Misreading The Bible

By: Brian Robertson

hoffmanSo much of what I hear from visitors to this site — in emails as well as comments — has to do with the damage of Fundamentalism in their lives. Most of us have fallen into a discussion in which we hear the circular argument of “It’s true because it’s in the Bible” coupled with, when you ask why, “Well, it’s IN the Bible because it’s true!”

Despite the habit of speaking as if it was the “Old Time Religion,” Fundamentalism is just now reaching 150 years old in its history, but I would like to look back a bit toward the second century and earlier.

Early Christianity was far from the monolithic belief some people assume. James, Peter and Paul were wildly at odds with interpretations as you can easily see through the accounts in the New Testament itself — not to mention the different communities and their beliefs reflected in the 4 gospels. Add to all that such things as the Gnostic flavor which wafted through the early history, not to mention countless other communities with varying beliefs and ideas. This variety of expressions and ideas regarding even the very nature of Jesus were floating about until, eventually, one strand of thought received Rome’s blessings and became the “winner” which is not the same as “the authentic.” Beliefs against the official ones were condemned, their voices often silenced by murder, both intellectually and historically.

origenIn particular, Origen (185-254) was a strong proponent of the allegorical interpretation of the Bible, and always valued spiritual interpretations over physical ones. He was one of the first theologians to argue that the petition in the Lord’s Prayer ought to read, not “Give us this day our daily bread” but “give us this day our spiritual bread.”

The Christian at the time was exposed to a number of different beliefs, buoyed up by the growing group of narrative Gospels which were being created. Origen treated each passage of scripture as being possessed of truth, but truth on one or more of it’s three layers of meaning — the literal (bodily), the moral (application) and the allegorical, or figurative (spiritual).

The Bible “….contains three levels of meaning, corresponding to the threefold Pauline (and Platonic) division of a person into body, soul and spirit. The bodily level of Scripture, the bare letter, is normally helpful as it stands to meet the needs of the more simple. The psychic level, corresponding to the soul, is for making progress in perfection.… [The] spiritual interpretation deals with ‘unspeakable mysteries’ so as to make humanity a “partaker of all the doctrines of the Spirit’s counsel.”

The concept of allegory — in which one thing points beyond itself to a deeper truth — was basically developed by Greeks who were attempting to deal with problems posed by literal interpretations of ancient Greek myths. Such tradition did not stop there. Jewish scholars such as Philo of Alexandria in the 1st century AD, and Christian thinkers, such as Clement and Origen of Alexandria in the 2nd and 3rd centuries continued this approach. Though other methods were often used, the allegorical method was dominant until late medieval times.

“The allegorical method attempts to overcome the difficulties of morally perplexing Biblical passages and to harmonize them with certain traditions and accepted teachings of the synagogue or church. By assigning to each feature of a text a hidden, symbolic, or mystical meaning beyond the primary meaning that the words convey in their literal sense, the allegorical interpretation seeks to make the text more comprehensible, acceptable, and relevant to the present.”

In time, those favoring the allegorical approach added another level — anagogical. According to Websters, the definition for the word is “Mystical; having a secondary spiritual meaning.”

questions biblePerhaps an example might help. Consider, for example, Gen. 1:3, ‘Let there be light.’ Medieval churchmen interpreted that sentence to mean (1) Historically and literally – An act of creation; (2) Morally – May we be mentally illumined by Christ; (3) Allegorically – Let Christ be love; and (4) Anagogically – May we be led by Christ to glory, the Presence of God.

So, for 1500 years, these levels were recognized and taught — even as some of the ideas of Origen were, to put it charitably — put aside. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century — known for having thrown out the baby with the bathwater — rejected, for the most part, the allegorical method and returned to the more literal interpretation of the Bible.

Luther himself wrote, “To allegorize is to juggle with Scripture.” Another “happy camper” — Calvin — said, “We must entirely reject the allegories of Origen, and of others like him, which Satan, with the deepest subtlety, has endeavored to introduce into the Church, for the purpose of rendering the doctrine of Scripture ambiguous and destitute of all certainty and firmness.” (italics, mine)

Calvin’s deep problems are a bit beyond this blog today. Ironically, much of the result from the Reformation and Calvin negated God’s work in individuals and their ability to know God without intermediary and substituted and elevated the primacy of doctrine and belief — in short, the arrival of the “Church of Law” vs. the “Church of Love.”

So, if we take the Fundamentalists road and use the above quote from Genesis as an example — it all boils down to one thing: it a straight forward historical fact that God made the world. Period. It’s no better than a newspaper headline. To try and go beyond that limited first step or to diminish the worship of the literal — which is the definition of idolatry — and move in favor of deeper meanings as provided by our sense of “God” is, really, to cavort with Satan.

I’m sorry.

It’s not the way of the Christianity I know, and it’s not the Jesus I know or the God I rest in every night. It is not in the way that Jesus himself taught in his parables and sayings, or, for that matter, in his life. “He who is not against us is for us,” he said at one point, and I take him at his word.

Sadly, though, even Paul, in the first of Galatians, goes way overboard and says, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to and different from that which we preached to you, let him be accursed, doomed to eternal punishment!” (Gal. 1:8)

Eeks!  May I ask, is this from the heart of the Jesus you know? Is it from the God whose presence you feel, Divine gift that it is?

Of course, Fundamentalism carried this tragic sense of limitation and deviltry to the logical extreme — as if, after Calvin and Luther, such a thing was even possible. The real deception of Fundamentalism even lies in the fact that the very name seems to suggest it is at the fundamental foundation of historic Christianity, which is simply not the case. Instead, it means something akin to, “Fundamental (or basic, nonflexible, required) beliefs we have adopted in forming our religion.”

According to Wikipedia:

Fundamentalist Christianity, or Christian fundamentalism, is a movement that arose mainly within British and American Protestantism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by conservative evangelical Christians, who, in a reaction to modernism, actively affirmed a fundamental set of Christian beliefs: the inerrancy of the Bible, Sola Scriptura, the virgin birth of Christ, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the imminent return of Jesus Christ.

We live in a world with a very, very short attention span. We can easily fall victim to the rather silly claim of Fundamentalism that it has some sort of unbroken history leading back to Jesus when, in reality, it is an reaction and, more than that, a kind of spasmotic reaction born not of love but of fear, not of inclusion but of exclusion, not out of a living God but one safely shut from our spiritual life.

But the point here, the reason for all the above, is that I hope some of the thoughts and people I’ve offered up — while most of them have their odd sides (but didn’t Paul???) — might be of interest and can be a jumping off point for people to do further study.

I’d like to keep this at the heart of things — the way I look at much of the Bible is the way I look at Storytelling. I’d go to festivals or events and tell stories, and, inevitably, some young boy or girl would be entranced by a particular tale and ask, afterwards, “Did that really happen?” My response, “I don’t know if it happened or not, but it’s true!”


Rev. Brian Robertson



[I’ve always found it unfathomable that anyone could actually read the Bible and arrive at a the conclusion that the included scriptures were last and final communication of a living God who promises that all who believe in Him should have His spirit to guide them in their daily lives. I enjoy reminding my evangelical friends that the the Bible is a collection of writings (of unclear origin) selected by the bishops of the Catholic Church in the fourth century. Nonetheless, I believe the scriptures to be true: from Genesis 1:1 to Revelations 22:21 fulfilled in the life, death, and ressurection of Jesus Christ. In other words the law is fullfilled and there ain’t no strings attached! I have no rational proof for my faith but then when faith is experential theological sophistry becomes just another intellectual pasttime. Yours in Christ, Tom]


[Hi Brian,

What some fundamentalists fail to see is that literalism is itself a form of interpretation. It is a *decision* to take all statements literally, *assuming* that it was the primary intent of the author to be taken literally, whether that be a human being or God through that human being.

Some fundamentalists acknowledge this truth and attempt to justify it by saying that God ensures the Bible speaks literally so there is less room for errors of human interpretation. Others are completely ignorant of this fact, or they are in complete denial of it because of the slippery slope it forces them to admit they are already standing on.

In either case, I think a basic issue is the need to have the Absolute Truth in a form that clearly differentiates itself from falsehood and is easy to understand and communicate. Even deeper is the fearful assumption that there must be an Absolute (and thus unredeemable) Untruth we might fall into. That fear drives the desire to have yes or no answers to all the questions of life because it seems the alternatives are just too frightening. The risk of eternal damnation seems to big to let go of yes/no and either/or for the seeming ambiguity of both/and. There may be different ways to make that leap, but I think Jesus gave us a very good formula with the Greatest Commandment: Love God with all you are, and your neighbor as yourself. He made it absolutely clear that the spirit of that love is greater than the letter of the law (the literal meaning of scripture).



[In response to Chuck:

Yes. The ‘need’ for certainty in answers to life’s questions AND the ‘fear’ of not knowing and ‘accidentally’ going down the wrong road… are both huge subconscious factors in matters of faith.

Your comments are regarding interpretations of the Bible, but unfortunately, many people use the same faulty reasoning regarding the ‘Church’; they make the ‘decision’ on the ‘assumption’ that it happened the way it was meant to happen. This line of reasoning is used by ancient, traditional churches all the up to more recently established churches, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and many more in between.

I always wonder, (and I wonder why more people DON’T wonder this), is it really ‘faith’ in God if we need such concrete, clear answers here on earth. If fearfullness continues to be the dominating drive in a spiritual life, there is something very unhealthy about that. There needs to eventually be a progression towards that sweet ‘peace’, that only comes from true faith, faith from recognizing the ‘truth’ within, rather than the ‘truth’ without.

I THINK, I’m not sure, but I think the biggest resistance to accepting this on the part of church officials (is that concept gives churches a little less power) but also there seems to be no real guard against truly being misled as in the case of the Jim Jones tragedy and the David Koresh (sp?) tragedy.

Peace to you also,


[An excellent book that some may find very interesting: “And God Said What?” by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Ms. Ralph is a director of master’s degree programs at Lexington Theological Seminary.

The book explores the literary forms of the Bible, and places them into a historical/ cultural context. Also, she explains the rationale behind the various types and forms of scripture.

For those who can (and are willing to) move beyond the surface & literal meaning of scripture, the depth and beauty of the subtler levels of the Bible (or any sacred text, for that matter) can open up as a flower to fully reveal (in so far as we are able to discern it) the immense scope of God’s wonder and truth.

Peace and Blessings