Biblical Literalism & Conservative Values

Sunday, August 31, 2008

It's common for people to link authoritarian conservative values with biblical literalism. I'd say however that the opposite is the case: strict biblical literalism leads away from authoritarian conservative values and towards compassionate redemptive values because (hold onto your hat) authoritarian conservative values are anti-Gospel.

Before I explain what I mean, let me first define biblical literalism. Of course it does not mean taking every part of the Bible literally. It does not mean "in accordance with... the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical". No one thinks for instance that when the Bible describes God as "a rock" that God is literally an inanimate stone composed of minerals. We all get that this is a metaphor. So what does it mean? A literal interpretation of the Bible is "adhering to the primary meanings of a term or expression," the "plain" or "unadorned" meaning. The confusion with the term "literal" is that the meaning of the word has changed over time. It used to mean "plain meaning" and now it means "non-metaphorical"


All biblical literalists interpret the Bible by looking for the plain meaning and intent of the author. So while all get that when David says "My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me" that he is being melodramatic not literal, a literal interpretation would claim that Jesus really did raise from the dead because all indications say that the authors did not intend for this to be taken as a metaphor, but as historical fact. A literal interpretation is all about the intent of the author. When Jesus says to a young man "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor" a literal interpretation would think that he really meant that.


The funny thing is that the verses quoted to back up an authoritarian conservative view of morality - strict adherence to the law, severe punishment as a consequence of transgression, no mercy without payment, a low view of humans as evil, etc - invariably come from the Old Testament. If you read the New Testament literally the clear picture you get is of grace. Its a picture of God loving his enemies, of God coming among us in Christ "not to condemn sinners but to save them." It is a picture of God valuing redemption over retribution, and taking any blame, condemnation, humiliation, and damnation upon himself at Calvary. It is a clear message to us that grace should likewise be our ethic, that love trumps everything, that we should always seek redemption, and rather be wronged than seek an eye for an eye. This is absolutely everywhere throughout the New Testament. The picture is not of a strict Father God who demands unquestioned obedience or responds with corporal punishment, it is the picture of God the Father in the story of the Prodigal son who is so loving that it is humiliating to the older son and to the values people held at the time focused on upholding honor. It was a scandal, and still is, but that amazing shocking counter-intuitive picture of grace is the Gospel, it is the image of God incarnate. Read the New Testament literally, and you get a morality based on grace that is in stark opposition to an authoritarian conservative morality. That morality is described as the sinful flesh, as the way of the world.


Now this does not mean we can simply toss out the Old Testament, but you will not find a conservative theologian who would not agree that the New Testament contains a superior and fuller revelation of God's heart than the Old. All would agree that we read the Old Testament in the light of the New, as seen through the eyes of Jesus. Yes, the OT lays out the basis upon which the fuller revelation of the NT is laid, but that does not means that when Jesus says "you have heard it said... but I say to you" that we can ignore his words. We are followers of Jesus the Christ, not followers of Mosaic law. Grace trumps law.


So if that's the case, why is it that so many evangelicals quote almost exclusively from the Old Testament? It's almost as if they have never even read the New Testament(!). My theory is that this is because most sermons focus on Old Testament narratives. If you go to a conservative church like I do, then I'm sure you've noticed this. Most sermons do not preach out of the New Testament, they preach out of the Old. The reason is that pastors are taught in seminary that narratives preach better, and the Old Testament has lots of narratives. So they tell a story from the Old Testament and connect it with a moral. But half the time these are sub-Christian morals. Why they do not preach a narrative from the Gospels is frankly beyond me... maybe they want to save them for Christmas and Easter. But my prescription is going to sound very traditional: we need better biblical preaching, and we need to read our Bibles, we need to let the way and heart of Jesus sink into our bones, we need to have his eyes to see, have his heart, have his values. And those values, taken literally and strictly, and doing the same with the teachings of the Apostles will not lead to authoritarian conservative values, they will lead to grace. Go literalism!

Labels: , , , ,

SUBSCRIBE AND GET 2 FREE CHAPTERS OF HEALING THE GOSPEL!

7 Comments:

At 6:08 PM, Blogger George said...

You did a terrific job of defining a literal interpretation of scripture, though I know of no Evangelical Christian that follows your definition of "Authoritarian Conservative Values."

I suggest that a Conservative View of Morality would include the personal identification of Sin where it exists, with Grace and Mercy as payment for the repentant believer.

Where folks with conservative view of morality clash with those with "compassionate socialist values" (though I do not see a definition for those terms) is in the area of personal identification and acknowledgment of sin. Which leads to repentance.

We all need Grace.
We all desire Mercy.
But, without the identification of sin in our lives, we live unrepentant, selfish lives and ultimately we are lost.

George

 
At 7:28 PM, Blogger Sharktacos said...

Hi George,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

"I know of no Evangelical Christian that
follows your definition of 'Authoritarian
Conservative Values.'"


I agree that many would not. Perhaps even most. However I can name a few people who would. For example James Dobson advocates the view I describe as "authoritarian conservative". Or to name someone a bit more historical (whom I agree with on most other matters, and am myself deeply influenced by) John Wesley had this view of morality and humanity. (As an aside: I suspect Wesley was abused as a child).

It does bring up some interesting questions though: are Dobson and Wesley in their views of morality, or God, and of humanity the exceptions or the norm?

"Where folks with conservative view of
morality clash with those with 'compassionate socialist values' (though I do not see a definition for those terms) is in the area of personal identification and acknowledgment of sin. Which leads to repentance".


I agree whole heatedly that personal identification and acknowledgment of sin is of vital importance. This is an area where I think liberalism gets it wrong.

I dislike the language of grace as "payment" in your post. The only references I see to "payment" in Scripture refer to ransom or redemption from bondage and slavery. I know of none that speak of "payment" in the sense of payback or retribution.

"We all need Grace.
We all desire Mercy.
But, without the identification of sin in our lives, we live unrepentant, selfish lives and ultimately we are lost."


Amen.

 
At 12:30 AM, Blogger Mark Main said...

I just stumbled across your blog. Great post here. I wish more Christians would understand what you are saying here. Keep it up!

 
At 7:11 AM, OpenID Darin said...

I understand very well what you are saying. You make a good point.

I would only take issue with the idea that things changed from OT to NT. The Jews understood they were saved by grace, it is found in all of their writings between the two testaments. They saw a merciful God.

Our view of the OT is simply influenced by our point in time. Someone living in a world constantly threatened with invasion from the next overlord over who called himself a king, who put bodies on sticks to discourage disobedience, would have seen the stories differently IMO.

 
At 12:44 PM, Blogger Andrew, your friendly Disciple of Christ said...

Hello,
I just recently found this blog while searching for support for an argument I will be engaging in next week on capital punishment. You have hit the nail on the head for my side of the argument, but the other person will be looking for scripture. I know the basic verses that say turn the other cheek and such, but is there any new testament scripture that states that if an idea is presented in the new testament, then it over-rules any contradictory ideas from the new testament. Thanks for your help, and i really enjoyed reading this post.

 
At 3:35 PM, Anonymous shark said...

Hi Andrew,

> is there any new testament scripture that states that if an
> idea is presented in the new testament, then it over-rules any
> contradictory ideas from the new testament.

Well, specifically addressing your issue of capitol punishment, when Jesus is brought the woman caught in adultery, the law commands that she be executed. Jesus instead forgives her. What's more, he does this without her even repenting! After he he has sent her accusers away and forgiven her, then he tells her to repent. So if we are to also practice forgiveness (which we clearly are), then that's some pretty solid evidence that anyone who is a follower of Jesus cannot participate in what Jesus rejected.

It is also significant I think that in the early church if a person wanted to become a Christian who was a soldier or an executioner they would be forced by the church to quit their job first. Hippolytus writes (ca 230 AD)

"A military man in authority must not execute men. If
he is ordered, he must not carry it out... If he refuses, he shall be rejected." (Apostolic Tradition 16:9)

The statements by Jesus with his command to "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemies" all begin with "you have heard it said, but I say unto you" which would imply a correction. Jesus would not think that he is contradicting the Old Testament (he says before that he is "fulfilling" and completing it), but he was contradicting the current interpretation of it that the Pharisees and the priests had. So if the way that Jesus interprets the OT contradicts the way that we interpret the OT (for example we think it advocates capitol punishment, but Jesus when asked rejects capitol punishment) then Jesus trumps us.

Really, the point is one that is standard in orthodox Evangelical theology: Jesus represents the ultimate and perfect representation of God's being and revelation. So we need to understand the Old Testament as Jesus did. I don't think you could find a conservative evangelical theologian who would dispute that. You would of course find quite a few who would be pro capitol punishment. I (as an evangelical myself) think in that they are being inconsistent.

 
At 4:10 PM, Blogger Andrew, your friendly Disciple of Christ said...

Thank you so much,
I feel as if this gives a good foundation for my argument.

I really enjoy what you have written, and look forward to following your future posts.

Once again, Thank you,

Godspeed,
Andrew

 

Post a Comment

<< Home

This website and its contents are copyright © 2000 Derek Flood, All Rights Reserved.
Permission to use and share its contents is granted for non-commercial purposes, provided that credit to the author and this url are clearly given.