Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Literally

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.

18 comments for “Faith, Philosophy, Scripture: Literally

  1. Please forgive my lack of intelligence, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.

  2. Larren, the idea is basically that you don’t have to think about the role of language. You read and there’s a non-reflexive understanding. (i.e. how you immediately interpret the text) That is the real meaning.

    This is problematic since, for example, the scriptures weren’t written in English but also because they are transmitting a meaning from one context (say Palestine of late antiquity) into an other (say rural Texas of the 20th century). This not attending to the words and pretending they are invisible is more or less the idea that the scriptures read as if the writer was a part of your community and speaking with you in your normal everyday way. But of course that’s really misleading and leads to all sorts of incorrect ideas from the scriptures.

    It’s interesting that Nephi’s critique of scripture within the apostasy was that it was correct when it proceeded from the mouth of the prophets but not when written. I don’t think that quite goes far enough but I think it gets at the core of what’s going on.

    When we attend to the words we recognize that reading is inherently limited and that there is always the possibility of misunderstanding. In this view we recognize the words interfere with a direct relationship with God. Thus scripture becomes not the transmission of pure meaning (as it tends to be for Protestants in varying degrees) but rather a catalyst to revelation as we reflect on the words and try to understand what God wants us to understand by them.

  3. Clark, this is helpful but I think Jim is making a stronger claim in the essay: not just that the “weakness” of language ends up providing, derivatively, a salutary revelatory occasion, but that the role that language/words/letters play in the substantive constitution of a spiritual history is essential.

    My additional description is weak but, again, I highly recommend Jim’s own essay. It’s very accessible and well worth the effort.

  4. Jax,

    Would you please pass the Advil?

    As usual, I need to go through your post a few more times, Adam. But I do love your series!

  5. Adam, I’m not sure what I said goes against that. (And it’s very much an idea found within Judaism as well) All that said I’m a tad skeptical of the degree towards which Jim pushes it. Unless one expands the notion of scripture text quite a bit. (I confess it’s been a while since I last read Jim’s paper – but that’s my memory of my last reading)

    One way of seeing this is Derrida’s old notion that every text always produces a new text. Nibley’s old mantic vs. sophic had a similar notion where all that counts is this openness to revelation. But in that case what does the revelation give? (I criticized him on this point way back on my blog series on his philosophy many years ago) Now Jim’s of course much more careful and sophisticated on this matter than Nibley.

    The way out is found, somewhat ironically (at least if you read Derrida) is via Searle’s speech acts. We can talk about meaning which is always an other text but we can also talk about the text’s meaning in terms of what it does. This is important for Jim of course since he tends to privilege practice above theory. Elder Oaks has a famous talk along those lines as well where he notes the meaning of James that counted for Joseph Smith wasn’t its strict textual exegesis but rather its leading him to go into the woods and pray.

  6. To add (and I’m sure you’ve noticed this Adam) one thing that strikes one who reads Nephi after reading On Grammatology is the speech/letter opposition.

    Also why language introduces a “weakness” is simply that it means nothing is unmediated including my own history. I just didn’t want to get into that issue. I think what Jim gets at is really a consequence of the mediatition of the sign.

  7. Wonderful post, Adam. We’re finally getting down to brass tacks.

    Jim F. cited Frei’s discussion. Frei described the precritical approach to interpreting the Bible (his term for what Jim F. calls premodern) as giving primacy to the literal sense of the text (words meant what they said, not some allegory) and holding that the literal sense accurately described real events. The Bible was deemed to be self-interpreting. As far as I can tell, this is pretty much approach to reading the scriptures that has been and still is used in LDS curriculum materials and the CES.

    When the literal meaning and the historical reference were later seen to be possibly different, the problem arose of how to distinguish realistic but essentially fictional narrative from historical narrative (text with a historical reference). Here’s Frei (p. 27 of The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative):

    A realistic story is not necessarily history; but the difference between the two is that of reference or lack or reference, and not that of a different kind of account being appropriate in each case. On the contrary, in respect of descriptive or depictive form, history or realistic story are identical.

    I think most historians would say that if evidence (documentary or artifactual) is lacking, determining reference would be difficult or impossible, but that in theory the reference determination is possible, even straightforward. In the essay, Jim F. seems to be saying that question of reference is very problematic, even in theory. That’s where he lost me, I think.

  8. Dave while there have been influxes of the “self-interpreting model” into CES literature (especially Evangelical or Seventh Day Adventist sources) I have a real hard time agreeing that LDS curriculum takes things as self-interpreting. Just look how often an appeal to a GA is made that doesn’t match the literal sense of the passage. I think tradition has much, much more to do with how LDS read scripture. In that way I think we’re more Catholic than Evangelical.

    Now a traditional reading may still be problematic (don’t get me started on the Institute Manuals). However I don’t think it’s self-interpreting in the least.

    Further there’s that strong, strong tradition within the LDS hermeneutic illustrated by the Elder Oaks talk I mentioned. You can find that tradition fairly frequently within Conference talks.

  9. Clark, I’m sure that in practice Mormons read through the lens of an interpretive tradition, but I don’t know that that’s how they would articulate what they’re doing. Evangelicals are the same way: they think they’re giving a Common Sense reading, but only because they’re unaware of how they’re influenced by an interpretive tradition.

  10. The essay here is more than a little opaque, but other than a general warning against simplistic textualism, it seems to be a covert attempt to elevate language to some sort of idolatry, in and apart from anything that language actually stands for.

    By any real account of the world, a statement only has meaning by making some sort of statement or proposition about what is or could be, and that anything that cannot be understood in such terms has aesthetic value at best. As D&C 93:24 has it:

    And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come;

    In other words, truth is all about reality and possibility. If you take reality and possibility out of truth all you have are sounding cymbals and tinkling brass, a bunch of tidy phrases that have nothing to do with everything.

  11. I completely agree though that extensive meaning in the scriptures is found in spiritual realities that scriptural passages stand for, not just temporal facts, and certainly that authors of scriptures historically played fast and loose with the facts in an attempt to convey the former rather than the latter.

    That doesn’t mean however, that the authors weren’t trying to reference something, but rather that they were trying to symbolize or “reference” something other than the historical incidents themselves.

  12. Mark D. “That doesn’t mean however, that the authors weren’t trying to reference something, but rather that they were trying to symbolize or “reference” something other than the historical incidents themselves.”

    Bingo! Except that rather than saying “other than” I would prefer to say “more than.”

  13. Actually, I read the original shortly after it first appeared. I didn’t understand it then, and still don’t, though Clark’s paraphrase helps. Philosophy makes my eyes glaze over.

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