Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

James Barr advises Christians and Scholars to Take the Bible Literally

Posted by NT Wrong on July 18, 2008

from an article in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, back in 1999 …

“A literal biblical chronology would mean a world created in seven days, about 4000 B.C., give or take one or two hundred years. But many creationists do not want to be biblical literalists. Of course the Bible in a general way is a big source of inspiration for their movement, but the exact figures of the Bible are not a matter of principle for them, as I understand them. In my opinion, it was a big mistake for many of the mainline religious organizations when they opposed the creationists by saying that the Bible should not be taken literally. This is not what the creationists do. It is, on the contrary, what the churches and other organisations should do: that is, to argue that, in this respect, the Bible’s figures should be taken literally, because it is when they are taken literally it becomes clear that they are not historically or scientifically true.”
– James Barr

Hoorah for Barr!! Damn it, but I so often relish his words, like those of few other biblical scholars.

James Barr set himself against those who would construct an artificial separation of theology and science/history, realising that both stand and fall together. The attempt to defend the bible as ‘theologically true’ but not a ‘textbook’ on history or science is, first, a false dichotomy, and, second, a division that its authors simply could not have conceived of. The bible is ‘theologically’ false because it is ‘historically’/’scientifically’ false – if these categories are understood emically (and so, non-exclusively). Disproof of the bible’s own conception of history or science (not our categories, mind you) is disproof of its own theology. Any denial of this stems from an imposition of modern categories which attempt a separation where none was thought possible.

So, heed James Barr’s call from beyond the grave: Take the Bible literally (don’t impose your own ill-fitting concepts on it).

5 Responses to “James Barr advises Christians and Scholars to Take the Bible Literally”

  1. Duane said

    Nice! Thanks.

  2. madmonq said

    If/when my eye causes me to sin, is there a biblically preferable eye that I should pluck out first?

  3. Well, several problems with that – the bible itself advises that biblical interpretation is no light matter – that we should “compare Scripture with Scripture” and that those at Berea were more noble because they searched the scriptures to see if they were true. The bible contains many things – poetry, history, allegory, metaphor, prophecy, etc, and it’s not wise, nor smart to take everything “literally.” Two prime examples – Jesus used parables to teach – parables are metaphoric or allegoric – not actual events, i.e., not meant to be taken “literally.” In fact Jesus clearly stated that he taught thus to hide the meaning from those who were educated and “reveal” it unto babes. You can’t grok Scripture with the mind alone, you must have a spiritual revelation.

    In addition, the Bible is not the word of God, it bears witness of the word – Jesus is the word of God – John 1:1-18 among other passages, clearly states so. If you read your bible literally, you can come to no other conclusion. That’s why revelation can and will continue post Bible via the Holy Spirit, because God is still very much alive and ever present.

    Also, this scripture – “a day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day”. We must also realize that God is speaking to our through a human entity to other feeble human entities with our feeble understanding. The prophet Exekiel, for instance, when he was describing these incredible beings, may have at times been fore-seeing helicopters, or spaceships, rather than angelic beings.

    Do any of these things minimize the importance or authority of God’s word? Absolutely not. But when we get dogmatic, especially in our defense of the English interpretation, we merely establish our ignorance to the secular mind. And rightly so.

  4. ntwrong said

    To William:

    Barr’s use of the term “literally” means ‘take proverbs as proverbs, take prose as prose, take poetry as poetry, mystical texts as mystical texts, etc’. Barr is advocating understanding the ancient genres according to the ancient genres. Barr certainly does not advocate reading everything as though it was non-tropic and non-metaphorical – that is a quite different sense of the word ‘literal’, which should have been apparent from the context. So, your objection is simply not relevant to what Barr wrote.

    Your comments on “the word of God” are not to the point, either. Neither Barr nor I mentioned “the word of God”, and I would avoid such a theological concept. I’m talking about words on the page. Do they have a certain meaning or don’t they? That’s my concern.

    Your comments about Ezekiel seeing “spaceships” is nonsense, and neither Barr nor I are interested in “English interpretation”, whatever that means. All in all, you could have done with understanding what was actually written in this post, rather than imposing some theological homily – which is fairly much the same as Barr’s advice in his 1999 article.

  5. Ken said

    Any denial of this stems from an imposition of modern categories which attempt a separation where none was thought possible.

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you but that’s awfully parochial. We sure love to think we moderns are a helluva lot more sophisticated in our thinking then our ancient predecessors when that is simply and demonstrably false. Ancient writers knew literary categories such as fiction, myth, satire, and so on. They could just as easily separate history/science from theology as we can. Spending just a little time in classical and Egyptian literature should prove that to anyone very quickly.

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