“If Jesus could live his life breaking so many of the rules of the Old Testament in the pursuit of his mission to enact the love of God upon the world, what makes us think that we should be so concerned with making hundreds of rules that we would impose on other people?” -Rev. Karen Fitz La Barge
Sermon 9/6/2015 First Presbyterian Church of Allegan.
2 Tim. 3:10 – 17
A couple of weeks ago, Bill’s Uncle Bob La Barge posted a story on Facebook. In his work as a driving tester for Century driving school he comes across many different types of people every day, and he frequently engages them in conversation so that he can help them be less nervous and to pass their drivers test. This often makes for great stories. The other day Uncle Bob was testing a somber 18 year old man named Tyler. The young man told him that he was about to leave to go to Bible College and that he and his family took the Bible, “Very, very literally.” Uncle Bob, who has a whole range of bad jokes said, “Great! Then I have the perfect Bible Quiz for you. Do you know who was the longest man in the Bible?”
Tyler hems and haws a bit and then asks if he means “up and down”, and Bob replies, “Sure, something like that.” But Tyler has not a clue what the answer would be. Then Uncle Bob drops the punch line of his bad joke:
“His name is Balaam. In the King James Translation it says that Balaam tied his ass to a tree and walked 2 miles to town.”
(Tyler was busy paying attention to his driving and didn’t get the joke. And the King James Version doesn’t say anything like that anyway.)
Today we come to the end of our summer sermon series of questions from the congregation. And today we come to a question about Bible interpretation. The question is, “What is the difference between a literal interpretation of the Bible and an authoritative? How do people who take the Bible literally deal with some of the passages that are obviously not meant to be taken that way?”
This last question is the easiest to answer. Some of you may know that I was raised “Bob Jones Baptist” with a foundation of a “very literal” interpretation of the Bible. The people that I come from would describe themselves as “Very, very literal”. But that did not mean that we didn’t understand Biblical metaphors. For example, when Jesus was talking to Nicodemus about the need to be “Born again” in John 3 and Nicodemus asks Jesus how to enter his mother’s womb and be physically born a second time, Christians who believe in a “very literal” interpretation of the Bible understand Jesus explanation to be a metaphor for a spiritual rebirth. In the same way in Psalm 18 when God is called a Rock or a Fortress, people with a literal view of scripture don’t actually think that God is a piece of granite or a fortress sitting on a mountaintop. They understand that those metaphors are talking about the qualities of God being an strong and reliable protector.
Steve Falkenberg, professor of religious psychology at Eastern Kentucky University, observed:
“I’ve never met anyone who actually believes the Bible is literally true. I know a bunch of people who say they believe the Bible is literally true but nobody is actually a literalist. Taken literally, the Bible says the earth is flat and sitting on pillars and cannot move (Ps 93:1, Ps 96:10, 1 Sam 2:8, Job 9:6). It says that great sea monsters are set to guard the edge of the sea (Job 41, Ps 104:26). …”
This is indeed the case. Even the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy clarifies what people who say that the Bible is inerrant believe,
“WE AFFIRM the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text.”
But at the same time that those who call themselves Biblical “Literalists” are officially saying that they believe in the “gramatical-historical” sense of the Bible, there are plenty of Biblical Literalists who will grab their Bibles and read a verse or part of a verse and remove that verse completely from the context in which it was written in order to apply it to today. They call this the “plain meaning” of the text. They would say, “The Bible says that women are not supposed to be silent in church. So we don’t allow women to speak in church.” The problem is however that the verses that they pull out of their context to clobber other people with are never the verses that apply to everyone. –The loving your neighbor verses. Nor are they verses that could potentially be applied to themselves such as selling all that they have and giving it to the poor.
From my point of view, the biggest problem with “Biblical Literalism” is all of the time and energy spent on trying to dig out and define and defend a “Biblical truth” in order to create rules for other people to live by. They tend to take the last part of 2 Timothy 3 out of its context. They will look you in the eye and quote 2 Timothy 3:16-17, ” All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God[a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” They will say that the creation of rules from scripture is because we need to rebuke others to correct them to be righteous. But they ignore the first part of that section of scripture. The first part of that passage in 2 Timothy is the context for the last.
In the first part of this scripture it says, “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, 11 persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured.” The context is that the author is talking about himself and his own preparation for ministry. He is talking about how the scriptures inspired him to live out his purpose in faith, patience, love and endurance. How God speaks to him through the scriptures to teach him, to rebuke him, and to equip him to do the good work that God calls him to. –And to endure the suffering and the persecutions that he underwent. This passage was never meant as instructions for Christians to dissect the Bible and to come up with rules for society to live by or as directions to create a check list to document how other people are not living in righteousness. The Biblical literalist movement and their pursuit of “God given truth”, whether that is a 7 literal days of creation stance or a dogged defense of a young earth or their limitations that they place on the gifts of women are missing the point. The Bible is not meant to be a rulebook to impose on others. If the Bible were a rulebook, it would read entirely like the book of Leviticus and Jesus would have given us Leviticus update 2.0. Instead it is authoritative for our spiritual lives.
The opposite viewpoint of the literalist is that scripture is authoritative. But if you are not digging through the Bible trying to find gotcha rules and you focus instead on the overall narrative, on the stories, how can this book be authoritative for our spiritual lives? How can a story become an authority? The easiest way to understand this to step back a minute and look at what the Bible is and what it is trying to illustrate and document.
The Bible is a collection of stories of how God has been working through the lives of people in order to do God’s work. In the Old Testament we have many great stories of God working in people’s lives. We have the stories of Noah of Abraham, of Moses and Miriam of Joseph and Jacob. In the Old Testament we find the stories of the prophets who listened to God’s call on their lives and who spent their lives calling people back to God. In the Old Testament you find the stories of King David, of King Solomon of little known women like Hannah and Hulda. In each of these cases, God was the authority in their lives calling people in their particular context to be faithful followers for a bigger purpose. The Bible is an authoritative source documenting that God works and changes people’s hearts and turns them around to be agents of peace, of justice and of love.
In the New Testament in the gospels we find the story of Christ. Instead of a timeless rule book or a book of order telling us how to be a perfect church or a perfect Christian, instead we have Christ as our example, Christ as our inspiration, Christ as our Savior showing us that the love of God is much stronger than death. And if we still don’t understand what is going on and that we are supposed to interact with our contexts as an agent of love, we have the gift of the Holy Spirit and the stories of the early churches who were trying to work out how to be God’s people in a hostile self serving world. The Bible is the authoritative place for us to find the stories about how God works within human beings to make a difference in the world. Through it’s stories it invites us to envision ourselves in their context, in their world and to learn lessons that we can take with us to our own world. —Lessons about how to care for the least of these, lessons about how to share what we have, lessons about how our greed and our pride and our self deception lead us down dark roads to our own destruction.
In conclusion, people who claim they take the Bible “literally” are not often found defending the Bible’s claims that the world is flat or that the sun travels around the earth. Instead you most often find them searching for “Biblical Truths” and trying to create a rulebook out of the smallest pieces of out of context snippets of scripture. They try to live their lives within the small coffin sized box of these self imposed rules and are miserable when they fall short of the lives of perfection that they demand for themselves and for the world around them. But the Bible was never designed to be a rule book to impose “God’s will” on others. Instead it is an inspiration, it is a comfort, it is a narrative that is THE authority on the fact that there is a spiritual world and that God is working and calling humans to do God’s work in this world. If Jesus could live his life breaking so many of the rules of the Old Testament in the pursuit of his mission to enact the love of God upon the world, what makes us think that we should be so concerned with making hundreds of rules that we would impose on other people? What better example do we have than Christ as we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit to emulate Christ and to throw all of the scriptural rules out of the window while we live out our calling to love God, and love others while loving ourselves? None. We are called to be like Christ and to be the light of God’s love shining in the darkest places in this world. So be it. Amen.
PS. An excellent article on this topic of Biblical Authority is by N.T. Wright and is found here: