On the Heresy of Literalism

by Kevin Lewis

The liberal religionist at play, chafed by years of engagement in the South with the intractable furniture of the Fundamentalist mind, wonders: what if the tables were turned? What if the accusers of faithless compromise were themselves accused of heresy?

What if the conservators of an historically partial interpretation of doctrinal purity were themselves to be indicted for the error of their way? What then? What helpful theological dialogue, if any, might ensue?

The culture wars rage. More and more bystanders are joining the usual combatants and taking sides. It is difficult to raise this issue without appearing only to be launching an ideologically inspired attack on the Religious Right. But a theological and hermeneutical issue too often avoided for the sake of a dangerous tolerance does need to be addressed.

The history of American Christianity has been dominated by revivalism and Protestant evangelicalism, particularly in the South. As result, countless earnest Christians have come to rest in the assumption that the only way the truth of the Bible can be maintained is by claiming it to be literal truth.

This is the belief that Scripture should be read as literally as possible in every respect, and especially wherever not to do so would seem to deny the power of God to operate apart from the laws of nature. Latter-day appeals to "Inerrancy" as a fighting principle insist upon this literalism, often appearing to bait both skeptical and more traditional contemporary minds.

But is this heresy? In 1980 Episcopalian pastoral theologian, Urban T. Holmes observed flatly that "literalism is a modern heresy-perhaps the only heresy invented in modern times." But he did not proceed to argue the case. No one has.

Heresy is traditionally understood to emerge within a community of faith when a legitimate point of belief is over-emphasized to the neglect of other equally legitimate, complementing, occasionally countering points of belief needed to make up the delicate balance of doctrines in an "orthodox" rule of faith. Heresy emerges as a truncating distortion of the faith. From the earliest times, Christian heresies have inflicted damage from within upon the Church's theologically ordered system of faith, constructed from the biblical testimony and crystallized in concise credal formulae.

The heresy of literalism as such is a modern, post-scientific phenomenon. Its beginnings can be traced in seventeenth-century Protestant orthodoxy, but it bloomed with twentieth-century Fundamentalism, when the modern world fully embraced the dynamic power of natural science. Scientific method crucially altered the Western mind. After Descartes we became principled skeptics, doubting in order to find out the truth. The notion stole into the religious mind that biblical narratives make proposals that only appear to compete with testable scientific findings (to test our faith) while ultimately, if miraculously, conforming to scientific truth.

Hence the apt, related observation by another Episcopalian theologian, Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, that Fundamentalism is to be regarded as "the bastard child of science and religion." Heretical literalism is the issue of an adulterous mis-match: the bastard-child product of a modern religious imagination formed or perhaps deformed by uncritical embrace of scientific method.

So rose up in history a reactionary Christian mind, panicked and defensive, straining to assert scientific proof (thereby establishing absolute certainty) for its Scripture and the articles of belief it wished to communicate. Thus did literalism teach the "letter" to drive out the "spirit" of the biblical writings, effectively misusing the text in order to promote a corrupted theological agenda. The effect is a rigid constriction of the inspiring Word.

Bob Jones, Jr., in a recent documentary film, puts it this way: "The Bible doesn't contain the Word of God; the Bible is the Word of God."

The combative answer: there are better, more legitimate, less blasphemous ways than this to affirm that the Bible is the Word of God. The Word is to be affirmed without the heresy of divinizing each word of Scripture as though it fell from heaven a perfect expression of the mind of God. The drive for certainty in a skeptical age is more dangerous to our faith than we might suppose. It leads away from "faith" to a calculating "belief" not satisfied with the promises of God but restless to prove, verify, and guarantee those promises with scientific precision.

Ironically, biblical literalism misunderstands the biblical faith in the very course of struggle to understand and defend it in a changing cultural context. Biblical literalism commits a seductive form of idolatry. The literalist misleads Christians by asserting the idolatrous notion that the words of inspired Scripture adequately and sufficiently bind the God revealed in Scripture to the narrow limitations of scientific, "common sense" interpretation.

The requisite balancing principle is forgotten: that Scripture produced under "inspiration" by mere mortals simultaneously conceals as it reveals the Word-requiring an act of faith and careful, "Inspired" personal interpretation to grasp the Word spoken to the self. Literalism errs fatally when in implicit arrogance it denies the mystery of the revealed but sovereign, never-fullyknowable God.

Viewed functionally, as opposed to analytically, such error becomes heresy when it so misleads that it blocks the individual's path to salvation through Christ, promised in gospel and creed to those who truly accept the invitation to repent, believe, and follow Him. It makes scriptural inerrancy a basic article of faith which must be believed if the Bible is true.

The early period of Christian theology was rife with dispute over such paths deemed erroneous, each attempting to protect a particular element of the tradition but prompted by a concern so lopsided that the "Improved" or more "relevant" version of the faith proposed became a stumbling block to the received biblical faith in Christ.

Under the terms of the traditional faith consolidated in the creeds and major doctrines, the salvation on offer through Christ will elude those who fall into such disabling idolatry of the Word. By scorning to affirm the inscrutable sovereignty of the biblical God -- as a counterweight to that God's revealed loving promises -- the literalist traffics with a diminished false god of convenience.

There is no mistaking the harm that the false theology of the literalist has done and continues to do -- to believers and seekers alike. But, then, the liberal religionist would not remain liberal if he (or she) were actually to cry down the cultural literalism that turns fellow committed Christians unwittingly, though not without consequence, into heretics. Though literalism compounds the genuine scandal of the gospel with an ersatz scandal of its own devising, 'tis impolitic to say so within the "household of faith."

So, shedding sword and buckler, the liberal religionist retires from the fray with a sigh. He (or she) returns to the quiet of study, the building of community, the making of peace, and, when possible, green fields. And yet, now and again, he (or she), touched by the culture wars of the day, dreams of an honest donneybrook: of a cleansing battle royal for the integrity of the living faith handed down from the past.

from The Newsletter of the Center on Religion in the South
A program of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina
Fall, 1997 issue.

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Dr. Kevin Lewis teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of' South Carolina, Columbia. In addressing a controversial topic in provocative style, Lewi's invites reader response.

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