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A resurgence of biblical literalism?

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 3 June 2013

I have been in a bible study in which the major topic of conversation about the story of the Good Samaritan was the location of the town that would have contained an inn on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho to which the victim was taken. This is akin to the search for Noah's ark on mount Ararat. An insistence on historicity is a distraction from the task of listening to Scripture.

One would think that this kind of obsession with whether biblical texts were true in the historical sense would have faded after a hundred years of the application of the historical-critical method that demonstrated that biblical texts were more preaching than an account of actual events in time. This realization is pertinent to the portrayal of what we would call the miraculous. There is history in the bible but the miraculous can now be understood in many cases as metaphor or in terms of the prescientific view of the writer.

Let us take one example from the New Testament, the gospel according to Luke and its extension by the same author the Acts of the Apostles. The writer of Luke-Acts extended his gospel back to before the birth of Jesus to include the conception of both Jesus and John the Baptist and forward to a description of the growth of the early church. While this has provided the church with a rich narrative of origins and development it has posed particular problems to readers who are wedded to a modern historicist orientation, i.e. those who want the events described in the gospels to be actual, recordable events.


The richness of the gospel includes stories not given in the other gospels that are known even by despisers of religion like the story of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. Luke's scheme of events has also informed to a large degree the calendar of the church's year a resource that orders ordinary time into sacred time.

Luke's scheme of crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost followed by stories of the early Church occurs in no other gospels. While all the gospels include the resurrection none of the others proceed to describe the ascension of Jesus into heaven, the day of Pentecost or the early stories of the fledgling church.

All narratives demand certain logic. It does not do to leave things hanging in the air. It is interesting to examine Luke's scheme holding this in mind. When Luke extends his story beyond the resurrection he created narrative problems that had to be dealt with. The other synoptic gospels stop at the resurrection appearances with the promise of Jesus' continuing presence in the Church or in the world. By extending his narrative Luke creates a specific problem. He lives at a time in which appearances of Jesus no longer occur. The problem arises as to what is the difference between the presence of Jesus as in the resurrection appearances and his continuing presence to the church once these appearances have ended?

While the other synoptic gospels do not confront this question, Luke, by extending his gospel to include the growth of the early Church in Acts meets it head on. I would suggest that he solves the problem of the end of the appearances of Jesus by inventing the story of the ascension, possibly borrowing from the Old Testament story of Elijah being taken up into heaven. By doing this Luke kills two birds with one stone, he provides an explanation as to why the risen one no longer appears to the church and he also seats Jesus at the right hand of the Father thus including him within the godhead.

However, this raises another problem. While the other gospels promise the presence of the risen one with the Church into the future, Luke has removed him from the world and left the church an orphan, as the gospel of John would have it. The solution to the absence to the Church of its Lord is solved by the event of Pentecost in which the Spirit is poured out onto the Church. Jesus is with his community in the form of the Holy Spirit. There is one problem here, and that is that the Spirit is separated from the Father and the Son and appears to act independently from them in the rest of Acts.

Whereas, in the gospel of John, Jesus appears in the locked room and breaths the Holy Spirit onto the disciples, in Luke, this connection is absent; we are only told that the Spirit comes from heaven. John also identifies the Spirit with truth, a major theme in his gospel, whereas Luke almost regards it as a substance with which people are filled.


It is significant that the stories of Luke are full of metaphorical tropes and are thus quite different from an historical description of an event. For example, in all of the gospels the resurrection appearances of Jesus transform the witnesses from doubt to faith, from sadness to joy, from regret to acceptance. This is true for all of the appearances except for a note in Matthew that tells us that "some doubted". Historicists would say that this transformation comes about because the appearances are taken as evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead and that God can do all kinds of things in the world. This is a particularly modern conclusion and does not account for the tenor of the appearances. The risen Jesus is not the same old Jesus back again. While he is still the crucified one bearing the marks in hands and feet, he can appear and disappear at will. What we have here is a metaphor of the presence of the crucified one with the Church, a crucial aspect that is celebrated each Sunday and without which Christian worship would lose its essential character.

In regard to historicist readings of the gospel of Luke, the above analysis exposes Luke as an inventor of stories that are intended to defuse criticism and establish the Church as having a future in the Spirit. Thus the events of the Ascension and of Pentecost are made up stories derived from the logic of the narrative that also supports an essential ecclesiology. If this is the case then the stories are to be read as metaphors and not as descriptions of actual events. In other words the stories are more preaching than historical accounts. This is why preaching is possible at all.

The central historical event in Christianity is the crucifixion of Christ. But that alone is not good news. The gospel that is good news was derived from that event and its circumstances by the early church. This became its preaching and has been laid down in stories in the gospels and argument in the Epistles. To regard the resurrection as the same kind of historical event as the crucifixion disregards their difference. The crucifixion is an act of men available to all who have eyes to see. The resurrection is an act of God available only to the eyes of faith. The first is the seen and the second is the unseen. Both are real events. However the crucifixion is an event now lost in the past, as are all historical events. It cannot now be observed. The resurrection, by contrast, is an existing reality in which Christians live and whose lives are maintained in hope.

An historicist account raises many objections that must be barriers to faith. It portrays the world of Jesus as being hospitable to miraculous events that do not now occur in our time. While the European Enlightenment is to be criticized for establishing empiricism as the only true knowledge, thus marginalizing the knowledge of faith, it has established a world devoid of spirit in the natural sense, i.e. the world is a natural place. In our time, with the triumph of science and technology all around us, any attempt to convince us that spirit is a natural force is bound to eventually run into trouble. This would be an attempt to re-introduce the supernatural as an aspect of nature.

To believe that the resurrection consisted of God reversing the processes of death to again produce a living being means that we have to roll out a theology that has God as divine actor in the physics of the world. This leads us back to the unsolvable debate between science and religion, a dead end if there ever was one. It also revives the understanding of providence, that God looks over and controls every minute event in the universe. This has become an absurdity to those of us living in late modernity and a major cause of the ridicule of the belief of the Church. It is also pastorally insensitive for obvious reasons.

The way forward for the Church is not a retreat into a literal and hence historical reading of Scripture. Such a move is theologically stultifying because is removes the richness and free play of metaphor and we easily become bogged down in the detail.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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