I’ve been reminded recently that many evangelical Christians in America think of the Bible with the same doctrine that traditional Islam uses to think about the Qur’an. The traditional Muslim understanding of the Qur’an, if I understand it correctly, is that the Qur’an is the literal, actual words of God, spoken in Arabic from God’s mouth, falling directly from His lips.
So a Christian version of this is that many evangelicals think of the Bible in the same way. They see the words of the Bible as the literal words being spoken from God’s mouth. Thus “taking those words literally” makes sense to them. In this view, the human writer has virtually nothing to do with the words in the Bible, they are merely flesh-and-blood typewriters used by God. It’s as if the Apostle Paul was sitting there eating a kosher beef sandwich with his left hand when suddenly his right hand starts scribbling away the third chapter of the letter to the Colossians. “Yeah, it does that sometimes,” Paul says, “looks like another chapter is coming.” This concept of the Bible, with virtually no regard to the human element, is an essentially Muslim view of Scripture. It’s very common among American evangelicals.
However we know that this is not what the Bible is. We know the human authors were much more engaged than the way I just described. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1: 16 that he does not remember who all he may have baptized. I assure you, the Holy Spirit knew exactly how many people Paul had baptized. It’s not God who doesn’t remember. It’s the human author, Paul. Likewise, Paul gets so worked up in Galatians that his grammar gets incorrect and he forgets to finish some sentences. In other places Paul paraphrases Old Testament scripture. Also, Paul’s Greek sounds nothing like John’s. John’s Greek is precisely the kind of Greek learned as a second language, not at his mother’s knee. Luke’s extremely educated Greek sounds nothing like Mark’s. The input of the human authors is evident across the pages of Scripture.
The Princeton theologians of the last century, trying to beat modernity’s challenge to the Bible by using modernity’s own “scientific” categories, lodged the Bible’s authority within the ability to prove its internal consistency. They felt they had to prove it was inerrant in every way, effectively canceling out a view of the human element and circling around to end up with an essentially Muslim view of Scripture. This basically forces them to say the Bible is a scientific guide in areas of geology, planetary cosmology, meteorology, etc. There is no provision for a human author to be limited by the scientific worldview of his day.
The Wesleyan branch of Christian theology, springing from Anglicanism, does not approach Scripture this way. We see Scripture as the infallible word of God in areas pertaining to our salvation – our relationship with God. We are not claiming it’s a science textbook, nor an objective Near Eastern history text,
So my friends with the more Muslim view of Scripture ask “So do you take the Bible literally or allegorically/figuratively?” The answer depends on which part of the Bible you are talking about, of course.
The Song of Solomon is an erotic love song – lots of symbolic language; I won’t embarrass you with examples. Suffice it to say the king did not think the queen’s body shape was literally the shape of a palm tree. The Psalms are prayer-songs. Lots of symbolic, poetic language there: Psalm 23 does not literally mean God picks me up (“Whoaaa! I can see my house from here!”) and puts me down in a pasture somewhere. Jesus’ parables are stories with a point. We shouldn’t think the story in Luke 16 of the rich and poor men in the afterlife means you can literally speak back and forth between heaven and hell, toll free. Jotham’s fable in Judges 9 is an allegory about trees talking. It’s a story to explain to Israel what is going on right then in their life as a nation. The Bible is not suggesting trees and bushes get together at night when we aren’t looking and hold democratic elections. The Proverbs are not universal , cosmic laws – but they are wise observations about how life usually works. Chronicles and Kings are court histories, recording the high points of the reigns of Israel’s kings and prophets. Meant to be taken as historic fact. But even within those literal histories are non-literal language: when Elijah taunts that Baal has “turned aside of the road” it’s a slang/figurative way to say that he is using the restroom! The Laws in Leviticus are actual legal codes in affect at times in Israel’s history. Letters in the New Testament are actually that: letters from one writer to a church or individual. The Gospels are short treatments of Jesus’ life, announcing that he is the One God sent to redeem the world, and what that means. Etc etc. So the answer to the question “literal or figurative” depends entirely, of course, on which kind of literature in the Bible we are talking about. The language the authors use is bounded in some way by the world of the writer: for instance the writers say the sun rises and sets, although we know that it is the Earth which is actually what is revolving.
If humans are more involved in writing Scripture than just flesh-and-blood typewriters (remember, Paul can’t remember who all he baptized…), in what way are the Scriptures the Word of God? For Wesleyans, the answer is not that the human writers had no influence on the way the Scriptures are written, but that, somehow, through these human writers, God has spoken to us about His intentions for our relationships with Him, one another and the world around us. What the Scriptures tell us about God’s intentions “inerrantly reveals the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation.” They give us wonderful insight into the relationship and conversation God has had with our spiritual ancestors over a period of 2000+ years. And somehow, activated by the Presence of the Spirit of God, those ancient written words on the page become the living, transformative Word in our hearts and lives. The Protestant Reformers understood this: insisting that the words are dead to us until illumined by the Spirit. Thus it is not the ability to prove it’s internal consistency upon which the Bible’s authority rests, it is the Presence of God at work through those words supernaturally in our lives.