Biblical literalism

Biblical literalism

Biblical literalism (also called Biblicism or Biblical fundamentalism) is the interpretation or translation of the explicit and primary sense of words in the Bible.[1][2] A literal Biblical interpretation is associated with the fundamentalist and evangelical hermeneutical approach to Scripture, and is used almost exclusively by conservative Christians.[3] The essence of this approach focuses upon the author's intent as the primary meaning of the text.[4]

Literal interpretation does place emphasis upon the referential aspect of the words or terms in the text. It does not, however, mean a complete denial of literary aspects, genre, or figures of speech within the text (e.g., parable, allegory, simile, or metaphor).[5] Also literalism does not necessarily lead to total and complete agreement upon one single interpretation for any given passage.

There are two kinds of literal interpretation, letterism and the more common historical-grammatical method. Letterism attempts to uncover the meaning of the text through a strict emphasis upon a mechanical, wooden literalism of words. This approach often obscures the literary aspects and consequently the primary meaning of the text.[6] The historical grammatical method is a hermeneutic technique that strives to uncover the meaning of the text by taking into account not just the grammatical words, but also the syntactical aspects, the cultural and historical background, and the literary genre.

Fundamentalists and Evangelicals sometimes refer to themselves as "literalists" or Biblical literalists. Sociologists also use the term in reference to conservative Christian beliefs which include not just literalism but also inerrancy. Often the term Biblical literalism is used as a pejorative to describe or ridicule the interpretative approaches of fundamentalist or evangelical Christians.[7][8][9]


Clarity of scripture

The vast majority of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians hold that scripture is perspicuous, or that the basic meaning and teachings of Scripture are clear enough to be understood by the average person. It refers to the product (teachings of Scripture) rather than the process of interpretation itself (Exegesis). Martin Luther distinguished between external and internal aspects within the Clarity of scripture. External clarity concerns the principles of hermeneutics (including grammatical aspects) and guidance into understanding through the process of interpretation. The internal clarity concerns illumination of the believer—that is, guidance into understanding by the Holy Spirit.[10]

So clarity of scripture does not mean that no interpretation principles are necessary, or that there is no cultural gap between scripture and today. Instead exegesis and interpretation principles are utilized as part of the process to close the cultural gap in striving to understand. What the clarity of scripture does deny is that the Bible is a code to decipher, or that it cannot be understood apart from complex academic analysis as is typical in the Historical-critical method of interpretation.[11]

Literalism vs. Inerrancy and grammatical-historical

Biblical literalists believe that, unless a passage is clearly intended as allegory, poetry, or some other genre, the Bible should be interpreted as literal statements by the author. Who may appropriately decide when a passage is allegorical or literal, however, is not defined. Fundamentalists typically treat as simple history, according to its plain sense, such passages as the Genesis account of creation, the Deluge myth and Noah's ark, and the unnaturally long life-spans of the Patriarchs given in genealogies of Genesis, as well as the strict historicity of the narrative accounts of Ancient Israel, the supernatural interventions of God in history, and Jesus' miracles.[12][13] Literalism does not question that parables, metaphors and allegory exist in the Bible, but rather relies on contextual interpretations based on the author's intention.[14]

As a part of Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,[15] conservative Christian scholarship affirms the following:

WE AFFIRM the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text. WE DENY the legitimacy of any approach to Scripture that attributes to it meaning which the literal sense does not support.

Noted inerrantist Norman Geisler in his commentary on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics states:

The literal sense of Scripture is strongly affirmed here. To be sure the English word literal carries some problematic connotations with it. Hence the words normal and grammatical-historical are used to explain what is meant. The literal sense is also designated by the more descriptive title grammatical-historical sense. This means the correct interpretation is the one which discovers the meaning of the text in its grammatical forms and in the historical, cultural context in which the text is expressed.[14]

Pejorative use

Conrad Hyers, professor of comparative religion at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, criticized biblical literalism as "a mentality [that] manifests itself [not] only in conservative churches, private-school enclaves, television programs of the evangelical right, and a considerable amount of Christian bookstore material; one often finds a literalist understanding of Bible and faith being assumed by those who have no religious inclinations, or who are avowedly antireligious in sentiment. Even in educated circles the possibility of more sophisticated theologies... is easily obscured by burning straw effigies of biblical literalism."[16]

Steve Falkenberg, professor of religious psychology at Eastern Kentucky University, says, "I've never met anyone who actually believes the Bible is literally true. I know a bunch of people who say they believe the Bible is literally true but nobody is actually a literalist. Taken literally, the Bible says the earth is flat and sitting on pillars and cannot move (Ps 93:1, Ps 96:10, 1 Sam 2:8, Job 9:6). It says that great sea monsters are set to guard the edge of the sea (Job 41, Ps 104:26)..." [17]

See also


  1. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language Houghton Mifflin; 4 edition (September 14, 2000) defines literalism as "1. Adherence to the explicit sense of a given text or doctrine. 2. Literal portrayal; realism."
  2. ^ Elwell, Walter A. (1984). Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House. ISBN 0801034132.  p. 643
  3. ^ Beyond Biblical Literalism and Inerrancy: Conservative Protestants and the Hermeneutic Interpretation of Scripture, John Bartkowski, Sociology of Religion, 57, 1996.
  4. ^ Elwell Evangelical Dictionary, Walter A. Elwell, Baker Publishing Group, May 1996, ISBN 0-8010-2049-2
  5. ^ Ryrie, Charles Caldwell (1995). Dispensationalism (Rev. and expanded ed.). Chicago: Moody Press. pp. 224. ISBN 0802421873.  p. 81
  6. ^ Ramm, Bernard (1970). Protestant Biblical Interpretation. Baker Book House. ISBN 0801076005.  p.48
  7. ^ Laurence Wood, 'Theology as History and Hermeneutics', (2005)
  8. ^ George Regas, 'Take Another Look At Your Good Book', Los Angeles Times, February 3, 2000
  9. ^ Dhyanchand Carr, 'Christian Council of Asia: Partnership in Mission, Conference on World Mission and the Role of Korean Churches, November 1995
  10. ^ Osborne, Grant R (2006). The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. InterVarsity Press. ISBN 0830828265.  p. 27
  11. ^ Zuck, Roy B (1991). Basic Bible Interpretation. Wheaton, Ill: Victor Books. pp. 324. ISBN 0896938190.  p. 26
  12. ^ Lewis on Miracles, Art Lindsley, Knowing & Doing; A Teaching Quarterly for Discipleship of Heart and Mind: C.S. LEWIS INSTITUTE, Fall 2004
  13. ^ The History and Impact of the Book, The Genesis Flood, John C. Whitcomb, Impact, Number 395, May 2006
  14. ^ a b Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics With commentary by Norman L. Geisler, Reproduced from Explaining Hermeneutics: A Commentary on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, Oakland, California: International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, 1983.
  15. ^ The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1997)
  16. ^ Hyers, Conrad "Biblical Literalism: Constricting the Cosmic Dance", Christian Century, August 4–11, 1982, p. 823.
  17. ^ Falkenberg, Steve Biblical Literalism, New Reformation, 2002.

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