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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why Must Fundamentalists Be So Literal

Perhaps one the most charming and endearing traits that unbelievers find in us Fundamentalists is that we take things very literally, perhaps too literally. And never does this occur more often than when we are talking about the Bible. To us, taking the Bible literally is second nature. It is sometimes inconceivable to read the Bible any other way. And yet, not all Fundamentalists apply the same degree of literalness when interpreting the Bible.

Sometimes taking things literally so often is just part of one's personality. It is a part of mine. Though I can sometimes joke with people, I often do not initially understand jokes from others because I tend to take things literally. Thus, their jokes often go over my head. In addition, those who prefer simplicity also prefer literalness. And people who prefer control, like simplicity. Once we allow for non-literal interpretations of any part of the Bible, we allow for ambiguity, complexity, and diversity. And once we allow these things, we have less control and uniformity.

There are two theological reasons why Fundamentalists read the Bible so literally. The first reason is what we believe about God's Word says about itself. For the Bible describes itself as being inspired, literally God-breathed, and thus every word must be true. Other parts of the Bible give a similar message. In Matthew 5:18, Jesus tells us that not one "jot or tittle" will pass away from God's word. Realize that Jesus is saying that not the smallest letter or part of a letter will be done away.

Different from what many unbelievers would expect, these Scriptures do not cause all Fundamentalists to apply the same degree of literalness to the whole Bible. Why? Because some Fundamentalists believe that some translations, like the King James version, to be inspired while others understand that inspiration applies to the original autographs, what was literally written by God's prophets and apostles, only. Those from the former group will tend to read more of the Bible literally than the latter group.

For those who believe that only the original autographs are inspired, there are two different working definitions of the inspiration. Some believe that inspiration implies that God dictated most, if not all, of the Bible to his prophets and apostles. Such a belief in inspiration tends to cause people to read the Scriptures literally without regard for context.

Other Fundamentalists understand the inspiration of God's Word in a different way. To them, rather than being dictated, the contents of the Bible were the product of God's Sovereignty as God moved different people to write. The result here is that we can see God using different styles of speech to express His Word and yet, in the end, He controlled what was written. Thus, we must be aware of the style of speech as well as other contexts to understand what God is saying. So the fact that parts of the Bible were written in other than a series of declarative statements or historical narrative could tell us that we might not want to take what is written there so literally as we would take other parts of the Bible.

The second reason why we can read the Bible so literally depends on the role we ascribe to the Bible as having in our lives. There are some who look at the Bible as being a user's manual telling us how to restore, at least partially, the paradise that was lost in the Garden of Eden. Those who see the Bible fulfilling such a role will tend to be more literal than those who see the Bible has playing a different role.

Why? Those who see the role of the Bible as telling us how to restore paradise simply need more specifics for governing every area of life. They will need specifics in terms of what kind of economic and political systems should be used to run the country and community, what kind of social mores should be acceptable to society, what rules should be used to run every area of our individual lives, and so forth. Such people look for specific laws and principles that would govern everything because, if paradise is to be restored, every fault must be corrected. After all, it took only one bite of the apple to cause God to kick man out of the Garden.

The result is not just an embracing of literalness, it is a clutching to a legalism that Jesus challenged the Pharisees on. This legalism leads to a sense of entitlement, to receive what one has earned. So what is camouflaged by an insistence on being literal and meeting the requirements of the user's manual is selfishness. Those who seek to restore paradise are those who seek their own heaven on earth. It is this selfishness, not the tendency to take too many things literally, that is the root for all of the nastiness and intolerance that we see in Fundamentalism today. Along with this selfishness is a tendency to revel in self-exaltation because if one charged with doing things God's way to find paradise, then one is likely to assume that one's own group are doing things right. Thus arrogance, and then intolerance, become byproducts of selfishness combined with a utopian philosophy.

An alternative, and I think more Biblical, view of the Bible is to look at it as a guide for navigating the wilderness. Here, even in the best of places, the Christian is in a foreign land because God's rule is not followed. Here, we are not looking to sanctify our earthly homes and treasures, we are looking to stay faithful in a land full of distractions and siren singers. Here, we are looking to bear our cross rather than wear it around our necks as a fashionable decoration. And finally, though the general principles are there to guide us through this wilderness, there are fewer specifics when there is no paradise to restore.

In the end, there is no bearing of the cross when one is looking to restore paradise because one is working to earn a heaven on earth. In contrast, there is no gloating or living in self-exaltation when one is trying to remain faithful while one is homesick. Rather, there is a constant awareness that though we may enjoy some of the things that are here, we cannot afford to become too attached to them for attachments can lead to the dark side of putting down our cross.

Seeking to restore paradise seems to be an odd pursuit of those whose leader humbled Himself to wash the feet of other and to die on the cross and who charged His followers to do the same. Seeking to restore paradise seems to be at odds with Jesus' command to not store up earthly treasures. And the seeking to establish one's own earthly paradise has no known precedent in the New Testament--that is literally speaking.

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