Posted: Oct 09, 2010 8:14 pm
by TimONeill
Onyx8 wrote:I think literalism is a very recent phenomenon.


It is.

quas wrote: I told him his beliefs probably differed from early Christians, particularly the Church fathers, whom I believe were quite the literalists.


No, they weren't. Patristic era Christianity developed no less that four levels of interpretation or "exegesis" for scripture: (i) literal, (ii) allegorical/symbolic, (iii) moral and (iv) eschatological. Any passage or verse of scripture could be interpreted as having inerrant meaning on one or more of those four levels of interpretation. So when the Bible says "Leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum" (Matt 4:13), this was interpreted purely on the literal level - he left Nazareth and went to Capernaum.

But when the Bible says "But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights." (Jonah 1:17), the literal level ( a man actually lived in a big fish for three days and nights) was the least important here and was possibly not to be taken literally at all. The important levels of exegesis here were thought to be the other three: the allegorical ("Jonah's three days represents Jesus' death and resurrection"), the moral ("there is no escaping the imperatives of God, he'll find a way to make you meet them") and the eschatological ("God will judge the wicked at the end of the world and they will be swallowed by Hell").

The literal level was usually the least significant form of interpretation and could at times be disregarded altogether. Far from being "quite the literalists" to the extent that they allowed the literal interpretation of the Bible to contradict science and overwhelm common sense, Church Fathers like Augustine ridiculed ignorant Christians who did this:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.
(Augustine, On Genesis, XXXIX.19.1)

Augustine goes on to chastise these "incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture (who) bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren". He wasn't alone, 250 years before him Origen ridiculed those who simply took the Bible literally:

What person of intelligence, I ask, will consider as a reasonable statement that the first and the second and the third day, in which there are said to be both morning and evening, existed without sun and moon and stars, while the first day was even without a heaven? .... I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history.

(Origen, First Principles, IV.3)

Origen was writing in the Second Century - I wonder what he'd make of millions of fundamentalist Christian literalists who do precisely what he noted no "person of intelligence" could do. And this principle allowed later thinkers a lot of leeway when it came to considering the natural world. We might consider the idea that life arose naturally out of mud by the action of heat and the elements and that this means such naturalistic processes are still in play and new species are probably still arising a very modern idea - in fact a very Darwinian idea. But that was the theory put forward by the Medieval scientist William of Conches in his Dragmaticon in the Twelfth Century. William still believed that Genesis was true, just that it wasn't a literal description of what happened scientifically. And no, contrary to the myths about that period, he wasn't burnt at the stake for saying this.

So why did (some of) Christianity become purely literalist? As Onyx8 says above, that happened quite recently. When Martin Luther rejected the authority of Catholic "tradition", he replaced it with the idea that Scripture alone (sola scriptura) was the source of truth. This lead to Protestantism becoming a welter of conflicting and competing interpretations of scripture, with denominations and congregations dividing and splitting over the interpretations of single words. The result of this was a series of renewal movements that wanted to heal these rifts and get everyone back to basics that they could all agree on. Increasingly, this meant dragging interpretation back to the literal - since that was the easiest to agree on.

But the slide toward fundamentalist literalism didn't really take place until the early 1900s, when in a reaction to "Modernism" and the use of source criticism and higher criticism to unpick the historical origins of the Bible and of Christianity itself. Militant Protestantism reacted by retreating into an aggressive fundamentalism - which is why we don't see organised attacks on the teaching of evolution until the 1920s. The modern interrelated fundamentalist, Moral Majority, Dominionist and Creationist/ID movements grew out of this early Twentieth Century reaction - one that enshrined literalism in a way never seen before.

So no, the Church Fathers were not "quite the literalists" at all. They would have had no problem with evolution just as William of Conches' contemporaries had no problem with his proto-evolutionary ideas. Literalism is a much more recent phenomenon that Origen and Augustine would have scoffed at.