I spend a lot of time around self-described fundamentalists — perhaps because I live in the Southeast, in the land of Southern Baptist churches. One of the defining doctrines of the modern SBC (and of fundamentalism in general) is their belief in a literal interpretation of Scripture; this tenant is spelled out in the first article of the Baptist Faith and Message, the SBC’s statement of faith:
It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. [Emphasis added.]
It is worth noting that fundamentalism is a new position, dating back less than two centuries, and it would not come to dominate the Southern Baptist Convention until a concentrated campaign called a “resurgence” by its champions (men like Albert Mohler and Paige Patterson) and a “takeover” by its detractors.
Scripture, according to fundamentalist Baptists, must be absolutely and in all ways true otherwise it is worthless. If any part of the Bible is false, then it is entirely untrustworthy. This is the extreme version of the old “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” argument popularized by CS Lewis in Mere Christianity. While Lewis was no fundamentalist, others have taken this position beyond the breaking point. By way of example, I once had an argument with a young Baptist seminarian who tried to convince me that Psalm 110 must be written by David about the Messiah because Jesus interprets it this way in St. Matthew 22. If either of those two claims about Psalm 110 were false, the young seminarian claimed, then Jesus is shown to be a liar and the entirety of Christian faith can falls apart.
While it is difficult to imagine hanging our entire faith on whether or not David wrote one particular Psalm, the implications are even further reaching. Fundamentalism was created to and still exists as a reaction against historical critical approaches to biblical interpretation. Instead of engaging with scholarship and wrestling with our faith as Jacob struggled against the angel, fundamentalism prefers to plug its ears and ignore any tension. Modern archaeology and biology must be disbelieved, say the fundamentalists, if they contradict the claims made in Scripture.
In the words of that same Southern Baptist seminarian, if you go down the road of historical criticism, “Why even bother being a Christian?”
For fundamentalists, literal interpretation is the “high” view of Scripture; any attempt to question the Bible is a “low” view.
For what it’s worth, Br. Casey Cole, OFM has produced a useful video explaining the ins-and-outs of how we interpret Scripture:
Br. Casey and I put it the same way: the Bible doesn’t always have to be factual to be True; the Bible isn’t a history textbook. This is something of a rallying cry among my colleagues. Or, to borrow another common expression, Christians should take the Bible seriously — but not always literally. My view of the Bible is “high” not because I take every verse to be literal fact but because I believe that Sacred Scripture testifies to the truth of God’s salvific work in the world.
These are important questions, ones which every first-year religion student or seminarian has to wrestle with at some point. They can throw you for a real loop. And despite my frequent frustration with fundamentalists, I understand that young seminarian’s question. I’ve asked it of myself — both while taking Intro to Religious Thought as an undergraduate and again studying the same texts in Intro to the Old Testament in seminary.
To be certain, historical criticism has gone off in some very strange directions. Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann attempted to “demythologize” Christianity by denying the Resurrection of the Lord. As I’ve bluntly put it to friends in the past, if Christ isn’t risen, then I’m not getting out of bed on Sunday. Indeed, if Christ isn’t risen, why even bother being a Christian?
And other Christians have taken the demythologizing of the Christian faith to suggest that salvation is only about what happens here and now, as though we are God’s only hands in the world. If it’s entirely up to us, then Lutherans have been barking up the wrong tree for the past five centuries. If it’s entirely up to us, then the Church has wasted quite a bit of time praying over the past two millennia.
While I am willing to engage with modern and post-modern interpretation of Scripture and while I can see that there are historic inaccuracies in the Bible, there are also certain parts of Scripture that must be true. I don’t care if David really killed Goliath or wrote Psalm 110, but Jesus of Nazareth must be the Risen Christ.
Even though I find myself agreeing with fundamentalists on the rare occasion, fundamentalism leads Christians down a dangerous road. It puts emphasis on a literal reading rather than discerning what Scripture is truly getting at.
Moreover, fundamentalism is always — always — selective in what it chooses to take literally. Find me a Southern Baptist who true believes in the bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Or, as we’ll see tomorrow, find me a Southern Baptist who takes Mark 9 literally.