Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On Literalism

A valued reader recently forwarded to me a link to this article, as part of a continuation of my process of investigating issues of science & trust and Biblical literalism.

The author of the forwarded link, Henry Morris III, D.Min. (1918-2006)*, provides one definition of "Biblical literalism." Before I get to this, however, I must refer to Morris' affiliation as the founder and* Chief Executive Officer of the Institute for Creation Research. I could not find an "About" button on the ICR's website, so I ran a quick Internet search and found the following on Wikipedia:

The Institute for Creation Research (ICR) is a Christian institution in Dallas, Texas that specializes in education, research, and media promotion of creation science and Biblical creationism. The ICR adopts the Bible as an inerrant and literal documentary of scientific and historical fact as well as religious and moral truths, and espouses a Young Earth creationist world view. It strongly rejects the science of evolutionary biology, which it views as a corrupting moral and social influence and threat to religious belief.

Morris provides a list of four bulleted characteristics that Biblical literalism is not, in his (and, by extension, ICR's) view, and contrasts these with five bulleted characteristics that do define proper literalism, in his view. Laying out these points in this way is intended to convey Morris' preferred definition in a clear and concise fashion. However, he falls far short of this goal in many ways.

Morris holds that one is not to "'add' to or 'delete' anything from the text." However, Morris was a member of the Baptist Church, one of a number of Protestant churches who use variations of the King James Bible that do not include the books of the Apocrypha that are part of the Catholic Bible. Why do Morris and other Protestants consider their non-use of the Apocrypha as not being a deletion from the text? Why is Morris' interpretation the correct kind of literalism--and who made Morris the arbiter of this decision?

Similarly, Morris asserts that "every word of God is pure" -- except, according to the Protestant view, the Apocrypha, which Christians considered the "word of God" for about 1,500 years, and then some Christians determined was not the "word of God," while others -- Catholics -- still consider it the "word of God."

Morris asserts that proper Biblical literalism does not include the belief that "every sentence must be taken as redemptive truth," yet, he asserts, proper literalism does mean that people "are to study and obey the text." To redeem means to recover, make up for, and, in the case of Christians, to be delivered from sin; why would a Christian need to "obey" a text if not to live up to truths that he or she does as a way to seek redemption and be delivered from sin?

Morris claims that one is to "embrace the text's historicity, authenticity, accuracy, and authority." I'm confident that the reader will understand the terms "authentic," "accurate," and "authority," at least in their most basic sense. What about "historicity," though? Definitions of historicity include "historical authenticity" and, more specifically, the search for "proof or disproof of the historical accuracy of people and events described in the Bible." As well, "historicity" in the field of philosophy is the study of progress over time, with different schools of philosophy often emphasizing a linear progression or a repetitive, cyclic pattern.

My reading of Morris is that he is intending the middle definition of "historicity": searching for proof of Biblical events. By extension, this means that all of the events in the Bible are literally true: Moses parted the Red Sea, the bush burned, Jonah was swallowed by the whale, and, critically, Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead on the third day, etc. It follows from this interpretation of the Bible that any scientific evidence that would contradict these interpretations -- evidence that the earth is more than ~4,000 years old, that the Biblical flood of the entire earth did not happen, etc. -- would be dismissed out-of-hand.

On this theme, Morris concludes by writing "our search for scientific information will demonstrate the accuracy of the biblical text." This admission undermines the a fundamental tenet of modern science: that propositions are useful in explaining a given phenomenon until a preponderance of evidence undermines the proposition, at which time the scientist is compelled to change her or his proposition. In seeking to apply modern scientific methods and tools solely to support a pre-determined proposition that is by definition beyond challenge is not science -- it is closed-minded ideology.

Morris claims that his literalist approach to the Bible is "naive literalism." The definition of "naive" includes "showing unaffected simplicity of nature or absence of artificiality"; "showing a lack of experience, judgment, or information"; "little or no formal training or technique"; and "Showing or characterized by a lack of sophistication and critical judgment." In all significant ways, Morris does show his brand of literalism to be "naive," but I can't understand how this can be held up as a positive trait or worthy goal to emulate.

Whatever it is that Morris did and that the ICR still does, it's not science.

* These two places were struck through because I was incorrect in identifying the correct Morris. See "A Short History of ICR" on the ICR's website for some clarification on the generations of Henry Morrises affiliated with this organization. Thanks to Morris IV for pointing this out (see comments).


  1. As a self-described historian, I am surprised your brief historical summary on Dr. Henry M. Morris III is incorrect. While it is true Dr. Morris III is the current CEO of ICR, the founder of ICR was his father, Dr. Henry M. Morris Jr (1918-2006). (Dr. Morris III is still very much alive, actively engaged in writing, speaking, etc.) All of this can be easily found on ICR's website (www.icr.org). Perhaps a bit more careful research work on your part next time will ensure your opinions are at least accurate. Thanks.

  2. Mr. Morris IV, thanks for the correction. I perused the ICR website as I was writing the post yesterday looking for an ICR "About" section, but couldn't find such a section; so, I did a quick Internet search and happened upon the Wikipedia page. I don't generally trust Wikipedia for much more than as a place sometimes to start learning about a topic I don't know anything about. In desiring always to be transparent in my research, I did state explicitly that this is where I got my info from.

    I did just took a minute and found an ICR "About" page by navigating from the home page through the "Resources" page to "About ICR," which then took me to http://www.icr.org/discover/, where I could finally click on the "40 Years of History" link. This basic info on the ICR is buried in your website and is not, as you write "easily found." As an end-user of your site, I would recommend that you create an "About" tab on your home page to take viewers directly to that page, just to make things a bit more user-friendly.

    I trust you intended no ad hominem insult in your characterization of me as a "self-described historian," but I am a credentialed historian, as an easy perusal of the "More About . . ." section of my blog clearly indicates. If I were writing a comprehensive, fully-cited article for peer review on the ICR, I definitely would have put in the time and effort to research things thoroughly. As it is, this is a blog, and my intention herein is to engage in a running conversation (sometimes only with myself) centered on my personal and professional research as a way to work things out conceptually and in writing.

    Toward this end, I wrote the post above in response to inconsistencies in the logic of the ICR's definition of "Biblical literalism" -- if one views this definition from outside of the ICR paradigm, as I do. As I wrote, this is one in a series of posts on the general theme of "how and why do we know what we know, and what does this say about us?"

    As a historian and citizen of this often dysfunctional democracy, one of my deepest motivations is to get beyond the surface of a given paradigm, ideology, talking point, etc., to discern some of the contingent, often implicit, threads that undergird these perspectives. My modest goal is that this effort can provide some modicum of additional data to inform, educate, and, hopefully, erode interpersonal barriers.

    With no heaven and no hell, only the eternal present and hope for the future, this is the least I can do.