Debating the principles of Biblical interpretation with Atheists

Trust me, it’s not a pretty sight.

Mark Shea asks: “Does Evolutionary Science disprove the Faith?

Jerry Coyne takes issue: “Catholics claim that lies are truer than truth

Ross Douthat chimes in.

Coyne’s response to Douthat.

Andrew Sullivan’s comments here and here.

Coyne assumes that readers of the Bible are completely arbitrary in their approach to scripture; that they decide randomly, what to take as “literal fact” and what to take as metaphorical. While that may be the case for many fundamentalists, it is not for those readers who have any theological education, and that is true whether one is talking about 21st century Christians or 5th century Christians. Certain texts are problematic, although the problems are very often quite different in different historical or cultural contexts. Thus, the Fathers had great difficulty in the Exodus text that will be read on Sunday in many churches, a text that references “the backside of God.”

Many atheists are fundamentalists in that they assert the only possible reading of a text is its “literal” interpretation, whatever that may be. Interpreters since Philo, at least, have sought deeper meaning in biblical texts that were problematic in a literal reading. Augustine went so far as to say that any possible interpretation of a text that was plausible given the words on the page, was perhaps a legitimate interpretation. Coyne would find Augustine’s “literal” interpretation of Genesis 1 nonsense. The point is that for thoughtful readers of Scripture, a literal reading in many cases, perhaps in most, is nonsensical.