Ironically, the trouble with biblical literalism is that it doesn’t take the word “literal” literally.
In a substantial essay from Faith, Philosophy, Scripture, entitled “Scripture as Incarnation” (an essay that should be required reading for all who frequent the bloggernacle, an older version of which is available in its entirety here), Jim Faulconer presses this point.
I won’t attempt to precis the whole argument (seriously, stop reading this and go read the whole unbastardized version). Instead, I’ll just dangle some bait.
Faulconer claims that biblical literalism mirrors modernism in its unwillingness to give the “letter” of scripture its due. Both biblical literalism and modernism adhere to a “referential” theory of language that reduces language itself right out of the picture as simply a disposable and preferably transparent tool for connecting non-linguistic things.
In both instances, there is no word made flesh. There is just flesh – words should do their work of pointing to it and then get out of the way. Letters contribute nothing. They should be seen, not heard.
Faulconer argues that this is not only a shoddy account of how language works, it’s an especially shoddy account of what the premodern biblical authors understood themselves to be doing.
These authors “do not disjoin the literal and the spiritual” (193). Rather, they see the letters themselves as an integral part of our human engagement with the divine. They understand their words about what God did as an “incarnation” of that divine action, as a way of joining the human and the divine by making the flesh word.
Telling what God did does not amount to reporting in minimal fashion the “bare” facts of an event.
For premodern Bible interpreters, the divine order that events incarnate gives them their meaning. A literal history, therefore, necessarily incorporates and reveals that order. Any history that does not incorporate it is incomplete and, therefore, inaccurate. It is inaccurate because it does not embody the divine order that makes it what it is. That means that premodern literal histories – the accurate portrayals of what happened, if one continues to insist on referential language – will differ significantly from literal histories told under the aspect of a different order, such as that of the rationalism of modernism. (194)
The difference between the two is literally the exclusion or inclusion of the letter itself. In scripture, the addition of the letter, the supplement of the word, shows how more is going on in the historical events than the bare historical events themselves . . . but the price of showing this is the “loss” of any bare, “objective,” scriptural history.
This doesn’t mean that the scriptures aren’t historical. It means that – mercifully! – they aren’t just historical. (Though, to be fair, failing to be “just” historical is messy business.)
Where biblical literalism insists that the word get out of the way so as not to impeded our view of the flesh, scripture insists that without the addition of the word revealing to us that which is more than the flesh in the flesh itself, we have excised God from the picture.
In biblical literalism, being “literal” means being accurate and accuracy demands that the letter of the text should not itself contribute anything to the account.
In scriptural literalism, being “literal” means being historical as supplemented by the letter of the text that reveals God fully at work in that history.
In biblical literalism, flesh – word = accuracy.
In scripture, flesh + word = revelation.
Take your pick.