Biblical literalism and liberalism

Having started to read Marcus Borg’s ‘Jesus: Uncovering the life, teachings and relevance of a religious revolutionary’ I began to write a review as I normally do. The trouble was, I got quite frustrated because it was getting rather long when I was only a quarter of the way through the book. Yet it was more that I wanted to respond to Borg than to merely review the book. So here, and hopefully in another post, I hope to explore some of the thoughts that have been triggered by his provocative writing. 

In this post, I want to look at Borg’s dichotomy of ways of reading the bible, the gospels in particular. Borg presents us with 2 ways of reading, the ‘earlier paradigm’ and the ‘emergent’, though he instantly notes that the ‘earlier paradigm’ is not at all earlier. It is essentially a fundamentalist viewpoint, or at least as Borg portrays it. In such a view, the bible is not a library of books, it is a single book, inerrant and which trumps any and all facts and truth, even if the evidence for these goes against a prima facie reading; biblical literalism, if you will.

Set against this is Borg’s own view, which he considers more enlightened. This view focuses solely on the metaphorical meaning of the gospels. In this view, you can take or leave whatever aspects of the gospels you please. If the wedding at Cana doesn’t suit you, just dismiss its historicity, call it a metaphor and then look at the consequences and meaning of an event that never happened.

What annoys me is the gross caricature of each and that I know many who could not be described as either. It is fair to say that I have come across a few who I would say are metaphor-phobic. Taking 2 Tim 3:16 to apply to the 66 books of the bible, they do subscribe to both sola scriptura and biblical inerrancy, a combination which leads to such viewpoints as young earth creationism, affirmation of the virgin birth as a core tenet of faith, belief in the rapture and a worrying interpretation of the book of Revelation. Though I would not go so far to say that belief in any one of these necessarily entails belief in any of the others.

As well as such metaphor-phobes I have also met some metaphor-philes, albeit fewer in number. Having looked at the more conservative end of the scale with some alarm, they are quick to run away as far away as possible. In this mindset, everything in the bible is a metaphor. Not only is the poetry of Genesis 1 recognised for what it is, but Abraham becomes a figure of legend, Moses becomes mythical and David is turned into an amalgamation of a variety of rulers. But again, my approach is that scepticism about one does not logically cast additional doubt on any of the others.

I don’t think it would do an injustice to Borg to characterise his view as that of a metaphor-phile. In his approach to Jesus he wishes to distinguish between the ‘Jesus of history’ and the ‘Jesus of faith’. The latter is referred to in reference to the metaphor-phobic worldview, where the Jesus of faith was born of a virgin, performed miracles of various kinds, spoke with Moses and Elijah during the transfiguration, was crucified and resurrected. To the metaphpor-phile, this view must be countered, so in order to assert their ‘Jesus of history’, such aspects of the gospels must, a priori, be rejected.

While the concept of ‘fully God, fully man’ seems to be superficially acknowledged by Borg, he claims that to accept the possibility that Jesus performed miracles is to be docetic. After all, he argues, how can one claim Jesus is ‘fully man’ if he can turn water into wine? With large sections of the gospels thus expunged, the ‘Jesus of history’ that we are left with is a teacher of aphorisms who gained a following which became a church which then invented a narrative around which the teachings of this mystic itinerant preacher were weaved.

Crucial to Borg’s methodology, which seems to be almost identical to that of the Jesus Seminar, the group to which Borg belonged and contributed during much of the time that the Seminar met. This methodology maintains an assumption that the early church misunderstood Jesus. Then, if any features of the gospels are found to coincide with early church history they are dismissed as later additions to the gospels. Of what remains, there must be multiple attestation. There’s a catch, however. Any material in Matthew or Luke which is also attested by Mark is assumed to have been copied from Mark and so cannot count as having been multiply attested. The material which is common to Matthew and Luke, but not to Mark, is assumed to have come from a single source, known as Q. The Q hypothesis is quite a good one, but it is one which I admit I am agnostic about. With such a set of assumptions, one wonders if anything could pass the multiple attestation test. Thankfully, Borg doesn’t actually stick to his own criteria, so his book (the review of which I hope to finish and post shortly) is not without merit.

Anyway, that’s enough of an outline for now. This is a place for the crystallisation of thoughts and I shall attempt to get them down on pen & paper (as I usually write my posts thus, before typing up, editing and proofreading).

Borg’s characterisation of the ‘earlier paradigm’ and the ‘emergent’, which I refer to as ‘metaphor-phobic’ and metaphor-philic’ is not one that I can agree with. To my way of thinking, to adopt a critical attitude does not mean a wholesale rejection of anything that may be hard to believe. In some ways, the rejection of gospel as history is itself an uncritical point of view, as it is as easy and lazy a way of thinking as the fundamentalism which such a view seeks to oppose.

Every claim must be assessed on its merits, the evidence supporting or countering it and the reasonableness of the consequences that follow. When considering the bible as history, we don’t have all the evidence we might like. To some, this means none of it can be accepted. To my way of thinking, we have to deal with the evidence we have. This means that our beliefs are provisional and uncertain but not unreasonable. Assurance is not the same as certainty. Doubt is not the same as disbelief. Holding assurance in one hand and doubt in the other is how I maintain balance.

An example – the virgin birth

By way of illustration, I will expand a little on claim in the gospels mentioned above and which I have touched on before without being too explicit. I do not affirm that the virgin birth as a core tenet of my faith. Neither, though, do I deny it outright. It is a topic about which I am agnostic, but which I do not think is of vital importance. Let me explain why.

To start with, there is the well known incident of the Septuagint mistranslating ‘young woman’ as ‘virgin’ in Isaiah 7:14 – with a possible supposition that this was an addition Matthew and Luke made to their accounts. To me, though, the question has to be ‘who was the eyewitness?’

It seems most likely to me that the Christmas narrative was not a fanciful work of fiction added to the oral history of Jesus’ life, but was rather a product of the same oral history. But it must have originated from someone who was there and remembered it, but who was also part of the early christian community. The person who best fits this description is Mary herself. Have a read of Luke 1 and ask yourself through whose eyes we are predominantly looking.

Jesus’ later ministry had many witnesses, most notably the disciples. They could correct each other’s recollections, a point well made by Kenneth Bailey in his seminal paper, Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels. The fact that there were fewer witnesses to the events of the nativity means that we must regard them as more questionable as the later gospels. When I did some reading on this a little while ago, it was interesting that FF Bruce, Craig Blomberg and Richard Bauckham all overlooked the nativity. Bruce and Blomberg are both more conservative in their approach than I am, and even they are wary of attesting the virgin birth. For me, there are just too many unanswered questions to be able to affirm it. Moreover, I don’t believe the evidence exists that could settle the question one way or another.

The next question then seems to be, ‘what might we miss out on if we no longer affirm the virgin birth?’ i.e. is there any hole in our theology which would warp the gospel? I’ve thought this through and cannot find any. To me, why the nativity is important because of the theology of incarnation, Jesus being wholly God and wholly man at the same time, hard though that is to comprehend. The scientist in me cannot help but wonder what a DNA test on Jesus would have revealed. Just as I affirm that God created the universe but am not a creationist, so I find no significant issue with regarding Jesus’ divinity without boldly stating that he was born of a virgin. The ‘how’ is less important. In this respect, I do side somewhat with Borg. To me, the core aspects of the gospel are unaffected: the proclamation of God as king, the identification of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, the atonement for sins through the sacrifice of the crucifixion and the victory over death as the vindication of all the above through the resurrection. It is these things and their ramifications that I would rather spend time thinking about and discussing.


The Jesus of the faith that I hold to with a light grip is the Jesus of my best, though flawed, understanding of history. To be a christian is not to be the holder of all knowledge and understanding, but to be a disciple, grasping at the coattails of those of who have gone before us whilst treading out our own path. But to portray this as a solo activity is misleading. To be a christian is entails being part of a community in the form of church, though I shall spare you from my further thoughts on ecclesiology. I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. Let me know if you agree or disagree.