Biblical Literalism, Faith, and Sarah Palin

Via John Schwenkler, I see that Palin may be a “Young Earth Creationist.” Young Earth Creationists evidently believe that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and that humans and dinosaurs once co-existed.

Leaving aside the accuracy of the report, this raises an interesting theological question. Can believers cherry-pick which verses are literally true and which are allegorical? For example, if you concede that the Biblical understanding of our planet’s origin is probably incorrect, doesn’t that implicate the accuracy of, say, the Ten Commandments?

Even if you are a believer, there are all sorts of plausible explanations for why the Bible isn’t 100% accurate. It is, after all, a human document that has gone through several different iterations. There’s a persuasive case to be made that the Bible isn’t the unadulterated Word of God, and therefore should be approached with circumspection and credulity rather than blind acceptance.

So how do you discern which Biblical injunctions are correct? For example, we no longer stone disobedient children, but that’s obviously the result of changing cultural norms, not a close reading of Deuteronomy’s theological legitimacy.

When viewed in this context, I actually think that biblical literalism is more logically consistent than the approach of “modern” Christian believers, who look down their noses at Young Earth Creationists while simultaneously accepting the legitimacy Christian morality. The Biblical literalists, at least, have a consistent approach to religious interpretation. Is the selective approach of modern Christians grounded in doctrine rather than cultural expediency? Is there a theological methodology in place for determining which Biblical passages are legitimate? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

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6 Comments

Filed under Presidential Politics, Religion

6 responses to “Biblical Literalism, Faith, and Sarah Palin

  1. jacob1207

    Biblical literalism quickly leads to absurd results, which is why St. Augustine rejected it, as have most theologians, excluding fundamentalists, who only appeared in the late 19th century.

    The Bible is not a science book, nor even really a history book in the modern sense. One needs to determine what the text meant in it’s ancient context, what it’s purpose was, and what meaning it might hold for us today–and the importance for us today rarely depends on “what really happened.”

  2. Right, so what was St. Augustine’s methodology for determining the legitimacy of various passages? In my mind, assuming that certain Biblical injunctions are “context dependent” would introduce a fair amount of subjectivity into textual interpretation. Wouldn’t that undermine the very notion of an objective, divinely-inspired set of moral guidelines?

  3. jacob1207

    Another comment: it’s frustrating that some people, like Sarah Palin, only “may” be young Earth creationists. Mike Huckabee, for instance, was asked if the Earth was created in the past 10,000 years and he answered evasively, saying he didn’t know exactly when or how the universe and Earth formed.

    In a sense, anyone can say that: we don’t know the exact date the Earth could be said to have formed, nor exactly how the first life came to be.

    A better question to ask would be “Is it possible that the Earth is under 10,000 years old?” Far more than 99.9% of relevant scientists will say that that is simply not possible, so knowing that someone–like a candidate for office–thinks that it is, at the least, possible would be telling and valuable information. Hopefully journalists will phrase the question that way, since it’d be harder to dodge.

  4. jacob1207

    Good points, Will.

    Yes, it is difficult with many passages to determine exactly what they meant in their ancient context. But that doesn’t mean they should be interpreted as if written in English for an early 21st century American audience.

    The fact that it is difficult to determine how some passages were originally taken, added to the barbarous results that many laws would create, plus various contradictions within the text lead me to think the answer is quite obvious: the Bible is not, in fact, a divinely written rule book for all time.

    It is inspired by God, in that it’s many authors were writing in response to their experience of God. But it is a very human product that shows, quite clearly, in fact, an evolution in it’s ethics and morals. Just compare the laws of the Mosaic Code with the teachings of the prophets.

  5. John

    I posted a response to your question back at my blog, but I’ll paste it here too:

    I think the best answer to your question is that every Christian understands Scripture by means of some (or several) interpretive tradition(s): it just happens that certain Christians (e.g. Catholics) are more conscious of this than others. And this is as it should be: for one thing, the Bible didn’t just fall out of the sky (and indeed there is some controversy over exactly which books should be included in it); for another, it’s impossible to understand any text in an interpretive vacuum. And so even the professed literalist isn’t properly so-called, because there is no single “literal” interpretation of Scripture, but rather countless different ways to approach it depending on the interpretive community of which you’re a part. The question of how any such community “justifies” certain interpretations at the expense of others is of course a challenging one, and the answer will naturally vary from case to case: usually, though, some sort of appeal to divine guidance and/or the privileged status of a certain body of tradition will end up figuring in the answer.

    Does this help to resolve your question?

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