Jon Stovell’s Notebook


On why theologians give complex answers to seemingly simple questions

In response to Robby McAlpine’s comment on this blog post by Brad Blocksom. Robby wrote:

One thing I’ve seen from the academia side that bothers me is when some church leader asks whether or not they take the Bible “literally”. The academics have a great deal of semantic fun with this one, talking genre and form and how the questioner is clearly an uneducated dolt, and generally have a great snort-n-chortle amongst themselves.

But the questioner wasn’t asking for a dissertation on genre; they were just wondering if the academics consider the Bible authoritative in our lives today. And I suspect the academics knew that (they are supposed to be the smart ones, after all). They could have just answered the query that the questioner was actually asking. :)


It can actually be pretty hard for an academic to answer such a question well, Robby. I’ve been asked before whether I “take the Bible literally,” and it quite often isn’t just a matter of whether I consider the Bible authoritative that they want to know. That usually is the heart of their concern, but very often the other person’s is working with assumptions about the nature of truth, of revelation, of language, and of meaning that they think everyone must agree to in order to consider the Scriptures to be authoritative. Often the use of the term “literally” is connected to some specific issue that the person considers to be a litmus test.

Im my responses, I am certainly not laughing up my sleeve. I do my best to find a way to answer that will be at once truthful, trust-building, and edifying to the other person’s faith and discipleship. When possible, I like to engage in conversation for a while, asking them questions in order to get a better understanding of where they are coming from, including whether there are any burning issues that are bothering them. This enables me to figure out the best and most helpful answers to give them. Ideally, the conversation stops being a matter of questions and answers and becomes a matter of “Hey cool, we’re having fun thinking and learning together.”

But this is not always possible, and it is rarely easy. It is especially hard if the question whether I “take the Bible literally” is coming out of the blue from someone I don’t know well or at all. In such a situation, the question is often originating from a stance of distrust, which means I have only a few sentences in which to establish both (a) that we are on the same team, and (b) that we have alternative understandings on how Jesus intended certain aspects of the game to be played. I can’t simply say “Yes,” or “No,” without being disingenuous in either case, since the real answer is more complicated. But there is also a human tendency to hear “It’s complicated,” as “No,” in situations of distrust, so that isn’t a good one-liner, either.

Moreover, giving a one line answer would amount to a missed opportunity to help someone grow deeper and stronger in their faith and understanding. Giving a simple, probably misleading, short answer might be tempting if I’m feeling too tired or lazy to help someone grow in Christ, but if I want to take seriously my calling to be a theologian for the sake of the church, then I need to give answers that will be at once encouraging and challenging, and that will ideally lead to richer conversations, deepening insight, and long-term growth. If I just answered the query the questioner (thought that they) asked, I wouldn’t actually be helping them much at all.