Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Biblical literalism may be dangerous according to Kenneth Kovacs

Is there anything you are certain about? How about your relationship to Jesus Christ—His love, redemption and promises? Are you certain that Scripture is the word of God and not only useful but necessary for your walk with God. Do you say with the apostle Paul, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Jesus Christ our Lord?” According to Teaching Elder and Covenant Network board member, Kenneth Kovacs, in an essay placed on the Covenant site, you may be dangerous, mentally ill and committing religious blasphemy.

Now to be fair, Kovacs in his essay, The Threat of Literalism, is using the term fundamentalist to describe those he is writing about. And he seems to include constitutional and Moslem fundamentalist. But he also calls them literalists and suggests that they have an obsession with “what is actual, literal, with the “letter of the law,” with the need to nail down (sometimes, literally) what is true and not true and then defending that “truth” at all costs.” So, since this is an essay posted at the Covenant Network site by one of its board members I would venture a guess that the essay is aimed at those who take the Bible literally which would include the orthodox of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Therefore, I will make some comments about some of Kovacs thoughts. For instance he states, “It’s [being a literalist] a way of being that is suspicious (maybe paranoid) of anything that smacks of analogy or metaphor, of anything that leaves open the possibility of multiple meanings, of plurality, because according to the literalist, for example, there can only be one interpretation of a text – …” No—I believe it is Kovacs who has the problem; perhaps he could be called a metaphorist?

I will explain. Those who are orthodox in their understanding of both Scripture and theology see the text filled with metaphor as well as plain meaning. The Old Testament, in some places, depicts God as the husband of Israel. That is a metaphor. And a metaphor fills out the meaning of the title God. It adds to our understanding. But we can’t use everything that a metaphor suggests. For example, God did not have a sexual relationship with Israel, but he does care for, tend to and enrich Israel as a husband might a wife.

But notice the word husband is a reality with its own definite meaning. When it is not used as a metaphor it is a reality. Hosea was married to Gomer. Joseph was married to Mary. They were husbands not metaphors.

Another beautiful biblical metaphor for God is shepherd. But as Andrew Purves and Charles Partee pointed out in an article they wrote for Theology Matters, God as shepherd does not use the sheep for food as a shepherd might. God tends to the sheep (another good metaphor). He cares for them and even disciplines them. But notice again, there really are shepherds; they are not metaphors but realities.

So going back to the suggestion that analogies and metaphors give the biblical texts “the possibility of multiple meanings, of plurality,” the answer is yes and no. The metaphor opens the possibility of thinking about God in various ways, for instance as a careful and tender husband but also as a jealous one—yet one may not go beyond that—one comes to the wall of truth, the additional text of Scripture. There is nothing in the metaphor that allows God to be what he is not. There is nothing in the metaphor which changes God’s promises or commands. If the text states “You shall have no other gods before me,” the metaphor of husband does not change the command, it in fact enlarges it.

If the metaphor is of a good shepherd it enlarges our view of Jesus—we know he will lead us, discipline and care for us—but once again we come to the wall of truth, the additional text. Jesus allows for no other shepherd and insists that only the true sheep hear his voice, and they will not follow another shepherd. “A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.” (John 10:5) And we know something more—we know that if God, in the Old Testament is shepherd and he is, and Jesus in the New Testament is the good shepherd then we know who Jesus truly is, the eternal Son of the Father.

Kovacs writes, “For Christians to confess that Jesus Christ is the fullest revelation of God the world has ever known or will know (as I do), does not mean we are free to say we possess an exhaustive knowledge of God.” Does anyone say this? Jesus Christ as he is known in the word is God’s revelation of himself. It is all we are meant to know this side of Glory—but it is enough to know that both the living Word and the written word of God are sufficient. And within the pages and the person is certainty; enough to cover any hurt thrown by those who seem to find their safety in insult.

“Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies who is the one who condemns? Jesus Christ is he who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:33-35a)


dhollifield said...

I always thought that there was no more wooden and elementary interpretation of Sripture than by those who are unable (or refuse) to mine the depths of meaning present in a holistic reading of the text (plain sense meaning+context+metaphor+applied truth), because they are stuck in the metaphor or the context. An excellent, understandable response.

Anonymous said...

Amen. The problem with "non-literalists" is that there are certain commandments that they do not wish obey, so that they find ways to attempt to avoid literal commands. Jesus said, "if you love me, you will obey my commands." I take that literally and am humbled by my need for grace and my inability to obey Christ, rather than attempt to wiggle out by making it a metaphor that soothes my conscience. Jack Sharpe, Chambersburg, PA

Anonymous said...

First Viola said "I would venture a guess that the essay is aimed at those who take the Bible literally which would include the orthodox of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)."

And then Viola said "Those who are orthodox in their understanding of both Scripture and theology see the text filled with metaphor as well as plain meaning."

Which is it?

Jack Sharpe says he takes "if you love me, you will obey my commands" literally. He seems to imply that the text is literally a command. But a non legalistic and still orthodox reading of the text is that it is a promise, not a command.

Literalism is dangerous because it is a figment of of the reader's imagination.

Every translation of the text requires interpretation. Every hearing of the text requires even further interpretation. Every interpretation is through the eyes and ears of the interpreter.

But the real problem with Fundamentalists is that they assume their interpretation of Scriptures is inerrant, and that every argument against their interpretation is an argument against Scripture itself, and thus an argument against God.

(thus, in practice, placing themselves above the Scriptures and God, while still claiming to be subject to them)

The Fundamentalist assumption is not orthodox. Not even close.

Jodie Gallo

Viola Larson said...

I know it sounds like I am contradicting myself with that, but that is because Kovacs is making an assumption that is incorrect. He is assuming that those who take the text literally do not accept metaphors or analogies. But they do. I take the text literally and I in fact love metaphors: )

You write, “Literalism is dangerous because it ia a figment of the reader’s imagination.”

It simply isn’t. To take a common sense reading of the text means that one does not look at the text with suspicion but accepts what it states. However there is often a need for further study-for example why would the man Micah in the book of Judges ask a Levite to be a priest to his false idol? What were the positions of the priests in the book of Judges that they were so often misused by the people? These are interesting questions and make wonderful Bible studies.

Another question what would be the purpose of the demons in the N.T. asking to be sent into a herd of pigs? Why would Jesus allow it? There are a lots of question that require study , both of culture and history—but this is not negating the text and its plain meaning.

But as for the plain meaning of the text, when in the N.T. text Thomas sees that Jesus is truly resurrected and states, “The Lord of me and the God of me” (for that is what the Greek actually states) then one must take that in its very real sense. The literal interpretation is the only true one.

Viola Larson said...


Jack, I am very aware that the article by Kovacs is aimed at commands of the Lord. - And you see it too. Thanks for your clarity.

will spotts said...

Literalism only means taking the text as intended. It is not complicated - and I've heard very few arguments that make it so. (Most are trivial.) A literalist does not in any way reject metaphor, analogy, poetic comparison; a literalist rejects subversion of the text. This twisting is often framed as nuance, but it really falls into the category of dissembling language.

Debbie said...

Kovacs is arguing against a straw man. Or maybe he and his fellow progressives have been unable to understand orthodox believers and really believe that they are such "literalists" as he describes. At any rate, I do not know any orthodox believers who are unable to allow for the possiblity of analogy or of multiple meanings.

I also get very tired of hearing progressives talk about the "fear" behind what orthodox Christians believe. There is no fear. There is great joy and, yes, freedom! Not bondage as Kovacs so patronizingly suggests.

Progressives appear to be prejudiced against orthodox/theologically conservative Christians and think we must be living in fear and narrow-mindedness, unable to think widely and carefully, needing to thump our Bibles and keep our interpretations narrow. They are so narrow-minded themselves when they view us that way!

Jodie exhibited an inability to understand what he read when he thought what Viola said showed an inconsistent point of view, when in fact she was showing how her viewpoint could encompass more than one way of thinking. Perhaps this is the type of trouble progressives have when they read the Bible or what orthodox Christians write; they are unable to get beyond their preconceived notions and therefore they cannot adjust their thinking.

Debbie Berkley
Bellevue, WA

Jodie said...

The joke is on you, Debbie, because Kovacs never mentioned orthodoxy or orthodox believers. Not once.

Kovas starts with a definition of literalism. Viola thought he might be talking about her, but then came up with a different diffinition. Or two. So much that its clear they are not talking about the same phenomenon, whatever you call it.

Then Will Spots came up with yet another. And then I did a quick search and found 5 different references with 5 different definitions.

It is clear to me, on that basis, that a literal interpretation of the Bible is whatever you want it to be. Have at it.


Viola Larson said...

Jodie since I am writing about what Kovacs wrote we ought to stick to comments about his definition which is:
"Literalism is the belief, the philosophy, the attitude that truth can only be found in exactness and certainty."

By that definition I am a literalist. That is why I quoted Paul and what he wrote in Romans, "For I am convinced."

The text of the Scripture has authority-of certainty. “And the Word was with God and the Word was God” how absolute and certain that is—poetic too. “I Am the true vine and my Father is the vinedresser.” How beautiful, metaphorical and filled with truth that is. “I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.” That is absolute certainty.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to lift up those verses.

Debbie said...

Jodie, apparently you are the literalist in this discussion. You're definitely a prisoner of the exact words that are used. If you really believe that Kovacs didn't have orthodox/conservative Presbyterians in mind when he wrote that piece, then good for you. But there would be little point in his writing it on a website mainly used for dealing with Presbyterian issues.

We, however, are able to use words interchangeably and are able to allow for multiple meanings and more than one understanding of what people may mean. We also know that when people like Kovacs say "fundamentalist" they mean people like us, who are not fundamentalists, but who they like to call fundalmentalists, because the more they use the term, the more they can get neutral people to believe it's true, and the more our point of view will be discredited.

So go ahead with your literalist understanding of Kovacs's article and all the comments since, Jodie. It's too bad you don't know how to read with understanding.

will spotts said...

There is no substantive divergence between Viola's use of the word and mine. My comment was (in my opinion obviously) about how literalists read texts. It is self-evident. This is NOT a definition. In this particular case your over literal reading of my clumsy use of the word "means" has led you astray. I (again clumsily) intended to say that when someone is a literalist that means they read the text a certain way.

will spotts said...

The problem we (those who are literalists) have with many progressive readings is two-fold. One, we don't believe they are being honest with text - they are twisting it either to have a "gotcha" moment like has been done in this conversation, or they simply don't want to conclude what they have to if they read literally.

The other problem, is these progressive reading often tend to be intellectually vacuous. They're still often arrogant and elitist, but they're usually not intellectually substantive.

Jodie said...

I wasn't even going to respond, but I have to ask: Why all the name calling?

If you have an argument to make, then make it. Name calling, at best, is just lazy. To borrow a phrase or two, it is intellectually vacuous. It can be funny at times, like when Debbie tries, but still, it is usually not intellectually substantive.

And it makes Jesus look bad.

So why resort to name calling?

will spotts said...

Name calling?

will spotts said...

I seriously don't understand what you're meaning to indicate. If you're operating under that misapprehension that describing a particular style of reading as often yielding intellectually vacuous results is name calling, then I'm unsure what to do about that.

There is a huge difference between describing a thing and describing a person.

In my case, the description was not intended to be funny - but accurate.

will spotts said...

Jodie - I don't think I was name calling. However, I was being snarky to you, so I apologize.

I do think you were misrepresenting the conversation and literalism, but I should not have been rude about it.

Jodie said...


Whenever you say things of the formula "they" followed by a negative attribute, without proof or evidence, its nothing more than name calling.

"they... are dishonest"
"they... are arrogant"
"they... are elitist"
"they... are [stupid]"

I started out where I have before on the subject of "literalism", and that is that there is no such thing. A literal interpretation is only a subconscious projection from one's own frame of reference. As Kenneth Baily has so aptly demonstrated, the "plain meaning of the text" to someone of the Middle East is not the same plain meaning of the text for a Bible Belt American.

The whole concept is a mirage.

But then I realized that there isn't a common working definition of what "literalism" even is. You can say you are a literalist, and Kovacs can complain about literalism, and Viola can rail at him for having complemented a definition with which she agreed, with an elaboration she hated, and Debbie can say I am being a literalist, which should be a good thing by Viola's definition, but I think Debbie meant it as an insult, and in truth, I have no idea what any of you really mean by any of it.


Viola Larson said...

Thats good Jodie, because at the moment I have no idea what you mean either.

However, I will say this. You write, "As Kenneth Baily has so aptly demonstrated, the "plain meaning of the text" to someone of the Middle East is not the same plain meaning of the text for a Bible Belt American," and I believe you are confusing the meaning of the plain meaning of the text with something else.

Baily is not showing two different meanings of the text, he is showing the original meaning of the text which would be the plain meaning of the text. That is why study is so important.

will spotts said...

Readings are dishonest.
Readings are arrogant.
Readings are elitist.
And some readings are in fact stupid.

As I said - all of those estimations are my opinions. And they are all accurate. In all cases, these were prefaced by the word many. It is simply not universal.

And it is not now, nor has it ever been name calling.

Yet it seems that people often misunderstand that.

For being snarky, I do sincerely apologize. But on the issues of fact - i.e. what I actually have said, and what is indicated by a literalist reading - you are clearly mistaken.

Debbie said...

Jodie said: "But the real problem with Fundamentalists is that they assume their interpretation of Scriptures is inerrant, and that every argument against their interpretation is an argument against Scripture itself, and thus an argument against God."

I said "Progressives appear to be prejudiced against orthodox/theologically conservative Christians and think we must be living in fear and narrow-mindedness, unable to think widely and carefully, needing to thump our Bibles and keep our interpretations narrow. They are so narrow-minded themselves when they view us that way!"

How are these two comments different, making mine name-calling and yours not name-calling?

You called us "fundamentalists", a name we have argued, with theological reasons, does not apply to us. I called your theological companions "progressives", a name people who believe like you have chosen for themselves, one we would rather they had not pre-empted, but which I use for them out of respect to give them their self-chosen name.

Who is doing the name-calling?

Give me an actual example of name-calling that is not matched by something similar you have said. I apologize if I've hurt your feelings by pointing out that you have exhibited the very literalism that you are decrying, but it was germane to this argument.

Debbie said...

Oh, Jodie, a point of confusion appears to have developed in these comments. I believe we are dealing with two concepts of "literalism." One, Viola and others have been talking about, and that is more along the lines of taking the entire Bible as the Word of God. With that concept I am in whole-hearted agreement. I do believe that the Holy Spirit inspired all parts of the Bible and it can all be faithfully trusted as God's Word; none can be discarded or disregarded.

The other concept, I have been dealing with, and that is using words literally. This would be to insist that the mustard seed really is the smallest seed, even though we know it is not, because Jesus said so in the Bible (rather than saying "As the Son of God, I know the mustard seed is not the smallest seed, but I'm going to say it is because you think it is at this point in history.") I do not agree with this type of literalism, sometimes called inerrancy (I prefer infallibility), but I fbeelt Kovacs was accusing all or many orthodox/theologically conservative Christians of it. So I think there were two different threads of argument against two types of literalism in this comments section, and that may have had you confused. In actual fact I believe most orthodox Presbyterians, who are NOT fundamentalists, espouse infallibility of the Bible, and not literal inerrancy. They believe the Bible is the actual Word of God, infallible in every respect for faith and the practice of that faith, but not a literal science textbook, for example, as in the case of the mustard seed.

And again, please do not confuse arguments with your ideas with name-calling. This happens in the world of ideas. Your ideas will be criticized. It is not the same as name-calling. I have spent time in the academic world and believe me, it happens. It's not all nice and kind. People don't just reply "Oh." They take on what you say and find its weak points and name them and say what they find wrong with them.

Jodie said...


Apparently, according to Will, I was merely stating facts, and not name calling at all.

About your characterization of Progressives, I live surrounded by them and I have not noticed them seeing me that way. But, by every measurable way, I am orthodox and conservative in my theological beliefs.

I take Kovacs at his word. He is trying to figure out what he doesn’t like about Fundamentalists, not orthodox or theologically conservative Christians. I think he missed the mark. He tried to describe it in terms of their literalism, which is a common misconception. But I don’t think, by any definition, that Fundamentalists are literalists. To the contrary. In Fundamentalism, any literal reading of the text that could imply the text is wrong is quickly re-interpreted to avoid any perception of error even if such interpretation is obtuse. Or taken to the literal absurd, as in Creationism. Inerrancy is god.

But again, with the grain of salt that there is no real agreement as to what a “literal” interpretation really is.

Regarding Baily, I disagree that he is “showing the original meaning of the text”. He is extrapolating from the current and historical Middle Eastern record what he thinks might have been the original meaning of the text. I love what he has done. He has validated my own discoveries and shown me new ones. I agree that study is important (we finally agree on something). But there are those who do not believe the meaning of the text requires “study”. One definition of the “literal” is the meaning of the text that immediately jumps out, without study. And I claim such meaning is a mere projection.

But I would temper that claim with the observation that I have been encountering Jesus Christ through the text since I first learned how to read. I read the Bible very differently in my 50s than I did when I was 6, but I still encounter the living Jesus Christ in and through the Text. I find study enriches and enhances the experience of going through the text to the other side, as an unveiling, as it were, but the effect was there from day one. And because of that, I see no need to emphasize or enforce the perceived properties of the text, its authority or its inerrancy or infallibility. It is bread. Just eat it. It is water. Just drink it. It is air. Just breath it. God does the rest. I trust Him.

So it is from language to language, culture to culture, and age to age.

will spotts said...

Once again, you misread and/or misrepresent my comments.

The distinction between the two is this: I was talking about progressive readings - as I manifestly clarified. Your comment, on the other hand was about fundamentalists. The first are things, the second are people.

Jodie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Viola Larson said...

never tell another commenter on my blog to stop it.

Jodie said...

Its just an expression, Viola. I quoted him verbatim, but he accuses me of misreading/misrepresenting him.

I am not, and I resent the implication.

Viola Larson said...

Then don't use the expression.

will spotts said...


You did misread and misrepresent me.

There's no implication. Resent the fact that you misread and misrepresented me all you want.

Doug Hagler said...

I've never met, or heard of, any supposed 'literalist' who takes the entire Bible seriously. Not a one. If anyone can point me in the direction of the pro-war / pacifist / feminist / misogynist / faith / works / egalitarian / slave-owner / rich / homeless / etc. person who is married to 300 people and also one person and also unmarried, I'd be curious to see them.

Until then, I maintain that everyone interprets, everyone does so selectively, and the important point is to be clear and conscious about how you are selectively interpreting. A few 'literalists' do this, but it is by no means the norm, and I find this awareness of interpretation to be far more common among progressive types.

Doug Hagler
Columbia, MO

Debbie said...

Doug, I don't get what you're saying at all. Are you implying that the parts of the Bible tell people to be polygamists, for example? Don't confuse descriptive narration in the Bible with moral commandments.

Jodie, I don't know anyone who doesn't believe in studying the Bible. I'm not sure who you know who would be against that. I would find such a person to have a very strange viewpoint. I've certainly never met such a person among theologically conservative/orthodox Presbyterians.

Jodie, if you are classing yourself as theologically conservative/orthodox/evangelical, you have certainly never revealed yourself as such. You have often argued against standard theological points of view espoused by orthodox/theologically conservative/evangelical Christians. Do you do that to be a so-called devil's advocate, or have you just given your own meaning to the definitions of "orthodox", "theologically conservative", etc.? I would be very surprised to hear that you agreed with all these points of theology: 1) Jesus Christ is the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary (truly a virgin); 2) Jesus Christ was physically raised from the dead; 3) Jesus's death and resurrection atoned once and for all for the sins of any who confess them and put their faith in him; (more minor points now) 4) sex is only blessed by God when it is between one man and one woman who are married to each other, for that is what God intended it for, and all other sex is a sin that calls for repentance; 5) abortion is the murder of a person; and there is more, but these are some of the standard marks of orthodox theology that are currently in dispute by progressives. Jodie, you say "by every measurable way, I am orthodox and conservative in my theological beliefs", so you espouse all these points of view?

Debbie Berkley
Bellevue, WA