Salvation by Literal Interpretation?

Introduction

Would you agree with this assertions regarding the following literal interpretation of Jesus’ words?

The belief in the metaphorical view of the Lord’s Supper does not come from Scripture, but from the fallible methods that secularists use to determine what things are. To attempt to “fit” a metaphorical view into the Bible, you have to invent a figurative view that almost all Bible scholars have agreed the text does not allow—at least from a hermeneutical perspective. Or you have to reinterpret the “flesh and blood” of Christ as mere bread and wine (even though they are obviously ordinary flesh and blood in the context of John 6). In other words, you have to add a concept (metaphorical flesh and blood) from outside Scripture, into God’s Word. This approach puts man’s fallible ideas in authority over God’s Word. As soon as you surrender the Bible’s authority in one area, you “unlock a door” to do the same thing in other areas. Once the door of compromise is open, even if ajar just a little, subsequent generations push the door open wider. Ultimately, this compromise has been a major contributing factor in the loss of biblical authority in our Western world.

I doubt most readers would take such an argument seriously – but why not? Aren’t people supposed to “take the Bible literally whenever possible”? This question arose at a conference I attended recently – one that had nothing to do, however, with one’s view of the Lord’s Supper.*

*Jesus indicates how one is to “eat his flesh and drink his blood” in his inauguration of the Lord’s Supper (Mk. 14:22-26), as did Paul when he described the communion meal (1 Cor. 5; 10-11). Thus I am equating this passage with the Lord’s Supper / Communion – but the overall intent of this article is not affected by this.

Genesis 1-2: Literal or Metaphorical?

The above appraisal is actually a parody of an article by Ken Ham dealing with the importance of literal interpretation – but in Ham’s original article he was not arguing for a literal understanding of John 6. Rather, Ham was arguing for a Young Earth interpretation of Genesis 1-2.

Now, I do not take issue with the Young Earth position (I do not take a position on the age of the Earth at all, really) – but I do have a problem with overstated arguments that use illicit slippery-slope scare tactics to make a point. Unfortunately, just such arguments (like the one above) are made regularly by proponents of Young Earth creationism. I thought they needed challenging, and a fun idea for showing their weakness.

Such easily countered assertions seemed to beg for parody, so I tried to think of something in Scripture that is regularly taken in a non-literal manner by those who claim to follow a “literal hermeneutic.” Jesus’ statements about his flesh and blood in John 6 came to mind. These would work well, I thought, because they show how easily weak argumentation can go unnoticed when one agrees with the conclusion. Given that most who would agree with Young Earth would disagree with a literal understanding of John 6, it seemed perfect.

In preparing the above parody, however, I found something even more interesting.

Litereralism and Salvation

Ham’s original article is titled “Does the Gospel Depend on a Young Earth?” In it, Ham argues that salvation does not depend on one’s understanding of Genesis 1-2 (at least not directly, because no biblical passage “states in any way that a person has to believe in a young earth or universe to be saved”). Thus, the chronology of the Genesis days is relegated to the status of a “secondary issue.”

Ham, however, warns that one’s handling of this text could bear on how one handles other, salvific, texts – possibly producing “very severe consequences.” The passage I chose to lampoon Ham’s article, however, is not so easily categorized as being merely “secondary” in nature – for it makes direct claims concerning salvation:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:47-51)

While it is certainly true that one’s view of Genesis 1-2 is not salvific, Jesus connects eating his flesh and drinking his blood with eternal life. So perhaps a closer look at the literal/metaphorical issue is in order.

John 6: Literal or Metaphorical?

Now, Jesus’ opening statement may seem metaphorical to those who have been taught that it is so – but is such an understanding justified by the text? Perhaps Jesus will clarify that his plain words are only metaphor when asked about it:

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:52-58)

Nope! Although Jesus had a perfect opportunity here to clarify what only appeared to be a literal statement, he did not. Of course, Jesus often used parables to confound his enemies, saving interpretive information for his disciples (see here). So maybe once the disciples got him alone, Jesus would reveal the non-literal nature of these otherwise literal-sounding statements. Or not:

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? . . . After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 60-69)

Conclusion

Ham and many other Young Earthers believe that one’s view of the length of time God took to create the world (or how it was arrived at) could threaten one’s eternal salvation should it be in error. I am not necessarily contesting this, but perhaps rather amplifying the principle. For if one’s understanding of non-salvific passages in a non-literal way could threaten one’s salvation, what does that say about the interpretation of a passage dealing with actions resulting in eternal life?

Perhaps we should take Ham’s closing warning more seriously:

The church should heed the warning of Proverbs 30:6, “Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar.”

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