Does anyone read the Bible literally?

In the WSJ last week, there was an opinion piece regarding the question of biblical literalism.  The author presents a hypothetical and real scenario regarding a non-literal read of the Bible. 

Until this month, John Candide had taught religion at Calvin College, affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, for 25 years. But his “fall from grace,” as the website InsideHigherEd put it, came after he “wrote about challenges science poses to a literal reading of the gospels.” For that offense, he has agreed to leave his tenured teaching job.

As Mr. Candide explains, he recently became troubled by conflicts between science and literal readings of gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection: “The more I read, the more I talked with biologists, the more it became clear to me: science tells us that when people die, they stay dead.” He adds that he continues to believe in the importance of the Bible.

In their joint statement, Mr. Candide and Calvin College said that they agreed to part ways because of tensions raised by his scholarship and a desire not to create “harm and distraction.” Despite this peaceful resolution, his departure raises questions about freedom of scholarship at the college.

Or not—I invented John Candide. The actual story at InsideHigherEd, from which I have borrowed liberally above, was a bit different. The alleged offense involved challenges posed by science to a literal reading of Genesis, not of Jesus’ resurrection. And the professor in question is named John Schneider.

As he wrote in an academic journal earlier this year, Mr. Schneider has concluded that human ancestry can’t be traced to a single couple, the Adam and Eve of the Genesis account. Moreover, he believes—on the basis of science, he says—that the very notion of a fall from a primal state of beatitude must be false.

Let’s compare the fictitious case of Prof. Candide with the real Prof. Schneider. Clearly the gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are at odds with what science tells us about the everyday workings of the world. Faced with this conflict, some Christians have reverted to damage control, saying that of course Jesus didn’t rise from the dead—that’s just silly. What would happen to our credibility if we kept insisting on that? No, the real meaning of the resurrection story is that Jesus lives on in the hearts of all those who follow his example. And so on.

The vast majority of Christians—including those who teach at Calvin College—continue to believe otherwise. Yes, they say, Jesus triumphed over sin and death. But they don’t suppose that Jesus’ resurrection renders the scientific understanding of the world irrelevant. On the contrary: It’s precisely in contrast to the ordinary that the resurrection stands out.

In short, if our imaginary Prof. Candide decided one day that he could no longer affirm the reality of the resurrection, it would seem unremarkable that he and the college should part.

But what about Prof. Schneider? There is a salient difference between Genesis and the gospels. For all their disagreement over the details, orthodox Christians broadly agree about how to read the gospels. But there is no such consensus about how to read Genesis. The range of sharply differing views was outlined in the cover story of the June 2011 issue of Christianity Today, “The Search for the Historical Adam.”

What is at stake in these disputes is not a choice between following biblical authority on the one hand or science on the other, as the matter is often misleadingly framed. Rather, we see rival theological commitments, rival understandings of how to read Genesis.

Undergirding Young Earth Creationism—the belief that the Earth was created only a few thousand years ago—is an unswerving commitment to a certain way of reading scripture, not a disdain for science. A different approach (for example, John Walton’s “The Lost World of Genesis One”) seeks to recover the ancient worldview implicit in the Genesis account of creation, a perspective from which the measurable age of the Earth, however vast, is not relevant. Critical to debates over “the historical Adam” are theological motifs such as Christ as “the second Adam.” These lose their meaning, many evangelicals argue, if Genesis isn’t read literally.

But an alarm should sound whenever the word “literal” is used in this context, whether as a badge of pride (“I just believe in reading the Bible literally”) or as a hint that low-browed fundamentalists are lurking nearby. No one—no one—reads the Bible literally. But some readers are more attentive, more faithful, more imaginative and more persuasive than others.

From a Jewish angle, the question of literalism runs along similar lines. Remembering the responses to Natan Slifkin’s non-literal read of the creation story, The Challenge of Creation, I think that if someone in a Yeshiva were to speculate on Genesis 1 in a non-creationist manner, it would be the equivalent of a Christian read of the Gospels that was non-literal.  I recall some in the synagogue I attended, upon hearing Slifkin speak about how evolution does not equate with creation and how reading Genesis one through the eyes of evolution was creating a falsehood, were bothered.  And of course, the questions about the historical validity of the Torah, from start to finish, began.  Yet, even in certain more moderate Orthodox institutions, non-literal readings are acceptable.

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