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Literalism and the application of it

By Scott Tibbs, February 18, 2008

I am a literalist. I believe that, in general, the best way to interpret any writing is a word-for-word reading of the actual text of that writing. For example, when Jesus says in John 14:6 that "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me", it should be interpreted literally if one is serious about understanding Christian doctrine. As I said four months ago, the Bible makes it very clear that Christian doctrine necessarily excludes all other faiths. Along the same lines, the best way to interpret the Constitution is with the actual words of the Constitution. When the First Amendment states "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech", it should be interpreted literally.

In political discourse, literalism is important. For example, when I criticized Baron Hill because his September 2006 speech on the Indiana University campus was not open to the public, that does not mean that I believe that every single speech an elected official gives should be open to all members of the public. That would be a foolish position to take, as there are circumstances where that would not be appropriate. My criticism of Baron Hill was specific to that particular speech. Again, the best interpretation of what I wrote is a word-for-word reading of my writings on the issue. When someone dishonestly extends my criticism of Hill to a ridiculous extreme, that person can expect to be called on it.

However, not all language is to be interpreted literally. I have never argued for the literal interpretation of everything. If I was that much of an extreme literalist, I would not use terms like sunrise and sunset. The sun does not actually rise or set, after all. The earth rotates, bringing the sun into view. Sunrise and sunset, then, are terms used to describe the event as we see it from our position on the earth. Not every single thing in the Bible is to be interpreted literally, either. For example, the parable of the Prodigal Son is not meant to be an historically account of a father and his wayward son; it is an illustrative example meant to teach a lesson about how God loves His children.

Sometimes, a word can have a broad or more narrow application. The word sodomite has, throughout history, been used to refer to homosexuals. Supporters of homosexual rights seem to think it is "cute" to point out that sodomy can be practiced by heterosexuals, as if that invalidates the application of the word sodomy to homosexual behavior. Obviously not all acts of sodomy are done by homosexuals, but all sex acts by two people of the same sex can accurately be described as sodomy.

There are things that must be interpreted literally. However, common sense says that there are some things that are not to be interpreted literally. Only a fool denies that both of those principles are true simultaneously. In addition, words can have more than one meaning, depending on the context where that word is used. Every single person who has ever lived, without exception, is and will always be a "cafeteria literalist". The key is to have the discernment to understand what should be interpreted literally and what should not be interpreted literally. Any functioning adult should have the capability to make these judgments.