Why the Bible doesn’t always literally mean what it says.

Watch this video clip with NT Wright and Peter Enns of the BioLogos Foundation discussing the meaning of literal in Genesis 1:

A summary of the video comes courtesy BioLogos Blog:

So when we ask if Genesis can be taken literally, that doesn’t settle the question of what it refers to. This should be an open question, Wright says, when we read any text: what does it refer to and how does it intend to refer to it? When it says in the Gospels, “Jesus was crucified,” the literal reading refers to a concrete event. But when Jesus tells a parable, the literal reading points to an abstraction or a metaphor—though it may have a concrete application.

Wright then considers what the writers of Genesis intended to do by the creation story and points out that in context, telling a story about someone who constructs something in six days is a temple story. It is about God making heavens and the Earth as the place he wants to dwell and placing humans into that construct as a way of reflecting his own love into the world and drawing out the praise and glory from the world back to himself. “That is the literal meaning of Genesis,” says Wright, “and the question of the formal structure has to sit around that as best it can.” (read more here)

I don’t always agree with NT Wright but here I think it gets at what is meant by literal.

HT: TC Robinson (though I know it has been up on other blogs too, e.g., Mark Stevens, etc).

9 responses to “Why the Bible doesn’t always literally mean what it says.

  1. While I am in the midst of my Thesis writing on the significance and meaning (particularly the theological significance and meaning) of “day” in Genesis one, I am unconvinced that Gen. 1 is nearly as “temple building” as has been claimed of late. The temple-building motif does form a significant portion of my thesis, but to state that this is the “literal meaning of Genesis” is a stretch. I believe it gives structure to the passage, but is not the only motif present, nor the most “literal” reading. FWIW, the “literal” reading has always been a question of debate, and one must wrestle with the “literal” in regard to both human and divine agencies in the composition and preservation of the text as we presently encounter it. Is the most “literal” really whatever the human author had in mind, or has the divine author actually provided the “literal” and the human has but grasped it faintly and likely only in part?

  2. Rick, please feel free to share how you see it. Would have the audience of, say, the 8th, 9th cent BC have read the creation narrative the way we do now in the 21 cent AD? Why or why not? Literally speaking that is. 🙂

  3. I believe there are layers to Genesis one that are not so easily stripped away by either saying it only talking about the first week of creation or that it is somehow a metaphor for the Lord’s building of His temple. Are we trying to only read it as some particular readers have in the past (as in Reader-Response theory) or do we seek the original author’s meaning (human? divine? what is/was an “author” anyways?). I would rather not see any side simply denouncing the other in this debate, but actually moving towards a fuller understanding of the text and thereby coming to a greater unity as to the obedience to the Lord of the text.

    • Thanks Rick, I am with you and I think I have tried to convey that however poorly that went – I too want to have a fuller reading of the text and not limit it to just six day literalism and such.

      Thanks for the input. I appreciate it.

  4. Sorry you’ve taken such flak from Brother Ham of AIG. While I would agree with him concerning creation being recent, I disagree that this is so crucial as to breaking fellowship or calling out ministries. I would personally LOVE it if everyone agreed with my reading of Gen. 1, but would rather allow for some plurality of readings within the confines of historical orthodox confession concerning the central issues. I do believe personally that the ancient earth view can possibly be outside of the confines of such confession (with regard to the universality of the sin nature, our death in Adam, the imago Dei), but don’t think this is inherently so (hey, we are all able to hold conflicting views in some sort of unreconciled tension…that’s just how we get along as fallen people in the midst of redemption). Blessings brother!

    • I basically feel the same way as you do – I don’t think the earth is that old but to me it is not central to the gospel message (other than God made us, we sinned, we need redemption, he saved us through the cross and resurrection (something, btw, I have never heard NT Wright say in any explicit sense)) and can handle conflicting views without accusing folk of being inconsistent Christians or authority hating Bible compromisers. Thanks Friend.

      • Brother Brian,
        My humblest and sincerest apologies if I offended you, or anyone else, by indicating you are an ‘inconsistant’ Christian. That was not what I had meant for I do not know nor can not know your spiritual life thus can not judge as such and neither am I too anyways. Please forgive me and pray for me that I may receive more meekness, gentleness, etc. needed to overcome my character flaws. I have the utmost respect for you and your views as I have read some of your papers posted here.
        Great thoughts Rick!
        My dilemma has always been inconsistent views/interpretations of the Bible (not the people themselves as we are all fallible, imperfect, finite) for the only reason that if unbelievers can find 1 inconsistency with the Bible, 1 inconsistency with what Im ‘preaching’ (Mark 16:15) to them, they most likely will not believe. From 1 inconsistency, you can theoretically prove anything (ie evolution theory). From 1 inconsistency one can also make Christianity whatever you want it to be (Im not referring to anyone specific but generally speaking). As an example, many years ago a Christian co-worker of my wife was shock to find out that we believed that Jonah in the fish was actual. Her defense was that ‘it is impossible for a man to be inside a fish for 3 days’ (that’s the point isn’t it!). She obviously didn’t believe in miracles in the OT! She professed to being Christian therefore believing that Jesus was resurrected from the dead which is also impossible as well as the virgin birth, the many miracles Jesus did, etc. It didnt make sense with her world view that miracles can’t happen such as Jonah (no idea what she believed for Moses crossing the Red Sea, walls of Jericho, etc, etc) but yet believed the amazing miracle of Jesus. In her world view, why should an unbeliever accept the miracle of the resurrection but not any miracles in the OT. It is the Bible, OT and NT. Its not logical! I hope you understand where Im coming from.
        My presupposition is that the Bible can not have any inconsistencies because it is inerrant, even if I don’t understand something. After all, we are human, fallible and finite and can not understand everything there is. That doesn’t mean that every word then in Bible therefore is of literal ‘concrete’ meaning which it can not (metaphors, parables, prophecies, etc). My dilemma I have regarding a ‘framework’, ‘deeper’ meaning creation account is; where does the actual concrete ‘history’ start? Ive studied Genesis trying to find a logical concrete event start point. Does it start when God made Adam/Eve or first when they get banned from the Garden? There are so many views that even go to the extent and say the Noah’s flood were not real either (not implying to anyone reading). How can I come to the conclusion where I can say, ‘right here is where ‘actual’ literal historical events started’? How can I contend (Jude 1:3) with unbelievers, sceptics, critics, the ‘framework’ meaning that one doesn’t get from a ‘straightforward’ reading? For me the easiest, most logical place to start is right from the first words of Genesis 1:1. Sorry to bring up a perhaps contentious issue but why can’t there be “evenings and mornings” without a sun? Scientifically, logically its impossible but isnt that the point similar to Jonah? I can believe that day/night cycles do not require the sun because God can do it, its not impossible for God. (Please don’t take it this wrong way!)
        You are correct, Brian! Salvation does not hinge on the exact interpretation the world was created rather ‘that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.’ (Romans 10:9)! What amazing grace! God be with you and your beautiful family and bless you in the Lord’s ministry.

        Great video btw in terms of the word literal!

  5. Here is a great little quote from John Calvin about creation:

    Since the infinite wisdom of God is dsplayed in the admirable structure of heaven and earth, it is absolutely impossible to unfold The History Of The Creation Of The World in terms equal to its dignity. (Calvin, from his Commentary on Genesis, Banner of Truth..)

  6. I think Genesis 1:2 shows that though creation happened ex nihilo (verse 1), the emphasis of the narrative shows God’s progressive ordering of a formless and empty world. Thus as Augustine, the chapters of Gen.1-3, are a theological framework for God’s creation. And with God as Elohim, under this name we see God, in His Will, working on a dark and ruined creation & creature, till by His Word all is set in order and made “very good”. No gap, but the contrast of the Ancient Near Eastern literature. Here is a theological & historical narrative.

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