What fundamentalists won’t tell you

We’ve all heard the fundamentalists trying to seize the high ground of biblical literalism. What this rhetoric often masks however are two simple truths: (1) that the Old Testament and New Testament differ from each other in important respects, so consequently (2) there is a trade off between biblical literalism and biblical unity whichever way you interpret the Bible.

Reformed Christians, for instance, tend to emphasise the sovereignty of God and the unity of scripture. They suggest the differences between the two testaments are more apparent than real as “God does not contradict himself” and any apparent contradictions can be harmonised when we look deeper. They advise that when one is faced with many clear verses apparently teaching one ethic and few unclear verses apparently teaching another ethic, the benefit of the doubt should be given to the former as being God’s word for us. The clearer scripture relativises the unclearer scripture. There is much merit to this approach I think.

Anabaptist Christians, however, have critiqued this method for its tendency to domesticate the radical teaching of Jesus. For instance, when one is faced with the apparent contradiction between the wars of YHWH in the Old Testament and the “love your enemies” teaching of Jesus in the New Testament, should we allow the former to correct the latter? Or shouldn’t it be the other way around, even when it seems to buck the Old Testament status quo and even when it seems cryptic? Is Jesus not the revelation of God? If so, it is Jesus we should take most literally. Let lesser revelation be relativised. As you may gather, I favour this approach.

Dispensationalist Christians, the fundamentalists, would critique both approaches as insufficiently literal. What about YHWH’s promises to Israel they ask? What about the prophecies? Can you allegorise them away so easily? We should treat New Testament and Old Testament, clear verses and unclear verses with equal seriousness! Superficially this sounds sensible. However, what such a position commits them to is this: they can’t do it without dividing up scripture to an insanely complicated degree and denying the applicability of every scripture to everyone at everytime. Way beyond the simple divide between New Testament and Old Testament. This is what fundamentalists don’t tell you. They affirm different ethics for different “dispensations”. And since Jesus belonged to a past dispensation, his teaching, however literal, in important respects no longer applies for Christians of this dispensation. This is a literalism that casts the literal teachings of Jesus to one side in the name of literalism.

6 thoughts on “What fundamentalists won’t tell you

  1. I’m with you, Matt! The words of Jesus are the lens through which all the rest of scripture is to be interpreted. The Word who is the Way and the Truth and the Life came to show us the Father. It is always best to see Father through the eyes of the Son.


  2. Makes me think that it’s the Spirit of the The Word that makes Christian Scriptures quite unique. I know that it was a council of men who decided what books to keep as the OT and the NT, but I think they did good job of compiling the variety of writings that make up the Bible as we know it.
    I like the idea that the Bible “reads us”, in the sense that the Spirit of the Living God interacts with us in a particular transformative way, if we come to it with humility and willingness to learn. I think there are times when literal interpretations apply and times when allegory is more helpful… just like the normal way we use language to communicate… sometimes literally and sometimes symbolically.
    So, I have “use” for the three viewpoints you mention, Matt.
    I also think that it is good to study several translations and to try to understand the idiom in which the various Scriptures were written in their original languages.
    e.g. Compare Jesus being quoted in Luke 14:26
    in the King James version KJV:
    “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”
    with the Amplified Bible AMP:
    “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his [own] father and mother [[a]in the sense of indifference to or relative disregard for them in comparison with his attitude toward God] and [likewise] his wife and children and brothers and sisters–[yes] and even his own life also–he cannot be My disciple.”
    and with The Message Bible TMB:
    “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple.”
    He obviously isn’t recommending that we disobey the Fourth Commandment in Exodus 20:12
    “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” KJV
    “Regard (treat with honor, due obedience, and courtesy) your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God gives you.” AMP
    “Honor your father and mother so that you’ll live a long time in the land that God, your God, is giving you.” TMB


  3. Lucy, I read a hillarious observation the other day that feeds into this conversation.
    This guy noted that Origen, famous for his self-mutiliatingly literal interpretation of Matthew 19:12 (“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.””) later became the father of allegorical interpretation … presumably having learnt his lesson! DOH!
    Of course I knew Origen’s exploits before, I have just never linked them like that. The truth is, we all pick and choose what we interpret literally and what we interpret figuratively, as did the great poet Jesus himself. The question is, are we picking and choosing in a way that is consistent with the way Jesus did it? Or are we interpreting the Old Testament in a way totally contrary to his way? Instead of interpreting the scriptures our way, we need to learn his way.


  4. What did Jesus actually say? Jonathan, I heartily agree there were “things Jesus said that were not recorded” as the Bible itself affirms its account is less than exhaustive. For instance, the gospel of John observes “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” And again “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” It is implied however that it is sufficient for readers to get the gist of things.
    This is also how I would approach the claim that some of the Biblical accounts miss the mark or deliberately distort the story to serve the political agendas of the authors and their communities. Apart from the fact such claims are subject to dispute even amongst scholars, and that the more skeptical scholars apply almost as much skepticism to each other’s alternative accounts as they do to the biblical account, and that institutionalization of the church took much longer than the composition of the texts, there is a deeper issue. That is, even allowing for creative licence in a world which knew nothing of our tape recorder mentality, there is a remarkable degree of consistency across a multitude of texts over the core narrative and the core themes. Jesus died as he lived, oozing faith, hope and love, irrepressably so. We may exercise considerable interpretive gymnastics to avoid the implications of this but there’s no getting away from it: lovelessness and faithlessness are difficult to reconcile with any claim to be following his way. What did he say? Trust deep, Love hard. This is sufficient to get the gist of things.


  5. it’s probably something you already know of, but i think an understanding along the lines of mark strom’s ‘symphony of scripture’ helps eradicate a lot of construed inconsistency across the testaments. way too much to sum up here, but i think that is also a lot of the problem – christians who want soundbyte answers and a memory verse approach to life.


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