Reading the Bible Literally

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Some do not know what to make of various injunctions through time that scripture should be read literally. This is a cornerstone of fundamentalist doctrine, but it is more as well.

from Nourished by the Word
Wilfrid Stinissen

The spiritual meaning doesn't lie outside the literal; it is not a little appendage. The spiritual meaning should never be sought behind the letter but always within it, just as one does not find the Father behind the Son but in and through him. The Word has become flesh; in the flesh we meet the Word, in man we meet God. The Spirit's eternal and unlimited thought is incarnated in a limited human word.

Many contemporary exegetes devote themselves foremost to positive science. This is not a mistake. Such a science is needed in order to expose the literal meaning in the Bible, what the author meant. Since the spiritual meaning is hidden in the literal, one won't arrive at the spiritual without first having discovered the literal. Nor is it a mistake that there is an effective distribution of labor: everyone doesn't need to do everything.

The ideal would be, or course, that exegetes--and theologians!--should be spiritual persons. The essential thing, however, is that those who devote themselves to "scientific" exegesis are conscious that this is only one part of exegetics and that the integral exegeses also try to provide an answer to the question: What did God mean with this written word?"

We must understand the literal meaning because the literal meaning gives rise to all other meanings. However, reading the Bible literally does not mean that one stops at the literal meaning of the words. This is the whole point of form criticism--how is one to understand the words given. "As the hart panteth after running streams so my heart pants after thee," makes limited literal sense--we all know this--poetry is spoken in a way that the images convey meaning. We can understand the sentence even as we change it internally to mean something. We know that hearts do not pant. Many of us have never seen a hart and have no idea if he "panteth after running streams." One can assume that he goes looking for water. But all of this is converted in the reading because we understand what poetry is and HOW poetry means.

So with other forms and understandings--what are we to make of the two very different creation stories at the beginning of Genesis. It is not possible that both are literally true contra some "young earth" "scientists." There are more problems in getting these two stories to jibe than in a shelf of books on evolution. We must read them literally and then look for what God means to say to us through them. We do not read the Bible as a science textbook, but rather as the essential revelation of God to us. What one makes of those two chapters of Genesis is up to the individual encounter with God.

Nevertheless, we must start from the literal meaning in order to derive any meaning whatsoever. This is one of the points that makes the choice of a translation so critical. This is why when I am studying I use the RSV, which has been characterized as the most accurate translation available (by sources far more reliable in these matters than I am.) But it is also why when I am finished studying and I am praying, I am far more inclined to use the KJV. While there may be inaccuracies and misunderstandings and incoherencies in some parts of the KJV, the wholly "otherness" of the translation forces me beyond my conventional understandings of language into a greater grasp of the other messages meant for me. The grandeur of the translation is such that I am put in the presence of God through reading.

So, it is fundamentally important to make certain that you understand what is being said and what it meant to the people of the time. Only in that way can we begin to understand what God is saying to us here and now.

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Dear Steven,
Up until now, I've been nearly silent about politics this year. But having read your post, it occurred to me that there is a danger that seems to be unaddressed:

Given that both houses of Congress are expected to be Republican after the next election, and given the subversive efforts of The Left to vest increasing power in the courts, and in a move to safeguard the executive orders that currently uphold life to some degree, we desperately need a unified government to stem a backward shift to a non-theocratic state. If such a choice can be made by the people, then there is a chance that responsibility will prevail, and a calamitous end might be averted.


I'm not certain if I'm being obtuse here or not, but even though the English language has changed dramatically, I don't think too many people would mistake a "hart" or stag deer for "heart".

I think you've got the good start of an argument regarding the creation stories. Please look into John Paul II's Theology of the Body and Christopher West's studies for more.

One of the great things about fundamental literalists is that even THEY choose to not be literal at times. What did Jesus mean in John 6 about eating his body?

I strongly agree with your closing: "it is fundamentally important to make certain that you understand what is being said and what it meant to the people of the time. Only in that way can we begin to understand what God is saying to us here and now."


Dear Mr. Fischer--

No, that isn't the implication. The second phrase is "so my heart panteth after thee, O Lord." It's not that one would confuse the first hart with the second, but rather that the second is itself literally inaccurate. But that's why it's poetry.



Steven, on an only slightly related note, I've been working out some issues on the 'spiritual senses' - both of the mystical life and of Scripture - over on . Please let me know your thoughts.

God bless, and you're in my prayers as always,


Dear Steven, please tell me whether the phrase is correct.
"As the deer pants for the water, so my soul long after you".
There were arguments on the usage of the word "pants".




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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on October 25, 2004 7:24 AM.

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