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The Bible is literal (Talk.Origins)

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Response Article
This article (The Bible is literal (Talk.Origins)) is a response to a rebuttal of a creationist claim published by Talk.Origins Archive under the title Index to Creationist Claims.

Claim CH102:

The Bible should be read literally.

Source: Morris, Henry M., 1974. Scientific Creationism, Green Forest, AR: Master Books, p. 204.

CreationWiki response: It needs to be noted that a literal reading would disregard figures of speech and a historical-grammatical method of interpretation is proper when trying to glean truth within biblical texts. Some parts are poetic, such as psalms and at other times the Bible is describing a dream; in such cases the interpretation is given, but the details of the dream are not meant to be taken literally. The Bible does sometimes use similes and metaphors, but they are always clear from the context. Ultimately the Bible is made up several different books with different literary genres that were written to different cultures. We realize we must not read our own modern culture into these books and when all this is taken into consideration its totality becomes a Christian's exegesis of scripture.

(Talk.Origins quotes in blue)

1. A literal reading of the Bible misses the meaning behind the details. It is like reading Aesop's Fables without trying to see the moral of the stories.

A literal reading does not eliminate the presence of additional meanings behind the details. However, when looking at the history recorded in passages such as those in Genesis, then a literal reading is critical to understanding the history.

Talk.Origins' comparison with Aesop's Fables is invalid. Aesop's Fables were not intended to be understood as history, whereas the Bible is intended to be understood as history. A better comparison would be with, say, Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Finding the meaning in a figurative reading requires more thought, but is thinking about the Bible a bad thing?

The existence of additional meaning to the historical records in the Bible, including Genesis, does not preclude them as actual history, and finding such meaning does require thought. It also requires considerable thought to fully understand the actual account since it requires understanding the context both textually and historically. Thinking about the Bible is not a bad thing and furthermore making such a statement implies an attitude not based in what creationists would ever suggest.

2. There are many inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the Bible which cannot be resolved without excessive pseudological contortions unless one does not take them literally.

This claim is refuted in the section dealing with Biblical inerrancy. Resolving these alleged inconsistencies and inaccuracies does not require any pseudological contortions.

The alleged inaccuracies sometimes result from reading an ancient document as though it were today's newspaper. Sometimes an inaccuracy is claimed just because the Bible uses a rounded number. Some cases are based on disagreement with another source, or a popular theory. The scoffers assume the disagreement means the Bible is in error, when it is more likely they are reading the modern source or the popular theory into the scripture when it is is wrong. In some such cases the solution to the alleged inaccuracy is in the text but has been overlooked by the scoffers. Sometimes it is because we classify things differently than people did in ancient times, and we presume our way is "right" and the ancient way is "wrong".

In most cases the alleged inconsistencies result from taking verses out of context. Sometimes they result from failure to realize that parallel passages often give additional details, because they look at the same event from different perspectives. Parallel descriptions of an event are used in legal cases all the time, because one witness may see something the other did not. Sometimes alleged inconsistencies result from failure to realize the Bible is quoting a person, who may have been in error or lying. The quote in such cases is accurate but may not be truthful. This does not mean the Bible is in error, but the person being quoted. There are also copyist errors which are easily rooted out through textual criticism and the many extant biblical manuscripts available today.

These alleged inconsistencies and inaccuracies resulted from the work of scoffers trying to excuse their unbelief. Most of the time pseudological contortions are in inventing the alleged inconsistencies and inaccuracies, not in answering them.

Augustine of Hippo said, It is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

This quote is clearly out of context, since there is no indication as to what "these topics" refers to, nor is there any indication of exactly what Augustine was criticizing other Christians for saying. Besides, Augustine clearly believed in a young earth and actually attacked old-earth claims of his day. Furthermore, there were other Church fathers who clearly taught a literal understanding of Genesis 1. [1]

Augustine's warning has merit. The invalid "proofs" necessary to support anti-evolution, a global flood, and a young earth, and the contradictions implied by literalism have pushed people away from Christianity.

Unfortunately, Talk.Origins is assuming the accuracy of all of their claims against creation science. While their criticisms are correct in a few cases, in many cases their claims are out of date and are not used any more. In many cases Talk.Origins shows they do not understand what creationists are actually saying. In most cases they confuse uniformitarian interpretations of evidence for the actual evidence; these amount to your theory does not work under my theory, so your theory must be wrong. The alleged contradictions are based largely on out-of-context references, selected by men wanting to find fault with the Bible, so as to excuse their unbelief. Talk.Origins is engaging in circular reasoning by assuming their claims to be infallible and then using them against the Bible.

On the contrary, proper exegesis of scripture determines one interpretation of it. When proper exegesis techniques are properly applied to scripture it can give the Christian the much needed confidence of scientific validity within the world. Creationism and intelligent design are the only leading alternate theories in science today and directly reflect scripture when read in a historical-grammatical interpretation. Talk.Origins' claim about literalism pushing people away from Christianity is only true when people are given only Talk.Origins' side of the issue. Answers in Genesis shows that the literal Biblical account being supported by science actually tends to draw people to Christianity.

3. There are several passages of the Bible itself which indicate that it should not be taken literally:

No-one is arguing that the Bible does not contain figures of speech, since it clearly does. There is a big difference between occasionally using figures of speech and jumping to the conclusion that it is all figurative. A literal understanding does not assume a lack of figurative language, but simply that literal understanding is the rule. However, figurative language is evident from the context.

  • 2 Corinthians 3:6 says of the new covenant, "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."

This is a case where the Bible does use figurative language. So what? The context shows it to be figurative language. A literal understanding allows for purely figurative language, but such cases are evident from the context.

Paul is not saying that, "YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING," was not a literal law, but only that the law existed to teach a higher principle. This is a perfect case of the Bible being literal, while at the same time teaching additional principles through what it is saying.

The use of the word "allegory" here does not preclude literal interpretation of the account of Abraham.

An allegory is a figurative representation conveying a meaning other than and in addition to the literal.

So by definition, an allegory does not exclude literal interpretation.

  • Jesus frequently taught in parables, with the obvious intention that the lesson from the story, not the details of the story, is what is important.

In such cases Jesus makes it clear that he is using a parable. Once again no one is saying that the Bible does not use figurative language, but when it does the context shows that it is figurative.

4. There is extensive tradition in Christianity, including Catholicism and Protestantism, of accepting non-literal interpretations. Biblical literalism is not a requirement; it is a fashion.

Talk.Origins is ignoring the fact that most Biblical passages have both literal and non-literal interpretations. They are grossly over simplifying Biblical interpretation. The context of Henry Morris's claim is Biblical history. Yes, there are often deeper spiritual principles presented even in the historical passages, but that does not mean they do not represent real history when called for. In fact, Christians historically have held the Bible to be real history. Likewise, the Jews have also historically held the Old Testament to be history when called for.

5. Nobody reads the Bible entirely literally anyway. For example, when God says [Gen. 9:2], "into your hands they [all wild animals] are delivered," the phrase is obviously meant metaphorically.

The key is that it is an obvious metaphor. No one claims that the Bible does not use metaphors, but the metaphors are obvious. That the Bible sometimes uses metaphors does not make the whole Bible a metaphor, and it does not mean that in cases where there is not obvious figurative language then the literal meaning is not valid.

6. Even reading the Bible literally requires interpretation. For example, what does "fountains of the deep" mean?

One of the values of creation research is aiding our understanding of such references. The most straight forward understanding of the "fountains of the deep" is that it is a reference to a pre-flood subterranean water reservoir. [2]