March 10, 2010

Biblical Literalists

2010 1507 page23 capRECENT DISCUSSION WITH A YOUNG ADVENTIST WHO BEMOANED “THE biblical literalism and fundamentalism rampant in our church” got me thinking. And this is what I thought:

Exodus 20:11 reads: “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.” Sounds like a pretty literalistic, fundamentalist spin on Genesis 1 and 2, does it not?

“For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner” (1 Tim. 2:13, 14). That’s about as literalist an interpretation of Genesis as there could be. Paul should have read his Bultmann, or Tillich, too. If so, he might never have written that “death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come” (Rom. 5:14; see also 1 Cor. 15:22).

Paul not only links a literal Adam to a literal Jesus, but his context in Romans 5 ties that link to the plan of salvation, a crucial doctrine that we understand in the most literal sense: we are fallen beings who face eternal destruction or eternal life—literally!

2010 1507 page23“By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead. By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God” (Heb. 11:4, 5). Sounds as if the author of Hebrews believed that these people were real, and the biblical accounts of their stories true.

“[God] did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others” (2 Peter 2:5). Could Peter, a prophet and apostle, have actually taken the Noah story as it reads?

Of course, if anyone knew how to interpret the Bible, it would be Jesus. Was He a biblical literalist, like the ones my young friend so bemoaned? Well, Jesus did say: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:37-39). Jesus not only believed the Noah story; He gave it added theological significance by linking it with the Second Coming, a crucial doctrine that we take in the most literal sense possible.

“‘Haven’t you read,’ [Jesus] replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one’” (Matt. 19:4-6). A pretty literalistic spin of the Creation story coming from Jesus Himself, is it not? “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). Jesus not only believed the Jonah story but tied it directly to His resurrection, another crucial doctrine that Adventists take literally.

We like to say that the Bible interprets itself, and that through the study of the Bible we can learn to interpret it correctly. And though we always bring some personal baggage, some personal presuppositions, into whatever we do, including biblical hermeneutics, the above examples show that these Bible writers—even Jesus Himself (who comes to us through Bible writers)—interpreted the Scriptures literally.

If that’s how they did it, how reasonable, then, for us to do the same, my young friend’s complaint notwithstanding?

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. This article was published March 11, 2010.