In the war of words between atheists and theists, very often one will see atheists point to some passage of the Christian bible and point out seeming contradictions as evidence that the whole thing was made up. This may seem like a logical thing to do, but there are two problems with the approach. The first is that many atheists inadvertently make the same mistake many Christians do, which is to view the bible as a literal account instead of an often allegorical one. The second mistake is in assuming, as do many Christians, that the writers of biblical scripture wanted what they wrote to be taken literally.
Stephen Tomkins addresses this problem in The Guardian:
The Bible is the word of God, Christians believe, but why should the fact it’s God’s mean it has to be read with naive absolutism? Many Christians call the church “the body of Christ” without considering it anything like infallible, or refusing to see its rites as symbolic.
Part of the problem is historical. The deification of the Bible is a result of the Protestant reformation. Before then, the final authority, the ultimate arbiter and source of information in religious matters was the church, with its ancient traditions and living experts. When Luther and friends opposed the teaching of the Catholic hierarchy, they needed a superior authority to appeal to, which was provided by the Bible.
Fair enough. But in defending or reclaiming the Bible from papists and then liberals, evangelical Protestants made it the very heart of the faith. Hence the ludicrous situation where many evangelical organisations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, have statements of faith where the first point is the Bible, before any mention of, for example, God. Hence the celebrated idolatrous aphorism of William Chillingworth: “The BIBLE, I say, the BIBLE only, is the religion of Protestants!”.
Tomkins writes that a major issue is that “the Bible, unlike the church, can’t answer questions, clarify earlier statements, arbitrate disagreements or deal with new developments.” It is therefore up to the reader to interpret what a given passage may mean, and that is where the problems begin. Another problem is the failure to understand that the writers of the bible were not setting things to scrolls for future generations, but to their contemporaries. When today’s readers assume that the words of biblical writers were meant for modern readers, this creates rather obvious problems. Tomkins writes,
If you read the Bible asking: “What was St Paul saying to the Galatians?” all kinds of critical questions arise: How would first-century Asia Minor have understood these words? Would Paul have phrased it differently to a church he was less pissed off with? Would other witnesses have recalled the events he describes differently? But if you read the Bible asking: “What is God saying to me today?” it seems less appropriate to do anything but accept it at face value.
This of course leads to the subject of heretical interpretations of scripture, a phenomenon that stretches back centuries. Kevin Lewis, in his writing, On the Heresy of Literalism, writes that “[h]eresy is traditionally understood to emerge within a community of faith when a legitimate point of belief is over-emphasized to the neglect of other equally legitimate, complementing, occasionally countering points of belief needed to make up the delicate balance of doctrines in an “orthodox” rule of faith. Heresy emerges as a truncating distortion of the faith.” In the context of how literalism may be considered heresy, he argues that this is more a twentieth century creation than that of any other era in the history of Christianity.
Going back to the early church, Origen and other scholars argued for an allegorical interpretation of the book of Genesis, pointing out that “[m]any, not understanding the Scriptures in a spiritual sense, but incorrectly, have fallen into heresies … holy Scripture is not understood by them according to its spiritual, but according to its literal meaning.”
Origen goes on:
The object of all these statements on our part, is to show that it was the design of the Holy Spirit, who deigned to bestow upon us the sacred Scriptures, to show that we were not to be edified by the letter alone, or by everything in it—a thing which we see to be frequently impossible and inconsistent; for in that way not only absurdities, but impossibilities, would be the result; but that we are to understand that certain occurrences were interwoven in this “visible” history, which, when considered and understood in their inner meaning, give forth a law which is advantageous to men and worthy of God. —Translated from the Latin
All these statements have been made by us, in order to show that the design of that divine power which gave us the sacred Scriptures is, that we should not receive what is presented by the letter alone (such things being sometimes not true in their literal acceptation, but absurd and impossible), but that certain things have been introduced into the actual history and into the legislation that are useful in their literal sense. —Translated from the Greek
What he is saying here is that when reading scripture, we must be careful not to interpret everything in it to be literal, for in so doing one finds immediately all manner of things both absurd and impossible, contradictions galore. We must therefore understand scripture in the context in which the writers wanted to be understood. Parts of scripture are meant to be taken as historical text, but other parts must be taken as being of a spiritual, or allegorical, interpretation. To take on the whole bible as a literal history is therefore foolish.
But in the debate over the alleged truth of the Christian bible, both atheists and theists alike make the same mistake of interpreting the whole of it literally, when in fact at no point should such be done. We must understand what is historical and what is allegorical. Without that understanding, neither side can presume to have all the answers.
UPDATE (14 August, 2015 at 2:00PM):
C.J. Cameron was kind enough to post his own writing on biblical literalism. Thank you for the added insight!