Saturday, January 30, 2010

Literal or Literalist? Yes, Catholics DO take the Bible Literally!

Over the last few weeks, I've begun to notice a common refrain from my Hebrew Scripture and New Testament students. Very often, they will say things like, "Yeah, Mr. Duns, Catholics don't take the Bible literally." So, then, how do we take it?

You see, the trouble is that the students are not making a very important distinction (If they did this already, I'd be out of a job!). The distinction is between a literal and a literalist reading of Scripture. Allow me to put on my teacher hat and help to bring out the importance of this distinction.

Catholics associate a literalist approach to the Bible with fundamentalists. On this view, if the Bible says that the world was created in six days then it was created in 144 hours. If the Bible says that humans were present at the very beginning of Creation, then the entire fossil record that shows no presence of human life for millions of years must be false. One might summarize the literalist position by saying: "The Bible says it, I believe it, case closed."

It is, I fear, the literalist approach to the Scriptures that provides such rich ground for debates between science and religion, particularly in certain places where Bible-wielding Christians want evolution taught as "only a theory" and demand due attention to Creationist accounts of life on earth. Evolution, which posits a very long, slow process of ever-greater complexity in living organisms, surely did not take place over the course of six days. The literalist is thus forced to choose between science and religion and to advocate that religious faith be taught as science.

So I'm glad to report that the Catholic Church chooses a different path, one that does not have to pit science against religion. Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, cites with approval the following passage from the First Vatican Council's Dei Filius:
Even if faith is superior to reason there can never be a true divergence between faith and reason, since the same God who reveals the mysteries and bestows the gift of faith has also placed in the human spirit the light of reason. This God could not deny himself, nor could the truth ever contradict the truth.

Catholic tradition recognizes God as the ultimate source of all that exists. Our scientific investigations begin with wonder and our curiosity impels us to probe deeper into the rich fabric of creation in order to know it better. Whether we explore the intricacies of the cell or the unfathomable expanses of the cosmos, the truth of science does not threaten to contradict the truths of our revealed faith, because the the author of the Book of Nature and the author of Book of Scripture is, ultimately, the same. Hence the wonderful insight: truth does not contradict truth.

What, then, is the Catholic approach to the Scriptures? We take it literally! But literal must be distinguished from literalistic. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

"The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation..."(CCC, 116)
The literal interpretation will try to understand what it is that the author wishes to convey the wide assortment of ways used to communicate its message to its readers.

Typically, we are quite adept at making the distinction between literal and literalistic speech. If I said, "That was a brilliant sunset" you would not think that I had somehow tested the IQ of the sun; you would, rather, know that I thought there was an arresting beauty to a natural phenomena. Or if I say that it's raining cats and dogs, you are not seized with a fear that canines and felines are somehow dropping out of the heavens. We know how to recognize metaphors. We take them literally - for they are metaphors - and not as literalist statements of what is happening.

When we approach the Scriptures, we shouldn't be surprised to see that it contains very many different literary forms: letters, histories, hymns, laws, prophecies, parables, genealogies, prayers, etc..! Each of these is a different way of communicating a message. The Bible, Catholics acknowledge, is comprised of many different books each of which shares the Truth of God in a variety of ways.
It is in this way that Catholics do take the Bible literally! We recognize that the Scriptures teach us the truth of who God is and what God has been and is doing in our history. Just as we read a recipe differently from a love letter, or a prayer different from fiction, so must we learn how to read the Scriptures in a way faithful to the many ways it communicates the truth of our salvation.
The Scriptures, Catholics believe, developed over a period of nearly 2,000 years (~1850 BCE - 100 CE) and are the primordial site of our faith and tradition, an inspired and inspiring site where we are drawn more deeply into the drama of salvation history. To understand the Bible literally frees us to explore the truths of nature because the ultimate author of the Scriptures and the ultimate author of Nature are the same; thus it is that the truth of nature and the truth of faith are not enemies and can, rightly pursued, both give glory to their author and Creator!


Human Ape said...

You believe in a god who never had anything to do.

Unknown said...

Human Ape,

I often tell my students that we are held captive by rather deranged concepts of God.

If you had to put out a "Help Wanted" ad advertising for a new God, what would it say? Most people would want a God who "answers prayers, is loving, protects people, etc." These are all, of course, good things!

But people tend to forget one crucial thing. What does God do? What is the essential task for God? God makes things 'to be'. That's it. I, alas, cannot make a bottle of beer 'to be' so I'm out of the running for God. But that's what God does: God makes things 'to be'. Philosophically, such a God acts to explain why there is "something, rather than nothing." Or, in another way of putting it, God answers the question of "WHY" there is a world at all while science wrestles with "HOW" the world is (You could look at Wittgenstein's Tractatus for a similar sentiment).

Finally, don't forget the final line of Darwin's "The Origin of Species"

"There is grandeur in this view of life; with its several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whistle this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most wonderful and most beautiful have been, and are being evolved."

(Fascinating note: depending on the edition, some sources omit the "the Creator" reference).

Anne-Marie said...

Your comments concerning literal and literalist approaches to the Bible lead me to wonder whether you might write a post on literal and user- friendly/vernacular translation of the text of the Mass.
You might even be moved to sign the petition asking for more time and reflection on the matter. See
Both of us are in regular contact with young people and know how limited their learned vocabulary is. I don't think I need to make the case for a new look at the proposed translation; reading the examples we have been given speaks for itself.
Jesuits and Ignatian people are at the service of the Church. I don't think it is well served by this new text.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this helpful distinction.

One small point - I was sorry to see you class title includes the term "Hebrew Scriptures". This is NOT the Catholic Old Testament, which contains more than Hebrew texts. I know there are reasons for not calling it the OT, but Hebrew Scriptures doesn't do the job as far as Catholics are concerned.

Thanks for the blog.

Anonymous said...

This is a repost...not sure if it went through the first time.

God, as the author of all that exists, is how I myself understand God. But where I have difficulty, a fact that became apparent during a conversation with an atheist, is simply, if God is not concerned with the "how', what then does God do in the real world? If God does not meddle with physical constants, the continuity of cause and effect, putting it rather bluntly, why would we even pray? I pray for grace, for myself and others. But beyond that, in terms of God's involvement with the concrete, I could not say what God does with any conviction, and so had no clear answer for my acquaintance. Any comments would be very welcome.

Unknown said...


I posted a response to your question as a wholly new post dated July 27th.


christi said...

Darwin's last line in his book about the Creator is not in some editions because it was not in his first publication. He later added the Creator line. I don't know if that is what he believed or he added the line to appease critics.

Anonymous said...

So the article is basically saying that Catholics do not take the Bible literally.

Despite the writers claim that Catholics tale the Bible literally he clearly is saying that they don't take it literally and must interpret it correctly.

And yet, the writer is trying to say that interpreting the Bible correctly means taking it literally.

The author is playing extremely manipulative word games in order to not be 'wrong'.

The author is an A55. Not surprising as the author is a priest

Aaron said...

Thanks for this article explaining what you understand to be the Catholic tradition of interpreting the Bible.

You mentioned that the Bible draws you more deeply into the drama of salvation history. Can you explain what the other sources of faith and tradition are? Could you also explain why what Jesus did only abolishes your original sin and not your actual sin? said...

What I have to say can best be witnessed on

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame