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Portrait of Augustine of Hippo by <a href="/content/Philippe_de_Champaigne" style="color:blue">Philippe de Champaigne</a>, 17th century
Portrait of Augustine of Hippo by Philippe de Champaigne, 17th century

Biblical literalism or biblicism is a term used differently by different authors concerning biblical interpretation. It can equate to the dictionary definition of literalism: "adherence to the exact letter or the literal sense",[1] where literal means "in accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical".[2]

Alternatively, the term can refer to the historical-grammatical method, a hermeneutic technique that strives to uncover the meaning of the text by taking into account not just the grammatical words, but also the syntactical aspects, the cultural and historical background, and the literary genre. It emphasizes the referential aspect of the words in the text without denying the relevance of literary aspects, genre, or figures of speech within the text (e.g., parable, allegory, simile, or metaphor).[3] It does not necessarily lead to complete agreement upon one single interpretation of any given passage. This Christian fundamentalist and evangelical hermeneutical approach to scripture is used extensively by fundamentalist Christians,[4] in contrast to the historical-critical method of mainstream Judaism or Mainline Protestantism. Those who relate biblical literalism to the historical-grammatical method use the word "letterism" to cover interpreting the Bible according to the dictionary definition of literalism.[5]

Background


Fundamentalists and evangelicals sometimes refer to themselves as literalists or biblical literalists. Sociologists also use the term in reference to conservative Christian beliefs which include not just literalism but also biblical inerrancy. The term "biblical literalism" is often used as a pejorative to describe or ridicule the interpretative approaches of fundamentalist or evangelical Christians.[6][7][8]

A 2011 Gallup survey reports, "Three in 10 Americans interpret the Bible literally, saying it is the actual word of God. That is similar to what Gallup has measured over the last two decades, but down from the 1970s and 1980s. A 49% plurality of Americans say the Bible is the inspired word of God but that it should not be taken literally, consistently the most common view in Gallup's nearly 40-year history of this question. Another 17% consider the Bible an ancient book of stories recorded by man."[9]

History


The high regard for religious scriptures in the Judeo-Christian tradition seems to relate in part to a process of canonization of the Hebrew Bible which occurred over the course of a few centuries from approximately 200 BCE to 200 CE. In the Jewish tradition, the highly regarded written word represented a direct conduit to the mind of God, and the later rabbinical school of Judaism encouraged the attendant scholarship that accompanied a literary religion.[10] Similarly, the canonization of the New Testament by the Early Christian Church became an important aspect in the formation of the separate religious identity for Christianity.[11] Ecclesiastical authorities used the acceptance or rejection of specific scriptural books as a major indicator of group identity, and it played a role in the determination of excommunications in Christianity and in cherem in the Jewish tradition.

Church father Origen (184-253 CE), due to his familiarity with reading and interpreting Hellenistic literature, taught that some parts of the Bible ought to be interpreted non-literally. Concerning the Genesis account of creation, he wrote: "who is so silly as to believe that God ... planted a paradise eastward in Eden, and set in it a visible and palpable tree of life ... [and] anyone who tasted its fruit with his bodily teeth would gain life?" He also believed that such hermeneutics should be applied to the gospel accounts as well.[12]

Church father Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE) wrote of the need for reason in interpreting Jewish and Christian scripture, and of much of the Book of Genesis being an extended metaphor.[13] But Augustine also implicitly accepted the literalism of the creation of Adam and Eve, and explicitly accepted the literalism of the virginity of Jesus's mother Mary.[14]

In the Reformation, Martin Luther (1483–1546 CE) separated the biblical apocrypha from the rest of the Old Testament books in his Bible, reflecting scholarly doubts that had continued for centuries,[15] and the Westminster Confession of 1646 demoted them to a status that denied their canonicity.[16] American Protestant literalists and biblical inerrantists have adopted this smaller Protestant Bible as a work not merely inspired by God but, in fact, representing the Word of God without possibility of error or contradiction.

Biblical literalism first became an issue in the 18th century,[17] enough so for Diderot to mention it in his Encyclopédie.[18] Karen Armstrong sees "[p]reoccupation with literal truth" as "a product of the scientific revolution".[19]

Clarity of the text


The vast majority of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians regard the Biblical text as clear, and believe that the average person may understand the basic meaning and teachings of the Bible. Such Christians often refer to the teachings of the Bible rather than to the process of interpretation itself. The doctrine of clarity of the text does not mean that no interpretative principles are necessary, or that there is no gap between the culture in which the Bible was written and the culture of a modern reader. On the contrary, exegetical and interpretative principles come into play as part of the process of closing that cultural gap. The doctrine does deny that the Bible is a code to decipher,[20] or that understanding it requires complex academic analysis as is typical in the historical-critical method of interpretation.

Biblical literalists believe that, unless a passage is clearly intended by the writer as allegory, poetry, or some other genre, the Bible should be interpreted as literal statements by the author. Critics argue that allegorical intent can be ambiguous. Fundamentalists typically treat as simple history, according to its plain sense, passages such as those that recount the Genesis creation, the deluge and Noah's ark, and the unnaturally long life-spans of the patriarchs given in genealogies of Genesis, as well as the strict historicity of the narrative accounts of Ancient Israel, the supernatural interventions of God in history, and Jesus' miracles.[21][22] Literalism does not deny that parables, metaphors and allegory exist in the Bible, but rather relies on contextual interpretations based on apparent authorial intention.[23]

As a part of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,[24] conservative Christian scholarship affirms the following:

Criticism by historical-critical methodology scholars


Steve Falkenberg, professor of religious psychology at Eastern Kentucky University, observed:

Conrad Hyers, professor of comparative religion at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, criticizes biblical literalism as a mentality that

Robert Cargill responded to viewers' questions on a History Channel series explaining why academic scholarship rejects forms of biblical literalism:

Christian Smith wrote in his 2012 book, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture:

See also


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