Unyielding Literalism: You Reap What You Sow

The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man, Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Jen Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625)

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’m exposed to more than my fair share of interpretive incoherence because I’m known on the Internet for my paranormal fiction and for blogging on strange things people believe about the Bible and the ancient world. But that earlier [post] was about how historical circumstances produced challenges to biblical veracity and authority. Unfortunately, sometimes Bible believers have no one but themselves to blame for making the content of Scripture seem utterly absurd.

Recently, I’ve had the dispiriting experience of fielding several emails asking me to inject some sanity into the new flat earth movement circulating among Christians. Yes—you read that correctly: there’s a growing cadre of “Bible teachers” busily contending for the faith by teaching their followers (in church and online) that the Bible requires us to believe the earth is flat.

This idea is related to another “Bible fact” that is experiencing a revival: geocentrism, the idea that the earth is the center of our solar system, not the sun. “Biblical geocentrism” is based on the hyper-literal interpretation of verses like Psalm 104:5 (the sun and other planets must revolve around the earth since the earth cannot be moved).

Now, I know what you’re thinking. What about space travel? Satellites sent into orbit that enable (dare I say) global communication? Airline flight patterns that use the curvature of the earth to cheat passengers out of extra frequent flyer miles (okay, maybe that isn’t the carrier’s motivation)? The truth is these are conspiracies contrived by people who hate the Bible. That’s what science does … [it] makes up lies to cover up the fact that the Bible has the truth about how God created the earth.

Sigh.

Sanctified brainwashing

By what process of hermeneutical alchemy is all this possible? It’s actually pretty simple: hyper-literalism. The sanctified flat-earthers have blindly presumed that the Bible’s prescientific cosmology—which is well known to Old Testament scholars—has to be taken as a literal reality that trumps basic science (and human experience) or else biblical inspiration and inerrancy have to be rejected. This thinking is deeply flawed.

The Bible’s prescientific cosmology is what it is because God decided to prompt people who lived in a prescientific age to produce the books of the Bible, not because the earth is really round and flat with a solid dome over it. The flat-earthers and geocentrists sort of skip the dome part, unless they deny the lunar landings and the existence of the international space station. God didn’t ask the people he picked to be something they weren’t (modern scientists who understood celestial mechanics). He prompted them via his Spirit to tell some important truths: all we know was created by God—including us—and so we are accountable to him and dependent on him for life beyond this terrestrial existence.

The biblical writers didn’t need a modern science education to communicate, through their own worldview frame of reference and symbolic metaphors well known throughout the ancient world (their cultural context), who the true Creator was and why it mattered. That’s taking the Bible for what it is and interpreting it in light of its own context, not ours. But too many Christians have been brainwashed into thinking that absolute, uncompromising literalism is a synonym for believing in inspiration and inerrancy. It isn’t—and never has been throughout the entire history of believing Christianity.

Literalism as idolatry

I’ve been a Christian for 35 years. For most of that time, my church context has been either fundamentalism (my early years as a believer) or, what I’ll call for convenience, popular evangelicalism that divorces itself from a reformed or creedal heritage. Both of those Christian subcultures exalt the “literal” interpretation of the Bible, especially when it comes to creation and prophecy. Granted, the notion that the Bible teaches a flat earth isn’t common to those contexts. But over-emphasis on biblical literalism has a cost. Literalism can become idolatry. During my teaching career I’ve had students espouse a number of preposterous Bible teachings, among them:

  • Babies are really stored in a man’s sperm (the Hebrew word for “seed” [zrʿ] refers to children and is never used of women); genetics is a lie (Gen 13:16; zrʿ = offspring)
  • The Bible teaches teleportation (Acts 8:39–40)
  • Flying saucers are piloted by angels (Ezek 1; Zech 5:5–8)
  • Animals could talk in Eden (Gen 3)

I could extend the list, but I think you get the point. But here’s a point that’s less obvious that you might miss: when we unquestioningly teach Bible students that literalness is next to godliness, we teach them to think poorly.

Don’t believe me? Read on.

What does ‘literal’ mean, anyway?

Many readers have heard the old bromide in defense of literal Bible interpretation: “When the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.” It’s pithy. If you don’t think too much about it, it might even sound like it makes sense. It’s actually not helpful.

It might sound odd, but “literal interpretation” needs to be interpreted. The meaning is far from clear. Consider the word “water.” What does it “literally” mean? Is it a noun or a verb? In either case, what exactly is its “plain sense”? Here are some options. As a noun, “water” can be:

  • a chemical compound (H2O)
  • a liquid beverage (“I’d like some water”)
  • a natural body of water (“look at all that water”), but which kind?
  • an ocean
  • a sea
  • a lake
  • a pond
  • a river
  • a stream
  • a creek
  • an inlet

As a verb, “water” can mean:

  • to irrigate (“water the fields”)
  • to provide hydration (“he watered the cattle”)
  • to salivate (“my mouth watered”)
  • to cry (“his eyes watered”)

So which of the above is the “literal” meaning? Which one is the “plain” meaning? That’s the point. They’re all plain. What distinguishes them is context and metaphor. Things get even more interesting when you move into metaphorical meanings for water—and metaphorical meaning can be exactly what context requires. “Water” can be used metaphorically for a life source, purification, transformation, motion, or danger. The metaphors work because of the physical properties of water—and still describe real things.

Non-literal doesn’t mean “not real.”

And as the saga of sanctified geocentrism tells us, devotion to literalism won’t necessarily produce accurate—or even coherent—Bible interpretation.

***

why is the bible hard to understandThis article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book The Bible Unfiltered.

Dr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and Angels: What the Bible Really Says about God’s Heavenly Host.

His newest book, The World Turned Upside Down: Finding the Gospel in Stranger Things, is now on pre-order.

He’s taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this article. I had a small group one day a while ago and a guy was asking questions about “flat earth”. It threw me off as to where he was getting his information. The idea of aliens was also part too. The best answer I could say was “no matter how you want God to be he will still be God”.

  2. I’ve run into some of these flat earthers who appealed to your teaching about prescientific cosmology in the Bible to argue their position. My response was to question whether the Bible writers actually held to a prescientific cosmology. I’ve found the work of Poythress and Averbeck illuminating here. Even in a prescientific world people knew that rain came from clouds rather than from windows opening in a solid dome called heaven.

    I think one of the problems of the prescientific cosmologies that have been proposed is that moderns think that ancients took these images more literally than they did themselves. Windows of heaven was metaphorical for them–not a literal description of their cosmology.

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