Way Too Literal

The Last Supper, by El Greco (1541–1614),
Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna

John 6:51-58

I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?” Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, 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, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.”

Much has be written about the content of Jesus’ teaching, but significantly less has been offered of His methods.  “Perhaps” as Herman Horne said “it is because of the feeling that reverence for Jesus as divine was inconsistent with the studies of His methods as a human teacher.”  It was, in fact His divinity that informed His methods.  John 2:24-25 says “…He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for he knew what was in man.”  Jesus’ surgical teaching techniques were employed to pierce man’s sin-clouded mind to reach his heart.  This was the Creator addressing His creation. This was God reaching the Imago Dei.

Rational minds often struggle with spiritual truth: metaphors are powerful bridges that Jesus employed with frequency.  In his book Out of the Depths, Ken Kovacs wrote:

Being the consummate teacher, the rabbi, Jesus offers them a metaphor (bread as flesh/flesh as bread) to help them discover something of God’s mission in his life.  He uses a metaphor to reveal the truth.  But the religious leaders don’t understand.  Why not? Because they’re being literal.  As religious leaders they should have been more familiar with metaphor, how it works, how it helps to convey truth.  Instead, they respond the way many religious people do, then as now, by being too literal.  And it’s because they’re being too literal that they miss the message.  They couldn’t hear it.  And then they become angry and begin to quarrel amongst themselves.  This, too, is often what happens when we’re being too literal, especially in the world of religion and spirituality; we become frustrated. 

Literalism often hinders us from encountering truth; in fact, literalism is one of the besetting sins of our day.

Do you agree that literalism is a sin?  Why or Why not?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.


Ken Kovacs
Ken Kovacs

Kenneth E. Kovacs is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, and has served congregations in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Mendham, New Jersey. Ken studied at Rutgers College, Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and received his Ph.D. in practical theology from the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland. He is also an analyst-in-training at the C. G. Jung Institute-Zürich. Author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011) and Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parson’s Porch, 2016), his current research areas include C. G. Jung and contemporary Christian experience. Ken has served on the board of the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, is a current board member of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, and a book reviewer for The Presbyterian Outlook.

Ken’s weekly sermons at CPC can be found at http://kekovacs.blogspot.com/


D I G  D E E P E R

Fundamentalist Spirituality

Fundamentalism is “militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism,” in George Marsden’s term. Thus, its spirituality has mostly the same content as classic evangelical spirituality of the kind exhibited in the age of Dwight Moody. But fundamentalism took on a sharper edge in the institutional and ideological conflicts of its formative period in the early 20th century. Fundamentalism was a protest movement, a denominational renewal strategy, and a coalition of cobelligerents against liberalism. But as a spiritual tradition, it has had a few key commitments: truth, authority, and purity.

Fundamentalists lead with truth claims and consider the best test of authentic Christianity to be whether a person affirms true, biblical doctrine. Furthermore, the believer is under obligation not just to believe the truth, but also to “contend earnestly for the faith.” R. A. Torrey, whom Marsden called “one of the chief architects of fundamentalist thought,” frequently made the point that “Christ and His disciples attacked error.”
Closely related is the claim of authority. Fundamentalists emphasize submission to the absolute authority of the Bible as God’s Word. The literalism with which fundamentalism approaches the Bible entails that God’s will is generally so plain in the words of Scripture that any deviation is best explained as willful disobedience to God.

Following from these two commitments is the fundamentalist emphasis on purity. The church is to be composed of orthodox believers (that is, those who hold to a set of fundamental, or central, truths) with lifestyles of personal holiness rather than worldliness (that is, those who submit to the authority of God’s revealed will). The quest for purity has frequently led to multiple divisions within the churches, beginning with the attempt to drive the liberals from the old denominations, but usually ending up as an exodus of the fundamentalists from those bodies. Some fundamentalists insist on multiple degrees of separation, not only remaining visibly separate from liberals, but also maintaining separation from those who fail to separate.

Some elements of the fundamentalist spiritual temperament are related to the fortunes of the movement through the middle of the 20th century, as it lost most of its chosen battles within the denominations and the wider culture, especially in America. After the symbolic public discrediting of creationism in the 1925 Scopes trial, fundamentalists were increasingly excluded from traditional centers of prestige and influence. Since they already held that the church’s primary mission involves the spiritual tasks of evangelizing and making disciples, most fundamentalists found it natural to disengage from their cultures. Thus, the “militantly antimodern” leading edge of the movement has tended to reinforce a leaning toward privatizing and personalizing spirituality. However, because fundamentalism is a submovement within the larger stream of evangelical Protestantism, these distinguishing features only count for a small portion of fundamentalism’s spirituality. The bulk of the sermons, books, and magazines produced by fundamentalists are devoted to the standard topics of classic evangelical spirituality: conversion, prayer, Bible study, Christian fellowship, personal holiness, revival, and trust in God.

For Further Reading: G. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980).

Fred Sanders, “Fundamentalist Spirituality,” ed. Glen G. Scorgie, Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 468–469.


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Rick Wilcox

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