One Motivation For Literalist Exegesis

There has recently been a little discussion of a Time article, which was discussed by Edward Cook, Michael Pahl, and Cook once more. Interesting discussion. One of the characteristics that Cook originally pointed out was evangelical was literalist exegesis, though Pahl corrected and Cook revised his description.

And they’re right. "Literalist" interpretation as Cook defines it isn’t characteristic of evangelicalism. But it is rather common and is a hallmark of the more classical dispensational thinkers. But few would debate this, I think.

While I was at DTS I had a great deal of interaction with those that would and should probably be lumped into the category of the "literalists." The DTS faculty is somewhat split as far as dispensationalism is concerned. You’ve got the old school, more classical dispensational professors and students who could be included. But you also have the more progressive professors and students who, though they would still hang on to some of the same ideas, actually thought much differently. The more progressive types have realized that the "literal" interpretation method at least needs to supported by other observations, though many would really rather not be seen as using that method at all.

But have you ever wondered what the motivation was for the more literalist camp of thinkers? I’m sure a huge one is historical precedent, as their teachers passed on to them their assumptions. But that is to be expected. Another one that might not be as expected is that literalist exegesis became for them a matter of personal intellectual surety.

I can’t tell you how many times I heard this fallacy, but I heard it from more classically leaning professors and students frequently. If you would talk to one of them about, say, the church as the fulfillment of OT Israel or understanding Revelation preteristically you’d not uncommonly hear something like the following: "If you don’t interpret the Scriptures literally, how could you ever know if what you believe is true?" The idea here is that to interpret things "allegorically" or "spiritually" and not "literally" is to remove any chance of coming to any sure understanding of the text. After all, if two people interpret a text allegorically, and they differ, who is correct? Thus they argue for that type of interpretation based on the perceived inability of being able to come to true knowledge on a matter.

So let’s analyze this for a bit. First of all, as an argument against the right or wrong of not interpreting things literally, we see that this line of thinking isn’t anything more than a logical fallacy. The assumption here is that an hermeneutic which yields more consistent, measurable results is necessarily more correct. But that’s hogwash. It isn’t hard to come up with a very consistent, measurable hermeneutic that doesn’t lead you anywhere. I could, for example, get the ASCII numerical values of all the letters in the English alphabet, use those numbers to calculate the numerical value of every word in the NT, and could then build a very consistent interepretive scheme by saying words of similar numerical value refer to the same theological entity in God’s plan for the world. I could do something like that and make interpretive links between lots of words and verses, but any correspondence between that and reality would simply be accidental. "Clear", or "unambiguous" does not equal true, just as "unclear" and "ambiguous" do not equal false.

So logically it is just a silly argument. But it may not always their logic that is driving them on this point. I think it may be an unconcious desire for a more sure interpretation of existence. After all, who wouldn’t want to remove some ambiguity from life? But that’s not an argument against going a particular interpretive direction; it’s just a sign that you’ve been convinced by someone that ambiguity is something you can get away from.

Sorry. Don’t mean to break this to you. But you can’t. We don’t know everything about our world today. And you know what? We know even less when it comes to documents that are 2000+ years old. And that’s the direction my friends and I had to go at times in conversations. Though we were also quick to point out that a more "literalist" interpretation isn’t what the early church really practiced anyway. I always thought it was funny when professors tried to explain Paul’s exegesis in terms of "literal" interpretation.

But, like it has been said, this is not a problem with all evangelicalism. But it is a problem with a decent portion of it. But, if the trends tell you anything, this will become less and lesson common in evangelical academia, and (hopefull) less common over time among the laity.


Kirk H. Sowell 2005-02-05 06:36:00

On this point I will simply refer you - and your readers - to the second main paragraph of the rebuttal I wrote that you posted dealing with "fundamentalists." To me it seem the most straightforward problem with anyone arguing for either a "literal" or "allegorical" interpretation of the Bible, and I kept thinking that you might make this point in this post. Do you not agree?

Eric Sowell 2005-02-05 06:04:00

Actually, I do agree. I don’t think we should always either be "literal" or "allegorical" as you said in your letter. I was simply trying to point out that THEY do, or at least attempt to do so. So you are correct on how to interpret, because our hermeneutic must be more sophisticated that many would want it to be. But some actually strive to be that way.

So, the guy we were critiquing, and indeed Spong, paints in way too broad of strokes. It’s not that are not any people who fit the bill, so to speak. It’s that they assume all those fundamentalist wackos think that way.

DarthCoder 2005-02-05 06:13:00

I would rather enjoy hearing your description of dispensationalism, and thereby explain, for example, the roles that miraculous events such as speaking in tongues plays in the church today. Leaving this one wide open without putting in my opinion here. Clean slate, your floor.

P.S. really enjoyed the conversation the other night

Eric Sowell 2005-02-05 04:28:00

I enjoyed it as well.

I can sum up my thinking on the issue very easily, though I don’t think I’ll take the time right now to really flesh these out:

1. I think the gift of speaking in tongues was one that allowed someone to speak in other human languages. I do not understand it as unknown tongues, as does the modern charismatic movement.

2. Unlike DTS’s historical position, though, I am not a cessationist. It’s not that I’ve experience gifts of healing or anything like that. It’s just that the biblical arguments for cessationism, in my mind, are weak.