Here are a few important points to keep in mind as we think about how to read the different types of literature in the Bible.
- Among other things, one problem with thinking of a literal interpretation to the whole Bible as the litmus test of being a “Bible-believing” Christian is that this is driven by a reactionary mindset. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, liberal attitudes toward the Bible became increasingly popular. The liberal-progressive approach basically says, "We are well-educated, and we understand that the Bible was written by people in ancient civilizations who were ignorant of modern science and of many other things that we now know.
"We are smart enough to know that miracles are impossible because we now understand the laws of physics. We are smart enough to know that there is no such thing as demon possession because we now have the medical knowledge to understand epilepsy and seizures,” etc.
Not only is this an arrogant way of thinking, it is also very ignorant. Ancient people understood as well as we do that dead people don't come back to life and that there was a difference between sickness and demonic activity. So, it is a right thing to expose this way of thinking as arrogant and facile.
But to combat a liberal approach by simply saying, "No, no! We must take all the Bible literally" will cause us to distort the Bible and miss much of what it has to say. Ironically, this can lead us to hold distorted views of parts of the Bible in an effort to combat the distorted liberal views.
If we suspect there is a part of the Bible that is not supposed to be understood in a literal, historical way, the all-important question is "why not?"
Do we reject the idea of miracles outright because we think we're smarter than those ignorant ancients who believed in miracles only because they didn't understand the laws of nature? Again, the motive behind this is pride. It is an attitude that says, "I am the one in control, and if I can't understand how something happened then it couldn't have happened. I'll allow god to be god only as long as he doesn't act in ways that are too mysterious or beyond my capacity for understanding. Otherwise I would have to stand in awe and humility before him and I refuse to do that."
If this is why a person thinks the creation account in Genesis or any other account in the Bible is not to be taken literally, then he or she should repent and ask God's forgiveness.
On the other hand, if we admit that God is God and that he can act in the world in any way he chooses--if we approach the Bible with reverence and humility, then we can ask in good conscience whether or not a passage is meant to be taken as a historical fact based on the nature of the text itself and the way it was originally meant to be understood.
We should judge poetic literature poetic because that's what it is, and scientific literature scientific because that's what it is--not because we're afraid that if we judge it to be one way or another we'll be aligning ourselves with some bad group or school of thought.
- Always remember that the bedrock of our faith is Jesus and his factual-historical resurrection from the dead. As I said earlier, judging just from the nature of the texts, the gospels are unquestionably meant to be taken as reports of the historical facts of Jesus' life--but, of course, (back to my original point about types of literature or communication) we wouldn't need to think of the characters in Jesus' parables as historically real; that's not the way parables work.
In addition to what is claimed in the text itself, all through the books that follow the four gospels, it is emphasized over and over again that God's redemption of us and the world was made real only through Jesus' physical resurrection. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Jesus didn't really resurrect from the dead, then we are to be pitied more than all people because our faith is futile and we have based our lives on a lie!
Though learning to properly interpret scripture is immensely important, the earliest Christians became Christians not just by their accurate interpretation of the Bible (they didn’t have a complete New Testament, and the majority of them could not read). They became Christians through their response to the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection and his identity as Lord/Messiah, and through the power of God at work in their lives: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Cor. 2:4-5)
So, the question of whether or not Christianity is true centers on the historical resurrection of Jesus enacted by the power of God. But it does not follow from the nonnegotiable fact of Jesus’ historical resurrection that everything else written in the Bible must be historical reality or the whole thing is false.
If we conclude that Genesis 1 and 2 are a kind of ancient near eastern theological poetry (though this doesn't necessarily mean Adam and Eve were not real people--both may be true) this does not mean that we’re not faithful Christians or that “we can't believe anything in the Bible.” It also does not mean that we are "picking and choosing" the passages that suit us or dismissing as mythical or poetic the ones that don't "fit with science." It just means that we are trying to read the different books in the Bible for what they actually are instead of reading them in order to oppose or affirm certain philosophies or agendas.