What is Biblical Literalism?
Biblical literalism is the view that the Bible, or at least large portions of it, should be read and interpreted literally. This means taking the biblical text at face value and believing that the people, events and statements contained within are factual and historical.
A literalist approach to the Bible stands in contrast to allegorical, metaphorical or symbolic interpretations. Rather than seeing biblical stories as containing deeper spiritual truths, a literalist sees them as records of actual occurrences in history. Literalists believe the Bible means exactly what it says.
Some of the key aspects of biblical literalism include:
– Believing in the historical accuracy of biblical accounts – For example, literalists believe the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, the Exodus, David and Goliath, and Jesus’ miracles all happened much as they are described in the Bible.
– Accepting supernatural events as historical facts – Literalists believe events like the virgin birth of Jesus, his resurrection, and acts like the sun standing still for Joshua all occurred through supernatural means.
– Viewing biblical figures as real people – Literalists see Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and other biblical figures as actual historical individuals.
– Taking moral and ethical statements literally – When the Bible says things like “love your neighbor as yourself,” literalists believe we are obligated to follow such teachings exactly.
– Believing prophecies will come true as stated – A literalist would expect prophecies of future events to happen largely as described in the biblical texts.
– Upholding biblical laws and codes – Unless a later biblical teaching modifies an older law, literalists seek to obey biblical laws and codes like the Ten Commandments.
– Extending promises and warnings literally – When the Bible makes promises of blessings, judgment, reward or punishment, literalists believe these should be taken at face value.
Biblical literalism has a long history within Christianity, especially among Protestants. But it came to prominence mainly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a reaction to higher biblical criticism and increased skepticism toward the Bible’s historical accuracy.
Key Figures and Movements in Biblical Literalism
– The Princetonians – Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield were 19th century Princeton theologians who argued forcefully for biblical inerrancy and a literal interpretation of Scripture.
– Fundamentalism – This movement arose in the early 1900s to combat liberal theology and reassert the fundamentals of the faith, including biblical literalism. Figures like J. Gresham Machen promoted literalist views.
– Presbyterian Church of America – Founded in 1936, in part over literalism issues, by J. Gresham Machen.
– Biblical inerrancy – The doctrine that the Bible contains no errors and is entirely accurate in all it affirms. A cornerstone of literalism.
– Mennonite Brethren – This group of Mennonites split from their church in 1860 over literal interpretations of the Bible.
– Seventh-day Adventists – Adventists generally take a very literal view of prophecy and the Second Coming passages in the Bible.
– Independent Fundamentalist Baptists – Baptists who uphold biblical literalism and separation from liberal denominations.
– Institute for Creation Research – Founded in 1970 to promote biblical creationism and literalism. Produces books and media advancing these views.
– Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy – A 1978 summit that produced a defining document on biblical literalism and inerrancy. Over 200 evangelical leaders signed it.
– R.C. Sproul – 20th century theologian and founder of Ligonier Ministries, which produces resources supporting biblical inerrancy and literalism.
– John MacArthur – Well-known modern pastor whose Master’s Seminary trains pastors in literalist interpretation methods.
Key Bible Passages Used to Support Literalism
– 2 Timothy 3:16 – “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” (ESV). Indicates all Scripture comes from God.
– 2 Peter 1:20-21 – Explains that “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Indicates the Bible is not of human origin.
– Matthew 5:17-19 – Jesus says he came to fulfill the Law, not abolish it. Shows Jesus took the Old Testament as authoritative.
– Luke 24:44 – Jesus says everything written about him in the Law of Moses, Prophets and Psalms must be fulfilled. Affirms Jesus’ belief in the Old Testament.
– John 10:35 – Jesus says Scripture “cannot be broken.” Suggests Scripture is entirely true.
– Matthew 24 – In Jesus’ Olivet Discourse he refers to Noah, Lot, Daniel and prophecy as historical.
– Exodus 20:11 – Part of the Ten Commandments. Says God created in six days. Basis for literal six-day creationism.
Criticisms of Biblical Literalism
While biblical literalism is popular among some conservative Christians, it has also faced criticism:
– Ignores Bible’s use of figurative language – Critics argue the Bible contains metaphor, hyperbole, analogy and other figures of speech requiring non-literal interpretation.
– Can lead to contradictions – Alleged contradictions exist when literalism is stringently applied to all passages. Example: Does God approve polygamy or condemn it?
– Departs from church tradition – Allegorical and spiritual interpretations have historically been used by the church, such as for the Song of Solomon.
– Makes the Bible a science text – Literalists apply Genesis to natural history and cosmology, making Scripture battle science. Critics say this misses the Bible’s religious purpose.
– Fails to understand Bible’s historic context – Critics say reading ancient texts like modern accounts ignores vast cultural differences in ancient literary forms, purposes and beliefs.
– Produces an inflexible, dogmatic faith – Critics contend literalism fosters rigid thinking and rejection of other perspectives, causing division over secondary issues.
– Leads to disillusionment – A strictly literal faith may falter when exposed to modern knowledge, causing some to reject Christianity entirely.
– Prioritizes the obscure – Critics lament how some literalists dwell on minor details but bypass the Bible’s overriding moral themes.
Of course, literalists deny these charges and argue their approach accepts the Bible for what it claims to be – the authoritative Word of God. They say a consistently literal hermeneutic is needed to counter subjectivity and maintain biblical authority.
Literalism Across Biblical Genres
Most literalists acknowledge some parts of the Bible employ figures of speech. But they argue literal meanings should only be abandoned when sound exegesis compels it. In general, literalists interpret the main biblical genres as follows:
– Narrative Literature – This includes stories like those in Genesis, Exodus, the Gospels and Acts. Literalists view these as reliable historical accounts of actual events.
– Wisdom Literature – Books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes contain proverbial sayings, but are still seen as practical advice for living. Song of Solomon is often seen as figurative of God’s love.
– Prophetic Literature – The prophets are considered inspired messengers calling Israel back to faithfulness. Their predictions are regarded as accurate previews of future events.
– Epistles – The New Testament letters are taken as authoritative teachings for Christian living and church order. Problem passages may require contextual study.
– Apocalyptic Literature – Revelation and parts of Daniel and Ezekiel reveal God’s plans for end times events. Interpreting details remains challenging.
– Parables – Jesus’ parables communicate truth through fictional stories. Literalists caution against pressing every detail while affirming the main point made.
A criticism sometimes levied at literalists is they apply their method selectively. For example, Jesus said to cut off body parts that cause sin (Matthew 5:30), but this is not applied literally. Or that the faithful can handle snakes and drink poison (Mark 16:18), yet this is not practiced. Responses include:
– Not every statement or story component in Scripture carries the same weight. Applications must be discerned through careful study.
– General teachings and principles override isolated, obscure or debatable passages.
– Biblical literalism is superior to other approaches, but no interpretive model leads to complete agreement. It does not eliminate the need for prayer, wisdom and sound judgment when applying Scripture.
– Literalism does not require every statement to be taken in a strictly wooden, hyper-literal sense. Context remains important.
– Jesus sometimes used hyperbole to grab attention and make a point. Not every illustrative statement was meant to be enacted ritualistically.
– Just because some do not live up to its principles does not invalidate literalism. Adherents should continue striving for consistency.
In summary, biblical literalism is the hermeneutic that believes Scripture should be taken at face value as much as possible. It sees the Bible as the reliable Word of God, free from error in its original form. Literalism has deep roots among conservative Protestants and remains quite popular today. However, it also has its critics. Adherents of literalism need to apply their method responsibly, embracing a comprehensive approach that keeps the Bible’s overall revelation and redemptive purposes always in view.