I’ve frequently encountered a common misapprehension that boils down to the following statement, “Catholics don’t take the bible literally.” On the flip side of the spectrum are the Evangelical Fundamentalists who take everything way too literally. So who’s right?
Let’s start by defining our terms. In everyday language the word “literal” typically means,“in accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical”.1 But when we try and apply this definition to our study of the Scriptures it can quickly cause problems. And it’s the – “not figurative or metaphorical” part of the definition that starts to get us in trouble.
If we applied the definition above to theological study we would be talking about biblical literalism which tends to read everything in the bible at face value. This is often the approach taken by many who would consider themselves Evangelical or Fundamentalists. In my early years I was raised with this sort of biblical understanding – and it drove me nuts. Becoming Catholic has given me the opportunity to look at a literal approach to the Scriptures in a different way, and I would like to share that approach in this post.
First off we should clear up the common misunderstanding that I referenced above. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that there are two senses of Scripture, the literal and the spiritual, and contrary to common belief, it is the literal sense of the biblical text which is to be the primary one! St. Thomas Aquinas is quoted in the catechism as saying, “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.”2
That alone probably comes as quite a shock to some people, but again, it is useful to define our terms. Thankfully the catechism does just that for us in the very same paragraph: “The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation.”3
You may notice a difference between this definition and the one above.
Literal vs. Literalistic
Essentially, biblical literalism seeks to read the bible based on the, “plain meaning of the words” without any recourse to literary genre, culture, figures of speech, etc. In contrast to this, a literal reading of the Scriptures as defined by the Catholic Church would include proper exegesis of the text and sound interpretation. I should note here that there are many Protestants who don’t engage in biblical literalism. One of my closest friends, a Protestant biblical scholar and professor for nearly twenty years, is fond of saying, “We must try and discover the AIM of the passage – the Author’s Intended Meaning.” He also teaches that Scripture has, like Christ, a dual nature being both, “Divine revelation and ancient Near-Eastern literature.”
But all too often, strict literalists will ignore these distinctions while accusing Catholics of not taking the bible literally. The truth is we do take the bible literally – just not literalistically. So what’s the problem with a literalistic approach? Well, first and foremost –
You literally can’t read the bible literally.
The bible is not one book, but rather a compilation of many different books which employ many different literary genres. There is poetry, hymns, prayers, historical narratives, epistles (or letters), genealogies, books of law, prophetic writings, wisdom writings, parables (or stories), apocalyptic writings, and gospel (good news) messages. Additionally, the biblical authors employ many different common literary forms in their writing including simile, metaphor, hyperbole, anthropomorphisms, and my personal favorite the ever popular euphemism 😉 Check out this link for an overview of what you may encounter when reading the biblical texts: Literary forms of the Bible.
Pope Pius XII warns us, “What is the literal sense of a passage is not always as obvious in the speeches and writings of the ancient authors of the East, as it is in the works of our own time. For what they wished to express is not to be determined by the rules of grammar and philology alone, nor solely by the context; the interpreter must, as it were, go back wholly in spirit to those remote centuries of the East and with the aid of history, archaeology, ethnology, and other sciences, accurately determine what modes of writing, so to speak, the authors of that ancient period would be likely to use, and in fact did use. For the ancient peoples of the East, in order to express their ideas, did not always employ those forms or kinds of speech which we use today; but rather those used by the men of their times and countries. What those exactly were the commentator cannot determine as it were in advance, but only after a careful examination of the ancient literature of the East”4
With all of that in mind, it very quickly becomes an exercise in futility if we attempt to read the bible in a strictly literalistic manner. Protestant author and Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation, Pete Enns makes the following point in a blog entitled, The Problem With Literalism when he says,
“Ironically, literalism leads either to ignoring some texts or at least handling them with some ingenuity that moves beyond what an author meant to say. Reading the Bible and understanding what it means requires much more attention on our part than simply putting on literalist lenses. Scripture is richer, deeper, and subtler than literalism allows.”5
Often times a strictly literalist reading will even create the apparent “conflict” that many people see between the Scriptures and science. For instance, a strict literalist may read the Genesis description with its repeated proclamation of, “evening and morning” as a literal six day creation account – literally 144 hours. In contrast to this strict literalistic interpretation, an individual reading from the literal perspective recommended by the Catholic Church may point out that there is literally no sun, moon, or stars – which the text tells us are to be used for the marking of, “seasons and for days and years”6 – until the fourth day. They may also note that contrary to most fundamentalist assertions, the Scriptures never claim that God individually creates each and every life form, but that the text instead literally reads, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds,”7
Taking the Literal Too Far
Yes, the Catholic Church takes the bible literally. We believe that God literally created everything that exists out of nothing, that the human soul is uniquely created by God, and that original sin was literally committed by Adam and Eve and passed on through them to the human race. The Catholic Church also recognizes that a literal reading of Scripture doesn’t have to pit science against religion.
In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that, “Even if faith is superior to reason there can never be a true divergence between faith and reason, since the same God who reveals the mysteries and bestows the gift of faith has also placed in the human spirit the light of reason. This God could not deny himself, nor could the truth ever contradict the truth.”8
Biblical literalists often insist on strict literalism as a way of “protecting” the text. They worry that if they concede a less than literalistic interpretation to any Scriptural text they will have effectively opened Pandora’s box to skeptics who will skewer the Christian Faith on the sword-point of their disbelief, cynicism, and incredulity.
And all too often they see the moral failings of our culture as proof positive that a less than literalistic reading of the bible leads to moral compromise of the worst sort.
“You interpret St. Paul’s instructions to women regarding head coverings as being culturally dependent? Well let me just say, that you my friend are on the slippery slope to affirming homosexual unions. You say that you don’t believe in a literal six day creation account? My God! Do you even accept that Christ was a historical person?!”
Rather than protecting the text, I believe that a strict literalism actually harms it, and I wholeheartedly agree with the quote from Pete Enns above,
“Scripture is richer, deeper, and subtler than literalism allows.”
Reading and interpreting the Holy Scriptures in a careful and nuanced manner actually makes for a much stronger faith, and one that is unyielding in its beliefs – when necessary. Head coverings are not an issue – homosexuality is.
And having said that, it is interesting to note that the selfsame Church who is accused of not taking the bible literally, stands virtually alone against the cultural relativism of our day in her defense of traditional Christian morals and in proclaiming the faith of the historic Christian Creeds. Simply ask yourself where the Catholic Church stands on virtually any of the current hot button societal issues as compared to the vast majority of Protestant denominations, and you will see what I mean. Contraception? Divorce and remarriage? Abortion? Homosexual acts? The list literally goes on and on, and suddenly we might find ourselves questioning just which Church really interprets the bible literally and which ones don’t.
The Problem of Inconsistency
In the final analysis biblical literalists simply fail to consistently apply their principles throughout the entirety of Scripture. Partly because it’s impossible to do so, and partly because they themselves choose to be selective with their literalistic interpretations while forbidding others to do the same.
For me, this inconsistency is most visible in the Bread of Life Discourse of John chapter 6 beginning in verse 25. Admittedly, the statement that Christ makes is radical in nature. He claims to be the very bread from heaven, and says that anyone who wishes to have life everlasting must eat His flesh – This is what He literally says.
And predictably, his disciples responded in the same way that you or I would – with disbelief. Obviously, the Lord cannot be speaking literally.
“Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’
Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.'”9
In other words, when they question Him and say, “Surely he can’t mean this literally!” He responds by becoming even more literal. In fact, if you look at the original Greek you will find that He begins to speak of the necessity of literally “gnawing” on His flesh. When they finally become convinced that He intends them to take what He is saying literally – His disciples leave Him, and Jesus allows them to go.
Did you catch that? Jesus literally allows his disciples to leave him because they are unwilling to accept what He is literally telling them.
If there was ever a passage which begs to be read literally, this is it. And yet for some reason, biblical literalists will go to literally any length to interpret this passage in some other way.
And for the life of me, I can’t understand why.
And I mean that literally.
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Dictionary.com LLC. Retrieved August 9, 2014. ↩
Catholic Church. (2000). Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Ed., p. 33, par. 116 ). Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference. ↩
Catholic Church. (2000). Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Ed., p. 33, par. 116). Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference. ↩
Divino Afflante Spiritu 35–36 ↩
Pete Enns http://biologos.org/blog/the-problem-with-literalism-introduction ↩
Genesis 1:14b ↩
Genesis 1:24a ↩
Catechism of the Catholic Church 159: Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, citing from the First Vatican Council’s Dei Filius ↩
John 6:52-58 ↩