The author William Faulkner once said, “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.” His comment reminds us that, while our favorite stories might be based on actual events, they are often manipulated in retrospect with moments added or omitted to deepen the meaning or the moral. Some stories of the Bible are like this. Archeological evidence, things like pottery samples and settlement studies, suggests that the great exodus from Egypt to the promised land of Israel may have more of a trickle over years than a massive wave. While there may have been historical kings like David and Solomon, there is little evidence that they were as powerful as the Bible suggests. Even the book of Acts, with its stories of people falling dead at the feet of the disciples feels exaggerated for effect. And yet there is a truth behind and within these stories, a reflection about hope for who God is and how God has made us.
One of the biggest barriers to faith I have encountered is the assumption that to be a Christian one must take the Bible to be 100% historically accurate, despite evidence to the contrary. A college professor of mine who was not a big fan of religion spoke of the need for Christians to “check their brains at the church door.” This was frustrating because I grew up with a faith that welcomed questions and encouraged exploration. Later, in seminary, I was trained to seek the deeper truths behind the text, no longer asking, “Did this happen?” but the more ancient question, “What does this mean?”
In Lutheran circles, especially more conservative Lutheran circles, this attitude will be argued against by noting that Martin Luther was a literalist. While this statement does not tell the whole story of Luther’s relationship with the Bible, it is true that Luther treated the text as historical fact, that the events happened as the Bible testifies.
However, there are two kinds of literalism, sometimes divided into cultural literalism and intentional literalism. Cultural literalism existed for the first sixteen centuries or so of the church. In that time, although there might be a few who raised questions, there was very little evidence in conflict with the biblical world view. The earth was flat. The sun traveled across the sky. There could well have been a flood of water that covered the entirety of the earth. Humanity may well have started with two people in a sacred garden. There was also no concept of genetics; most people assumed that everything needed for the next generations was found in the male “seed.” There was no concept of geology; the possibility that the world might be millions of years old instead of a few thousand. There was a small sense of astronomy, but no one had ever seen the Earth from outer space or flown through the sky where the curvature of the planet becomes clear.
But even as the Reformation was spreading across Europe, Nicholas Copernicus was writing On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, a book that would challenge the earth-centered view of the universe, calling into question one of the basic assumptions of the biblical creation stories. Within a few centuries, as the influence of the scientific method increased, even more of the biblical world-view would come under scrutiny. This leads to the other kind of literalism, intentional literalism. Literalism of this form is an acceptance of the biblical narrative and world-view in spite of evidence to the contrary. At an extreme, this view has created a small group of “Flat-Earthers.” More commonly, it creates conflict around things like the age of the earth, creation and evolution.
What is at stake is something deeper. It is the idea that if one part of the Bible is not accurate, then the whole book can be called into question, most importantly including the stories of Jesus. If the biblical stories of the creation and the flood and the exodus are not factual, then what of the healings and walking on water and resurrection?
As someone who is not a literalist, I do not have an easy answer other than going back to the ancient question mentioned before, “What does this mean?” I cannot prove that any of the Bible is factual, but I would assert that the Bible is true. The texts have something to say to us today; good news and challenges; promises and life. The Bible does not ask us to prove that the creation or the exodus or the resurrection happened. Instead, the Bible challenges to live as though they happened, to live as though we had been created by a loving God; to live as though we had been set free; to live as though we had been raised. In this lifetime, we can never prove that these stories are factual, but we can live knowing that they are true.