How has Literal Interpretation Changed?

Posted on September 25, 2009 by


Probably the single most important aspect of The Fundamentals was the intense emphasis on the literal interpretation of Scripture. This had a lot to do with the rise of higher criticism in the 19th century, which the fundamentalists reacted to. Almost all of Volume 1 of The Fundamentals is devoted to essays concerning literal interpretation.

I should caution the reader that the views of the early fundamentalists were somewhat incomplete. Remember that they were writing at the turn of the 20th century. Very little was understood about the context of the Old Testament in particular, and even the New Testament was a bit obscure. Palestine and the Middle East were in Ottoman hands and archaeology had not developed many of the tools used to illuminate historical context. Much of the debate about the Bible was based on purely academic observations from both the literalists and the proponents of higher criticism.

Today’s literal interpretation of Scripture does not and should not look like the literal interpretation of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The resources available to the interpreter today are vast. We often have more data and analysis at our finger tips than whole university staffs had a century ago. We are able to lean on archaeological discoveries, manuscript analysis and contextual information that illuminate even the most obscure passages.

With all of that said, what were the main tenants of literalism in The Fundamentals? That is more difficult to answer than you might think. For the most part, The Fundamentals focused on the rejection of higher criticism and not on the exposition of a competing view. The authors assumed that the reader would know what literal interpretation meant. Here are the tenants of literal interpretation as I saw them in The Fundamentals.

  • The Church requires the infallible revelation of God. As James Orr wrote, “There is no disguising the fact that…there is much uneasy and distrustful feeling about the Holy Scriptures.” The writers then set about allaying the uneasiness of the Church and confirming that the Bible was indeed the Word of God. They felt, right or wrong, that criticism of the Bible tore at the belief of inspiration. In Orr’s case, he went about his proof by arguing that there is a necessity of an inspired canon and then shows a need for said canon, followed by proofs that the Bible meets the needs.
  • The Bible internally states that it is inspired. G. Osborne Troop, George Robinson, Dyson Hague and James Orr all wrote articles dealing with the internal cohesion of the Biblical books. Given the time and resources, the writers probably would have analyzed every book of the Bible, but they seem to have contented themselves with writing about the Pentateuch.
  • Archaeology and history confirm the inspiration of Scripture. M. G. Kyle and George Frederick Wright both wrote articles in The Fundamentals arguing that archaeology supports the Biblical claims. Their arguments became the basis of many of the archaeological proofs still presented today.

The question before the modern literalist is whether we can confirm these statements, knowing what we know about the historicity of the Bible. In general, I think we can reaffirm these statements but they do require some clarification.

  • Infallibility now must be understood to include the transmission of the Bible in cultural context. As an example, the Book of Job may not be, as Orr would have argued, a historical document. It is inspired, but it is a morality play of sorts, a work of poetry meant to convey ideas and not historical personages. The same would apply to the possibility of having two distinct creation epics in Genesis 1-2 or the seeming contradictions of the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles. This is not compromising literalism but understanding it better.
  • The internal statements of Scripture still support the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. There is no denying that Jesus believed in a divinely inspired canon and that his belief was confirmed by the apostles. But this inspiration does not have precedents outside of the Scriptures. Human history does not hold that there must be an inspired book. It is the testimony of the Bible itself, which is circular by nature. The Bible claims inspiration but to embrace the Bible’s claims, the reader must already believe it is inspired. We must concede this as a point of faith rather than to try to rationalize it.
  • Archaeology has indeed confirmed Scripture in the abstract but rarely in the details. We have competing records of events and timetables that are out of sync. Archaeology is not a discipline that proves the Bible, only one that confirms the plausibility of its records. Archaeology is not an exact science and should not be treated as such. It is very much subject to something akin to the Heisenberg principle – the state of the observer will often dictate what is observed.

In short, historical literalism can still be espoused based on the same observations. All of the modern scholarship of the texts has certainly shed light on the process of the transmission of Scripture, but it has not weakened the internal testimony of the Scriptures and if anything, it has confirmed the plausibility of the Bible’s accuracy. I should however contend that the Bible’s accuracy cuts both ways. It accurately preserves the words of the original authors, but it also accurately preserves them as the original authors wrote and the original audiences read. This means that Bible does not conform to our modern perception of accuracy. It reports things as they were recorded and not in the modern sense of accurate reporting.

If anything, literalism has become more flexible in the 21st century. We understand oral history, textual composition and transmission, genre and contextual study much better than we did when The Fundamentals were written. The arguments for literal interpretation are strengthened because the Bible is not required to conform to modern tests of accuracy but can show its age. What was taken to be the Bible’s inferiority in the 19th century has become its greatest testament of superiority. It has not been tainted by realignment over the ages but has actually remained in essentially its ancient states. The very things that were once criticized are now its greatest strengths.