One of the issues that comes up often concerns how literal to read the Bible. Often times our view of interpretation is defined by our attitude toward inspiration. Some liberals take the Bible as just various authors and editors’ personal opinions on God and spirituality and so the Bible need not be taken literally. Some conservatives treat the Bible as if it just dropped out of heaven as the perfect book, thus making it our primary science and history textbook besides being our guide for faith.
I cringe when people ask me if I take the Bible literally. Are the census lists in Numbers and the descriptions of armies in the Old Testament to be taken literally? Was there a worldwide flood or just a local flood that affected the known world of the relatively small population of the earth at the time? Should we calculate the age of the earth by adding up the geneologies of the Bible? What does it mean when the Bible says that God stopped the movement of the sun? Did God really make the movement of the universe stop for that one battle? When the Bible says that all of Judea went to listen to John the Baptist, did that whole province show up at the Jordan? I have questions about these statements, some stronger than others.
But if I say that I do not take the Bible literally, I open myself up to serious problems of interpretation. Do I interpret the Bible as pure allegory as people like Tom Harpur have chosen? Do I jettison all historical value? Am I free to pick and choose what teachings of Jesus are true? Do I deny the miracles of Jesus as they are hard for us to understand? What do I do with the resurrection?
This is a serious issue for Christians. I believe that taking the Bible as pure allegory is dangerous (even Origen did not reject the historical basis of the Bible). But I believe a wooden literalism is also a mistake and that it has led to the abandonment of the faith by people like Bart Ehrman. My solution to this is to accept the Bible in the form that it was written. It is not a modern scientific book nor is it a modern history book and it should not be held to such standards. I believe that God accomadated his revelation to the context of that day with spiritual truth that is timeless. The Bible is historical, but it is history as it was written thousands of years ago and not today. There was a literal Moses, David, Jesus and so on, who did the things the Bible describes. But those records are given in the style of ancient history and are to be held to those standards. I affirm with all my being the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. But I believe that the Bible calls us to use our minds in interpretation. Look at archaeology and other historical records. See where the differences are and ask questions. When are the authors using hyperbole to make a point? When are the authors using numbers as symbols? When are they rearranging historical events to emphasize a theme? I believe that we need to have a balanced way of interpreting the Bible, rejecting both pure allegory and wooden literalism for a contextual interpretation that respects the forms in which God revealed his Word to us.