The Battle for the Bible and a “Literal” Hermeneutic

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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  • James

    This is less of a critique, more of a “please elaborate.”

    It sounds like when you are defining “literalism”, you are defining the way dispensationalists take the Bible. But I don’t know any dispensationalists (myself included) that wouldn’t agree with “take the Bible historically/grammatically.” Are we just arguing about “what we call it”?

    How does “the text must also be interpreted following the normal rules of grammar and language” differ from “a plain sense” of the text? If I say “I could eat a horse”, I would still consider the “plain sense” and the “historical/grammatical interpretation” of that text to be “Jimmy is hungry.” I’m confused by the difference you are trying to make. Are we defining literally differently?

    I know you love Ryrie – “The literalist (so called) is not one who denies that figurative language, that symbols are used in prophecy, nor does he deny the great spiritual truths are set forth therein; his position is, simply, that the prophecies are to be normally interpreted (i.e., according to received laws of language) as any other utterances are interpreted-that which is manifestly figurative so regarded.”

    You also mentioned with the historical/grammatical definition 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,” but then said that “literal” interpretation forces “If the text said “Israel” that could only mean ethnic Israel.” Would any of the OT prophets writing about future promises to “Israel” intend for their hearers to understand anything other than “Israel”? Do you think the first hearers of Zechariah 2:4 “Jerusalem will be inhabited without walls because of the multitude of men and cattle within it.” thought Zechariah meant something different than a literal “Jerusalem”?

    Is the key to your article that historical/grammatical “will not exhaust all possible meanings a text might legitimately be said to have,” or do you think the original hearers thought the prophets meant something else when they wrote?

    Again, this is less “you’re wrong” and more of “where do we disagree?” My understanding of most people who take Israel as not Israel, or 1,000 years as not 1,000 years is that they abandon historical, grammatical and delve into “theological” or “literary” hermeneutics, so I was surprised to read “stick to historical grammatical, not literal”

    • E. J.

      I was also a bit surprised by the use of “historical/grammatical” in this context, and I agree that some elaboration might be good. But I think the real problem here is the definition of “literal.” Nobody interprets literally all the time–the poetic passages render this impossible–and some dispensationalists I’m familiar with have attempted to use a different or more nuanced term to explain what they mean. Paul Benware has tried to use “normal interpretation” to serve the purpose, but I don’t think this has caught on. (“Normal” doesn’t really offer any detail about the position except that the people who use the term think their interpretation is the most obvious.) A pastor I know uses “literal historical/grammatical interpretation”–which is long, but tries to establish the starting point for his form of literalism.

      I think the historical/grammatical interpretation is probably the interpretational beginning for everyone except some (probably not all) theological liberals. Once you understand the mechanics and context of a passage, however, you are left with other questions–such as how to understand the role of Israel. Literalists try to solve these questions by arguing for literalism–but “literal” here seems to mostly mean that passages should be understood as the original audience understood them, and that prophetic passages do not constitute a genre with unique rules of interpretation. The real deciding factor seems to be which passages are used to interpret other passages. Also, the New Testament has to be used to interpret the Old Testament at least some of the time, but dispensationalists seem to want to keep this to a minimum where prophetic passages are concerned. The problem is that the first hearers probably never would have understood the truth about Jesus’ first coming from the prophetic passages either. We can see it now, but the Jewish people of Jesus’ day assumed, based on their “literal” reading of Scripture, that his coming would look very different than it did. (And no, dispensationalist arguments notwithstanding, I don’t think that most of the fulfilled prophecies in the N.T. are fulfilled “literally.” Physically, yes–Jesus was not born in a metaphorical manger and did not die on a metaphorical cross–but I’ve read N.T. quotes of O.T. prophecies and wondered how on earth they concluded THAT applied to THIS. Ancient scholarly interpretation was very different from ours, and it shows.)

      A “literal” hermeneutic for prophetic passages has forced dispensationalists (classical dispensationalists, anyway) to conclude that animal sacrifices will be offered in the Millennial Kingdom, and that Old Testament saints will not be included in the Rapture because they are not a part of the church. Even some dispensationalists have become uncomfortable with these beliefs–one reason for the rise of progressive dispensationalism. When “literal” prophetic conclusions are difficult to harmonize with (if not–as I think–in direct contradiction of) the New Testament, a second look at the “literal” hermeneutic is in order.

      Part of the problem may be that people have misunderstood teachings about the perspicuity of Scripture. Historically this has been understood to mean that Scriptural teaching about salvation and the basics of how to live the Christian life are clear enough for individuals to understand by reading the text. But sometimes people try to interpret the teaching to mean more–which creates problems. (To be fair, most educated dispensationalists understand this difference. But a misunderstanding about it may have contributed to the popularity of dispensationalism–as misunderstandings about dispensationalism have affected many dispensationalists’ attitudes toward international affairs.)

      I’m assuming that Jake is also trying to point out that a truly “plain” reading of Scripture is difficult. Everyone brings biases with them, cultural and otherwise. Nothing brought this home to me so much as having a friend convert to Catholicism. Sometimes Catholics take parts of Scripture more “literally” than Protestants do–and literalism alone cannot be used to resolve the discrepancy.

    • Ian

      And that’s why I think part of the problem is to keep talking about historical/grammatical exegetical procedure as the sine qua non of what biblical interpretation is as if it wasn’t a late modern attempt to describe this bird in flight, the church’s grappling with biblical texts, which rest assured overlapped historically in many ways with what “historical/grammatical exegesis” describes and is about but doesn’t settle into absolute identity.

      At bottom (maybe not, but I think this is pretty darn close to the bottom) we have to be careful about assuming univocal meanings in biblical/theological language, particularly in light of the new wineskins of the incarnation. After all, even the word “good” has to be clarified when someone uses it to describe our Lord. He doesn’t simply say, “Yeah, sure, that’s me”: he says, “No, whatever you mean by that is NOT what I am.” Similarly, we have to take into account what original audiences would have understood but we just can’t pretend that’s exhaustive in understanding God’s communicative activity, particularly as the Logos who grants the world’s meaning to it as gift arrives to shatter expectations and disintegrate facile interpretations of what it means to be God, what it means to be man, what redemption means and looks like, what freedom is, what sin is, etc.

      The apocalypse of Christ’s cross opens old grammatical constructions and exposes they weren’t as univocal as we had imagined. So the word “Israel” can never mean less than the particular nation descended from Jacob, but is it more polyvalent than that? And the apostolic authors use of OT texts demonstrate that the expansiveness of what a word like “Israel” can mean is retroactively recognized in light of the resurrection and that “Israel” as the entity existing in covenant with YHWH has to be able to take on the reality of the New Covenant community. More than that, readers of these texts have to recognize that to exclude the community created by Jesus and organized in light of his lordship (as vindicated in the resurrection and ascension) from what “Israel” means is to actually miss God’s definitive ruling in what “Israel” means. So yes, “historical/grammatical exegesis” and original audiences cannot exhaust the semiotic excess of God’s speech which simply refuses to be as straightforward and uni-dimensional as our own.

    • Good questions all. Fun to hear from you too, btw. :)

      So point-by-point:

      a) I did try to cover my tracks a little by saying that historical-grammatical is not the only or final reasonable way to interpret the text. I think it’s a sensible starting point and you probably won’t go *wrong* by going that way, but you likely will run into difficulty if you don’t read with other rules in mind.

      b) Toward that end, the two other principles I’ve personally found helpful are: 1) Scripture interprets scripture. 2) The Bible should be read christocentrically. On 2, I’d just commend the Mere Fidelity podcast on the topic to you.

      On the first point, Israel in the OT is tricky for a lot of reasons. In the first place, there are lots of signs that God’s intention was *never* to limit his work only to ethnic Israel. Israel was *always* meant to be a missionary people. (Wright’s “The Mission of God” is excellent on this point.) For starters, I’d point to what God says to Israel at Sinai: You will be a nation of priests. Priests are intermediaries. Priests show us what God is like. So the blessings of the old covenant were never meant to terminate on ethnic Israel or be limited to ethnic Israel. The language of the Abrahamic covenant says the same thing–through you “all” families of the earth will be blessed. So the blessings of the old covenant were *never* intended for only one ethnic group. Thus the NT shifting is not really an abrupt pause in which God stops his work with “Israel” and moves to “the church” but is instead a natural continuation of what was always going on with Israel.

      Apologies for not getting into more detail here–it’s been eight years since I read on dispensational stuff so I’m really really rusty on this argument. :) I *do* remember though that Poythress’s “Understanding Dispensationalists” as well as Williams’ “Far as the Curse is Found” were both very helpful to me in different ways. Robertson’s “Christ of the Covenants” is also useful.

  • E. J.

    Great article. I was raised on literalism–and, naturally, dispensationalism–but they began to lose me in undergrad when I found out that classical dispensationalists believe animal sacrifices will be performed in the reconstructed temple during Christ’s millennial reign (!!!). I have since concluded that if your literal hermeneutic forces you to basically negate the literal meaning of the book of Hebrews, something is seriously wrong with your hermeneutic.

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  • Thank you, Jake, excellent piece. Much of my ministry is within “progressive” Christian circles and increasingly I grow tiresome of certain tropes and assumptions when discussing(? more precisely listening to others talk about) Scripture and biblical hermeneutics. One is that there are only two choices, the “old” approach (traditional, “literal”) and the new approach (which of course leads to progressive Christianity including and perhaps especially with regard to the buzz issues). Too often it seems people are trying to liberate us (more “traditional” Christians whatever that means) from a semi-informed caricature of “evangelical” Christian faith. I could say more but will stop there.

  • hoosier_bob

    It’s unclear to me that the time hasn’t come to reunite with certain portions of the Protestant mainline, especially as certain sectors of evangelicalism seem to be slipping back into a kind of fundamentalism. The writers here appear to oppose that, but it strikes me that it’s because most of you are far more fundamentalist than evangelical.

    A recent Pew survey found that 49% of members of PCA churches favor civi same-sex marriage. That number seems about right. In many cases, the Christians who occupy the pews in PCA churches are far less enthusiastic about the traditional totems of evangelicalism than the denominational leaders are. That’s probably because the old guard still controls who gets ordained and who doesn’t. In my church, I’d guess that about 75-80% favor civil same-sex marriage, nearly all would reject inerrancy (even in the form that you’ve promoted it), and nearly all favor ordaining women to leadership positions (which we effectively do by making sure that all material decisions are made by an advisory team that includes men and women). Nearly everyone in the church grew up in an evangelical context or spent significant time in it. We’ve heard the defenses of traditional evangelical doctrines, and simply don’t find them to be persuasive. And most of us have little affinity for the bourgeois culture that evangelicalism has traditionally promoted. We believe that the truth probably lies somewhere between Carl Henry and Karl Barth, and see no reason to keep enforcing an artificial, socially constructed boundary between evangelicalism and orthodox portions of the mainline. The issues that have divided us in the past are largely irrelevant today, and largely relate to cultural struggles that were settled long ago. It’s time to start repopulating the demilitarized zone between evangelicalism and the Protestant mainline.

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