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Q&A

When did the doctrine of Biblical literalism originate?

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The doctrine that the Christian Bible is literally true in every respect is not as old as Christianity. If nothing else, there wasn't a settled Biblical canon until late in the 4th century. Through the Middle Ages, books weren't widely available, and most people got their doctrine from the Bible as interpreted by the Catholic Church.

Luther rejected church authority and raised the standard of "sola scriptura." This wasn't necessarily literalism, though. Luther's point was that Christian truth had to be derived from the Bible or it wasn't completely authoritative, and that the ability to do this wasn't limited to an ecclesiastical elite. He was addressing Catholic doctrines that aren't directly based on Biblical text. The focus was on doctrine more than fact. Would Luther have insisted, for instance, that the Book of Job was a factual, fully accurate account of what happened to someone named Job, or would he have conceded that it might have been intended as instructive fiction? I don't know.

Some argue that true Biblical literalism didn't arise until the 19th century. In this view, it arose as a reaction against science, insisting that the world was created in six days and no more than a few thousand years ago. However, Bishop Ussher made his famous creation-date calculation in the 17th century, and it required taking a great deal of the Bible literally.

At what time period, then, should we place the origin of the doctrine that the Christian Bible is literally true throughout?

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I thought I was lobbing an easy one here, but no one's taken it up, and I'm no closer in my research ... (1 comment)

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Here's the best answer I've come up with: Biblical literalism originates with Luther's "sola scriptura" doctrine. Others may have tightened what parts they believe are factual vs. which are simply inspirational; as I mentioned in a comment, no one takes the 23rd Psalm as a presentation of facts, so it's a matter of degree.

Luther's key point was that the Bible is not merely inspired by God, but authorized in every detail. He said of the Bible, "The Holy Spirit is the author of this book" and "Let the man who would hear God speak read holy scripture." The Catholic concept of the Bible, as I understand it, is that its text is divinely inspired, but it isn't the literal "word of God."

In the "sola scriptura" view, the original texts of the Bible may contain figurative language, to be recognized as such by reason, but it cannot contain any errors of doctrine or fact. I don't know whether the Catholic Church allows the possibility of factual errors in the Bible, but it's less insistent on Biblical infallibility on issues of fact, as opposed to doctrine. (For example, "Methuselah lived over 900 years" is a factual, not a doctrinal, assertion.)

Conclusion: Biblical literalism is an elaboration of "sola scriptura," and as such traces its origin to Luther.

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The practice of understanding scripture to be objectively True and the literal word of God originates with scripture itself, and the men who wrote it. The New Testament contains references to the Old Testament, and its passages are interpreted not as open to interpretation or merely inspirational works of fiction.

Job

In terms of Job, he is also referenced in Ezekiel 14:

The word of the Lord came again to me, saying: 13 “Son of man, when a land sins against Me by persistent unfaithfulness, I will stretch out My hand against it; I will cut off its supply of bread, send famine on it, and cut off man and beast from it. 14 Even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver only themselves by their righteousness,” says the Lord God.
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19 “Or if I send a pestilence into that land and pour out My fury on it in blood, and cut off from it man and beast, 20 even though Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live,” says the Lord God, “they would deliver neither son nor daughter; they would deliver only themselves by their righteousness.”

And in James 5:

My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. 11 Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord—that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.

Job is listed with other men who are treated literally. This in itself shows that the men of that time interpreted the Old Testament (the Jewish law and prophets) as Truth.

Genealogy of Jesus

You can also look at the genealogy of Jesus in Luke 3 and Matthew 1. They agree with the Old Testament passages, such as the genealogies in Chronicles, and show the biblical age of the world and historical nature of scripture.

Hebrews

Similarly, the book of Hebrews (among other books) contains references to the account of God creating everything in Genesis. Look at Hebrews chapter 4:

For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it. 3 For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said:

    “So I swore in My wrath,
    ‘They shall not enter My rest,’ ”

although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works”; 5 and again in this place: “They shall not enter My rest.”

6 Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience, 7 again He designates a certain day, saying in David, “Today,” after such a long time, as it has been said:

    “Today, if you will hear His voice,
    Do not harden your hearts.”

8 For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day. 9 There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. 10 For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His.

This contains references to God creating the world literally in seven days, David as the author of some Psalms (which, while they are songs, the author of Hebrews describes as "God speaking through David", and the indented portions are quotes from Psalm 95), and Joshua is listed as well.

And Hebrews chapter 11 (you should really read the whole chapter for this one, but I'm just including an except here):

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

4 By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.

5 By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. 6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

7 By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.

Once again, you see that Cain, Abel, Enoch, and Noah are referred to as real people. Enoch is regarded as actually having been taken into Heaven before death, and Noah and the Flood are also interpreted literally. Still, there are times where figurative language is used, such as "Abel still speaks". This is referring to the act of obedience by faith that Abel showed continuing to teach us in this account through scripture, and it obviously does not refer to his dead body speaking or something.

These are not isolated incidents of the Bible referring to other passages literally. The entire Bible contains references to other passages, both in the New Testament and in the Old Testament, and it shows how the people of that day regarded the texts. Literal interpretation of the Bible is not something recent or a modern change as a reaction to the theory of evolution, but rather the literal interpretation of scripture, the creation account included, was the norm up until the "enlightenment" period.

The Bible uses logical deduction and reasoning in its arguments and references. There is no room for relativistic interpretations, nor has there been. If it is acceptable for anyone to interpret it however they want and arrive at some personal "truth", there is no longer any real global and absolute/objective meaning. The entire essence of the Bible is that it is a message of hope and salvation that applies to all people in the same way. We will all be held to the same standard in front of the same God one day.

Verses taken from the New King James Version

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The issue here is the origin of the idea, not the validity of any doctrine, and I'll try to stick to ... (3 comments)

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