Philosophy Hurts Your Head

The blog of a cranky Philosophy PhD Student from Newcastle, Australia.

Fundamentalism and Literalism

Posted by Sam D on May 23, 2007

From the 47th Philosophers Carnival I had been giving some thought to The Philosopher Vs the Biblical Fundamentalist. I took Avery Archer to be arguing that to be a Biblical Literalist was a self contradictory position. I won’t get into the detail of his argument, you can read it for yourself. I have discussed this with members of the philosophy club and most agreed that not everything in the bible could be interpreted at face value, as some parts simply contradict each other. I say most, because one participant claimed to be a literalist shortly before stating that a certain passage was “clearly metaphorical”. This contradiction aside, it seems that many people, even those who claim to be interpreting the bible in a literal way, are picking and choosing where they interpret passages as literal rather than metaphorical, allegorical (other than where clearly denoted) or symbolic.

While Avery’s criticism might seem relevant, it misses the vast bulk of Christians. This is because they will simply admit that they are not literalists in the way that he defines, or they will admit the inconsistency, but argue that it is only an apparent inconsistency due to us not understanding the ‘mystery’ of God. I don’t know how to argue with someone who does not worry about being self-contradictory, I suspect that it would be a dead end. But those who are literal in some places and not in others are a worthwhile target for critique and investigation. There are plenty of people who are arguably ‘Fundamentalists’ who fall into this category, and the question of how they justify being Literalistic for some parts of the Bible and not others is a question worth answering.

John F Hobbins of Ancient Hebrew Poetry argues that Avery is too strict in his interpretation and that not all prophesies that a prophet makes have to come true for them to be considered a true prophet. And he might be right. But he never really deals with the fact that this renders the premise derived from Deuteronomy 18:22 and Jeremiah 28:9, that “If a prophet makes a prediction that does not come true, then that prophet is not sent by God” effectively false. And if this derivation is correct, then why do we get to ignore it?


2 Responses to “Fundamentalism and Literalism”

  1. Thanks, Sam, for noting my interaction with Avery Archer, whose open mindedness and patience you rightly praise.

    You may have missed the continuation of my first reply to Avery. The continuation is here:

    I argue that the rule of Deuteronomy 18:22 is not useless, but must be used with care. To interpret it in syllogistic terms misunderstands the linguistic register to which it belongs. Wittgenstein was on to this kind of thing, if memory serves.

    Your readers might also find my posts on theodicy and atheism of interest. Intelligent comments, the crankier the better, are welcome.

  2. John said

    I say most, because one participant claimed to be a literalist shortly before stating that a certain passage was “clearly metaphorical”.

    I’ve seen this sort of claim before. It reflects an interpretive concept called “plain text” reading (I think), among other things I’m sure. It makes a lot of sense on the surface– read poetry as poetry, history as history, metaphor as metaphor, prophecy as prophecy, etc. Perfectly reasonable. In fact, it is pretty much how you’d read any book. In practice though it has always struck my as smoke screen for ‘picking and choosing’. A passage conflicts with common sense? Well that’s metaphor. A passage is vicious and otherwise not flattering? Well that’s poetry. A bit of history is completely out of line with other evidence? Well, take your pick. Metaphor? Symbolism? Parable? Poetry? Allegory?

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