How to Avoid the Literalist Trap

by Steve Kindle

It is said that the Bible can be used to prove anything. We’ve got all sorts of millennialists, faith healers, prosperity preachers, last days theorists, and even flat-earthers., just to name a few. They all claim biblical authority and will painstakingly point out why. There are Pentecostals (Jimmy Swaggart), anti-Pentecostals (John MacArthur), Restorationists, Calvinists, and Independents. Just to stay within the largely Protestant world. What’s to account for all this diversity?

Anais Nin put it this way. “We don’t see the world as it is. We see it as we are.” Humanity is one of the most unhomogenized groups in existence. Like snowflakes, no two are alike. The forces that come together to make a thinking person are so varied that it’s no wonder we can’t see things the way they are. We see them the way we see them, and like no one else. Add to this the psychological impediment called “confirmation bias” (we find what we’re looking for), and, understandably, disagreements will abound.

Given all this, what can be done about it? Jesus’ prayer that “they all may be one,” seems to be an impossibility in our time or any time. We are often admonished that we should all agree to the essentials and allow for private interpretation on the non-essentials. Yet, we have not found a way to agree on what the essentials are. If the creeds are to establish them, they are open to a variety of interpretations that nevertheless continue to divide. 


Let’s first admit that every one of us is culpable to one degree or another. No one can escape the human predicament of our unique view of the world. The difference, it seems to me, between those who are doggedly determined to forever camp on a position and those who find their position evolving over time, is the presence or lack of critical thinking. The noted journal, the Christian Century, has for decades featured some of the greatest thinkers of their day in a feature called, “How My Mind Has Changed.” Humility, tentativeness, and the ability to reevaluate are characteristics they have in common.

Critical thinking in its basic sense is the ability to evaluate the evidence. Critical thinking doesn’t always get it right, but it can clarify the issues so others may continue the process.

The greatest enemy to critical thinking is literalism. Literalism is born of the mistaken notion that what a word means is limited to what it means to the literalist, and in its most basic sense. It is content to stick with first impressions and live on the surface of the text. There is no need to dig deeper because the meaning is self-evident. Literalism isn’t thinking, it is reacting. If any document demands critical eyes, it’s the Bible. That’s why God gave us brains!


It’s a dangerous thing to hand someone a Bible who has never read much of it before. The tendency is to take the words literally. Pastors who work with new Christians constantly deal with undoing literal first impressions. “The Bible says that the world was created in six days. I guess that proves evolution wrong.” Or, “I’m divorced and adultery wasn’t involved, and I married again. I guess I’m living in sin.” And, “I see that Paul said all homosexuals are going to hell. Why does our church support them?” Critical thinking can shed light on all these first impressions., and we need it to do so. If we don’t, the church will continue to suffer from literalist myopia. If we do inform our congregations of the results of 200 years of critical biblical research, the church will finally leave the 4th century and enter our own. 
                                 SEE BELOW FOR ONE WAY TO BEGIN


Interested in a Progressive Bible study? Meet with us on Zoom

Our first session will look at more of these ASTONISHING texts as we search for answers to what the Bible is and how it makes sense in the 21st century

WHEN: We meet once a month for an hour on the first Monday of each month at 4:00 pm PDT beginning in April 2021

WHERE: In a Zoom meeting (We’ll send you a link)

WHAT: Our focus is on how Progressive, post-modern insights combined with critical scholarship inform the meaning of the Bible

FOR WHOM: It’s for those who are uneasy with conventional Christianity and are looking for something more. We pull no punches.

HOW: If you sign up on the form below, you will receive a link and a preparation guide for each session.


Become a part of our Zoom Bible Study

We want this to be a safe place for inquiry and discussion. All are welcome and encouraged to participate. You will receive a reminder email a day or two before the class with the link and suggestions to prepare. I look forrward to being with you.

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