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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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Malcolm - #17091

June 9th 2010

I rather enjoyed Karl Giberson’s discussion of the “slippery slope.”

Wrestling with Darwin

Stephen Barkley - #17095

June 9th 2010

People always lament the apostasy rate of first year University. Ironically, the church has created the (bulk of the) problem, not the schools, by placing extreme fundamentalist constraints on the minds of our high-school students. Instead of blaming the demons of liberal education, we need to examine ourselves.

Boyd’s video nailed it. Thanks.

Kim Lewis - #17098

June 9th 2010

I am often amazed reading the literature from Answers in Genesis and other like groups, that the choice is their belief system or Athesism any other position is only to distort the truth.  What saddens me even more is that they use terms like “Truth” so any belief outside of theirs is anything but the truth, the probelm with this approach is that once truth goes out of a relationship it is not only harder to lie but it is even harder to tell the truth.

I wish these organizations whould think about what they are saying and what options they are giving

Dick Fischer - #17105

June 9th 2010

I’m on record as suggesting that YEC doctrine be called “biblical distortionism” rather than “biblical literalism.”  From my perspective it has never been a problem of reading the Bible and especially Genesis literally.  The problem stems from a poor translation and a resultant bad interpretation that has never been corrected.

When the King James translators produced the “Received Text” they chose their English equivalents according to their mistaken belief that all mankind sprang from Adam, there was a global flood, and all the world’s languages emanated from Babel.  The KJV established a tradition that has survived subsequent, modern-day translations.

The only way out is to retranslate the KJV putting into the heads of the original translators what they would have known if they were living today.  Adam was the first of the covenant, not the progenitor of our species, the flood was local and judgment on Adam’s race, etc.  Then modern translations could follow suit.

And we wouldn’t pick on “literalism” unnecessarily.

HornSpiel - #17110

June 9th 2010


Actually the problem of literalism would not be helped by a different translation.  The problem is in recognizing if a story is to be taken as history, legend, a creation myth or whatever. That is not easy to do if you are not familiar with ancient literature. It is not surprising that moderns interpret Genesis literally. So it is not easy for Evangelicals to see that a non-literal interpretation is actually the most faithful interpretation in certain cases.

Just imagine if there was a translation that guided the reader to a non literal interpretation. You would have several problems:

a) Many people would not believe it was accurate (If the KJV translation were translated that way it never would have been accepted.)

b) It limits the the meaning to one interpretation of the allegorical text. There is certainly no agreement even among non-literal interpreters that “Adam was the first of the covenant” is the best way to understand his character.

A faithful translation gives us non-Hebrew speakers access to the Hebrew text in a way that we can interact with it.  This is the raw data.  We must wrestle with to understand the message that God is giving us.

Faithful translation can never substitute for faithful exegesis.

Robert Byers - #17112

June 9th 2010

I am a Evangelical Christian biblical creationist(Yec) Canadian.
Posters here are trying to say that Genesis didn’t mean, or even say, what it sure looks like it said.
There can be no doubt that the author, God or man, meant to give the origin of man, earth, death, and a few other big points.
Is the account by the author true or untrue? Was he lying, misinformed, or up to great hidden concepts fo instruct his audience.
Historically, by ancient Jewish scholars, Christian Scholars of all clans, and modern Evangelical and etc scholars clearly understood and understand Genesis is meant as a man-on -the-spot report accuracy par excellence.
Those not accepting it as a true account either know the authors better by some way or are intimidated by puny human ideas on origins, or just don’t believe the bible on anything they have another reason to not believe it.
We think its true and we can make a good and popular case.

Bilbo - #17114

June 9th 2010

Hi Robert,

I prefer C.S. Lewis’s view that the creation account in Genesis is God-inspired myth.  But yes, it is still teaching us important truths about creation, about human beings, and our fallen natures.

I don’t expect you to accept that.  But I’m curious if you think someone can accept Lewis’s view and still regard the Bible as the inspired word of God?  Or must we chuck the whole thing out?

John VanZwieten - #17118

June 10th 2010


Are you also geocentric in your cosmology? 

If not, you should take a close look at http://www.geocentricity.com/ to see how your views of the earth and sun have been corrupted by puny human ideas on planetary motions.

Janet - #17119

June 10th 2010


you said, “The problem is in recognizing if a story is to be taken as history, legend, a creation myth or whatever. That is not easy to do if you are not familiar with ancient literature. It is not surprising that moderns interpret Genesis literally. So it is not easy for Evangelicals to see that a non-literal interpretation is actually the most faithful interpretation in certain cases.”

In certain cases, yes. In the case of Genesis 1, no.  There are certain characteristics of Hebrew poetry that are distinctive, and they are no where to be found in the first few chapters of Genesis.  No parallelism, no nothing. Pastor John MacArthur has an in depth series on the topic, where he argues for a literal interpretation of the creation account (and he has been a scholar in biblical, ancient Hebrew for over 40 years): http://www.gty.org/search/creation++believe+it+or+not

if you go to this website, click on any one of the links, and you will have the option of listening or downloading, both for free.

merv - #17120

June 10th 2010

Okay, I’ll bite.  I’ve heard about MacArthur several times now, and Janet, you bring it up as well.  And maybe I’ve forgotten (or never knew) what a parallelism is —- I’m certainly not a language scholar or a Hebrew scholar, though if anybody else here is, I’d love to hear confirmation of what MacArthur claims.  No Parallelisms in Genesis 1?  What about the day 1:  Light & Darkness, 2: Expanse between the waters, 3: dry land separating the seas…

All in “parallel” with the last three:  day 4:  sun & moon (compare with light of day 1),  5:  life filling the expanses of sea & sky (compare with day 2);  6:  land beasts (to fill the land made on day 3

Is that not a parallelism?  Why or how does MacArthur dismiss that?  Or perhaps I’m not understanding what is general meant (or what MacArthur means) by “parallelism”.


Gabriel Powell - #17121

June 10th 2010


Just to clarify: parallelism is a clear linguistic structure in the Hebrew. There are clear grammatical pointers that indicate it. The parallelism you are referring to is more conceptual, but not even that. It’s more organizational, but it’s definitely not Hebraic parallelism.

The difference is extremely obvious in the Hebrew when translating Genesis 1 (or any other historical narrative) and Psalm 119 (or any other poetic text).

Hope that helps…

Bilbo - #17122

June 10th 2010

Just because Genesis 1 isn’t poetry doesn’t mean that it isn’t myth.

Chris Massey - #17125

June 10th 2010


Bilbo’s point is exactly right. You can’t just say that because a text isn’t genre A (poetry), it must therefore be genre B (literal history). You must first consider whether the text isn’t genres C through Z, many of which will be non-historical.

JKnott - #17128

June 10th 2010

Great suffering cats!  Do we have to sit through the same argument on EVERY thread on this site?  Is anyone ever going to get beyond the genre argument?  If you have nothing new to say that you haven’t said on 157 other threads lately, why not give it a rest?  Or just say “ditto what I said before?”  Is this the model of dialogue we’re giving to the world?  Really?

Justin Poe - #17129

June 10th 2010


The problem is for decades, the OEC or TE crowd carried the banner for Genesis being hailed as poetry.  Well, that got shot down rather quickly, to the point that no one here even believes it’s poetry anymore,  so now the language is it’s a “myth”.  Same old argument, different man made language.

Jeff - #17130

June 10th 2010

It simply comes down to reading each text in its cultural, literary and historical context and asking, “What is that passage trying to say in that context?” And, when we do that, we can see that Genesis 1 is not attempting to answer modern scientific questions about creation ex-nihilo. It is doing something very different and it is speaking to Jews living in a Babylonian/Egyptian/Canaanite cultural world.

I have to say, however, the “bug” that crawls on the left of these videos is just annoying.

HornSpiel - #17135

June 10th 2010


I’ve been to JMcA’s site. I have heard his arguments. What they come down to is that there is nothing in the text that says it should not be taken literally. So a faithful/correct reading should be literal.

What I find interesting is that people are looking for something structural in the text that would indicate it is not to be taken literally. This is not necessary either in ancient or modern literature.

If we agree that Genesis is probably one of the oldest texts in the Bible, why would we expect that is “poetical” structure, if it has one, reflects the poetry of the psalms, written much later. styles do change. As Merv points out, Gen.1 does have a || logical structure. God preparing a place for his created beings is a theme picked up in the NT. as we know.

I do not expect poetry here in any case, rather, an ancient God-breathed creation story. Creation stories are universally found among tribal people. We all need to know where we come from, how to structure society, and relate to each other and god.  Is it so strange that God provided His chosen people with a story that answers these questions in a way that is appropriate to them?—When a child asks where babies come from, how do you answer?


eddy - #17137

June 10th 2010

“Faith doesn’t hang on interpretation,“

Faith does hang on interpretation, I’d say, and if everybody get his/her own interpretation, we will end up with different Christs.

“If we have Christ in common, then all of our disagreements will be relatively minor.”

Which Christ do we have in common? Christ, of the biblical history of the Earth or Christ, of the evolutionary history of the Earth?

If the evolution history is to be believed, Christ death was of no value because there is no such thing as historical Fall and of all people, we Christians are the most pitiable.

Bilbo - #17139

June 10th 2010

Eddy: If the evolution history is to be believed, Christ death was of no value because there is no such thing as historical Fall and of all people, we Christians are the most pitiable.

I agree that the historical Fall is important.  So did C.S. Lewis.  So even though he believed that the Genesis account was mythical, he thought it contained essential historical truth about the Fall, and offered his own updated version:


So, just as Lewis has offered his own “Socratic myth,” I think we should understand the author of Genesis to have offered his Socratic myth for his generation.  Either way, the original unfallen state of human beings, followed by a Fall, is something that God wanted us to know.

Bilbo - #17140

June 10th 2010

In other words, just because something is a “myth” doesn’t mean that it doesn’t contain important historical information.

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