I find it odd that those that most vociferously proclaim that the Bible is the inspired word of God also insist that the Bible should be read literally. But, for me, reading the Bible literally and as an inspired book is a complete contradiction.
Typically, when someone says that the Bible should be read literally they mean that we should read the text by strictly adhering to exact idea conveyed by the words on the page. In other words, there can be no deviation from what the words mean, what the author intended, and what the one meaning of those words and intent is.
I understand that for these same people, the Bible is inspired because it the authors were divinely influenced to write what they did. Some even believe that this divine inspiration gave the authors the exact words to use.
Therefore, these people believe that the Bible can be both literal and inspired.
However, for me, this fails to account the actual idea and meaning of inspiration. Something is inspired when it moves the intellect and emotions. Inspiration influences and suggests, but it does not dictate. Dictation is literal. Inspiration breathes life into something. Life never has a singular meaning. Rather, it is varied and complex.
We speak of art, music, books, poems, etc. as inspired.
Why do we call works of art inspired?
We call works of art inspired because there is a meaning that is deeper than what is directly seen or heard. Inspired works of art are not to be taken literally, as if they are they are to convey one word, one thought, one meaning only. Rather, works of art move and influence the heart and mind to see deeper, opening up meanings and possibilities. Perhaps even thoughts and ideas that the artist did not originally intend.
Inspiration means that there is more than what is obvious. Or, in contrast to many who believe the Bible should be read literally, there is more than the “plain” meaning of the text.
Paul stresses these very ideas about inspiration – that the meaning is more and deeper than what was originally written – throughout his letters. Just read 2 Corinthians 3 and 4. Or, read the the analogies and allegories Paul uses to make Old Testament passages relevant to his audience. Paul interprets the scriptures creatively.
For Paul, there seems to be a range of meanings to the Old Testament, as long as those meanings serve the word that he was occupied with (Acts 17), which was that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer, die, and be resurrected. This was the one thing Paul had a habit of teaching everywhere we went.
The Bible is inspired when the Holy Spirit breathes life into it. This breathing into the words that are written by the Holy Spirit may have happened at the time the words were written. But, more importantly, the breathing into the words by the Holy Spirit happens each time we read the words of the Holy Bible with the Holy Spirit as our teacher. The inspiration of the text happens on a moment by moment basis. The inspiration of the text has happened every day for the last 2,000 years, it is happening now, and it will continue to happen into the future.
When we truly understand God, it is not surprising that the reading of the Bible can be inspired when the Holy Spirit breathes into it.
What is the first thing the Bible says about God?
“In the beginning, God created…”
God is a creator.
God is an artist.
Creation, art, happens through inspiration.
But, God’s creation, his art, can never be captured by a single, literal meaning of words on a page.
What is God’s ultimate artwork, his true masterpiece?
It’s not the Bible.
Ephesians 2.10 says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” The Greek word for workmanship is poeima, from which we get our word poem. Go back to the creation story in Genesis 1. In that chapter, the only portion of text translated as poem is the portion where God creates man, which I find fascinating.
We are God’s poem. We are God’s masterpiece. We, not the Bible, are truly what is inspired by God. When the Holy Spirit breathes into us, then we read the Bible in new and creative ways that make the text have meaning for our time and our culture.
Paul says that we are living letters. We are living witnesses to the Christ. For us today, Christians are to be living Bibles for the world around them.
So, can the Bible be both literal and inspired?
For me, the answer is no.
Literalism kills inspiration.