter of interpretations. I think some folks would assume that if you turned to God for something, he would instantly take care of it. Although that is not an impobilitiy, the likely hood that it is our walk in faith that gets us through hard times. Not to say that the hard times don't linger, but it is to say that we draw strength from our faith that we can handle any ordeal that we are faced with.

    The thing about faith is that it is not cut and dry and at times makes no logical sense. But it is what it is and that's what we ride with.
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