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Friday, February 8, 2013

The Danger of Literalism

I saw this yesterday and thought I would mention something about it today.

A man in Tennessee quit his job because he received a W-2 with the number 666 on it.

Setting aside the various textual problems with the number itself, there a few things I wish Christians would keep in mind when reading and applying the Bible.

First, the book of Revelation is Apocalyptic literature.  It doesn't take a lot of studying to figure out almost everything in the book is symbolic or figurative of some other thing.  When and if there is a literal number of the beast, it probably won't actually be 666 -enough said on the particulars of this case.

Second, we absolutely must be aware of different genres in the Bible. This goes for every single book. We can't read a letter the same way we read a psalm or history or love songs or you get the point...

Third, we must leave behind as many of our presuppositions as possible when we come to the biblical text and then apply it to our life.  If God's word is God's word, then it has the power to speak to our lives across every cultural and historical barrier, but we must also allow the text to speak.  Applied to this situation- don't assume that just because something has the number 666 on it that it means the thing is somehow connected to the devil, beast, etc.

Fourth, I really don't think Jesus was a strict literalist in relation to the Bible.  Do I think he obeyed every part of it?- Yes.  Do I think he honored every part of it?- Yes.  Did he take every part literally? No.

This last part is an important point because it differs from the idea of Jesus not being a legalist. Most Christians would easily admit Jesus wasn't a legalist. When they come to the idea of literalism, I know many Christians who practically and actively maintain the literalism of Jesus.

For example, when they look at Jesus applying words from the Pentateuch, they will often want Jesus to be applying them in a literal, straightforward, non-metaphorical way.  This happens until they get to the parts of about the Sabbath (e.g. Mark 2:27). Then all bets are off, at least for a little while.  It doesn't take long for them to return to a strict literalist (or do I mean legalist?) Jesus.

This story about Jesus is pretty dumb- one more reason I don't believe Jesus was a literalist.

Jesus understood things like genre and context.  As Christians, we should too.  If we don't, we will end up misapplying scripture like the man in Tennessee.  When we do that, we miss what God really wants us to be focusing on in his word.

Get in the word. Know the word. Apply the word.   But please don't insist on being a strict literalist.