United Methodist Beliefs: Is the Bible Literal?
Do you have questions about the meaning of some of the terms and teachings of The United Methodist Church? In this series, we ask clergy to share their understanding of topics. No preaching, just conversation.
The Rev. Adam Hamilton, The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection: “So, people ask me, ‘Do you have to read the Bible literally?’ And the answer to that sort of hinges on what part of it you’re reading. So, when you read, you go to the beginning, you read the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, those are archetypal stories. They’re really not trying to tell us the story of some ancient people who lived millennia, or maybe hundreds of thousands of years ago. They’re trying to tell us about ourselves. And so, in those stories, we don’t so much read them literally. We read the truth of them. They’re archetypal stories and we also are Adam and Eve. If you miss that and you try to read that as history and you fail to understand that the real import of those texts is to tell us about ourselves, then you’ve missed the truth of those stories. But you come to the Gospels and the stories of Jesus and we read those much more literally. Now we recognize even in the Gospel accounts, there are different ways of telling the story. So, I read them and take the main idea and the things that Jesus is saying but for instance, Jesus ascends to heaven from where? In one Gospel he ascends to heaven from Galilee. In another Gospel, he ascends 90 miles south of there in Jerusalem at Bethany. So, If I’m reading them literally, I have a problem. But if I’m reading them and saying, ‘Okay. These are two different accounts, they’re two different recollections of the same story,’ I’m not so caught up in, ‘Did it happen in Bethany or Jerusalem?’ But I believe it happened. Depending on which part of the Bible we’re reading, we read it more or less literally. There’s poetry in the Bible, so you read that as poetry. There’s wisdom literature, so you read it as wisdom literature. But there are other stories, like the story of Jonah in the belly of the whale, and that story I think is one that is meant to be ready prophetically. We read it and we understand that it’s making a point. And the point is Jonah’s hardness of heart and unwillingness to seek repentance and getting stuck in the belly of the whale is where we often get stuck. Did it happen literally? I’m okay if it did but I don’t think that was the point. I don’t think the point was to tell us about somebody who was swallowed by a big fish. I think it was to tell us about our own hardness of heart and God’s relentless mercy even for the people who are enemies of God. So, I’d say some places you read it more literally than other places. Always, you’re listening for the truth with a capital ‘T.’ What is God trying to teach us through our sacred story?”
This video was first posted on January 10, 2018.