I don’t want to sound proud or condescending, as I can respect the position of Biblical literalists, even though I really don’t relate to their position at all.
It struck me when, in a conversation, an Evangelical friend suggested that we “begin with what the words actually mean.” I don’t really know what to make of this. What words? The English words (if so, which translation)? The Greek words (speaking of the NT, for example)? The original language (which may vary)?
For the New Testament, we are dealing with an English translation of a Greek manuscript, which is itself a translation of the original language. We don’t have the original manuscripts of the NT, so we rely on the accuracy of the translation, whether we’re dealing with English or Greek. My friend suggested that we need a “single standard or reference from which to interpret the text,” but I wonder what that standard is, and who determines that it alone is authoritative. Translators, transcribers, and interpreters (such as those who write Biblical commentary) are human and subject to mistakes and even deliberate changes of meaning. How do we know which translation, which interpretation to trust?
An analogy might help explain where I’m coming from. Suppose I have the Spanish sentence, “De repente llega la guagua.”
If I consult a dictionary, I will see that “de repente” means” suddenly. “Llega” primarily means “arrives,” though there are several alternate meanings, depending on the context. Finally, “guagua” means “bus” in Central America, but it means “baby” in Andean countries, such as Bolivia.
So, I decide to translate it as “Suddenly the bus arrives.” Of course, unbeknownst to me (the translator), the writer is Bolivian, and “de repente” in Bolivia means “maybe,” which is not listed in most Spanish dictionaries. And again, unknown to me, the writer meant, “Maybe the baby is sufficient,” “to suffice” being one of the possible meanings of “llegar.” I know Spanish, and the standard translation is going to be “Suddenly the bus arrives.”
Once that translation is in place, it becomes the de facto authority by which translations are created. So, the German, Farsi, Greek, and so on, translations all read (in their language) “Suddenly the bus arrives.”
So, some non-literalist comes along and says, “Wait a minute. Maybe this isn’t what is meant. Maybe we’re dealing with a baby, not a bus, and uncertainly instead of suddenness.”
“Don’t you trust the text?” our literalist friend asks. “Why shouldn’t we stick with what the words actually mean? It means ‘Suddenly the bus arrives.’ Everyone knows that.”
So, in the end, when we say we are investing authority in the text, we’re really putting faith in the humans who wrote, transcribed, and translated the text.