james mcgrath on our shifting view of literalism and reality in the bible

Dr. James McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University

Dr. James McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University

Dr. James McGrath had an interesting post on his Exploring Our Matrix blog recently. In it, he argues that no one (if they’re honest) really believes that the God of the Bible exists anymore.

I’ll repost the argument at length here:

The title of this post is not a complaint; it is merely an observation. No one confronts the representatives of another tradition with a contest to see which one’s deity will send fire from heaven as Elijah did. No Christian blogger claims that those who comment negatively will be struck with blindness for doing so, as apostles did. God is depicted in many parts of the Bible as knocking down city walls, parting seas and so on. Yet no Christian dominionists are likely to march around Washington D.C. and see it fall into their hands.

Those who claim they “believe the whole Bible” and “take it literally” are being dishonest. Their pastor may have preached recently on the story of the fall of Jericho, but it was applied to God “making the strongholds of sin in your come life crumbling down”, not to a battle plan to take a city.

To be fair, not all Biblical authors view God in the same way. And so there is no single “Biblical view of God”. But certainly God as depicted in some parts of the Bible is not the concept of the deity served by Christians today.

The question a Christian needs to ask is whether they have the courage to admit that their view of God is not the same as that of many depictions in the Bible. Do you have the courage to take the Bible’s actual words completely seriously, even when the result is that you are forced to acknowledge that you do not accept their literal truthfulness?

Let me end with a couple of thought-provoking quotes from Don Cupitt’s book, which I just finished reading:

“The Virgin Mary may cure many people in Portugal but she is much less active in Libya, whereas vaccination and inoculation are observably beneficial – and equally beneficial – in both cultures, the local religion in the end making no difference at all” (Don Cupitt, Taking Leave of God, p.123).

“To put it bluntly, classical Christianity is itself now our Old Testament…We have to use traditional Christianity in the same way as Christianity itself has always used the Old Testament. In both cases there is a great gulf but there is also continuity of spirit and religious values…When a Christian sings a psalm he knows there is a religion-gap and a culture-gap, but it does not worry him because he believes his faith to be the legitimate successor of the faith of the psalmist. Similarly, since the Enlightenment there has developed a religion-gap and a culture-gap between us and traditional Christianity, but we may still be justified in using the old words if we can plausibly argue that our present faith and spiritual values are the legitimate heirs of the old” (Don Cupitt, Taking Leave of God, p.135).

I agree. The truth is that any Christians who claim to interpret the Bible literally would be no different from the very sharia law fundamentalists they so vehemently criticize in Islam. Likewise, few actually believe that God actually works in those same ‘mysterious’ (read: literal, vindictive, destructive, directly miraculous, genocidal) ways anymore. Yet, if you ask Christians today how many of them believe in a ‘literal, inerrant, infallible’ Bible, that percentage would be quite high, especially among Evangelicals.

All of this is to say that anyone being halfway honest must admit that 1) we can’t read the Bible literally, and 2) our views of God are significantly different today than in the first Christian century, in spite of any myth among particular religious denominations that we believe and practice exactly what and how the early church believed and practiced.

7 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing this with your readers!

  2. of course. it was a well-made point.

  3. [I wanted to respond to this on McGrath’s blog, but apparently I’m unable.]

    James McGrath sounds a bit like Bultmann here.

    If McGrath thinks that *nobody* (or even just a *few*) believe that God still does these things *literally*, then he is out of touch with modern American piety. He should turn on Christian television. Most of those that he’ll see there *do* believe that these sort of things can happen today. And among those who disagree with those folks, one of the largest contingents will be those whose disagreement is grounded in their cessationist commitments, rather than in any sort of removal from a literal view of the God of the Bible. The only reason cessationists don’t believe God will send fire down from heaven is that they’re cessationists, so I’m not sure they qualify as “nonbelievers” in that sort of God.

    I would say that millions and millions of Americans believe exactly the way McGrath says that they don’t.

  4. John, I’m not sure why you couldn’t comment, but please do let me know (perhaps by e-mail) what didn’t work, so that I can try to get it fixed. You not being able to comment is not an acceptable situation!

    As for your point, I think that even the so-called literalists do not seek prophetic help to fix poisoned recipes, try to part rivers rather than taking a boat, or tell crippled people to get up and walk. Granted, even in the Bible those who do such things seem to be exceptional. But I think that in most churches even the exceptional don’t view things in this way, and the extreme cases of people who rely wholly on faith and shun medical help tend to make tragic headlines.

  5. Great post! I have been exploring Christianity lately – modern vs roots – and have come to a very similar conclusion… this, together with the kinda anthropological discussion of cosmology from the other day… right in line with what I’m thinking. So question – are there any organized Christian sects or denominations that think along these lines? The “literal, inerrant, infallible” approach wore thin a while ago.

  6. Interesting. This is something I am working through in my life as well. I am curious Dr. Cargill and everyone for that matter.
    If we don’t accept the Bible as litreal, inerrant and infallible then what do we have to stand on? But not accepting inerrant view doesn’t that open the door for all kinds of different teachings? Is believing that Jesus is the God of the Old Testament possible? (In the sense of the trinity)

  7. bob, i’d argue the opposite: belief (or the attempt to follow) in the literal teaching of the bible is impossible. the only way is to reject fundamentalism and literalism, and interpret the text of the bible thematically – be kind to others, don’t use violence, give to others, etc.

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