September 1, 2009

Fundamentalism and Literal Interpretation

The fundamentalists are funny enough, and the funniest thing about them is their name. For, whatever else the fundamentalist is, he is not fundamental. He is content with the bare letter of scripture—the translation of a translation, coming down to him by the tradition of a tradition—without venturing to ask for its original authority.
--G.K. Chesterton: All is Grist

Christian fundamentalists discredit themselves and Christianity in the eyes of non-believers whenever they argue against science using their superficial interpretations of Genesis. The authority for fundamentalism’s biblical exegesis is as tenuous as is their interpretation of a direct creation of heaven and earth in six days.

Just as the fundamentalists are not fundamental, which Chesterton noted, neither are they, as I will argue here, biblical literalists. I will explain my contention in a series of steps.


It is commonplace, as everyone knows, to characterize fundamentalist or creationist interpretations of the Creation accounts in Genesis as a “literal” reading. However, while talking to a Protestant minister, a dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist and former physician, it occurred to me that his “literal” interpretations of Genesis 1-2 were not at all literal. In addition, because his Biblical interpretation determined his “scientific” views about the world, neither does he take science literally. That is, according to the minister, the earth is rather young and any theory of macroevolution is strictly anathema.

Now, the minister holds to the typical creationist view of a “young earth”, a mere 3,000 years old or so, but that God created it to appear much older, 14 billion years or so. Of course, a literal interpretation of the scientific evidence says the universe is about 14 billion years old. However, the minister’s view implies that he does not accept a literal interpretation of the scientific facts because they represent appearances only, of a reality that is much younger.[1]

One must wonder why the Creator would create the universe in such a manner that it would necessarily deceive scientists about its age. The good minister’s God is a trickster of sorts. God is the author of both nature and Scripture, but the truths of science conflict with the truths of the Bible, as interpreted by the fundamentalist.

This creationist inanity follows from (1) not taking as the literal truth what science knows to be the case, and (2) not taking Scripture literally.

Before I explain what I mean by taking Scripture literally, I will note further a couple of reasons fundamentalists misinterpret the creation stories in Genesis. The first reason, which I cannot go into here, is they hold to inadequate and false notions about the nature of Revelation and divine inspiration of the Biblical authors. The second reason, and one that has an integral relation to the first, is fundamentalists do not consider the way in which literature teaches us, or the manner in which various literary genres work. If they happen to understand how various literary genres work, they assume they must apply a very different standard for interpreting the various genres of the Bible than they do with non-Biblical literature.


The fundamentalist presumption in this matter stems from his false understanding of divine inspiration of the sacred writers. Biblical literature is both human and divine and the fundamentalist does not properly grasp the dynamics of inspired composition. Divine inspiration does not eliminate the normal human activities of composition, but works through it.

In regard to the way literature works, both Biblical and non-biblical, not everything an author writes is co-extensive with what he intends to teach. A story has a setting with many details. The details may be factual or not, even so in Biblical literature, but they are not part of the author’s message. In addition, the meaning of a text is dependent on the author’s chosen method of communication. This is especially true with poetic expression.

We cannot ask what a poem means and expect a correct answer. That kind of the question limits the answer with wording alien to the poem itself. The constituents of a poem such as rhyme, rhythm and motion are all part of the various meanings. We cannot separate the poet’s choice words and their particular arrangements in the poem from the poem’s meaning. As one author remarked, it would be like trying to take the dancer out of the dance. We can only talk in a general way about a poem’s meaning. The proper question to ask is “How does a poem mean?"[2]

The Bible contains various types of poetry and many other literary genres. Genesis 1, for example, is a poetic arrangement of God’s creation in six days set in a pre-scientific cosmology. The author intends by it to teach Yahweh’s sanction of the Sabbath as day of rest. The sacred writer has no intention of teaching cosmology or anything scientific about the world. What he does teach is that everything including living creatures owes their existence in some way to the creative power of Yahweh. The sun and moon are not gods or objects of worship, as in other Mesopotamian cultures. Yahweh created the sun and moon, and they are lights to light the day and the night. God is one, there is no evil co-principle, and all that He created is good.

The sacred writer’s message represents a significant theological advance over the false beliefs found in cultures that surrounded and influenced the Hebrews.

Correctly recognizing the genus litterarium, its literary type, character and manner in which it communicates the author’s message, provides the clues for correctly interpreting Scripture and unlocking its deepest mysteries. Fundamentalists or creationists (and many exegetes of the past) are not interpreting the Creation stories literally. Rather, they are interpreting the texts wrongly by not recognizing the exegetical requirements of the genus litterarium. That is, a text is more literally and more precisely understood when the reader adequately recognizes its literary genre.

The Biblical accounts of Adam and Eve are historical aetiology expressed in a poetic form common to the cultural milieu. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden is a look into the distant past to explain why certain current conditions exist with the human race and will continue. The inspired writer did not know all the details of Adam and Eve’s Creation and Fall. Therefore, he expressed his message in figurative terms. Yet these figurative expressions most likely explain more than anyone can teach using precise philosophical terms.

Again, the fundamentalist does not interpret the account of Adam and Eve “literally,” he just interprets it wrongly through his ignorance of the genus litterarium.[3]

A proper interpretation of the Creation stories, one that considers their literary character, poses no contradiction to a moderate theory of biological evolution. Man is a creature of the earth, one who has the capacity to know God. The Fall does explain certain facts about the human condition that we cannot correctly attribute to man’s environment, genetics, or his pre-human ancestry, as some evolutionists are accustomed to doing.

Fundamentalists discredit themselves and Christianity whenever they use their erring Biblical interpretations to challenge what science correctly knows to be the case. St. Augustine warned against the misuse of Scripture by those who lectured the naturalists on natural phenomena. His warning in the fourth century aptly applies to modern fundamentalists.

“It very often happens that there is some question as to the earth and the sky, or the other elements of this world—respecting which one who is not a Christian has knowledge derived from most certain reasoning or observation, and it is very disgraceful and mischievous and of all things to be carefully avoided, that a Christian speaking of such matters as being according to the Christian Scriptures, should be heard by an unbeliever talking such nonsense that the unbeliever perceiving him to be as wide from the mark as east is from west, can hardly restrain himself from laughing.

“And the real evil is not that a man is subjected to derision because of his error, but it is that to profane eyes, our authors (that is to say, the sacred authors) are regarded as having had such thoughts; and are also exposed to blame and scorn upon the score of ignorance, to the greatest possible misfortune of people whom we wish to save. For, in fine, these profane people happen upon a Christian busy making mistakes on the subject which they know perfectly; how, then, will they believe these holy books? How will they believe in the resurrection of the dead and in the hope of life eternal, and in the kingdom of heaven, when, according to an erroneous assumption, these books seem to them to have as their object those very things which they, the profane, know by direct experience or by calculation which admits of no doubt?

“It is impossible to say what vexation and sorrow prudent Christians meet with through these presumptuous and bold spirits who, taken to task one day for their silly and false opinion, and realizing themselves on the point of being convicted by men who are not obedient to the authority of our holy books, wish to defend their so thoughtless, so bold, and so manifestly false. For they then commence to bring forward as a proof precisely our holy books, or again they attribute to them from memory that which seems to support their opinion, and they quote numerous passages, understanding neither the texts they quote, nor the subject about which they are making statement.” [4]

Cardinal Bellarmine, during the Galileo controversy issued a similar warning in the year 1616:

“I say that if a real proof be found that the sun is fixed and does not revolve around the earth, but the earth round the sun, then it will be necessary, very carefully, to proceed to the explanation of the passages of Scripture which appear to be contrary, and we should rather say that we have misunderstood these than pronounce that to be false which is demonstrated.”

Unfortunately, for Charles Darwin Christianity was synonymous with the mistaken interpretation of Genesis 1 as affirming a direct creation in six days. Had Darwin any familiarity with the history of Biblical exegesis he may have realized the manner of interpreting the Creation accounts has significantly varied. For example, the interpretative tradition following St. Augustine and St. Gregory of Nyssa allows for the emergence of new life forms over time, as conditions permitted. I am referring, of course, to St. Augustine’s theological doctrine of the rationes seminales, a more enlightening read than Paley’s natural theology.

To presume that Genesis teaches scientific facts is a failure to read Genesis literally and correctly according to the sacred writer’s intent. The Biblical authors only teach that knowledge which is profitable toward salvation. God left the acquisition of a scientific knowledge of creation to our own initiative and investigation. Accordingly, Pope Leo XIII stated,

“It should be borne in mind, first that the sacred writers, or more truly the Holy Spirit who spoke through them, did not wish to teach men those things (namely, the inmost constitution of visible things) which would be in no wise profitable unto salvation.”

In light of the recent progress made regarding exegetical principles and their application to interpreting Genesis 1-2, there can be little justification at this point in history for fundamentalism’s wrong-headed interpretations of Creation.
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Endnotes:

[1] To believe or “know”, as the fundamentalist does, that reality (the age of the world) is very different from facts most evident to science, smacks of a gnostic mindset. In this case, it is the claim to possession of a privileged knowledge about God’s creative activity. The fundamentalist alone obtains this “knowledge” from his personal interpretation of Genesis.
[2] Cf. How Does a Poem Mean by John Ciardi
[3] Likewise, the fundamentalist misreads the device of religious/theological chronology in Genesis for an historical chronology in the modern sense. He has failed to recognize the genus litterarium and interpret Biblical chronology literally and correctly according to the chronology's type.
[4] De Genesi ad litteram, lib. I, cap. XIX

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