On the Difference Between “Literal” and “Idiot-Literal” Interpretation

literalI’ve already written once before on the issue of a ‘literal’ hermeneutic. I want to take time once again to clarify, from another angle, that there is a difference between a ‘literal’ hermeneutic (method of interpretation) and what I’m calling an ‘idiot-literal’ hermeneutic.

Classic Literal
A classic “literal” hermeneutic was the favored interpretive method of the Magisterial Reformers such as Calvin and Luther, which, at its better moments, has been followed by their Protestant heirs. It also might be called the “historical-grammatical” method because, in a nutshell, its aim is to first understand what the author’s intended use of a given word, sentence, paragraph was in accordance with the historical, cultural, and literary context and usual grammatical rules. As Kevin Vanhoozer has said, “the literal sense is the literary sense.” Interpreting a text ‘literally’ in this sense did not mean ignoring figures of speech, metaphors, analogy, or running roughshod over genres, context, or linguistic anomalies. Essentially, if the biblical author is trying to write history, you read the text like history; if poetry, like poetry; if a letter, then as a letter.

The Magisterial Reformers were, for the most part, humanist scholars trained in rhetoric and an appreciation for literary art, so they championed this sort of exegesis as a corrective against the spiritualizing, or rather allegorizing, interpretive methods favored by some in the Middle Ages, and passed down from some of the Fathers such as Origen and Augustine that could, and I say this with great respect for those classic interpreters, could go off the rails a bit as they found all sorts of hidden, “spiritual” meanings in rather straightforward texts. While the Reformers didn’t rule out certain typological interpretations–for instance it’s fine, and even necessary, to see a figure of Christ when discussing OT sacrifices or King David–they worried that some of the allegorizing that went on led to the Scriptures becoming a “wax nose” of sorts, that could be shaped and reshaped at will. Any typological interpretation must come after and be in line with the original story, or law that was set forth according to its intended purpose. (From what I understand, Thomas Aquinas was actually a champion of rooting the “spiritual” sense in the literal sense as well.) Now, admittedly they weren’t perfect at this themselves, but by and large this was a good move for biblical studies and theology in general.

My point here is to clarify that a “literal” interpretation in the classic sense is not what might be called a “literalistic”, or illiterate approach to the text, but rather it is one concerned with discovering the author’s intended meaning in accordance with sound rules of literary interpretation. Which brings me to our next category: the idiot-literal hermeneutic.

An idiot-literal hermeneutic is the interpretive method that is favored mostly by liberalizing critics for straw-manning conservative  opponents. It consists of finding the most obtuse, ham-handed, or silly interpretation of any given biblical text that fails to recognize a textual or literary clue that we’re dealing with figurative language and holding it up as the necessary reading for anybody holding a “literal” hermeneutic. Often-times it’s linked in these presentations to the doctrine of “inerrancy” (which, for some reason, is usually also caricatured, confused, and conflated with a straight dictation theory of inspiration).

Now, I’m not denying that often-times you can find conservative/fundamentalist interpreters whose readings border on self-caricature. In fact, along with Beale, I do think the time might come when we need to start using the phrase “literate” hermeneutic, or something of that sort in order to distinguish things. Still, I do think it’s important to clarify that just because someone self-identifies as adhering to a “literal” hermeneutic, or because the Reformers held to one, it does not mean they must adopt whatever silliness is imputed to them by their critics on pain of inconsistency.

This was necessarily rough and probably simplistic, but hopefully it sufficed to make my point–a literal reading of the text is not the same as an idiot-literal reading of the text. You haven’t refuted conservative hermeneutical approaches by simply picking the dumbest reading possible and saying, “Here, this is what you have to believe, right?” Also, if you pride yourself on your conservative view of scripture and hermeneutical approach, please don’t play into the caricature–do your homework.

Soli Deo Gloria

PS. For those looking to learn how to read their Bibles better:

1.  How To Read Your Bible For All It’s Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart is an excellent place to start.
2.  Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by William W. Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robbert I. Hubbard Jr. is also excellent, although a bit more advanced.

13 thoughts on “On the Difference Between “Literal” and “Idiot-Literal” Interpretation

  1. I had a prof who said we should simply say “normal interpretation” since we read and interpret the Bible using language the way we normally do. E.g., It’s usually easy to distinguish between literal and figurative language, etc.

      • I’m sorry, I should have been more clear. He was addressing those who made straw men arguments similar to what you referenced in your post. These critics know, for example, how to distinguish between figurative and literal and do so every day in the course of reading and talking yet for some reason fail to do so when it comes to the Bible or they assume that we fail to do so when it comes to Bible interpretation. I don’t think he was trying to develop a label or a new hermeneutical category.

      • Oh, I get you. I’m just being facetious. It is funny though how many critical scholars’ reading comprehension skills drop off around this subject–either in assuming the stupidity of the text, or conservative readers. It’s simply amazing.

  2. The other problem with “literal” is that we use it as a synonym for “seriously” or “really,” as in, “I literally waited 40 minutes for my Pizza.” Now transplant that usage into a comment like, “You’re interpretation is wrong because it’s not literal” and suddenly we’re driving in one of those fun European-style roundabouts.

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  5. Derek,
    A couple of thoughts….

    One, in spite of your admission about being a bit simplistic I think you’re overlooking a huge blind spot when in your own caricature of “liberalizing critics.” That is, most of those that I encounter who appeal to worst form of the argument are usually arguing from a place of serious wounding from communities entrenched in fundamentalist interpretation of various aspects of scripture. They’re not appealing to the “dumb” version of the argument to make an argument easier to win so much as they are unpacking legitimate baggage. My concern is the pastoral implications of framing their starting place in the way you have here.

    Two, to this line – “Often-times it’s linked in these presentations to the doctrine of ‘inerrancy’ (which, for some reason, is usually also caricatured, confused, and conflated with a straight dictation theory of inspiration).” Yes…but. I think this ignores the fact that many conservative evangelical churches teach this as THE doctrine of inerrancy to their congregants. Often coming from pastors who were trained at particular conservative evangelical seminaries who taught this form of inerrancy. Mine sure did and the same can be said for many of my biblical studies friends in college. It was quite a shock to discover the difference between a Classic literal hermeneutic and what you’ve dubbed as “idiot-literal”. Most of all, I felt lied to by my church community and it took a while for me process that because of the things that I said and did from that starting place.

    My point is that if you’re going to go after those individuals who employ an “idiot-hermeneutic” a broader recognition needs to made of “idiot-churches” and “idiot-seminaries” who propagate and defend this caricature with the bumper sticker line “God said…I believe it…that settles it.” There also needs to be a reckoning for this stronghold of indoctrination within the conservative evangelical camp.

    much love,

    • Yes, I know that is a dimension to all of this. I am more referring to those scholars who ought to know better at this point, though. Or riders who are acting like they have academic and intellectual credibility and are informing the world about how silly literalist readings are. It grates because there is a lot of irresponsible stuff written here by people who can know better.

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