Tom, Dick and Teri are friends who all work at the same big company. Although each is a member of a different Protestant denomination, they meet for lunch to encourage one another in their Christian walk. On this particular day, Tom arrives last, and is surprised to find Teri and Dick glaring at each other over their macaroni and cheese.
“Hey guys! What’s up?
Dick looks down at his plate as Teri pipes up.
“Oh, not much! I just found out that Dick here is a heretic, that’s all.”
Tom does a double-take and seats himself across from Dick. “Dude,” he asks in a stage whisper, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Dick scowls as Teri chatters. “Well, don’t feel bad – he didn’t tell me, either. It seems our friend here is calling into question the reliability of the Word of God!”
Tom refuses to take the bait. “Aw, come on, Teri! You know that isn’t true. What are you talking about?”
Teri stabs at her mac-and-cheese as she continues to glare at Dick. “Our friend Dick is an evolutionist!”
Dick squares his jaw and struggles to keep his voice down. “You know that’s not what I said, Teri!”
“It most certainly is!” Teri shoots back. “You said the first two chapters of Genesis can’t be taken literally – that makes you an evolutionist!!”
“Whoa! Whoa!” Tom cautions. “Let’s just calm down here. Start from the beginning. What did you actually say, Dick?”
“Actually,” Dick emphasizes as he scowls at Teri, “what I said was that it isn’t absolutely necessary to take every word in the first two chapters of Genesis literally. In other words, when it talks about ‘days,’ it may not mean literal 24-hour days, just as Peter said that 1,000 years are like a day to the Lord….”
“Copout!” Teri calls out. “You don’t believe the creation account, and you’ve found some kind of ‘proof text’ in another part of the Bible to justify your unbelief!”
“That’s called ‘allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture!‘” Dick protests. “We know from the Bible that when God talks about a ‘day,’ He doesn’t always mean a 24-hour period!”
“Well,” Tom points out as his macaroni and cheese cools, “that’s not exactly what that verse says….”
Dick’s mouth drops open. “Are you siding with her?” he asks.
“I’m not ‘siding’ with anybody!” Tom protests, ” I’m just saying that 2 Peter 3:8 actually says ‘With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.’ That’s not the same as saying ‘When God talks about a day, He doesn’t always mean a 24-hour period!'”
“Of course it is!” Dick insists, but Tom holds up his hand and turns to Teri.
“So I believe what Dick is saying is that he’s a Day-Ager – he believes the Biblical account of creation, but thinks that the 6 ‘days’ of creation are much longer time periods than normal days. That doesn’t make him an evolutionist, Teri.”
Teri snorts. “People who believe that are already half-way down the slippery slope. Once you compromise the truth of the Scriptures, you start to question everything the Bible teaches.” She leans towards Dick, and her eyes narrow. “I bet you think it’s okay to baptize by pouring, don’t you?”
Dick’s mouth drops open. He starts to answer, but Tom interrupts. “Teri, no Christian takes every single word or phrase in the Bible literally. For example, you…”
Dick cuts him off. “It would be crazy to take every word of Scripture literally! You’d end up like the people who read Psalm 91:4 and think that God is a celestial chicken!!”
It is Tom’s turn to scowl. “Come on, Dick! Nobody believes that God is a chicken!”
“You know what I mean!” Dick insists. “People who take the last chapter of the book of Mark literally, with all the snake-handling and poison drinking!”
Teri stiffens. “My church takes the last chapter of Mark literally.”
Tom and Dick stare at Teri, glance at each other, and fall silent.
“If you’re a Christian, you HAVE TO take the Bible literally!!” Teri announces loudly, and several people at the surrounding tables glance in her direction. More quietly, she hisses at Dick, “The Bible says it – I believe it – that settles it!!”
“Teri, be reasonable!” Tom implores. “There are many, many passages in Scripture that you don’t take literally!”
“Name one!” Teri challenges incredulously.
“I can name several!” Tom responds. “1 Peter 3:21 – Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Dick grins at Teri. “Yeah, see, you have to take that figuratively, Teri. Baptism obviously doesn’t save us!”
“Yet that’s exactly what that verse says,” Tom comments softly.
Dick frowns. “Well, no, Tom – I mean, the verse says that baptism is an appeal to God for a clear conscience, so we understand that it’s our FAITH that saves us, and baptism is just the outward sign of our obedience!”
“It says,” Tom reiterates, “BAPTISM now saves you as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus.”
“Well, then, what’s that part about the appeal to God for a clear conscience?” Dick asks.
“In Greek it’s eperōtēma, and it refers to the formal acceptance of a contract or covenant in which the terms of the agreement were proclaimed and the compliance with the terms was solemnly promised. It’s like what the early Christians pledged in their baptismal rites. They were asked to publically reject Satan. They were asked ‘Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty? Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God?’ and the answer they gave, their rejection of Satan and their proclamation of faith, was their “I do,” their pledge, which then served as their ‘appeal’ to God for a clear conscience. The early Christians definitely did take this verse literally. They believed that ‘baptism now saves you.'”
Teri has whipped her King James out of her purse. “Are you sure that verse is even in the Bible?” she demands.
“Trust me on this,” Tom retorts wryly. “And how about John 20:22-23? ‘And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.’ Taken literally, this indicates that the risen Lord appeared to His apostles to confer the authority to forgive and retain sins!”
Dick is grinning broadly. “Whereas we all know that Jesus was just explaining to them that they could assure believers that their sins were all forgiven – past, present and future – because of their faith in Christ, and they could likewise assure unbelievers that their sins were NOT forgiven!”
“Thereby making a hash out of what Jesus actually said,” Tom comments. Dick’s eyebrows shoot up. “Why did He even bother to make this special appearance, Dick, and breathe on them, filling them with the Holy Spirit, just to pass on a trite observation like that?”
Dick does a double-take. “Are you kidding? What do you think Jesus meant, Tom?”
“I think He probably meant what He said,” Tom observes quietly.
Teri is flipping furiously through her Bible. “Is that verse in John or in 1 John?”
“And what about Paul’s command in Philippians 2:12?” Tom continues. ‘Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling!‘ Teri, you don’t take that literally.”
Teri’s mouth opens as she thinks. “But…” she stammers, “but, you can’t take that literally!”
“That’s the point, Teri!” Dick crows. “If you take that verse literally, you’re admitting that you might be able to lose your salvation!”
Tom’s not finished. “And Romans 3:23, ‘For all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God.’ You know you don’t take that literally.”
Teri looks up from her Bible, shocked. “I take every single word of that verse absolutely literally,” she announces.
Tom tilts his head as he questions her. “Really? Really? Every single word?”
Teri puts her Bible in her lap and leans forward in her chair. “EVERY SINGLE WORD. For ALL have SINNED, and FALLEN SHORT of the GLORY OF GOD.”
“All right,” Tom says quietly. “And you’ll agree that Paul is talking about actual sin here, not the original sin that we inherited from Adam.”
Teri nods emphatically.
“Okay, Teri – for ALL have sinned: Two-week-old babies.”
“Huh?” Teri and Dick respond in unison.
“Two-week-old babies – have they sinned?” Tom asks Teri.
There is silence as Teri and Dick contemplate this.
“Do you believe that infants sin?” Tom asks. “How about the profoundly mentally retarded – can they sin? How about the fetus in the womb? You would be the first to insist, Teri, that from the moment of conception the embryo is a living PERSON, and therefore falls under Paul’s blanket statement here. For ALL have sinned….”
Teri and Dick sit silently frowning, as Tom continues.
“Remember, when Paul was talking about Jacob and Esau in the womb of their mother, he said, ‘Yet before the children had been born or had done anything good or bad.’ He’s basically saying that the unborn can’t sin, right? So even if you do believe that newborns and the profoundly mentally handicapped can somehow sin, to say that an unborn child can sin contradicts Scripture. Teri, millions of those unborn children have lived and died without sinning! So how can you take Romans 3:23 literally?”
Before Dick or Teri muster up a reply, Tom goes on. “And then there’s John 6:22-71. Jesus emphasized over and over that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood, or we have no life in us. ‘Whoever eats this bread will live forever’ – ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’ – ‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life’ – ‘My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink’ – ‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them’ – ‘The one who feeds on me will live because of me’ – ‘Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.’ Teri, you don’t take one word of that literally.”
Dick is beside himself with glee. “Of course you don’t, Teri! This is a prime example of why certain verses just can’t be taken literally! Jesus Himself told us not to take this discourse literally when He said ‘It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life,” meaning that we are to take this passage FIGURATIVELY!”
Before Teri can answer, Tom retorts quietly, “And this is a prime example, Dick, of how you have decided not to accept the literal meaning of a passage because it would demand too much faith, so you have found a “proof text” to justify your unbelief.”
Dick and Teri both gasp. Teri grins broadly as she recognizes her earlier objection being used to demolish Dick’s assertion. Dick defends himself. “Jesus said, ‘the words I have spoken to you are spirit and life!’ That means that His words were meant to be understood in a spiritual, not a literal sense! ‘This is My body’ is a figure of speech!”
Tom explains, “When Jesus said ‘the words I have spoken are spirit and life,’ He couldn’t have meant ‘I have spoken metaphorically.’ You think you are using Scripture to interpret Scripture, but seriously, Dick, where in the Bible is the word ‘spirit’ ever used as a synonym for ‘symbolic’?? And if Jesus was saying ‘Take everything I’ve just said metaphorically,’ there’s another problem, because right in the middle of this supposedly metaphorical discourse Jesus mentions ‘My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’ Is that a metaphor?? Did He not literally sacrifice His very flesh on the Cross for the life of the world?? How do you justify exempting the one passage you happen to believe from the metaphor?? And why, while we’re on the subject, didn’t Jesus take His disciples aside to explain this very hard saying in private? That’s what He did with every other hard saying – but with this one He just asked them ‘Are you leaving me, too?’ Kind of harsh, when He could’ve just explained the ‘metaphor’ to them….”
Tom leans back in his chair, pushing his untouched macaroni plate away. Teri, struggling to understand how her excellent argument has just been used to prove something she vehemently rejects, reaches for her water glass. Dick squints angrily at Tom. “Every one of your examples, but one, is a case in which we don’t take the Bible literally but Catholics DO, and Romans 3:23 is a case where we insist on a literal, rigid interpretation of the word “all” in order to disprove Catholic doctrine – an interpretation,” Dick admits uncomfortably, “which you’ve just shown to be unworkable.”
Teri chokes on her water, and Tom passes her a napkin.
“Cath-licks!” she gasps, and Dick pats her firmly on the back till she stops choking. “Catholics,” she repeats after she has cleared her throat, “don’t take the Bible literally! Catholics don’t believe a word the Bible says – the pope makes up Catholic doctrine! His worst fear is that people are actually going to read the Bible and find out what it really says!”
Ignoring Teri, Tom leans towards Dick. “My point is that all Christians take certain parts of the Bible literally while taking other parts figuratively. Every denomination does this. So the question isn’t ‘Should I take every word of Scripture literally?’ No, because then we’d end up with your ‘celestial chicken’ proposition. The question is, which parts of the Bible were meant to be taken literally, and which parts were meant to be taken figuratively,
and how can we know which are which?
It just so happens that Catholics take many passages of Scripture literally, which is what makes their doctrine distinctively Catholic – Protestants explain those verses away, claiming that they were meant to be taken figuratively. Yet, can we claim that we somehow know which verses were meant to be taken figuratively? We can’t even agree amongst ourselves on that! How can we be sure that we’re not taking these ‘Catholic’ verses figuratively because we lack the faith to take God at His word?”
“I wish you’d get off this Catholic kick,” Dick grumbles. Teri stands up.
“They’re not gonna believe me at church when I tell ’em,” she declares with a toss of her head as she picks up her tray to go. “I had lunch with TWO heretics!”
On the memorial of St. Jane Frances de Chantal
Deo omnis gloria!
Photo credits: Macaroni and cheese with panko topping and a Soju-based cocktail in a tumbler at Blue at 2337 Market Street in San Francisco, California. “Gourmet Mac & Cheese: Fresh mozzarella, sharp cheddar, Parmesan, elbow pasta, topped with Japanese bread crumbs.” Description from their online menu as viewed on 2007-05-27, by Rick Audet from San Francisco, California, United States /Wikimedia Commons