Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Understanding the Biblical text in a literal or metaphorical way

Bill Tammeus, former faith columnist for the Kansas City Star,  thinks that understanding the biblical text in a literal way is a plague on the church. He is concerned that our children learn how to think in metaphorical ways. He is afraid they will be disillusioned as they mature and grow academically.  He mentions Jonah and the whale and the story of Noah as stories that must not be taken literally. In his Outlook article, “Help kids understand not all truth is literal,” linked to by ChurchandWorld, Tammeus writes:

But if children are never given a clue about the power of metaphor and layers of meaning before they are introduced to some basic science about the cosmos, they may — and, sad to say, sometimes do — feel misled about the Bible stories they’ve learned. Sometimes they think the church is telling them one thing and science teachers something completely opposite.

He clarifies somewhat with this, “If we are to take Scripture seriously, as opposed to literally, we must always ask what it’s saying about God, about us and about our relationship with God”. However, literal can mean taking the Scripture seriously too. At the same time, Tammeus’ very excellent questions can, must, also be applied to a literal reading of the text.

But, setting this aside for a second, Tammeus set off a long train of memories and thoughts in my mind. In the eighties, with most of my six children grown, I finished up, with some enjoyment, two BAs I had been working toward. At a secular university, working toward a degree in religious studies was sometimes irritating but philosophy was my great joy and my teachers were incredible in their outlook, care and abilities.
One teacher worked with me on a paper for the usual annual philosophy essay contest. I was writing on Plato’s Phaedo and how Socrates’ view of the forms did not agree with his view of the afterlife. The forms were impersonal, the afterlife very personal in a non-metaphorical way. I did win that year and another teacher, the head of the philosophy club, for the year, was kind with his required questions.

But the teacher who gave me my fondest memories taught several of the classes I took including the Philosophy of Science class. When we studied philosophy and evolution he asked me if I would give a talk on creationism versus evolution. Now I am not a young earth proponent, but I do believe in creationism and I do not believe in evolution except within a species.  It isn’t anything I will generally argue about because it doesn’t really interest me, still, giving the talk was actually fun. But the real fun came later.

When I decided to attend the same university for an MA in History I asked the same teacher to give me a letter of recommendation.  Among other things he wrote that I had given a very good lecture in his Philosophy of Science class. He did not write what the subject was about, and I believe that was a silent joke between the two of us. But why am I writing this long narrative of my college years?
Because I believe that Tammeus’ arguments are bogus. They seem to imply that if one is educated they will not take a literal view of the Bible but will instead understand most of the stories as layered and metaphorical. I will not argue with another Christian who believes in evolution and/or believes that the story of Jonah and the whale is simply a story. I might argue about Noah and the flood.  Nevertheless that isn’t my point. My point is that the Bible, which is certainly the word of God, is many things: inspired story, inspired poetry, inspired prophets, inspired gospel. It is full of real history as well as metaphor, it is full of insights and commandments, God’s revelation to his people.

Some conservatives see the literal where there is metaphor, (for example in Revelation) but on the other hand some progressives also see the literal where there is metaphor. For example some radical Christian feminist insist on making lady wisdom of Proverbs a feminine Holy Spirit when the reference is simply to a metaphorical image (a personification) of an attribute of God.
And there are layers, but many progressives miss the layers. For instance the Old Testament is first a history of God’s dealings with the Hebrew people. We must not miss that, it is their story wrapped in God’s revelation of himself. And that means there is something more. Woven, layered, pointing, is the story of God’s redeeming purposes, his plans for redemption—the glory of his eternal Son’s incarnation, death and resurrection.

Three days in the belly of the whale, the “sign of Jonah,” the sign for the generation of Christ. The sorrow and wrath of God on a generation that filled the earth with violence, but the mercy of God in the ark of safety. God is working in mercy and justice, kindness and holiness. We are called to redemption through Christ which opens a door to our willing obedience.

Picture from Ethan McHenry


will spotts said...


For me, the issue is usually one of taking the text as it is intended. I know ... I know ... people who want to dispute a particular text will say you can't tell. But that's not really true. Most of the texts are fairly straightforward in that sense. It is often quite obvious when something is meant as an expression, is meant as a metaphor, or is meant as a literal claim. There are exceptions, of course, but as a general rule the confusion usually comes in when it is an issue of what we want to believe or what we want the text to say.

What is problematic here, for me, is the notion the use of science as a measure of which is true in which way. Most of the claims of miracles are not naive claims - they were understood as absolutely impossible in scientific terms, yet they are still presented as literally true. A resurrection? A virgin birth? An incarnation?

Setting up a situation where science is used as the measure of the truth or falsehood of such claims is unwise.

(I don't mean examining the evidence for or against a particular claim - science can do that. I mean dismissing a claim without examination when the claim itself is a claim of the miraculous - because 'science' dismisses the miraculous - it becomes a circular argument.

("There can't be miracles because miracles are impossible ... and since miracles are by definition impossible, they can't be happening..."))

Viola Larson said...

Will, I had this claim in a secular text in a class introduction to the New Testament, "Jesus did no miracles because there is no such thing as miracles." That was a class I dropped because I found myself arguing too much and them going to a class on Plato and happily arguing because I was supposed to.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I am being literal, but I think the story in Jonah referred to a big fish and not a whale.

Viola Larson said...

Anonymous I believe you are right. And the text says that God prepared it so maybe it was a fish never seen before: )