Biblical Literalism

I think there’s a problem with the way you’re using the words “literal” and “fiction”. When the prophets saw visions, what they saw wasn’t literal. But does that make their visions fiction? I think you’re better off drawing a distinction between a literal reading and a natural reading.

No, this is not so. I’m simply defining them by the meanings of the words themselves. Of course visions that were experienced by prophets were literally true if they truly happened. What you mean is that visions experienced by prophets wouldn’t be perceived by anyone else but the prophets themselves.

Ok so when you say “literal” what do you mean? What’s a “literal” reading of this?

Numbers 14:
18 ‘The LORD is slow to anger

No what I mean is the visions experienced by prophets included creatures which don’t exist, like beasts with seven heads and ten horns. Are those literal beasts or is the prophecy just a fiction?

So I have a question for you, Joseph. When you walk into a library, do you avoid the entire fiction section as a plague of lies? I.e. Are all our libraries divided into a “Truth section” (nonfiction) and a “Only gullible dummies will come over here” (fiction) section? Because most books in the fiction section will not come with explicit labels that “this is fiction” --in fact many of them go on to spin a yarn just as if it really happened. Just like Jesus is not recorded as having begun every parable with the warning “now this is only a parable I’m about to tell you, okay? …this stuff didn’t really happen… so feel free to ignore these stories as the 2nd-class fictions that they are.”

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Please don’t misunderstand me here. If you’re Christian, ultimately, I’m not your opponent. I fully accept Christ’s divinity. Parables are not lies for instance because they’re fictional. This is another false conclusion because of POTENTIAL connotations within the word fiction.

i am. And thanks for that. I don’t consider myself your opponent either though we will obviously have disagreements --even over some things important to both of us.

Wow --you are quick on the responses. I was just going to sneak a couple of posts in quick here before heading off for church, so I won’t (for the moment) be hanging around for extended conversation. There is more to be said, of course, but I won’t butt in any more for now since you have several other conversation partners here too.

Blessings in Christ to you.

Formal definitions aside then (I’m really most interested in how people use words and communicate), would you say there is a qualitative difference between the assertions “God is faithful,” “Love is patient,” “Human life has intrinsic value,” and the assertions “Abraham Lincoln was shot in 1865,” or “Water boils at 100 Celsius.”? If so what is the difference? If everything can be labelled fact or fiction, in what category do you put David’s emotive Psalms asking why God has forsaken him in his distress, or the apocalyptic vision imagery of Daniel 7-12, or pretty much all of Song of Songs? How do you reduce that kind of material to facts and propositions without stripping it of the essentials of the truth it communicates?

When everything the Bible is (stories, histories, laments, prophesies, building instructions, dietary regulations, worship songs, parables, memos, genealogies, personal letters, travelogues, visions, etc.) gets reduced to a set of propositions to build systematic theology or a set of instructions for holy living, or a set of facts to be believed, you lose meaning and you lose truth.

(I’m asking a lot of questions below, but I don’t intend to have an argumentative confrontational tone; I’m actually genuinely interested in how you arrive at your conclusions and categories.)

What is poetry, fact or fiction? Because Genesis 1 is clearly presented poetically, (I see from a quote further down that maybe Genesis 1 is not your main concern.) The binary categories of fact or fiction are not full enough to fit all of revelation in. Can you express history in poetry? Sure, but it’s going to come out a little different. Are the feelings and imagery that get expressed in a poetic account of history fictional if they aren’t factual?

Pretty much any record of ancient history has mythology (or fictional elements, or artistic embellishment, or selective memory, or whatever you want to call it) mixed in with the “historical facts.” Do you think the accounts of the wars between the Greeks and the Trojans that Homer told were purely fictional? If something isn’t pure fact, is it fiction? Most people these days don’t believe any history is pure fact because the perspective and the goals of the historian inevitably shapes the reality that gets presented.

What made you decide that if something in the Bible intended to communicate history, it has to be either 100% objective fact or it is fiction? Is that just based on some other belief you have about the nature of revelation or inspiration? Because it doesn’t obtain just from the notion of “history.” Most early American history that we read to kids is mythologized to a certain extent. We have to make sure the Redcoats look like the bad guys and our good guys are truly heroic and nobody thinks too hard about any noble founding fathers sleeping with their slaves. We want to make sure we tell about the beautiful drama of “westward expansion” not the terrors of Native genocide. Does the fact that we design our accounts to privilege certain controlling narratives over others make the history fiction?

The Bible and how we arrive at ultimate truth discussions are far more interesting than the science anyway. :wink:

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It seems to me that often writings may be historical, but they are not always history. And I think the intent of scripture is not to convey history, just as it is not the intent to convey scientific knowledge, but rather to connect the mortal to thre immortal, the finite to the infinate, humanity to God. Certainly, that poses a lot of questions when you try to define inerrency and such, and I like the definition That it “perfect in respect to purpose.”


@joseph1979 Hi Joseph! Glad you are here. I recommend reading tomorrow’s post on Karl Barth on Creation. Some good thoughts about precisely the questions you raise.

Sorry about the typos in my last post. I think my ipad is demon possessed. Or maybe I have fat fingers.

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A link to a brief review of The Invention of Science by David Whootton. While the book discusses the development of science it also provides some perspective on how words like ‘fact’ and ‘discovery’ came to use. Perhaps the book would also provide perspective on how pre-1500s cultures viewed the world and how they ‘knew’ it worked.

Just a side remark: when dealing with pre-modern cultures, I don’t think the presence of genealogy can be taken as a sure-fire indicator of historical-factual intent, and my favorite example of this is with the Japanese Imperial House. Traditionally - and to this day even - the Imperial House of Japan traces the ancestry of the Emperor back to the mythical Jimmu, a descendant of the gods. Read about it here: Family tree of Japanese monarchs - Wikipedia. Somewhere along the way the genealogy transitions from purely historical to quasi-historical to mostly, and then purely, fictional, and it is a matter of scholarly debate where those transitions lie - showing how unclear it is and paradoxically how little it matters. That’s because the purpose of the Imperial genealogy has never been to record only factual history; above all else, the genealogy has been a way of saying that the Emperor’s rule is cosmically legitimate. That it is still used for that purpose to this day, even when most Japanese do not take it literally, shows that genealogy is not necessarily an indicator of historicity, when used in a similar, deeply traditional context. This doesn’t prove that ANE genealogy, from an entirely different culture of course, is doing something similar, but I think the parallels are rather striking.

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@dscottjorgenson What a great post!!! I’m recommending it to the Hall of Fame … if I can find that folder again!!!


4 posts were split to a new topic: Mount St. Helens eruption as evidence for recent creation?

the way you have interpreted this Genesis idea is called liberalism or liberal-istic ideas, I do not accept your idea of what the creation account stood for. If one would follow that interpretation you could eventually claim that Jesus death was NOT for our salvation as Paul strongly says but just showing us that “being humble and willing to die would be a nice way to live our lives” that is phony bologna interpretation of scriptures and does great harm to the gospel message! I reject it flat out. no offense intended not attempting to be rude but just show a point.

Hi Martin,
Please help us to follow your reasoning here. How do you go from (point 1) identifying non-literal aspects of Genesis 1-11, all the way to (point 2) rejecting the message of the Cross? That’s a huge leap you’re making. Many Christians today and throughout history (including me) have recognized point 1 but also firmly believe the truth that Jesus overcame death on the cross to grant us eternal life in His resurrection.

In analogy, do you think that recognizing the non-literal aspects of the Book of Revelation can lead one to reject the message of the Cross?

This is the one thing about young-earth creationism that I find the most troubling. They teach that the authority of the Bible and the truth of the Gospel message stands or falls on the age of the earth.

By contrast, the old-earth creationist line (whether progressive or evolutionary) is that the authority of the Bible and the truth of the Gospel message stands, period.

Psalm 119:89: “Your word, LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens.”

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@joseph1979 and @martin,

I am very sympathetic with your wish to respect the “literal sense” of Scripture and also to avoid “liberalism” in theology, though perhaps we would not always agree on how to define either of those terms. I am not as sympathetic, however, with the wish to equate “facts” with “truth.” It’s not that I think “facts” aren’t true, or that many true claims aren’t about “facts.” Rather, I just don’t know how to sort that out, when many biblical passages are not factually accurate in every detail. Since the factual accuracy of Jesus’ sayings are an important element in this thread, let me simply ask whether Jesus was wrong to claim that the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds?

I realize of course that Jesus was speaking a parable, using the mustard seed to illustrate the truth he was teaching. Nevertheless it seems that his audience believed that seed to be the smallest in the world, and that he used that belief as a central part of his parable. We know today that other seeds are smaller, so was Jesus lying, or perhaps just glossing over the truth? Did he know himself that other seeds are smaller? If so, did he care, in this context? Does it really matter, given what he was teaching?

I won’t try to answer those questions, and I’m not calling on Joseph or Martin to answer them either. I wish only to highlight the kinds of questions that will naturally arise, when trying to ascertain whether every “fact” Jesus himself mentioned is actually “true.” This isn’t a silly game; it’s a very serious matter that can’t be ignored.

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when you decide "to get rid of or ignore"one part of the bible as “allegory or analogy”,how do you go about doing it? How can i claim that Jesus died for me on the cross and believe the words he spoke in Luke 17:26 about Noah if i do NOT believe that Noah and the flood was a real person and event?? Jesus spoke as if it were real and NOT fictional at all!

About the mustard seed,I do not think Jesus was saying the mustard seed was the smallest in the world he was talking about the kingdom of heaven and how all it takes is REAL FAITH even the smallest amount to see it when you die! And your small amount of faith will turn into something huge when you see it bloom to it’s finality in heaven!. all of your loved ones who love Jesus will be there to greet you! Please do not “trip over the seed” so that you cannot see the meaning of what he was saying!