Taking the Bible Literally
To understand biblical literalism, I look to psychology and history.
While driving down Roswell Road the other day, I saw a familiar bumper sticker. It read “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”
I hadn’t seen that one in years, but my reaction to it was the same as it had been before: exasperation.
Because I live in the “Bible Belt,” I may be in the minority here, so I am prepared for my opinion to be unpopular. But I am often incredulous at the number of people who take the Bible literally, and will adhere to even the most arcane passages despite all reason or evidence to the contrary.
When I find myself feeling this way, it helps me to remember that I was once one of those people. Once I step back from my emotions, I also realize that I understand very well how this view of the Bible came to be.
I believe the reason lies in a combination of psychology and history.
Think of your first Bible. Mine was a beautiful, leather bound volume with gold lettering on the cover and thin, translucent pages gilded at the edge. It had an attached ribbon for a place marker, and the words of Christ printed in red.
As if this weren’t enough, I had heard all of my life that this book was the Word of God.
Consider for a moment the psychological impact of beholding such a book. At this point I am not even talking about the contents -- only the packaging.
Now take that impact and multiply it over dozens of generation. What you are left with as an imprint left so deeply on the collective psyche as to be practically immovable.
And so it is: Our response to the Bible is largely a matter of cultural conditioning. Whatever our religious upbringing, few of us approach the Bible as we would any other book, primarily because it isn’t like any other book. We have been told so by people whose authority we trust.
Once this has been established, a peculiar phenomenon occurs: To the extent that we were raised believing the Bible to be God’s Word, we tend to accept it as being self-evident. The Bible becomes its own authority, and many Christians fail to see the circular logic involved in proving the Bible by quoting the Bible.
But the Bible was not always packaged this way. In fact, before the 15th Century, almost no one had ever seen a New Testament, much less an entire Bible, bound as a single volume. Throughout most of Christian history, the Bible was never thought of as one unified work, but rather as a collection of writings that the Church considered to be canonical.
This leads to a second point: Before the Protestant Reformation, the Bible was never the supreme rule for life and faith. The Church and its ecclesiastical hierarchy decided such matters. The sacred texts were the domain of the clergy, who were entrusted with the task of interpreting the scriptures for the people.
As Karl Keating points out in his book Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on Romanism by Bible Christians, early Christians believed the Bible to be the Word of God because the Catholic Church told them it was. Thus the Bible received its authority from the Church, and not the other way around.
When Martin Luther wrested the Bible from the Church’s hands in the 16th Century, the door was thrown open to interpretation both by individuals and by academia. As Europe entered the Enlightenment, many progressive and humanistic interpretations became popular.
These liberalizing trends in the seminaries of Europe and America created a backlash. In the 1790s, a group of students and faculty at Princeton Theological Seminary settled on a list of core tenants, or “fundamentals,” on which they refused to compromise -- the inerrancy of Scripture being one of them.
Another element in the rise of fundamentalism in America was isolation. As the American colonies severed their ties with Great Britain, they also cut themselves off from formally trained clergy. Yet the population was expanding, and the frontier was being pushed into and across the Appalachians.
In this world of Christian pioneers, often separated by great distances from their neighbors, the Bible became central to family life. If a family owned any books, the Bible was surely one of them. Families read the Bible and interpreted it for themselves. Without educated guidance, these interpretations were understandably literal, lacking in historical context, and often misguided.
The inaccessibility of formally-trained clergy gave rise to “frontier preachers,” many of whom were self-appointed. Even the trained itinerant preachers who taught at the camp meetings only had time to impart the most basic of theologies.
As Brian Germano, pastor of East Cobb United Methodist Church points out, “John Wesley (one of the founders of Methodism) had a very deep theology. But there was no way that the Methodist preachers who came to the camp meetings could impart that depth in such a short time.”
By the time America had established her own seminaries, the trend toward fundamentalism was deeply ingrained, especially in rural areas. It is remarkable to compare the relatively liberal and enlightened Christianity of the Framers, men such as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, with the more literalist Christianity of the mid-to-late 19th century.
It is almost as if, in the interim between independence from Britain and the taming of the West, Christianity in America had quietly crawled backwards.
It remains to be seen which way it will go next.