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What Do You Mean by ‘Literal’?

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September 8, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

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

In this video Conversation, senior biblical fellow Peter Enns asks Rev. N.T. Wright to respond to a reader question about science and faith. Specifically, the reader asks, “If you take Genesis in a non-literal fashion, especially the creation stories, why take anything in the Bible literally—such as the Gospels? Do you take the Gospels literally?”

Wright responds by first unpacking the meaning of the word “literal” as it relates to the act of reading and interpretation.

The word literal, like the word metaphorical is a word that refers to the way that words refer to things, he notes. But we often confuse the word literal with the terms concrete and abstract—that is, the first meaning something that is actual, physical and the latter, referring to something transient, like an idea. One can refer metaphorically to something concrete (e.g. “my car is an old tin can”), or one can refer literally to something abstract (e.g. Plato’s Theory of Forms).

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.”

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Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

N.T. Wright is a leading biblical scholar, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, and current Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, University of St Andrews. He studied for the ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and was ordained at Merton College, Oxford. Wright holds a Doctor of Divinity from Oxford University in addition to several honorary doctorates. Wright has also written over fifty books, including the multi-volume work Christian Origins and the Question of God and his two most recent books Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters and How God Became King.

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John VanZwieten - #29163

September 10th 2010


I’m not sure if Wright would disagree with you about the Body of Christ being the ultimate temple creation.  But at that point you are probably moving into metaphorical meaning of Genesis 1 rather than the literal meaning, since the author of Genesis probably didn’t have the Body of Christ in mind.

There’s nothing wrong with that, as metaphor is a very powerful way of communicating truth across time, and connects with the idea of scripture as God-inspired communication.

Norm - #29188

September 10th 2010

John V

It seems that John in Revelation took the creation of the Heavens and Earth as metaphorical as did many of the OT and NT writers. It therefore seemed to be the standard way of reading until we literalized it the further we got away from those versed in the Hebrew mind such as the first century Apostles.

Also if we follow Ezekiel closely he uses most of all of these symbols from Genesis 1 & 2 similar to how John does. If the OT writers tended to take these symbols in such a manner and if Genesis was finished around the end of the first Temple then it would be somewhat contemporay with Ezekiel and Isaiah. It seems to makes much more sense to say it fits that genre of symbolic literature then to designate it as a seperate literal example that stands outside the normal OT scope.  This is where intertextual investigations appear to be more reliable for determining Genesis 1’s intent.  I would venture to say that the end of the First Temple period would surely have seen the messianic message already well established in the OT prophets minds.

John VanZwieten - #29198

September 10th 2010


I have to admit to a lack of both study and motivation to study of the genre of symbolic literature.  I keep telling myself at some point I should become more familiar with the characteristics of apocalypic genre, etc., but I never seem to get around to it.

On the other hand, I’m a huge fan of the mythic genre.  One of the best courses I took at Wheaton College was titled “Modern Mythology” and focused broadly on Christians writing in the mythic genre (Williams, Tolkien, Lewis, L’Engle, and many others).  At the time, I was too “literalismistic” to admit even the possibility that the Bible itself could contain mythic elements.

At the moment, it makes more sense to me to view early Genesis is the way Walton and Wright do, and to see Ezekiel and John picking up on those themes and applying them to their own purposes.  So Genesis really is talking about God creating the physical universe as His temple, while later writers show how God goes on ultimately to create a people to be His temple.

Maybe at some point I’ll get around to studying symbolic literature and see things more your way

Matt G - #29205

September 10th 2010

Thank you for your post. This is in essence what myself and many friends believe, yet, we tend to be treated as near ‘apostates’ in the greater evangelical community for claiming that Genesis in essence is not about what constitutes a 24-hour day or not, but is rather about something far more important than a proper understanding of the mechanics of creation. Rather, it is about God who is sovereign over all things and in his creative work and benevolent character created humanity, male and female, out of love to serve him in loving obedience and care for that which he had created. I believe, personally, that the argument that Genesis 1, the first creation account constitutes a literal 24-hour day to be irrelevant and is absent from the beginning of God’s revelation in his word. I think this is a very modern criticism against the Bible which doesn’t bear much if any weight when the passages in question do not speak in regards to time and in the Hebrew use poetic language anyway. The conservative defense doesn’t help either and presents the same problem. The terminology and clever wordplay in Genesis 1 concerning the image of God in man/woman uses clear Hebrew poetic structure and remnants of that can be seen in the English.

Norm - #29208

September 10th 2010

John V

Yes the investigation of scriptures can be an enormous undertaking that most folks simply don’t have time or inclination to. I think what helped me tremendously was delving into biblical eschatology and expending a huge investment in learning the nuances of biblical symbolism in that arena.  When you understand the mistakes that conventional dispensationalism has made in over literalizing the end times pictures then ones analysis of Genesis becomes less problematic. The reason is that reading Genesis literally is using the same hermeneutic approach that the Dispensationalist use concerning Ezekiel and Revelation and is why it is highly unlikely that you will find a Dispie that is also not a YEC.

Besides the Genesis YEC problems the other major problem in modern evangelical Christianity is misunderstanding of end times literature. Both of those arenas cause many Christians to develop worldviews that are in reality distortions and causle reality problems for our modern culture.

John VanZwieten - #29216

September 10th 2010

Besides the Genesis YEC problems the other major problem in modern evangelical Christianity is misunderstanding of end times literature. Both of those arenas cause many Christians to develop worldviews that are in reality distortions and causle reality problems for our modern culture.

Not to mention causes us (evangelicals) to excise so much of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven so that we are left with little more than half of the gospel Jesus preached.  N.T. Wright is brilliant in his explanation of this “full gospel.”  I’ve also found Dallas Willard helpful in this regard.

BTW, it will come as no surprise to you that I’m a recovering Dispie as well as recovering YEC.

merv - #29217

September 10th 2010

Conrad wrote:  “So stars MUST come first before we could have plate tectonics on the earth .
  Remember day two is about creating the sky.
Well SKY is where the STARS ARE!... MAKES SENSE DOESN’T IT!”

No, No, No, Conrad.  You aren’t reading your Bible.  Day three is NOT when the stars were created.  You’re [supposed to be] taking the Bible literally, remember?  Day 4 is when the sun AND the stars [NOT JUST THE MOON] were all created.  So, no, you can’t have the stars generating heavier elements before they even exist.  And it won’t do to say that people just couldn’t *see* the stars until day 4 because you are expecting the Bible to be scientifically correct even about things the ancients didn’t know about yet; and just because something isn’t yet seen, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. 

I’ve probably already carried on too much about this already, Conrad.  Diane has suggested that maybe you are just somebody who doesn’t really believe any of this and are just having fun.  Perhaps so, perhaps not.  In either case, you’ll have to do a bit more homework to be consistent with even just with yourself.


Norm - #29226

September 10th 2010

John V

I’ think we are all recovering from some biblical baggage of some sorts.

conrad - #29240

September 10th 2010

Hey Merv!    you are awake and generating posts, giving me more time in the spotlight.

I think the description is phenomenological! 
[In fact I got that word from the footnote in the Bible I read.]

The view from earth showed the lights for the first time.

The lights from the stars and the sun [our closest star] had never reached the earth until the original atmosphere which was about 90 times as dense as the one we have now was blown away.
The moon was created on day four.
The sun and other stars became lights in the sky via a slightly different mechanism but simultaneously. The six creation days give the sequence of events.

The actual event was 4 billion years ago.
The earth is 4.7 billion years old and this happened when earth was about 700 million years old.
But earth had already formed a core and a crust and plate tectonics.
It was a collision with another planet.
There are great videos of the computer simulations of the collision on Wikipedia and elsewhere.

The knowledge of this event was the primary scientific achievement of the Apollo space program and out man-on-the-moon space adventures.
It left the earth tilted giving us seasons and years. It created the moon.
It cleared the atmosphere.

merv - #29260

September 10th 2010

phenomenological, indeed!  I am glad to see that you are interested in the footnotes.  I thought you were a “let’s get it literally from the Bible” type of guy, and I don’t see “phenomenological” anywhere in the creation account.  I do read that God made the sun and stars on day 4.  But no matter.  At least you are thinking about it, and I think you have all the spotlight time you want, Conrad.  With or without me.  Carry on!


John VanZwieten - #29263

September 10th 2010

I think the description is phenomenological! 
[In fact I got that word from the footnote in the Bible I read.]

The view from earth showed the lights for the first time.

Conrad, this is simply disappointing!  You can relate everything else in the creation account to some really cool science, but for day 4 stars you default to “it just looked that way” to people who weren’t there yet?

Please give this some more thought

conrad - #29272

September 11th 2010

Well thank you Merv.

  Earth was not created before the stars.
The stars were up there pushing protons and neutrons together to produce large fissionable nuclei,  .....and you know why!  [So we could build earths core out of fissionable material that would stay hot and continue to give us plate tectonics]...
There was too much dense gas around earth.
The stars were functioning as nucleosynthesis machines but not lights. [at least not for the earth]

  The sun was not lighting the earth either.
Same reason! Miles and miles of dense sulphureous clouds blocked out light.


  Remember those little organisms, the archaea, those extremophiles,. who came in on space dust, BEFORE THE BIG SPLAT?
  Well they were there!  .... and among them were cyanobacteria…. [little blue-green bugs]

And do you know what those little green bugs did when they felt the sun’s rays hitting them?

Well they used their green pigment to do a trick called,....... PHOTOSYNTHESIS,..... MAKING OXYGEN.
And eventually they made enough oxygen for animals to breath.
  Isn’t that great!
  Now I think it is bedtime!

RichD - #29394

September 11th 2010


Sorry I haven’t replied.  Get very busy and time seems to get a way from me.  I did read the comments between Norm and you.  Very good thoughts.

Concerning your study of the genre of symbolic literature; a good place to start is to download and listen to the presentation from this years Covenant Creation Conference that I provided a link to in my last post.  I think you will find it very interesting.  And it’s not a coincidence that the presenter’s name is Norm.

Here is a link to download the presentation


Rod - #30504

September 17th 2010

Conrad, can you please recommend a list of books or dvds and/or other online resources that explain the science behind your views about the 6 days of creation?

phileasfogged - #31185

September 20th 2010

There is no doubt that we’ve made scientific leaps and bounds in the 20th century. But we’ve also made immense leaps and bounds in literary criticism. For those of you who know much about science and literary criticism, the two are often distinct entities. Since the Bible is the Word of God and therefore literature, it seems healthier that we educate ourselves in literary criticisms while we approach the Word. There have been many who are extremely intelligent when it comes to things like quantum physics, chemistry, and biology who have absolutely no clue what people like T.S. Eliot were trying to say in their poetry.

To come at any portion of any kind of literature using only you’re scientifically trained lenses is to engage in academic snobbery. It makes much more sense to educate oneself in the aspects of literary criticism. A scientist approaches science as a literary critic approaches literature. It seems outlandish to approach literature from a perspective that only includes scientific thought.

One cannot tell God how he has to speak to us. If God decided to speak his Word to us in a fashion that includes folklore, then we should rejoice and be glad in it.

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