Two weeks ago, I offered four good reasons not to read the Bible literally. Granted, there are some who think that reading it literally is the only way to take the Bible seriously. Let me provide an alternative way of thinking about it.
Bible scholar John Dominic Crossan puts it very provocatively: “My point is not that ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.” He’s not alone in his point of view; many other mainstream scholars agree.
Part of the historical background has to do with a radical shift that took place about 350 years ago in the way we think about “truth” and “facts”. We call this the Enlightenment, which saw the rise of the scientific method. Only those facts which could be verified by human reason and observation would be considered true.
Leading thinkers distinguished between “values” and “facts”. Values were things one may believe but can’t prove, while facts were things one can prove. For these early modernists, both values and facts represented claims about truth, but it was like comparing apples and oranges. They were different categories of truth.
Over time, the scientific method won the day; it wasn’t long until truth was associated almost exclusively with facts which could be proven.
The preference for facts over values created a crisis for many religious traditions. Biblical scholars came to realize that ancient Biblical ways of understanding the world could not withstand scientific scrutiny. For example, the world was not created in six literal days; the sun does not revolve around the earth; heaven is not “up”. The Bible does not provide historical and scientific information as we understand it today.
This crisis led to a great schism in Christianity, each side assuming that truth is equated unequivocally with facts. Liberal scholars concluded that because the Bible was not factually accurate, it was not true. On the other hand, conservatives asserted that since the Bible was obviously true, therefore it must be factually accurate. So they wrote massive tomes trying to defend the factual truth of the Bible.
Both sides miss the point. The Bible is not a science or history book. It is a library of different types of literature whose purpose is not to prove anything, but to persuade people of the truth.
Let me give two examples. At the beginning of Luke’s gospel, the author says that he is not an eye–witness to the events he recounts; he depends on multiple other stories about Jesus. He writes “an orderly account” so that his audience may believe and trust the teaching they have received (Luke 1:1–4). Similarly, John comes clean at the end of his gospel that he has carefully arranged stories of Jesus so as to persuade his readers that Jesus is the messiah (John 20:30–31).
The gospels do not seek to prove; their purpose is to persuade. This is true of the whole of Scripture. The Bible seeks to persuade people of the truth of its witness. It is not filled with scientific or historical facts. It is a collection of poems, letters, songs, stories, gospels which are written as testimony, witness, confession, and even propaganda.
Does it contain some reliable historical information? Of course. There is little doubt of that. But this information is intended not to make a logical argument but rather to persuade people of a larger “truth” that cannot be proved in a laboratory but is finally accepted or not accepted based on its ability to offer a compelling vision about the meaning and purpose of the world—God and humanity, and everything in between.
I think that kind of truth is much bigger, even more important, than facts. Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for facts when it comes to doing my taxes, fixing my car, or boiling water, but when it comes to the things that mean the most to me, facts fall a little short.
When it comes to things like the meaning of life, the power of love, the importance of faith, and such things—we simply can’t “prove” any of it. When it comes to the things that really matter to us—those things we call True (with a capital T), facts aren’t enough. Those things are about how the story has an impact on our lives, and we simply cannot dissect that in a laboratory or prove it for someone else.
All we can do is witness to the truth that we experience. And that is the kind of truth that I think the Bible offers us.
Does it help us make sense of our lives? Does it help us know the world a little more deeply? Does it help me discern how God might be involved in the world and in our lives? Those are the questions of faith, and each of us answers them for ourselves.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook