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The Secular Nature of Biblical Literalism

By Ed Watson


The letters which begin chapters in  Makoto Fujimara' s illuminated  Four Gospels  (displayed at Yale Divinity School).

The letters which begin chapters in Makoto Fujimara's illuminated Four Gospels (displayed at Yale Divinity School).

I think I'm correct in saying that, in public consciousness at least, the greatest controversies between Christianity and secular society seem to come down to arguments between the Bible and humanity's own discovered truths. I'm thinking here of such frequently rehearsed debates as Genesis vs science, or Paul/The Torah vs movements for LGBTQ and gender equality.  To paint in the broadest of strokes, in both cases we have on the one side the faithful who represent the Biblical view, on the other scientists and social activists representing human reason and compassion.  

I am not interested in rehashing these debates. I am interested instead in exploring the nature of the position taken by those claiming to represent the Biblical point of view.  Specifically, I am interested in exploring the position of those who argue, from a belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture, for a view of Scriptural inerrancy which then grounds Biblical Literalism (I don't think I'm sketching non-existent straw-men here; they may be straw-men, but a quick Google search is enough to demonstrate their pervasive existence, as well as their frankly terrifying influence).  

My belief is that the position of Biblical Literalism is just as secular in nature as those it inveighs against. I believe that those who hold it rely upon the same premises as those whom they accuse of sacrilegious abrogation of divine sovereignty. I believe that the proponents of Biblical Literalism are engaged in rebellion against God, and especially against the authority of the Word of God in Scripture.  These beliefs are not original, and probably not all that controversial.  They are, however, new to me, and so I thought it worth setting out some of the thought behind them.  

I am going to rely throughout this piece on the work of Karl Barth and Ludwig Wittgenstein (I'm also going to try and keep things as non-technical as possible, so please don't be absolutely put off by these famously abstruse and inaccessible names!). This might seem surprising: after all, Wittgenstein barely wrote a word on Biblical exegesis (though he did write some: e.g. Culture and Value, 31), whilst the authority of Scripture as the Word of God stands right at the centre of Barth's Dogmatics.  All the same, I think that they can, when taken together, provide a simple and clear argument for the secular nature of Biblical Literalism. 


We begin with a particular notion of machinery.  Wittgenstein was not the biggest fan of the place of machines in society, and he frequently despaired of the fact that industrialisation and mechanisation were seen as signs of progress.  More importantly, however, his later writings were aggressive attempts to argue against the view that words ideally function like machines. 

What does this mean?  As referred to here, a machine is something which has a concrete, constant, and prescribed function (as long as it's working properly!): so long as you use it correctly, you'll always get the same (correct) result.  So, for example, if you type 2+2 into a calculator, you'll get 4; if you turn the key in a car, the engine will ignite; if you scroll down on your computer, the words you're looking at right now will move up the screen.  There is, Wittgenstein believes, a view that properly defined words must of necessity function in this same way (or, more precisely, that the fact they don't is a defect of our language which needs to be remedied).  Under this view, if you say a word correctly then it will/should serve to mechanically communicate a specific meaning.  

A great cartoon from  Paul Noth , riffing off Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit.

A great cartoon from Paul Noth, riffing off Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit.

Now, this view is obviously not entirely false: words quite often do work in just this way and it's obviously not always great when they don't.  What Wittgenstein argued against, however, was the idea that the performance of this function was therefore the essence of language; that the fact that words often do function in this way entails that it is either possible or desirable that they should always do so.  He argued that the life of language was far more diverse, and more importantly fallible, than the ideal put forward by this mechanistic picture.  Specifically, he argued that the 'output' of a word in language is not and cannot be predetermined in the way that the output of a well built machine is; that, for many reasons, even the most precise statements carry the possibility of ambiguity insofar as they can be correctly employed in different and (sometimes) divergent ways (sometimes even in the same sentence).  Most importantly, he did not believe that this was a defect of language; rather, he believed that it was a proper reflection of the fact that language arises out of our living in this world, and that both our lives and the world we live in are intrinsically messy

How does all this relate to Biblical Literalism?  In two ways: first off, Wittgenstein believed that the effects of this messiness pertain to all languages.  He most famously said this of the languages of mathematics, but it is also true of the languages of Scripture.  Second, because he believed that human attempts to overcome this messiness were attempts to lay claim to a 'forms of expression... tailored for a god.'  'For us, however,' he goes on to write, 'these forms of expression are like vestments, which we may put on, but cannot do much with, since we lack the effective power that would give them point and purpose.' (Philosophical Investigations, 426.)  This is not just a matter of language: it is a matter of our presuming to claim a power which we simply do not possess.  In this, Wittgenstein identified the impulse towards these kinds of ideal languages with the stereotypical impulse of the Enlightenment to survey and subdue creation by mechanising it in the name of man's truth and man's light. 

We come now to the crucial point in relation to Biblical Literalism.  Biblical Literalism relies upon this self same picture of an ideally mechanised language: for there to be a 'literal' interpretation of a Biblical passage, there must be a rigid, eternal deposit of meaning contained within it which the correct application of mechanised language both can and will unearth.  This correct application, meanwhile, is correct interpretation, and this correct interpretation is a gift of grace given to those who have faith (that same faith which, by the by, is usually unearthed...).  In the hands of a Biblical Literalist, the Bible thus becomes a machine. It becomes a machine of ideally rigid outputs, all the more rigid because there is no apparent room for human input.  Despite this, however, any divergence in interpretation can only be because the reader is misusing the Bible; and the only way that this can be possible is if they have closed their minds to the truth of God's sovereignty.

According to Wittgenstein, however, this view of Biblical language is not only false from the start since it relies on a false picture of language, but also contains within itself the same idolatrous impulse which Biblical Literalists accuse secular society of: to subdue all before it by mechanical means.  Biblical Literalists say that they know the truth of the Spirit as it is given in the (mechanical) Biblical word: Wittgenstein's retort, however, is that 'you cannot lay hold of the spirit with a machine.' (Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, 3-81)


Now, this argument alone might not seem to pose much of a problem from the Biblical Literalist point of view: after all, from that perspective Wittgenstein was a man lost in sin who never committed himself to Christ as his risen Lord and Saviour.  What, then, could he have to say (even indirectly) about the inviolable authority of Scripture?  And even if his philosophy were true of most language, Biblical language is different: it is inspired by God Himself, and so immune to the criticisms of a mere human being.  

Enter Karl Barth.  Barth was adamant that Scripture stood at the head of the Church in a position of authority.  It could not be made subject to either tradition or reason; rather, both must constantly find their measure in the Word of God as spoken through Scripture.  He is not, then, someone that I would have necessarily expected to launch a scathing invective on Biblical Literalism.  Yet not only does he launch such an invective: he launches it for remarkably similar reasons to Wittgenstein, and also because he believed Scripture had to have authority over the Church.  

We should begin by noting that Barth's account of the Bible is Christological; he believed that just as Christ was very God and very man at the same time, and that Christ's humanity remained humanity because of His divinity, so too the Word of God which speaks through Scripture speaks through a human word which remains a human word. In Barth's own words: just as 'we necessarily allow for inherent differences [between Christ's human and Christ's divine nature], it is exactly the same with the unity of the divine and human word in Holy Scripture... Even here, the human element does not cease to be human, and as such is in itself certainly not divine.' (Church Dogmatics, 1:2, p499.  All Barth quotes are from the same text unless noted.)  Or, in other words: 'if God speaks to man, He really speaks the language of this concrete human word of man.' (p532) 

Barth does not budge from this position for a second.  Elsewhere he writes that 'there is no point ignoring the writtenness of Holy Writ for the sake of its holiness, its humanity for the sake of its divinity,' (p463) then again that 'it is quite impossible that there should be a direct identity between the human word of Holy Scripture and the Word of God.' (p499)  Neither this concrete human word nor the ideas it might seek to express, moreover, are 'automatic machines put into our hands for cranking out automatic conclusions.' (CD 3:1, 411) 

The consequences of this account of the human words of Holy Scripture are not ones a Biblical Literalist will welcome.  To take an extended quote; 

'If we are serious about the true humanity of the Bible, we obviously cannot attribute to the Bible as such the capacity to reveal God to us by its very presence.  It is there and always there as a sign, as a human and temporal word- and therefore as a word which is conditioned and limited.  It witnesses to God's revelation, but that does not mean that God's revelation is now before us in any kind of divine revealedness. The Bible is not a book of oracles; it is not an instrument of direct impartation.  It is genuine witness.' (507)

Within all this, the Bible remains the Word of God.  This is not because of any intrinsic quality on the Bible's part, however, least of all its inspiredness.   It is instead because, precisely insofar as the Bible serves as a witness to His revelation, 'God is the Subject, God is Lord.  He is Lord even over the Bible and in the Bible.  The statement that the Bible is the Word of God cannot therefore say that the Word of God is tied to the Bible.  [This Word's] content is always a free decision of God, which we cannot anticipate by grasping at the Bible.' (513)

This free decision is, for Barth, the true mystery at the heart of scripture.  It is the miracle of revelation.  'If,' however, 'we are serious about the fact this miracle is an event, we cannot regard the presence of God's Word in the Bible as an attribute inherent once and for all in this book as such.' (530)   'By damping down the word of man,' meanwhile, 'by transmuting it into a Word of God which can be grasped in human speech, the whole mystery [is] lost, the mystery of the freedom of its presence both in the mouths of the biblical witnesses and also in our ears and hearts.'  This loss then has untenable consequences: 'The development and systematisation of the traditional statements concerning the divine authority of the Bible meant an actualising of the Word of God by eliminating the perception that its actualisation can only be its own decision and act, that our part in it can consist only in the recollection and expectation of its eternal presence. The Bible was now grounded in itself apart from the mystery of Christ and the Holy Ghost.  It became 'a paper Pope.'' (525)

By reading the words of Scripture in a mechanical fashion on the basis of a doctrine of inspiration, then, Biblical literalists are failing to respect Scripture's authority just as seriously as their opponents (if not moreso!): they are according to themselves a place which God alone can occupy, one which can see through and dissolve the mystery of grace.  In this they are not just forgetting that, though God might speak, 'human hearing..., whether that of the Church or our own today, is [always] a human hearing, and therefore not outside the possibility of error, or incapable of being improved.' (476): they are forgetting that 'it does not lie- and this is why prayer must have the last word- in our power, but only in God's, that this event [of revelation] should take place and therefore this witness of Scripture be made to us.' (531)  Finally, they are forgetting that 'to say 'the Word of God' is to say the Word of God. It is therefore to speak about a being and event which are not under human control and foresight.  Our knowledge of this being and event does not justify us in thinking and speaking of them as though they were under our control and foresight.' (527)

This then sets the stage for Barth's most pointed criticism of the Biblical literalist position: that 'every time we turn the Word of God into an infallible biblical word of man, or the biblical word of man into an infallible Word of God, we resist that which we ought never to resist, i.e., the truth of the miracle that here fallible men speak the Word of God in fallible human words- and we therefore resist the sovereignty of grace, in which God himself became man in Christ.' (529)  On this basis, Barth bluntly writes that 'to the bold postulate that if [the word of the prophets and the apostles] is to be the Word of God they must be inerrant in every word, we oppose the even bolder assertion: that according to the scriptural witness about man, which applies to them too, they can be at fault in any word, and have been at fault in every word.'  In this light, 'it is mere self-will and disobedience to try to find some infallible elements in the Bible.' (531)


We can see, then, how Wittgenstein's account of human language can be read as highly relevant to our understanding of the word of Scripture, even and especially as Scripture is read as the authoritative Word of God over and within the Church.  We can see how, by taking Barth and Wittgenstein together, the mechanistic account of language employed by Biblical Literalists on the basis of a doctrine of inspiration can be shown to be inappropriate on the basis of both philosophical and theological considerations.  And finally, to bring this piece back to its title, we can see how this mechanistic account of Scriptural language belies the secular character of Biblical Literalism: for in this light it appears to be merely another manifestation of man's impulse to mechanise and subdue the natural world, only this time rearing its head in the sphere of Christian religion.  On this matter, however, let us leave the last word to Barth;

'The gradually extending new understanding of biblical inspiration was simply one way in which the great process of secularisation on which post-Reformation Protestantism entered was carried through.  This new understanding of biblical inspiration meant simply that the statement that 'the Bible is the Word of God' was now transformed from a statement about the free grace of God into a statement about the Bible as brought under human control.  Thus the Bible as the Word of God surreptitiously became a part of that knowledge of God which man can have without the free grace of God, by his own power, and with direct insight and assurance.' (523)

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