Biblical literalism

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Biblical literalism 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 Christianity. 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]


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]


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 Augustine of Hippo (354–430) wrote of the need for reason in interpreting Jewish and Christian scripture, and of much of the Book of Genesis being an extended metaphor.[12] 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.[13]

In the Reformation, Martin Luther (1483-1546) separated the biblical apocrypha from the rest of the Old Testament books in his Bible, reflecting scholarly doubts that had continued for centuries,[14] and the Westminster Confession of 1646 demoted them to a status that denied their canonicity.[15] 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,[16] enough so for Diderot to mention it in his Encyclopédie.[17] Karen Armstrong sees "[p]reoccupation with literal truth" as "a product of the scientific revolution".[18]

Clarity of scripture

The vast majority of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians hold that scripture is clear, that the basic meaning and teachings of scripture may be understood by the average person. It refers to the product (teachings of scripture) rather than the process of interpretation itself (exegesis). Martin Luther distinguished between external and internal aspects within the clarity of scripture. External clarity concerns the principles of hermeneutics (including grammatical aspects) and guidance into understanding through the process of interpretation. The internal clarity concerns illumination of the believer—that is, guidance into understanding by the Holy Spirit.[19]

The doctrine of clarity of scripture 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. Instead, exegetical and interpretative principles are utilized as part of the process of closing that cultural gap. The doctrine does deny that the Bible is a code to decipher, or that it cannot be understood apart from complex academic analysis as is typical in the historical-critical method of interpretation.[20]

Biblical literalists believe that, unless a passage is clearly intended 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, such passages as the Genesis account of 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 the author's apparent intention.[23]

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

WE AFFIRM the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text.

WE DENY the legitimacy of any approach to Scripture that attributes to it meaning which the literal sense does not support.

Noted inerrantist Norman Geisler, in his commentary on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, states:

The literal sense of Scripture is strongly affirmed here. To be sure the English word literal carries some problematic connotations with it. Hence the words normal and grammatical-historical are used to explain what is meant. The literal sense is also designated by the more descriptive title grammatical-historical sense. This means the correct interpretation is the one which discovers the meaning of the text in its grammatical forms and in the historical, cultural context in which the text is expressed.[23]


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

I've never met anyone who actually believes the Bible is literally true. I know a bunch of people who say they believe the Bible is literally true but nobody is actually a literalist. Taken literally, the Bible says the earth is flat, it has pillars, and will not be moved (Ps 93:1, Ps 96:10, 1 Sam 2:8, Job 9:6). It says that great sea monsters are set to guard the edge of the sea (Job 41, Ps 104:26). ...[25]

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

does not manifest itself only in conservative churches, private-school enclaves, television programs of the evangelical right, and a considerable amount of Christian bookstore material; one often finds a literalist understanding of Bible and faith being assumed by those who have no religious inclinations, or who are avowedly antireligious in sentiment. Even in educated circles the possibility of more sophisticated theologies of creation is easily obscured by burning straw effigies of biblical literalism.[26]

If I may be so bold, the reason you don’t see many credible scholars advocating for the "inerrancy" of the Bible is because, with all due respect, it is not a tenable claim. The Bible is full of contradictions and, yes, errors. Many of them are discrepancies regarding the numbers of things in the Books of Samuel and Kings and the retelling of these in the Books of Chronicles. All credible Bible scholars acknowledge that there are problems with the Biblical text as it has been received over the centuries. ... The question is not whether or not there are discrepancies and, yes, errors in the Bible, but whether or not these errors fundamentally undermine the credibility of the text. Even the most conservative, believing, faithful Biblical scholars acknowledge these problems with the text. This is why we don’t find any scholars that subscribe to "Biblical inerrancy" (to my knowledge) on the show.[27]

— Robin Ngo, Bible Secrets Revealed. Robert Cargill responds to viewers’ questions on the History Channel series

John Goldingay, focusing specifically on inerrancy, summarizes the concern this way: "A stress on [biblical] inerrancy cannot safeguard people from a slippery slope that carries them from abandoning inerrancy to an eventual reneging on all other Christian doctrines. Indeed, it more likely impels them toward such a slope. The claim that scripture is factually inerrant sets up misleading expectations regarding the precision of narratives and then requires such far-fetched defenses... that it presses people toward rejecting it." [163] I think the same dynamic applies not only to inerrancy specifically but to biblicism more generally.

In such cases, the difficulty is not necessarily the fact of antibiblicist critiques per se. The real problem is the particular biblicist theory about the Bible; it not only makes young believers vulnerable to being disabused of their naive acceptance of that theory but it also often has the additional consequence of putting their faith commitments at risk. Biblicism often paints smart, committed youth into a corner that is for real reasons impossible to occupy for many of those who actually confront its problems. When some of those youth give up on biblicism and simply walk across the wet paint, it is flawed biblicism that is partly responsible for those losses of faith.

Insofar as these biblicism-caused outcomes are undesirable and unnecessary, we have another good reason to seek better alternatives to biblicism. In this Peter Enns is correct: "We do not honor the Lord nor do we uphold the gospel by playing make-believe." [164]

Biblicism simply cannot be practiced with intellectual and practical honesty on its own terms. It is in this sense literally impossible.[28]
— Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture

See also


  1. "Literalism". LLC. Retrieved August 9, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "Literal". LLC. Retrieved August 9, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Ryrie, Charles Caldwell (1995). Dispensationalism (Rev. and expanded ed.). Chicago: Moody Press. p. 224. ISBN 0-8024-2187-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> p. 81
  4. Bartkowski, John (1996). "Beyond Biblical Literalism and Inerrancy: Conservative Protestants and the Hermeneutic Interpretation of Scripture" (PDF). Sociology of Religion. 57 (3): 259–272. doi:10.2307/3712156<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Ramm, Bernard (1970). Protestant Biblical Interpretation. Baker Book House. ISBN 0-8010-7600-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> p.48
  6. Laurence Wood, 'Theology as History and Hermeneutics', (2005)
  7. George Regas, 'Take Another Look At Your Good Book', Los Angeles Times, February 3, 2000
  8. Dhyanchand Carr, 'Christian Council of Asia: Partnership in Mission, Conference on World Mission and the Role of Korean Churches, November 1995
  9. Jones, Jeffrey M. (July 8, 2011). "In U.S., 3 in 10 Say They Take the Bible Literally". Gallup.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. McDonald & Sanders, ed., The Canon Debate, page 4.
  11. A Van Der Kooij, et al. Canonization and Decanonization: Papers Presented to the International Conference of the Leiden Institute for the Study of Religions (Lisor), Held at Leiden 9–10 January 1997. p. 141.
  12. De Genesi ad literam 1:19–20, Chapt. 19 [408], De Genesi ad literam, 2:9
  13. De Sacra Virginitate, 6,6, 18, 191.
  14. Herbermann, Charles George (1913). The Catholic encyclopedia Volume 3. pp. 269, 272. Retrieved 13 March 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "III. The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings." - See
  16. Wood, Laurence W. (2005). Theology as History and Hermeneutics: A Post-critical Conversation with Contemporary Theology. Emeth Press. p. 27. ISBN 9780975543559. Retrieved 2013-12-15. Before the eighteenth century ecclesiastical writers were unaware of the critical historical problems of the biblical text. [...] After the Enlightenment, the question arose if a serious theologian can believe that the Bible reports real history.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Diderot, Denis (1752). Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. Paris. pp. Vol. 2, p. 241.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "biblical Literalism History". Retrieved 2013-12-15. Karen Armstrong, a most popular liberal living historian of religion writes, 'Before the modern period, Jews, Christians and Muslims all relished highly allegorical interpretations of scripture. The word of God was infinite and could not be tied down to a single interpretation. Preoccupation with literal truth is a product of the scientific revolution, when reason achieved such spectacular results that mythology was no longer regarded as a valid path to knowledge.'<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Osborne, Grant R (2006). The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. InterVarsity Press. ISBN 0-8308-2826-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> p. 27
  20. Zuck, Roy B (1991). Basic Bible Interpretation. Wheaton, Ill: Victor Books. p. 324. ISBN 0-89693-819-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> p. 26
  21. Lewis on Miracles, Art Lindsley, Knowing & Doing; A Teaching Quarterly for Discipleship of Heart and Mind: C.S. LEWIS INSTITUTE, Fall 2004
  22. The History and Impact of the Book, The Genesis Flood, John C. Whitcomb, Impact, Number 395, May 2006
  23. 23.0 23.1 Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics With commentary by Norman L. Geisler, Reproduced from Explaining Hermeneutics: A Commentary on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, Oakland, California: International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, 1983.
  24. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1997)
  25. Falkenberg, Steve (2002). "Biblical Literalism". New Reformation. Archived from the original on June 15, 2008. Retrieved 9 November 2012. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Hyers, Conrad (August 4–11, 1982). "Biblical Literalism: Constricting the Cosmic Dance". Christian Century. p. 823. Archived from the original on June 4, 2011. Retrieved 9 November 2012. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. Ngo, Robin (19 December 2013). "Bible Secrets Revealed". Biblical Archaeology Society. Retrieved 13 March 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. Smith, Christian (1 August 2012). The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Baker Books. pp. 163–165. ISBN 978-1-4412-4151-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>