May 17th, 2012
Politicians swear by it. Conservative Christians insist upon it. It has fueled debates on evolution verses creationism in public schools, civil rights legislation (everything from slavery to racial equality to gay marriage and beyond), and shaped archaeological expeditions to the Middle East. It is Biblical Literalism, the belief that the Bible is the literal and infallible “word of God” that must be read and interpreted as absolutely and literally true-down to every single word.
Biblical literalism is not confined to Christianity. It is also a common position in both Islam and Judaism, both of whom also use, to one extent or another, Biblical texts as part of their theologies. In 2011, Stephen Tomkins of the UK’s “The Guardian” tackled the question of how and why Biblical literalism is so prevalent in our culture in his article “How Biblical Literalism Took Root,” explaining the roots of the Biblical Literalist movement with the Protestant Reformation and its anti-papist viewpoint.
In 1521 Martin Luther was called upon to answer for his previous writings against papal abuses of power at the Diet of Worms, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me.” (http://www.luther.de/en/worms.html) This doctrine of Sola Scriptura (only the Bible), does not actually dictate how the Bible is to be read, interpreted, and applied; it only dictates that the Bible alone is authoritative. Contrary to later Protestant tradition, Luther’s position was that scripture plus reason-not the rulings of the church-should guide a Christian’s life. This focus on reason precludes a truly literal reading of the Bible, particularly as science and technology revises earlier understandings of Nature.
In the centuries after Luther, the Bible came to be perceived as so infallible that every word can and should be taken literally. Modern Biblical literalism was born!
Yet perhaps the modern version is not as productive as we all thought. Perhaps it is time to return to Luther’s intended sola scriptura-scripture alone (as opposed to focusing on outside interpreters)-but viewed through the lens of reason-not blind literalism.