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The Battle for the Bible and a “Literal” Hermeneutic

February 25th, 2016 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

According to a piece recently published in the Los Angeles Review of Books evangelicals are losing the battle for the Bible—and they’re fine with that. In the review essay, author Jim Hinch quotes several recent books as well as an interview with a Pentecostal evangelist and graduate of Azusa Pacific University as proof that evangelicals are (finally?) giving ground on a host of entirely predictable buzz issues that have come to define the famed younger evangelicals—homosexuality, creationism, and women in church leadership.

Yet it’s not the interaction with these authors that is most important, even if it does take up the vast majority of the piece. There’s nothing particularly new about any of it; it’s just the same reheated, repackaged shift toward a theology virtually indistinguishable from that of any mainline Protestant denomination. (And it almost certainly over-states the actual shift happening in evangelicalism.) If you’ve read this piece by Derek Rishmawy you pretty much know what to expect.

What is much more interesting is the author’s more limited interaction with conventional conservative evangelicals and what it says about how evangelicals have talked about the Bible for much of the past 50 years.

Hinch is concerned with the so-called “literal hermeneutic” that has defined portions of evangelicalism for the past several decades. By framing the story around the question of literalism, the author is able to suggest that there is a single movement afoot in evangelicalism away from old-fashioned “literalism” and toward a more progressive view. So it isn’t just the liberalizing evangelicals who are seen as shifting on the battle for the Bible, but more conservative leaders as well. PCA pastor Tim Keller is presented as being part of this liberalizing shift despite the fact that Keller is not at all a progressive and is, in fact, serving in a denomination that condemns homosexuality, limits the pastoral office to men, and rejects any evolutionary account of human origins.

Hinch’s trouble is that he assumes first that literalism (whatever that means) is a common historical approach to hermeneutics amongst evangelical Christians and, second, that the only justification for unpopular positions on buzz issues lies in a “literal hermeneutic.” Thus if one rejects “literalism” one is necessarily expressing openness to full acceptance of homosexuality, women’s ordination, and some kind of evolutionary account of human origins.

The Rise of the “Literal” Hermeneutic

To begin to understand the problem, we need to talk about that awful word “literal.” The notion of a “literal” reading of Scripture came into vogue in the 20th century United States for two reasons.

First, dispensationalism, a theology premised on a very strict understanding of biblical prophecy, relied upon a “literal” hermeneutic to justify itself. If the text said “Israel” that could only mean ethnic Israel. If a text said “1000 years” that could only mean 1000 years. If you said that “Israel” could have multiple meanings depending on the context, that would undermine dispensationalism. If you said that the “1000 years” in Revelation 20 could simply refer to an indefinite period of time, that would undermine dispensationalism. The dispensationalist theological scheme depended upon what they would call a “literal” and what others would call a “wooden” reading of the Bible.

Second, evangelicals needed a way to contrast their own understanding of scripture from that of liberal Christians who, amongst other things, accepted some form of theistic evolution. Contra those readers who sought an allegorical or “spiritual” meaning in the text, the mid 20th century evangelicals wanted to stick to a more plain-sense reading of the Bible.

Of course, literalism wasn’t all bad as a historical development. A literal hermeneutic allowed American evangelicals who lacked meaningful ties to historic Christian institutions, let alone the riches of historic Christian reflection, to nonetheless maintain a mostly orthodox faith while the rest of the west rapidly secularized.

That said, for all its virtues, literalism is still something of a perversion, or perhaps more gently, a jarring over-simplification, of historic Christian reflection on scripture. In the first place, it arose primarily to justify an historically aberrant theological approach and to serve a polemical purpose against certain critics of the faith. A hermeneutic that comes to prominence for those reasons is bound to have problems.

The (Orthodox) Alternative to Literalism

A better way to preserve what the evangelicals wanted to preserve would be to speak of a historical-grammatical hermeneutic. This approach to interpretation of the Bible says that readers of Scripture must ask themselves what the author’s original intent was in writing the text and how the text’s first hearers would have understood the text. The text must also be interpreted following the normal rules of grammar and language for whatever language the text is written it, be it Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek.

This approach will not exhaust all possible meanings a text might legitimately be said to have, but it serves as a useful first step that should establish a kind of hermeneutical baseline before we move on to exploring more complex questions. At the very least, this beginning to the task of interpreting scripture will not lead us astray and will form a foundation for further reflection and will free us from some of the more bizarre interpretations offered by a literal hermeneutic.

When American evangelicals should have embraced the approach described immediately above, we instead resorted to a simplified version of it due to a combination of our own theological quirks and specifically polemical intent that reduced certain biblical texts down to a weapon to use against darwinism.

Indeed, the literal hermeneutic creates many problems, as Hinch rightly notes in his essay. We might begin by questioning the positive interpretation of the text using this supposedly “plain sense” reading of the text. How, one wonders, do you derive something as complex as the chart below from a “plain sense” reading of a few obscure chapters in Daniel and Revelation and all held together by a highly specific reading of a couple verses in First Thessalonians?


But we may also question the plain sense interpretative approach in another direction as well. What, for example, is a “literal” reading of the Mosaic law and how does it relate to Christian ethics today? What about Christ’s parables and some of his statements to different people who question him? What does a “literal” application of Matthew 19:21 look like? Indeed, what about the Sermon on the Mount? A plain sense reading of that text would make pacifists of us all.

Because of the way that literalism over-simplifies the Bible, it’s no surprise that so many evangelical young people have gotten to college and left the faith. A literal hermeneutic simply isn’t nuanced enough to handle the kind of reasonable, thoughtful questions a young adult will ask, either on the encouragement of friends or professors, or simply on their own.

This is where we must return to Hinch’s essay. Because of the remarkably tenuous hermeneutic evangelicals have used, for much of the past 60 years, it isn’t really fair to say we are “now” losing the battle for the Bible. Battles are often lost based on what happens before they start and that is very much the case here. A “literal” hermeneutic essentially amounts to the waving of a large flag that reads “Use reductio ad absurdum to critique me!”‘ It’s no surprise that such an approach has led to many young people like Zimmerman abandoning orthodoxy. Indeed, if young evangelicals really are fine with losing the battle for the Bible, it may only be because the defeat has saved them from having to twist themselves into pretzels in order to defend their faith. And the tragedy of the thing is that those pretzels we twisted ourselves into were not only convoluted and tortured; they were unnecessary.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).