The Letter Kills

(2 Cor 3:6 NASB) …who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

John, chapter 3, describes the visit under cover of darkness by a Jewish leader named Nicodemus. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be “born again”, but Nicodemus takes Jesus literally and asks how can an adult crawl back into the womb. Jesus expected some flexibility in thinking as he says: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

The legacy of Nicodemus is alive and well in Christianity, and this literal mindedness is the single greatest threat to the movement that Jesus started.

After about 1,500 years of ascendancy in western society, the Christian religion has fallen out of favor and otherwise enlightened people look upon the religion as something without intellectual foundation and even as an evil that people would be better off without. So what happened?

Historically, the “Enlightenment” and in particular some 19th century German theologians made a rather radical departure from traditional Christian teaching. They tried to secularize the Gospels, explain miracles in naturalistic ways, paint Jesus as almost anything (except divine) and generally make Christianity something of a historical curiosity, but without a claim on humankind’s hearts. They took the Bible and Jesus’ teachings literally, and what scriptures literally said was something they couldn’t reconcile with their scientific world view.

In reaction to the Enlightenment, an new group took a radical turn in the opposite direction, insisting that everything in scripture was literally and historically true. These are the forerunners of modern-day fundamentalism. So what you had were two groups, both taking the scriptures literally, but one saying that that they are false because they can’t be reconciled with science and history, while the other group said scripture was true, essentially denying science and history.

The fundamentalists founded crackpot scientific theories, like young-Earth creationism and flood geology. They deny what most educated people regard as facts. And as a result, Christianity has been associated with crackpot ideas and intellectual bankruptcy. So in the guise of saving Christianity from the radical liberals, fundamentalists have dealt a much more destructive blow to the religion than anything they were reacting to.

Here are some of the specific ways that literalism is destructive:

  • Literal-minded folks read the books of Daniel and Revelation as literal time lines of future history. Many have sold all their possessions and went up the mountain expecting the descent of the New Jerusalem. Some have been killed in the process. Such events show Christians as credulous, easily duped, and generally not to be relied upon.
  • Literal-minded folks took a phrase in scripture as justification to torture individuals to coerce them into becoming Christians (the Inquisition).
  • Literal-minded folks try to get well-established scientific knowledge such as evolution or the age of the earth banned from schools, or to give equal time to crackpot pseudo-scientific ideas such as “young-Earth creationism” and flood geology. As a result Christians are seen as trying to force their views onto public school children.
  • Literal-minded folks take the view that only one translation of the Bible is allowed. Since this view has no rational basis, proponents of these views have to result to lies, distortions and character assassination. The result is infighting and the world seeing that Christians lie when they say that they love each other.
  • Taking things literally leads to more splintering and divisions between Christians.

What has been discussed up to this point is how literalism creates negative views of Christians by outsiders. What is even more dangerous is what such views do to individuals who hold them. The Christian religion is all about grace over law. Literalism is law. Literalism leads to judgmentalism, self-righteousness, division and intellectual stagnation. And it it prevents the flexibility of thinking that lead Jesus to say to Nicodemus, ” Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things? … If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”.

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