What does biblical literalism mean?

Ah, and that is also the answer to a riddle which puzzled me for many years. I could not figure out why it was that whenever I met someone who was a hard-core Biblical literalist, that person turned out to have almost no familiarity with what was actually in the Bible. I would always ask myself, “WHY would someone who thinks the Bible is literally true in every detail not bother to read it?”

But that question gets the process exactly backwards. It is the wrong question. The way this works is that people start out as Biblical literalists, having learned that sort of thing from family. Some of them then read the Bible; these, with rare exceptions (I’ve never met one in real life, though they do exist online), cease to be Biblical literalists. The remaining ones, who do not read the Bible, remain Biblical literalists. When one understands the process – that Biblical literalism is generally the result of failure to read the Bible, rather than being a viewpoint based upon a reading of the Bible – then it makes sense.


Biblical literalism and YEC science are very different things. There isn’t any inherent problem with literalism.

Well, “literalism” in the sense of “I think the authors meant their words to be taken literally” is not problematic. “Literalism” in the sense of “I think the Bible is literally true” is problematic in ways which go well beyond YEC-ism.


That also isn’t the problem. One can believe that Genesis is literally true without conflict with science…

Conflict avoidance can be done, for sure. But “conflict with science” is not the only form of problem one can face, and one of the problems of Biblical literalism in this sense is that there’s no reason to adhere to it.

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…as long as you don’t take “literally” literally.

It ain’t necessarily so
It ain’t necessarily so
The things that you’re liable
To read in the Bible
It ain’t necessarily so

Jonah he lived in a whale
Jonah he lived in a whale
He made his home in
that fishes abdomen
Jonah he lived in a whale

Methuselah lived 900 years
Methuselah lived 900 years
Who calls that livin’
When no gal will give in
To no man what’s 900 years


Yeah, exactly. If everything in Genesis is meant to be taken literally, then the author was hoping his readers would not be very discerning. I would have thought that the presence of 900-year-olds and the story of Jonah would be sufficient clues to the fact that nothing in there – certainly not Adam and Eve – should be taken as “true” in anything like the ordinary sense of the word.

Now, of course, it is always the case that an infinite number of ad hocs will patch an infinite number of holes. But once one has done that for one thing, e.g., Adam and Eve, it just is like eating potato chips: you can’t have just one. A better habit is not to start.


“Literal” is a technical term, referencing a “historical-grammatical” hermeneutic, while remaining sensitive to authorial intent and genre.

Well, I do see some finely-diced distinctions in the usage of such terms, sometimes. But I rarely find them particularly useful, especially when the cases are so extreme that all subtlety goes out the window.

If one swallows Jonah and the whale, one has a capacity of credulity which is considerably greater than the whale’s capacity for Jonah. Once one gets there, I do not think there is, any longer, any point in attempting to reconcile anything with reality at all. Why not just admit that the whole thing rests upon that infinite stock of ad hocs? Chalk it all up to the freedom of a person to believe whatever he believes, for any reason or for no reason.


The text doesn’t literally mention a whale…

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The saying is “A Jesuit accused of killing three men and a dog will triumphantly produce the dog, alive.” Who cares whether what swallowed Jonah was a whale or a fish? Does it make the story more credible?


Do you believe that Methuselah lived for 969 years?

Indeed not. But as whales are elsewhere in the OT classified as a type of “fish,” I’m not sure what your point is. Does it help the credibility of the story?

Edit: Ach! I seem to have mis-remembered. Thought there was a passage in the dietary laws referring to whales as belonging to the category of fish. Evidently not.

In a biblical world view it does. The claim is not that a naturally occurring fish swallowed Jonah.
It’s basically a miracle all the way through the incident. First, there is a storm which behaves strangely (stopping as soon as Jonah was thrown off the fish).
Then, there is a specially prepared sea creature (the bible specifically says the “gadol gadol dag” mentioned here was prepared by God.). Since the creature was prepared by God, there is no reason to think it’s a species or there are many such creatures.
We can’t even rule out a de Novo creation or modified marine animal.

Another point is that Jonah says he cried out from the belly of sheol (Jonah 2:2). So, it’s also possible he died during the experience and was resurrected by God.

Bottomline is that Jonah’s account is that of a miracle. The debate as far as I can see is in the extent and nature of the miracle.
I understand why it doesn’t seem credible to you. But then, I am not a naturalist or materialist, and these ideas don’t seem credible to me… So I guess we are even… :slight_smile:

Yep. As I said: why not just acknowledge, when going to the ad hoc bin and grabbing another from the infinite supply, that you’re doing it? After that, there’s nothing to say; no point in a defense, hence no need.

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So, you dont believe in miracles?

I don’t know why my belief in miracles should be the slightest bit relevant here. If I did, I would grab my ad hocs from the same bin you grab 'em from, and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t. That would not change the silliness of it one bit; it would just add one more to the party. What is a terrible shame is using up all those ad hocs without understanding what it is you’re doing.

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It matters because it tells me where you are coming from and what your objection is based on.
There is nothing ad hoc about what I wrote.
In fact, identifying the sea creature as a whale, a fishbone as an known species is ad hoc… there is no textual evidence for such a conclusion.
The entire text points to the incident as a miracle including Jesus himself who calls this even the sign of Jonah.
So there is no “ad hocism” in calling the incident a miracle. It’s rhat bible says.

No, it really doesn’t. When you invoke a miracle, this is just an ad hoc excuse which avoids needing to justify the belief. Very convenient, but of course completely unpersuasive to anyone who does not already agree with you. I’m sure it comforts you to think that people disagree with you only because of some non-coinciding “worldview,” but it’s not usually very likely to be true.

But there is. You wrote:

That’s as ad hoc as it gets. Once you’ve said that, no explanation is necessary; no explanation can shed any light; and no defense of your position can be mounted or is, from your point of view, needed at all. Nor, however, can your position persuade any reasonable person, whether he “believes in miracles” or not. He may elect to go with the same ad hoc, or not; but he can have no basis for deciding whether to do so.

Yes, it is characterized as a miracle. And a miracle is an ad hoc. It’s a skyhook, an unexplained and unexplainable cause which evades scrutiny; it is, in other words, a thing unworthy of the attention of folks of who have work to do in the world.

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I am really not approaching this from the perspective of “what people will think”.
Nor am I looking for what is comfortable to me. That’s not how anyone should read the bible.
As to being persuasive. Why don’t you persuade me. Show me from the text
a)why its talking about a whale or any other natural animal.
b) Why I shouldn’t believe Jesus when he points tonite as a miracle and a type of His resurrection.

Its ad hoc only if I am saying without any basis in the text itself. This is not the case.

If he believes in the bible, he can follow my argument. Look at whether the text says what I claim and come to his own conclusion.
If it’s a skeptic, Jonah’s story is not the place to start. The place to start is the death and resurrection of Jesus.

You really seem to have a problem with miracles.
Do you respond the same way to the resurrection of Jesus?
Is it also a thing "unworthy of attention of folks who have work to do in the world?
I guess that would make all confessing Christian’s a peculiar folk who believe in ad hoc stuff like dead guys coming to life, God, heaven,hell etc…