All followers of Jesus should be regular readers of Scripture. This is the primary place where we get our lessons from Jesus Christ. Learning how to read scripture is at the heart of learning what Jesus intended for us to do. The topic of literalism came up very early in church history. Origen, who was one of the first church theologians, warned us not to take much of what is in scripture as literal. That seems to be a lesson lost on so many in the fundamentalist’s organizations even today. They insist that everything in the Bible is literal and without the possibility of error.
Here are some words about that from Diane Butler Bass in her book entitled “The People’s History Of Christianity”:
The problem with literalism began, according to Origen, in Genesis:
Who is found so ignorant as to suppose that God, as if He had been a husbandman, planted trees in paradise, in Eden towards the east, and a tree of life in it, i.e., a visible and palpable tree of wood, so that anyone eating of it with bodily teeth should obtain life, and, eating again of another tree, should come to the knowledge of good and evil? No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam lay hid under a tree, is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it. The mystical meaning entailed seeking out “the heavenly things of which these serve as a pattern or shadow” in the text.
For Origen, reading scripture was a search for the “wisdom hidden” under the literal words. In his book On First Principles Origen pointed out scriptural contradictions from Genesis through the Gospels. Not intending to ridicule God’s Word, Origen claimed….
It is interesting to see that the battle with the literalists started very early in church history. It is also interesting to see that even in the third century the argument against literalism was so well documented that Origen went through the text line by line to find scriptural contradictions and he claimed he found many.
When we recognize that much of scripture is myth, allegory, or whatever you want to call it, that is intended to teach us lessons instead of being taken literally, then we are freed to look for the actual messages contained in those words and not get fixated on the words themselves.
I know the recent reasons for this literal interpretation is because of the principle of “the slippery slope”. That is if we give in to any belief then all beliefs will be attacked and therefore become worthless. The slippery slope has gotten us into so much trouble in the recent world that I mourn the very thought was even created. The NRA uses it to try to prevent ANY gun regulations. The Republican Party uses it as a reason for total obstructionism.
The slippery slope does more damage in the religious realm as all the others where it is falsely applied. When we celebrate our diversity in beliefs instead of trying to kill them, then we will be able to get back to the true messages of Jesus Christ and that is what the emergent church is attempting to do….