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A Pastor’s Perspective on the Dangers of an Ultra-Literal Perspective

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December 31, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's video features Greg Boyd. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

In this video Conversation, Greg Boyd considers the implications of an "ultra-literal" approach to scripture, an all-or-nothing mindset that characterizes a fundamentalist worldview.

But perhaps the difference between those who read the Bible literally and those who take more exegetical liberty is not as extreme as it might sound. For example, Boyd notes that though many evangelicals claim to read the Bible with a literalist perspective, most do not. For example, when we read in the scriptures that the earth is held up by pillars-- or that the earth is surrounded by water-- the majority of readers would understand the metaphorical language without accepting the text as reporting scientific fact.

Some believers conceive of their faith as a proverbial "house of cards" where shifting one element will collapse the whole thing. To help believers get past this mindset, Boyd suggests that pastors and theologians would do well to model "responsible exegesis" that holds up Christ as the center and allows the scriptures to truly communicate the message of the gospel.

"If we have Christ in common," says Boyd, "Then all of our disagreements will be relatively minor."

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

Greg Boyd is founder and senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church, an evangelical mega-church in St. Paul, MN. In 2000, Greg founded Christus Victor Ministries (CVM) a nonprofit organization that promotes Greg’s writing and speaking ministry outside of Woodland Hills Church while raising funds to further research projects related to his ministry.

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ken Wilson - #17209

June 11th 2010

Forgot to affirm the heart of Greg’s message here: that faith is the crucified-ascended-risen-and returning Jesus is powerfully unifying.  There is a living-resurrected-communicating Lord holding the church in his hands.  We can relax about many other matters of dispute.  INcluding, for example, whether we read Genesis 1 as historical-truth telling writing or mythological-truth telling writing, or off topic to this discussion, whether a particular form of meditative prayer or explanation thereof in light of emerging brain science is legitimate or dangerous.  It’s a matter of our fundamental posture toward fellow believers and their Lord.  Are we trusting in the power of the center [the crucified-risen Jesus] to hold or not?  “And he is able to make them stand” is the posture of Paul regarding fellow believers.  Is it ours?

To use Boyd’s analagoy: is the truth a house of cards such that one card out of place reduces the whole thing to rubble?  If so, we better be on the lookout for falsehood in each other. And when we even suspect it, we ought to assume the worst about our brothers-sisters and sound the alarm.
I for one, don’t want to live that way. It doesn’t bear witness to the kingdom or hasten the kingdom’s coming.

Bryan Hodge - #17214

June 11th 2010


I don’t think the “history vs. myth” distinction is accurate. The author is speaking of what he views as history in mythological terms. He is unaware of the details, so he uses pieces from what is common Mesopotamian (perhaps ANE in general)  history with a major twist. So is he intending to write history? Yes and no. He’s intending to show that God has been involved from the beginning and give us a theology of order and chaos in their relationship to God’s involvement in the world. Is he intending to give us the details of history? No. He doesn’t know the details. He uses what is known to communicate an important theology in both the ANE and our world. Is that what you meant to say?

R Hampton - #17215

June 11th 2010

According to evolution, you must believe Species diversity are a result of trial and error genetic mutations and blind forces of nature cooperating together. But according to Christianity, God is mentally concerned with every detail that lead to the existence of everything.

Trial and error was designed by God who is, after all, omniscient. Before Creation became reality,  God knew every random action and every resulting reaction with perfect knowledge. How could he not? God knew the bounce of every ping-pong ball in every Mega-Millions lottery, and every winning number. God knew exactly the quantum state of every particle at every moment in time. And God knew exactly every random mutation and every evolutionary success and failure. God knew ALL of these things because they were ALL a part of his plan. How could it not be so?

Ironically it is the ID proponents who believe that a God who relies upon “blind” forces of nature does so out of ignorance, not design—as if God never really understood the forces of nature that He himself created!

Bilbo - #17216

June 11th 2010

Hi Eddy,

Yes, Genesis’ insistence that creation was originally good is a problem for old earthers.  If (1) - (3) don’t work for you, then until you find one that does, YEC might be the safest position, and I won’t blame you for holding onto it. 

As far as speciation, I’m an IDist, though I’m not sure how much is direct design, and how much is the result of nature’s freedom.  But I trust that God is in control.

Bilbo - #17218

June 11th 2010

Hi Ken,

Contrary to Greg Boyd, seeing is not believing.  It’s the opposite of it.  Shutting down the left brain so that we have spiritual experiences is a practice older than our father Abraham.  He was called out of that to serve a living God, who is quite capable of speaking to us without our being in a trance-like state.  And when He doesn’t speak to us is when we walk by faith, trusting the last time we heard from God.  Trying to get spiritual guidance by your method is not the way to go.  All you do is open yourself to a spiritual world full of demons.

So I’ll ask you again.  Do you at least ask them if Jesus came in the flesh?

ken Wilson - #17220

June 11th 2010

Bryan, Close enough.  Genesis 1 is an attempt to use the language of the time for origins, myth, to convey “what happened” but not in the modern historical sense of “what happened.”  Especially since we moderns, as John Walton from Wheaton points out, have a “materialist ontology”  whereas the ancients had a “functional ontology.”

Rich - #17232

June 11th 2010

R Hampton (17215):

If you really believe what you wrote in the above passage, then you are in fact an ID proponent, because you are saying that God so constructed nature in the beginning that he knew, from the moment of the Big Bang, that it would produce exactly the result that he wanted.  In other words, there was no *real* chance.  The mutations, the cosmic rays etc. that caused the mutations, etc., were all predetermined.  The process was teleological, and therefore *not* truly Darwinian.  That’s what ID has been saying (against TE) all along.  No *genuinely* Darwinian process could have done the trick.  Glad to have you aboard.

Dick Fischer - #17234

June 11th 2010

Hi Janet:

I’ve met John MacArthur and respect him highly as an exegete once he gets passed Genesis 11.  Up until then the entire YEC scenario he follows falls flat.

If you had a method of apology that did violence to every science text book in every library in every high school in every county in every state in the entire United States, do you think you could be wrong?

I agree with HornSpeil that a “translation that guided the reader to a non literal interpretation” is a non-starter.  What I’m talking about is a translation consistent with Genesis taken literally that respects science as taught traditionally - not YEC pseudo science - and cognizant of ANE history.

I’ve done it but don’t regard it as a finished product just yet.  If anybody is interested email me and I’ll send it to you for comments - .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

R Hampton - #17237

June 11th 2010


You almost got it!

Only God can see the universe and understand that the next winning Mega-Millions number can only be the one from his plan. Even so, the next Mega-Millions drawing is a truly random event to anyone or anything inside the universe. Nothing material can know the future and act preemptively, not even the ping-pong balls destined to be selected.

There is no such thing as Intelligent Thermodynamics because Christians know that nature can be truly random (to Man) and yet still be predetermined (by God) Evolution, however, is a conceptual obstacle because they can not apply the same dual reality - chance and fate. So Darwinism is a true scientific description of life just as Thermodynamics is a true description of molecular behavior, and for that reason Intelligent Design is a failure.

We agree that God is omniscient. We agree that God knows how everything in this universe will unfold. Yet we fundamentally disagree on the implications thereof.

I’m willing to bet (pun intended) that you talk / think / act as if games of chance are just that - operations of randomness - and yet still believe them to be a part of God’s plan from the beginning. Now apply that to evolution, and you will be a “TE”.

Rich - #17239

June 11th 2010

R Hampton (17237):

Your parallel between thermodynamics and evolutionary theory is fatally flawed.  You don’t understand the difference between large-number phenomena that merely involve statistical “clustering” of mass or energy (which is what happens in thermodynamics) and those which involve *building articulate molecular machinery*.  Perhaps some training in engineering, or in a manual skill like clockmaking or the construction of computers, is what you need in order to get you to see the difference.

The theological point that you and all TEs keep missing is that pure Darwinism requires *true* randomness, i.e., the mutations must be random, *not just with respect to human knowledge*, but *with respect to the evolutionary outcome*.  They can’t be subtly “lined up” or “twigged” by God, who knows in advance that they will occur at the right time.  Darwin himself would have snorted at any such suggestion, and so would Gould.  You might as well have God construct a whale directly, as have him construct a whale by a series of “phoney random” mutations which are secretly planned to achieve the desired result.  Both methods violate the spirit of Darwin’s theory.

Gregory - #17241

June 11th 2010

Jumping in midway through a conversation that’s been on-going between R Hampton & Rich for a few weeks now…

First, as Nietzsche wrote: “Darwin forgot the spirit.” So unless a ‘theory’ is a ‘spiritual thing’ (which is interesting to consider in a ‘disenchanted’ era), what’s Rich saying?

Second, I doubt that R Hampton would defend ‘pure Darwinism,’ whatever that vague term might mean. Is this true? I know inside-out the names Rich would use to show that ‘pure Darwinism’ is still taught in Biology classrooms. But one need go no further than Margulis to show that post- and non-Darwinism does exist among biologists. There were, nevertheless, many ways that, keeping with tradition & adding rigorous experimentations to the results, Darwin contributed to human knowledge.

Evolutionism & Darwinism differ; so do TE & TD (theistic Darwinism), the latter being a contradiction due to Darwin’s agnosticism & refusal to speak about religious things in pubic. 

Thus, re: #17232, ID has been speaking ‘against’ Darwinism all along, not necessarily TE. Und zo, Darwinism is *not* a “true scientific description of life,” but rather an ideology. 

It tickles me to see you two tempting each other to come to the other’s side!

Rich - #17243

June 12th 2010


I’m always hesitant to claim that I understand Nietzsche’s aphoristic remarks.  I would guess, however, that Nietzsche, while agreeing with Darwin about the *fact* of evolution, thought that Darwin had completely misunderstood the cause, blinded by his bourgeois English notions of science and philosophy.  I do not know if Bergson ever read Nietzsche, but regardless, Bergson would be one who rose beyond English philosophy and “remembered the spirit” in evolutionary theorizing.  But of course, for both Nietzsche and Bergson, evolutionary theorizing was not a narrowly scientific activity, but inescapably involved philosophy.  Neo-Darwinism, on the other hand, followed Darwin’s lead and tried to keep evolutionary theory wholly within “science”, narrowly conceived.  All the leading participants in the current Anglo-American debate operate within this narrower conception.  I operate within it myself, pragmatically speaking, but only to show the incompetence of Darwinian explanation even when it is allowed to set the ground rules.  The reality of evolution, I’m confident, is beyond the imaginative limits of most of today’s participants.

Gregory - #17261

June 12th 2010

My comment was just meant as an attempt to mediate between R Hampton and Rich. If R Hampton looks in the mirror and calls himself a ‘pure Darwinist’ or even a ‘(neo-)Darwinist’, this would surprise me. As far as I can gather, R Hampton is not a biologist, geneticist or botanist & thus Charles Darwin is likely not one of the main figures in RH’s chosen field/speciality.

Speaking of a business Darwinist, medical Darwinist or Darwinist coach simply makes *no(n)sense*.

That said, this back & forth has distracted and diverted the thread.

Letter of the law vs. spirit of the law?

One has to give credit to the ultra-literalists who “put their faith first” so to speak in highlighting the importance of Scripture in the lives of religious people. In our anti-institutional age one could argue that they don’t like current institutions. But to argue that one doesn’t like the Bible (or the Koran or the Torah) is tantamount to heresy, if not instead marginality from the core of the Kingdom through lack of contact with the language/Logos of faith.

Ultra-literalists believe they are the ‘most faithful’ of Christians. They will likely not change this self-privileging even if scientifc knowledge contradicts them.

Bilbo - #17266

June 12th 2010

Hi John,

I never got back to you about Tolkien and The Silmarillion.  Yes, Tolkien expresses the same idea of a fallen angelic being marring creation and God bringing good out of evil.  You probably know that Tolkien was instrumental in helping Lewis become a Christian, and that they were lifelong friends.  No doubt they talked about the problem of an old earth and natural evil, and came to similar conclusions.  Or perhaps that was a stumbling block for Lewis that Tolkien helped him climb over.  I wonder.

Gingoro - #17319

June 13th 2010

“God knew ALL of these things because they were ALL a part of his plan. How could it not be so?”

I wonder if some of the attributes of God such as the above have come from Greek thought and not Christian. 

J Hampton can you demonstrate what you assert from scripture in a clear and definite way?
Dave W

Hornbeam - #17329

June 13th 2010

Romans 14 is relevant to how we interact on these issues:-

‘13Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.’


‘23 ...everything that does not come from faith is sin.’

I remember as a young Christian being stunned by the hat-wearing verses and frightened to make a decision either way (and I’m a man!  But I was concerned about the church I was in).  For me, it was a real step of faith to believe that God accepted me and my fellows independantly of what we honestly decided to do on this particular issue, so long as we acted in faith.

Sometimes the arguments I see in blogs like these chill me for their arrogance and determination to be right.  It is almost as if some people (on either side) will walk without faith in God, but with confidence in themselves and their arguments.

Rules of engagement should be:-
1. Humility
2. A determination to not lead a brother to stumble.

I love this website.  Thanks.

Robert Byers - #17431

June 14th 2010

Bilbo 17114
Yes I guess one can accept this lewis guy’s idea that Genesis being a myth can be inspired from God.
Yet its not a myth.
Why would not god tell us of our origins? A critic would rightly bring this up about God’s not letting us know why things are the way they are.
Genesis is presented as to be taken as fact on important things.
No reason to question the intent of the author for his audience.
its the historic intellectual opinion of protestant peoples that Genesis is meant to be seen as a accurate origin of things.
Not a god-inspired movie of the week.

Bilbo - #17435

June 14th 2010

Hi Robert,

How we understand the creation story may depend upon how we think it was written.  Was someone taking dictation, word for word, straight from God?  Then we would expect it to be historically and scientifically accurate.

Or was this written by someone who was reacting against the pagan creation myths of the neighboring cultures, and wanted to present a creation story reflecting the monotheism of a holy and good Creator, and under divine “pressure,” came up with Genesis 1-3?  In that case, incidentals, such as how long it took God to create, or if Eve was formed from Adam’s rib,  or if there was an actual tree of life and a tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or a talking snake,  may not be accurate.  But the basic plot will most likely reflect something that actually happened:

God intended there to be a good creation, and for us to live forever, but something went terribly wrong, and it involved our not trusting and obeying God.

Janet - #19053

June 25th 2010

Hi all,
I apologize, but I actually forgot that I commented on this site, and haven’t been back until now.

I have recently heard from an acquaintance, and see it in some of the posts here, the argument that God told His people a creation story befitting the times and cultures that they were living in—and so this is why perhaps Genesis 1 shouldn’t be literal for us today.  But I am weary of this reasoning because why would God water down the true story of His creation to the point where, if we completely trust modern science, He stretched the true story quite a bit. My main concern is that if we take the creation story as what a parent would tell his child when he or she asks “how are babies made?”—then what do we make of the Resurrection and Gospel story? For the times and cultures in which Jesus lived and ministered are quite different than our own as well…so perhaps Jesus rising from the dead is just a story for a specific people-group in history as well.  Now, I KNOW that this is a quite different issue than creation, but my point is, at what point in time did God start revealing “non-stretched” versions of truth? Because every time He spoke to man, He spoke within a framework of specific cultural traditions/norms.

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