What is Wrong with Catholics Who Actually Read the Bible Literally?
When you hear some of the "new atheists" like Dr. Sam Harris and Bill Nye say that you have to read the Bible literally, they seem to think that this would show everyone that the Bible itself is both self-contradictory and/or a lie.
What they seem to mean when they insist on an absolutely literal reading of the Bible is that you should read the Bible the same way that you read a biology or chemistry textbook, and then you'll understand that the Bible is as almost as nonsensical as trying to talk to the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.
They seem to think that if you do read the Bible literally, then you'll see that it is self-contradictory and that it's unreasonable to think you can believe anything in the Bible. However, there are a LOT of Christians who read the Bible "literally" but don't come to the same conclusion that these new atheists do.
Why Do They Think That?
There are many reasons, partly because there are many different Christian denominations, and many branches of Judaism, each with different ideas about how to read the Scriptures. These new atheists are actually repeating a concept that people of faith have struggled with for millennia, which is how to reconcile faith and reason.
Faith is used to mean both what God has revealed, and our response as people of faith to what we believe about that revelation.
Reason is what we can know by using our intellect to understand the world around us and how it "works," as well as how we understand what God has revealed to us.
It would be impossible for me to explain all of these ideas (especially in a blog post), but what I can do is give you a short explanation of how Catholics read the Bible, because the Catholic Church insists we must read the Bible literally as well as spiritually.
This same Church also insists that faith and reason are not in contradiction to each other; they actually work together (Fides et Ratio, by Pope John Paul II):
Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.
What Does “Literal” Mean?
Catholics definitely read the Bible literally, because the literal sense is the foundation for the spiritual senses of scripture.
By literally we mean the words written by the human author and the reality that the human author is trying to express. Since it’s the human author—inspired by God—who chooses the words to use and events to describe, we take that into account when we read each of the individual books in the Bible.*
When human beings talk to each other or describe things, we explain what we mean in a lot of different ways, and those ways vary depending on who we’re explaining our ideas to. Sometimes we use examples to explain what we mean, and sometimes we use metaphors, similes, and/or allegories to help explain those ideas. Since the books in the Bible were written by human beings, the “literal sense” of the scriptures includes allegory and metaphor.
That point is emphasized at Vatican II in Dei Verbum 12:
Truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture.
Jesus—the Word made flesh—used parables, metaphors, and allegories to teach people about God, so of course we should expect to see similar examples of that in the rest of the Bible, which is the Word of God.
That’s how it’s been read by most Christians since the beginning of Christianity, but when some of the new atheists criticize the “literal” reading of the Bible they don’t seem to take this into account (this is part of the reason they misinterpret the creation accounts in Genesis).
The Senses of Scripture
Even in the earliest days of Christianity, people recognized that there is more than one way to interpret the same passage. How do we explain that, when we also say that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit and is free from error?
The reason the same passage can have more than one meaning is because there are four senses, or ways, that we interpret the scriptures. There are three spiritual senses (allegorical, eschatological, and moral), and their meaning is based on the literal sense.
Here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about the literal sense:
The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal" (CCC 116).
Throughout history, saints and scholars have tried to learn more about the human authors of each of the books of the Bible. They were trying to understand the time and context in which the book was written, which includes:
The identity of the human author
The original audience for the book
When it was written
The culture of that time and place
Other cultures in the area and the beliefs in those cultures
The languages used in those areas
The specific words that were used, and what they meant in that time and place
Other writings that contain similar accounts of events
As research continues and more information is discovered, it allows scholars to have a better understanding of the circumstances in which the book was written.
That gives them a better understanding of what the human authors were trying to express when they were inspired by God to write the books in the Bible.
This is the type of exegesis that is meant when the Catechism says that it must “[follow] the rules of sound interpretation.”
All of this is so that we can have a better understanding of the literal sense of the books of the Bible.
*The word "bible" comes from the Greek word "biblia" and it's the plural of biblion, the word for an individual book. The Bible is a collection of books, which is why it comes from the plural form.
References and Resources:
Pope John Paul II: Fides et Ratio
Catechism of the Catholic Church 115-118
Vatican II: Dei Verbum 11-20
Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae I, Q1, A 9-10