How To Be A Biblical Literalist

JoAnna Wahlund - Literalist


A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend posted the article \”Everyone\’s a Biblical Literalist Until You Bring Up Gluttony\” by Rachel Held Evans to her timeline. The title caught my eye because it reminded me of several arguments for same-sex attraction that I\’d heard in my Lutheran days. Sure enough, the crux of the article was that since Christians don\’t take Biblical prohibitions against gluttony or women not wearing head-coverings literally, then we shouldn\’t take the Bible\’s admonitions against homosexuality literally, either.

As a Lutheran, I probably would have read the entire thing while nodding enthusiastically—but this time, I read it while chuckling and shaking my head. When I finished, I thought, This is why I love being Catholic, because it\’s the only way you can be a \”Biblical literalist\” in a logical, coherent manner.

That\’s the beauty of Catholicism—you don\’t have to twist yourself into a pretzel trying to figure out which parts of the Bible should be taken literally, or figuratively, or symbolically, or which prohibitions were only applied to a certain group in a specific context. The reason for this is that Jesus established a Church with the teaching authority to decide it for us. There\’s 2,000+ years of study, discussion, and precedent for figuring these things out.

Ms. Evans asks in her article, \”…why do so many Christians focus on the so-called \’clobber verses\’ related to homosexuality while ignoring \’clobber verses\’ related to gluttony or greed, head coverings or divorce?\”

Well, Catholics don\’t. For example, the Church certainly doesn\’t condone gluttony. The Catechism lists it among the seven capital sins (otherwise known as the seven deadly sins) in paragraph 1866. We\’re also given a definition of gluttony, as found in the Catholic Encyclopedia: \”Clearly one who uses food or drink in such a way as to injure his health or impair the mental equipment needed for the discharge of his duties, is guilty of the sin of gluttony. It is incontrovertible that to eat or drink for the mere pleasure of the experience, and for that exclusively, is likewise to commit the sin of gluttony.\”

The reason Catholics don\’t hold prayer vigils in front of, say, Golden Corral is not because we don\’t consider gluttony a sin, but because we can\’t make an objective judgement of each person\’s culpability when it comes to their eating habits. Eating is not a sin. Enjoying food is not a sin. Having dessert is not a sin. It\’s possible to eat, enjoy food, and have dessert without being a glutton, and chances are most of the patrons at Golden Corral are simply there to eat, enjoy food, and have dessert. Are some of the patrons of Golden Corral engaging in the sin of gluttony? Maybe. Maybe not. We can\’t objectively know that grave sin is being committed within its walls. Moreover, while gluttony is a sin and can be a serious sin, it\’s not a sin that deliberately kills another human being, such as abortion.

We know that abortion is objectively wrong in every circumstance. While gluttony can sometimes be a venial sin, abortion is always a mortal sin. We know that children are killed at abortion facilities. So, we hold prayer vigils in front of abortion facilities because we can know with certainty that an objective, intrinsic evil is happening there—we know with 100% certainty that innocent human beings are being robbed of their lives. Prayer vigils in front of abortion facilities aren\’t meant to condemn the individuals obtaining abortions or performing abortions, but rather to call on the grace of God to touch the hearts of those involved and call them to repentance, and to pray for the souls of those killed.

The Church also strongly and clearly condemns greed (as is evident by the brouhaha over Pope Francis\’ condemnation of unjust economic systems) and divorce (as is evident by Her teaching that Catholics who contract a civil divorce are still married in the eyes of the Church). She also clearly teaches that head coverings in church is a discipline, not a doctrine (if you don\’t know the difference between these two, go here for an excellent explanation), and thus the faithful aren\’t currently bound to observe that particular discipline, but may do so if they wish.

It\’s also extremely easy to interpret the Bible with a bias towards justifying one\’s own sins. For example, as Ms. Evans correctly notes in her article, someone who has a close family member going through a divorce is more likely to have a softer, more permissive interpretation of Jesus\’ admonitions against divorce, and the Church\’s prohibitions against remarriage after divorce. Someone who has a relative with same-sex attraction or has same-sex attraction might do the same with the Bible\’s admonitions against same-sex behavior.

The Church is an objective interpreter, however, and She is more concerned with promulgating teachings that are correct and truthful as opposed to teachings that won\’t offend anyone or make their lives harder—because the plain truth is that Christianity is not easy and is not meant to be easy. C.S. Lewis noted this in God in the Dock: \”Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness? While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best…. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.\”

Inevitably, whenever I discuss this issue with non-Catholics or cafeteria Catholics, I hear an objection along the lines of, \”You\’re saying that Catholics don\’t need to think independently because the Vatican thinks for them! I could never do that!\” That really couldn\’t be further from the truth. The best articulation of this concept is one I read in the comment section of Little Catholic Bubble several years ago:

Once a person accepts certain premises that then draws him or her to the Church, they do not cease to think for themselves. However, let\’s take human sexuality for an example, once I accept the premises that lead me to the Church, the Church\’s view of human sexuality is infinitely logical and well-reasoned. Even difficult teachings, such as those on sterilization for women who risk their lives during pregnancy, or the teaching that gays must remain celibate, fit perfectly with the tapestry of life that the Church teaches. It doesn\’t make them easy teachings, but their \”ease\” is totally unrelated to their \”reasonableness\” or \”truthfulness\”.

And when those premises are accepted, and a person then hears another Catholic teaching, they don\’t think to themselves, \”Well, that makes no sense, but I\’ll follow blindly.\” They hear it, and they think, \”Yes, this fits. Another piece of the puzzle that fits perfectly.\” And if a member of the Catholic clergy starts spouting nonsense, well, then a thinking Catholic will call him on it. This happens regularly.

Because of the absolute consistency in Catholic teaching, it is nice to be able to look up the answers in the back of the book, so to speak. But as someone who has gone through (hopefully) a thorough catechism, a Catholic realizes they aren\’t answers pulled out of thin air, they are well-reasoned under the premises of Christianity. And so, when a question like the infamous \”trolley car switch\” comes up, we might do a quick google search on Catholic Answers and feel pretty confident with the answer and reasoning provided.

I am not a moralist or a theologian, and so I let the experts do what they are meant to do—look at situations like tubal pregnancies, euthanasia, etc, and reason it out. I am smart enough to then follow their logical explanation and agree that it\’s logical. In the same way, I agree to let oncologists treat a cancer, because they are the experts. But if a doc suddenly tells me I need to sleep with a quartz crystal under my pillow, I would sense a logical problem and do a bit more digging. I hope that comparison makes sense.

In a nutshell, the Church compiled the Bible and is its sole authentic interpreter. Part of being a Biblical literalist is recognizing that Jesus meant what He said when He gave the Church the authority to teach in His name, and to bind and loose sins. Knowing that the Church has this authority means that we don\’t, and shouldn\’t, use our own interpretation of the Bible as our sole and final authority.

That\’s why Catholics don\’t adhere to sola scriptura. When there isn\’t an authoritative interpreter for Scripture, spiritual anarchy ensues. Ms. Evans\’ article is a prime example of the confusion that entails when individuals privately interpret the Bible. Forty-seven people reading the Bible come up with forty-seven different conclusions about what to believe on a single issue, and when there\’s no one around to say, \”This is the sole correct interpretation of issue X,\” then infighting ensues, with people doing what they feel like doing. That\’s not to say that there isn\’t any infighting within Catholicism, because people have free will and sinful natures—no one can be forced to acknowledge or submit to the Church\’s authority. But it\’s there for those who seek it.

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7 thoughts on “How To Be A Biblical Literalist”

  1. Beside the traditional support for infallibility ( the keys of the kingdom and the fact the gates of hell will not prevail). I recently ran across another good explanation. I think it was in a homily but can’t recall exactly where right now.
    Jesus granting his disciples the ability to ‘bind and loose’ and we almost always think of this in terms of the authority that grants on earth.
    What he said though is ‘what you bind is bond on earth AND IN HEAVEN’. Is it possible that God would allow someone to bind something in heaven that was untrue? Can there be lack of truth in heaven?
    It also lays waste pretty quickly the standard protestant idea of binding and loosing as something that was granted to all Christians in general. Can we all bind something in heaven? Are all of us protected from error? Not that there isn’t an aspect of priestly that extends to all the faithful, but that is a different thread 😉

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  3. The Church is the final interpreter of the Bible but rarely does so in morals in an infallible manner.
    If you polled 40 bishops on what constitutes usury, I suspect you’d get the answer “excessive interest”. …which was not the answer in Vix Pervenit by Pope Benedict XIV in 1745 but became the answer after the Vatican permitted moderate interest during the 1830’s in answer to dubia.. But if you asked them further as to whether Bank X charging 19% on overdrafts is excessive, then answers would now be multiple answers. If you asked them if eating too fast is gluttony as Aquinas held in the Summa T., again the answers would be two…some would say yes…some would say no.
    We do look odd neglecting certain laws of God. The New Testament references wifely obedience six times and it is nowhere in Vatican II nor in the catechism…but it is insisted on trenchantly in 1930 by Casti Connubii in section 74. Theoretically the Church is the final interpreter of scripture but rarely does so in morals because prior to TV and modern media, Catholics lived near each other and thought as a community…a sensus fidelium of morals. Then TV broke that consensus in the 1950’s. TV nightly represented other moral views and immoral views and often from Catholic actors at its inception. Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra were two bad examples as to drink and multiple marriages and casual necking in tv or movie skits. And Charlie Sheen now as a fallen away Catholic is fulfilling their role. Frankly the Vatican should be more vocal on entertainment….but the sex abuse period kind of put a crimp in fraternal correction and two priests who did it both fell morally…Corapi and Enteneuer. Tough times my friend.

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  6. “If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what
    you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.”


  7. Excellent article. Thank you.

    “It’s also extremely easy to interpret the Bible with a bias towards
    justifying one’s own sins. For example, as Ms. Evans correctly notes in
    her article, someone who has a close family member going through a
    divorce is more likely to have a softer, more permissive interpretation
    of Jesus’ admonitions against divorce, and the Church’s prohibitions
    against remarriage after divorce. Someone who has a relative with
    same-sex attraction or has same-sex attraction might do the same with
    the Bible’s admonitions against same-sex behavior.”

    Many also look at the teachings of the Catholic Church as political ideology
    (liberal, conservative) instead of as the teachings of Jesus. Jesus and His Church, the Catholic Church, are One and the Same. A protestant will claim to have a relationship with Christ and many will
    say they only need Christ and not a church or a religion. Look at many protestant denominations and the result of that…..women
    ordination, acceptance of homosexual marriage, contraception, divorce. I refer to no studies just my opinion but I believe many who leave the
    Catholic Church or become lapsed do so because they do not accept a doctrine or dogma.So, much like protestants, they attempt to separate Jesus from his Church.

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