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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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John VanZwieten - #17141

June 10th 2010


Which Christ:
The Arminian free will Christ, or the Reformed sovereign Christ?
The Pre-mil, post-trib Christ or the Preterist Christ?
The baptise once backward Christ or the baptise three times forward Christ?
The use instruments in worship Christ or the acapella-only Christ?

The Christ who prayed his followers would be one, or the Christ of faction and division?

I guess you would say it all hangs on interpretation, right Eddy?

Bilbo - #17145

June 10th 2010

Hi John,

I think Eddy has a valid point.  Some doctrines are more important than others.  We know from history than when the doctrine of the Fall is left out, Christianity gets watered down.

John VanZwieten - #17146

June 10th 2010


I haven’t heard anyone here at Biologos argue that humans are not fallen and in need of the Savior.  So it is actually pretty outrageous for Eddy to suggest anyone here thinks Christ’s death was of no value when in fact everyone is united in saying that Christ’s death and resurrection was of supreme value.

If Biologos started arguing for righteousness coming by adhering to the law rather than faith in Christ, then we’d be in good company with St. Paul in pointing out that is tantamount to saying Christ has no value. 

But doing the same with believing the evidence of evolutionary history?  C’mon, that’s just too much, as Pastor Boyd and other keep pointing out.

Merv - #17147

June 10th 2010

Thanks, Gabriel.  I love Psalm 119—-and being a glutton for challenge, I set out to memorize it once.  Wasn’t nearly a glutton enough, as it turned out;  didn’t make it very far.  The Hebrew acrostic poetry would be a great example of parallelisms, I imagine.


pds - #17152

June 10th 2010

Since the writer could not have been an eyewitness, it seems that Genesis 1 has to be some kind of inspired revelation.

What kind of literature is the book of Revelation?

Headless Unicorn Guy - #17159

June 10th 2010

What kind of literature is the book of Revelation?

History Written in Advance.  Nuclear Weapons, Asteroid Impacts, Gulf Oil Spills, Helicopter Gunships armed with Chemical Weapons piloted by long-haired bearded Hippies, et al…

(You had to hand me a straight line, PDS…)

Bilbo - #17166

June 10th 2010

Hi John,

I don’t think Eddy is that familiar with the Christians here, so he’s jumped to conclusions.  But sometimes I get a little uncomfortable, myself.

Bilbo - #17167

June 10th 2010

For example, is Ken Wilson’s Christ someone who had to die for our wickedness, or someone who helps us meditate and become more spiritually conscious?  I hope the former, but fear the latter.

John VanZwieten - #17172

June 10th 2010


Re: Ken Wilson—you can check on his church’s website that they affirm both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and the church doctrinal statement talks about Christ restoring us to reletionship with God and others.  I would hope Christ both died for our sin and through his Spirit in us helps us meditate and become more consious of spiritual things, wouldn’t you?

Bilbo - #17174

June 10th 2010

Yes, I’ve visited their website.  I’ve also bought his book on mystical prayer.  I’ve also read his interview at “Read the Spirit.”  The problem with the meditation Ken advocates is that it can be a way of shutting down our left brain and allowing our right brain to come in contact with the demonic world of spirits (That’s why I persisted in asking Ken if he would at least test the spirits and ask them if Jesus came in the flesh.  His refusal to answer is not a good sign.)  That is NOT the way we are to communicate with God.  The meditation we are supposed to do is to reflect on God’s word or capture every thought and bring it before the Father.

John VanZwieten - #17175

June 10th 2010

OK, so you have some problems with his meditation methodology.  I haven’t read his book, so maybe I would, too.  But does that really mean we should say he’s professing some false Christ?

Maybe he didn’t answer because he just didn’t want to go there with you on a public forum?  Maybe it was simply off-topic to that post?

Bilbo - #17176

June 10th 2010

John, I hope you’re right and that was all it was.

eddy - #17188

June 11th 2010

John, you believe in the evolution tales narrated by evolutionary scientists, right? Tell me, according to this tale, how logically can you conclude that there was once a near perfect world which went berserk , somewhere sometimes ago?

You aren’t allowed to pick and choose, either way. If you do, you are either an inconsistent evolutionary scientist or an adherent of very bad Christian theology which leads to a false Christ.

Bilbo - #17189

June 11th 2010

Hi Eddy,

I’m not sure John thinks there was once a near perfect world.  I know I don’t.  If the earth is very old, and animal life has been around for hundreds of millions of years, then animal death and disease has been around much longer than human beings have.  And I don’t think that is near perfect. So it is a theological problem for me.  I’ve heard of three solutions:

1)  God created the universe with “freedom.”  According to one interpretation of quantum physics, subatomic particles act randomly, therefore freely, allowing for potential natural good and evil.

2)  The fall of Adam and Eve works backwards in time as well as forwards.

3)  Before the human fall there was the angelic fall, and Satan and his minions have had influence over the earth for millions of years.

I think moat of the Biologos people prefer (1).  William Dembski prefers (2).  C.S. Lewis picked (3), and so do I.

Simon - #17190

June 11th 2010


See Can an Evangelical Christian Accept Evolution?

It was given by Biologos contributor Dennis Venema to a local church.

eddy - #17193

June 11th 2010

Hi Bilbo,

It is quite possible that what you say was the case. But from our perspective as Christians we don’t know. What we do know, however, is:

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.”

See, the conflict isn’t science vs theology, rather the conflict is about speculation vs God’s Word, consistency vs inconsistency. It cant be true and not true at the same time. That isn’t logical.

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.

How tenable can you compartmentalize your brain to believe in these apparently two contradictory processes?

You believe in an old earth, fine. As for me, I don’t know about the age of the Earth. God’s Word isn’t clear about that. But wherever, whenever, it explicitly speaks about something, I will take it for what it says. I’m not trained in brain compartmentalization.

John VanZwieten - #17197

June 11th 2010


Even YECs of the AiG stripe now admit that species diversity is the result of “trial and error genetic mutations.”  We can see speciation taking place today.  The disagreement is how far back in time we are willing to accept those forces have been at work.  AiG folks posit “created kinds” which were all on the ark and from which all the current species have evolved.  Biologos folks are willing to follow the physical evidence as far as it leads and posit common ancenstry for all living things. 

AiG folks (the more scientifically trained ones, at least) know the physical evidence points in that direction but they are tied to a specific interpretation of Genesis 1-11 so that they “compartmentalize” by saying “it looks as if humans and chimps share common ancestry, but that doesn’t fit with our beliefs regarding Gen 1-11 so it can’t be so therefor we will endeavor to prove it isn’t so.”

If you think that Biologos people think God is neither concerned about nor involved in the details of existence, then you haven’t read enough of what they are saying.  Part of their mission is to divorce evolutionary biology from an “evolutionary philosophy” that denies God and His involvement with creation.

John VanZwieten - #17198

June 11th 2010


Biologos folks do see God’s involvement as more sublime than “Zap! here’s a zebra.  Zap! there’s a monkey.”  But by acknowleging God as both creator and _sustainer_ of all that is, they actually see God as _more involved_ than the long-ago-zapper idea.

As for whether trusting evolutionary biology leads to “very bad Christian theology which leads to a false Christ”:
I knew, and was know by Christ before I ever heard of evolution.  Christ saved me by grace through faith.  If you are preaching a Christ that only saves through YEC, then you are the one preaching a false Christ.

For most of my life I was YEC, as long as I only read YEC oriented literature without doing any critical thinking.  Once I started taking an “honest as possible” look at the evidence (hoping all the while to confirm my YECism) it became obvious to me that I had been buying a load of garbage.  If I continued to rely on “bible-science” as to the physical relatedness of species, to be consistent I might as well rely on bible-science and hold that the sun revolves around the earth.

During none of this exploration did I change my commitment to Christ or any essential understanding of who He is and what He accomplished for me.

John VanZwieten - #17199

June 11th 2010


I like your 3) solution, though I’m willing to explore 1) and 2). 

Tolkien picks up the 3) theme beautifully in _The Silmarillion_ with the fallen head-angel doing his best to introduce discordant notes into the music of creation, while God expertly weaves those notes into his own notes to create a composition of even greater grandeur.  It helped that the first time I read that passage I was under a giant skylight with the most terrible thunderstorm crashing above me.

ken Wilson - #17202

June 11th 2010

This is a great piece and mirrors my own experience coming to faith in 1971 as a freshman at University of Michigan.  Regarding Genesis 1—while many frame the exegetical category decision as literal or metaphorical (sometimes figurative), I think it’s actuually historical vs. mythological (using the C.S. Lewis understanding of myth as a potentially powerful truth bearing genre) On it’s face Genesis 1 is not an historical piece of writing. It was not written by eyewitnesses to the event (or using eyewitnesses sources).  This does not mean it is not inspired, authoritative, etc.  It’s simply a decision regarding genre, so that we can interpret the writing as it presents itself to us.  Allowing the text itself to present itself in the genre chosen is a fundamentally respectful approach to the text.  Unfortunately, fundamentalists (and evangelicals influenced by fundamentalism) are forever trying to decide whether Genesis 1 is literal [what does that mean, by the way? literary? using letters to convey meaning, which itself is an example of metaphor] or metaphorical.  And doubly unfortunately, many readers ignore C.S. Lewis in allowing for a legitimate biblical genre: myth or legend.

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