Of course, [modern skeptics’] problems are with what they consider the Bible’s many scientific errors and internal contradictions. They have compiled a long list of Old Testament verses suggesting a flat earth, a Ptolemaic cosmology, a six-day Creation, and a variety of New Testament accounts that don’t agree with one another, let alone the historical record.
My response to such “problems” is simple: They don’t really matter. Sure, if you read it literally, the Bible contains some mistakes and inaccuracies, but that is not how its ancient authors intended it to be read, and that is not how it has been read by Christians for hundreds and hundreds of years. In fact, the idea that the Bible is literally and inerrantly true is a relatively new one, introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century by a small group of American Protestants in a series of tracts called “the Fundamentals”. Unfortunately, those fundamentalists and their followers have led lots of people—including lots of skeptics—into reading the Bible the wrong way.
As I see it, the Gospel writers were not as interested in the details of Jesus’s life as they were in the truth of it.
—Tony Campolo, liberal evangelical Christian evangelist, Why I Left, Why I Stayed, p. 102
First, how accurate is Tony Campolo’s statement that Christians did not believe the stories in the Bible literally until just one hundred years ago? Let’s take a look at the sixteenth century:
“There is talk of a new astrologer [Copernicus] who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must needs invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.”
From a Roman Catholic website: “Though the majority of Church Fathers took the six days of creation as being six literal days, there was not moral unanimity among them on this question. In addition later Catholic authorities (e.g., Thomas Aquinas; see ST 1:74:2) recognized a diversity of permissible interpretations.
Hmm. I think Tony Campolo should have done a little more research in Church history before making such a grossly inaccurate statement.
I’ve heard that Augustine questioned the literal interpretation of the Six-Day Creation Story, but other than that issue, how much of the Bible did ancient Christians read as metaphorical? Did ancient Christians believe the Virgin Birth Story literally? Did they believe the Birth in Bethlehem Story literally (both of them)? How about the story of walking on water, turning water into wine, and feeding five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish???
But these stories are small potatoes. What about the foundational story of Christianity: the Resurrection of Jesus from the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea; with women eyewitnesses discovering the empty tomb and the dead Jesus appearing multiple times to various groups of disciples over a forty day period? Did ancient Christians believe that this story was metaphorical until the beginning of the twentieth century?
You see, dear Reader, moderate/liberal Christians like Tony Campolo shoot themselves in the foot when they try to convince us that, historically, Christians never read the Creation Story, the Flood Story, the Jonah in the Belly of a Fish Story, etc., etc., literally. Because if all those stories were never intended to be understood literally, then how on earth can we be certain that the authors of the Gospels intended for us to literally believe a Virgin Birth Story and a Resurrected Corpse Story?