Scriptural Literalism

One of the oldest arguments in the history of Christianity has been whether or not the Bible should be primarily interpreted in the literal sense. Following the opinion of the converted lawyer Tertullian (c. 150-230 AD), the western Church has always tended to favor the literal sense of the words. However, in Eastern Christianity, following the opinion of the early Church's most celebrated scriptural interpreter, Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-254 AD), a preference for a more spiritual or symbolic interpretation has prevailed. The problem is, however, where do we draw the line? Some of Origen's spiritual interpretations, were admittedly, pretty far out. On the other hand, the literal sense, when taken too literally (as Origen, while still a youth, did when he had himself castrated after reading Matthew 19:12) can result in nonsense or else in some way or another completely miss the point. This is for several reasons. One is that all language, perhaps with the exception of those kind of words that imitate sounds, like "bang" or "screech" or "flop" is pretty much metaphorical or symbolic, often in a rather arbitrary way. How else explain that what we call a "tree" in English is an "arbol" in Spanish, and in German, a "baum"? Obviously these words have very little in common, except for an association in our minds with the object which they are supposed represent. On top of that, some uses of these words are even more metaphorical, like describing one's ancestry in terms of a "family tree". Another reason was pointed out by the 7th. century Greek theologian, St. Maximus the Confessor, who comparing the literal sense to the human body and the spiritual sense to its soul, wrote that "The more the shadows of the literal sense retreat, the more the strong truth of the faith advances." His point was that Scripture was written about spiritual realities for our spiritual benefit, so that to the degree that we give priority to the literal sense, the more we are in danger of misinterpreting what God really intended to reveal. Too bad the Church authorities forgot about this warning when they treated Galileo the way they did! Finally, too often the problem with those who favor literal interpretation or claim to always follow such a rule seldom do so consistently. Take, for example, Luther's famous debate with the Swiss reformer, Zwingli, concerning the actual or real presence of Christ in the sacramental bread and wine. Zwingli insisted that this be taken strictly as a mere metaphor or at most a symbolic reminder of Jesus' death on the cross. It is said that Luther even went so far as the scratch the words "Hoc est corpus meum" ("This is my body") into the table top with his pen-knife to remind himself that he must insist the Gospels be taken literally against Zwingli's more liberal interpretation. But how many today, who still look to Luther as the greatest of the Protestant reformers, follow Luther on this point? It would seem then, that the only practical means of discovering the literal meaning or sense of Scripture is to try to discern what the author really meant. We may be able to make fairly good guesses as to what the human author intended to say, based on context, common sense, etc. But it seems to me that to claim that one knows exactly what God had in mind in inspiring the author to write as he did, and whether it must be understood literally or only symbolically, is to claim that one already knows the mind of God.

R W Kropf 3/30/07 Literalism.doc 07-03-30.html