There are controversial topics, and then there are sensitive topics. For Christians, I think the discussion on Biblical literalism is a little (or a lot) of both. That’s why I’m a bit hesitant to blog about it. Spirituality is something that, when challenged by an alternate viewpoint, can seem threatened. However, that is not my intention here. This is simply information that I’ve learned over the past year or two—information that may be helpful for someone else who is curious about the history of Biblical translation and interpretation. One thing that shook the foundations of my fundamentalist viewpoint, was learning that Biblical literalism is a fairly modern idea. In fact, most scholars speculate that reading the Bible literally has only been in practice for about 130 years.
Some scholars date the birth of Christian fundamentalism (as we know it) back to the 1878 Niagara Bible Conference. The Niagara Bible Conference (or the “Believer’s Meeting for Bible Study”) was held every year from 1876 to 1897 (with the exception of 1884). In the year 1878, they authored what became known as the “Niagara Creed”—a 14-point statement of faith which gave way for many of today’s fundamentalist beliefs.
Some have referenced Martin Luther, stating that fundamentalism was born along with his theology of Sola Scriptura. However, by researching Luther’s works, you will find that he was not a literalist. He believed that Scripture, along with reason should guide a person’s life… not the human authority of the Church. Luther used the doctrine of Sola Scriptura as a primary argument against the papal abuses of power. Scripture + Reason was the common formula for religious people of that time and the time that preceded.
However, in the centuries that followed, literalism became a movement within Christianity that strove to fight against the ideologies brought about by the Enlightenment. When the scientific revolution reached America, biblical literalism was a response from conservative Christians who felt that their beliefs were being threatened by science. In an effort to defend their faith, they spawned a new way of thinking that some modern-day theologians even define as idolatrous. Is it possible, in our quest for righteousness, to ironically idolize the Bible rather than worship the One about which it is written?
In the 1980’s, theologian and pastor Urban T. Holmes went so far to state that “literalism is a modern heresy—perhaps the only heresy invented in modern times.” Another theologian, Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, suggests that fundamentalism should be regarded as “the bastard child of science and religion.” Many who grew up in the fundamentalist vein of Christianity (as I did), may genuinely believe that particular approach to Scripture is pure and unadulterated. However, many Biblical scholars point out that it is actually quite the opposite. Here’s what New Testament scholar and theologian Marcus Borg has to say about fundamentalists:
“They typically see themselves as affirming “the old-time religion”—that is, Christianity as it was before the modern period. In fact, however, as we shall see, their approach is modern, largely the product of a particular form of 19th and 20th century Protestant theology.”
Sometimes I think we forget that the Bible, as we know it today, did not exist in early Christian times. Those who heard of Jesus years after his death heard about him through oral tradition. The books we now have neatly bound in leather with gold-gilded pages were once tattered manuscripts, scattered about the deserts of the Holy Land. Some were authentic. Some were not. We’ve had to make the best of the hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts we’ve discovered throughout the course of history. Is there any other instance where we take a collection of ancient writings, written by ancient people, and declare that their words must be applied literally to our modern-day lives? I can’t think of one. It is true, these are sacred texts. However, we must remember that the Bible is a human response to the Divine. These writings reveal how they viewed God, within the limiting cultural framework in which they found themselves. They should inspire us to find our own connection with the Creator.
Religion is meant to inspire, and cultivate goodness, holiness, and selflessness. When religion becomes a tool for exclusion, for violence, or for intolerance (yes, even for those who are different from us), then perhaps it is time to re-evaluate what it is we are really seeking. I am of the persuasion that biblical literalism has done a lot more harm than good in our modern age. When we begin to read the Bible as our ancestors did, we may find an uncharted realm of new possibilities.