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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dopderbeck - #28850

September 8th 2010

I can’t find this one on the Youtube channel.  Need the embed links on this site!


Norm - #28852

September 8th 2010

Wright says the literal meaning of Genesis 1 is about a Temple event in which God puts his Image in the people of His creation. Very well said which brings me to the question of why in the world when we recognize that it is about creating the people of God do we still want to declare it primarily about a physical creation of some kind. It really doesn’t take much work to figure out what Gen 1 is all about which is the creation of God’s faithful called His Host. 

Gen 2:1 ESV Thus the HEAVENS AND THE EARTH WERE FINISHED, and all the HOST of them.

Rev 21:1 ESV Then I saw a NEW HEAVEN AND A NEW EARTH,
FOR THE FIRST HEAVEN AND THE FIRST EARTH HAD PASSED AWAY …

Gen 2:1 is simply prophetic of the completion of that Temple process proclaimed by John in Rev and thus the establishment of God’s Sabbath Rest for man is finished and His Image is firmly established through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. 

Mar 2:27-28 ESV And he said to them, “THE SABBATH WAS MADE FOR MAN, not man for the Sabbath. So the SON OF MAN IS LORD EVEN OF THE SABBATH.”

Heb 4:11-12 ESV Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, …


conrad - #28853

September 8th 2010

Genesis does quite well when interpreted literally.

  First it says “In the beginning”.
  Prior to The early 20th century all of the great minds thought time was absolute and the past was infinite, as was the future.
BUT THE BIBLE SAID OTHERWISE AND THE BIBLE WAS CORRECT.

Second it says “God created the heavens and the earth.”
Prior to early 20th century all great thinkers thought the universe was stable and had existed forever.
But the BIBLE SAID IT HAD A CREATION AND THE BIBLE WAS RIGHT.

But the earth was “void and without form”.
  Well it started as a singularity, too small for the eye to see.
ONLY THE BIBLE SAID IT WAS “WITHOUT FORM”, and was correct.

It just goes on and on like that.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO GET SOME OF YOU GUYS TO SAY IT IS LITERALLY CORRECT?


Webmaster - #28855

September 8th 2010

Sorry for the delay, David. The YouTube upload was being troublesome on our end this morning. The video should be live momentarily, and I will add the embed link as soon as it is.


Norm - #28857

September 8th 2010

conrad,

The scriptures interpret its own and so all we need to do is look and see how it does so. The same language and conditions were used to illustrate Israel’s corruption through Jeremiah’s writings. The language is clear that it’s poetic and symbolic and so the concrete reality is that its pointing out that there is a lack of the faithful (Light) in the beginning when Adam was brought into covenant with God. The darkness and chaos was in vogue which is simply symbolism of a world outside of God’s True nature. This would be the pagan world of Darkness.  You are reading your own definitions into the word with no support from the scriptures.

Jer 4:23-27   I looked on the earth, and behold, IT WAS WITHOUT FORM AND VOID; AND TO THE HEAVENS, AND THEY HAD NO LIGHT.  … (25)  I looked, and behold, THERE WAS NO MAN, and all the birds of the air had fled.  (26)  I looked, and behold, THE FRUITFUL LAND WAS A DESERT, 27 For thus says the LORD, “The whole land shall be a desolation


conrad - #28858

September 8th 2010

[Continuing]
Prior to the 20th century the significance of the verse “let their be light” was mysterious.

Now we know that burst of light, which did not come from a luminous celestial body, CAN STILL BE DETECTED TODAY.

Two groups of scientists have own the Nobel prize for working on that light.
  [Penzias and Wilson from Bell Labs and Smoot and Mather from UCLA]

It is literally correct for the Bible to state that a large burst of light, NOT FROM THE SUN OR OTHER HEAVENLY BODY,  was a very important feature of the first day of creation.

I wonder why God chose to tell us about that light.
I think he did it as a signal to let us know that we SHOULD BELIEVE THE BIBLE AND TRUST WHAT IT SAYS.

Hawking says the universe could have been created by gravity with out God so he doesn’t know whether there is a God or not.

WELL CAN “GRAVITY” WRITE S 2000 YEAR OLD BOOK GIVING INTIMATE DETAILS OF THE CREATION PROCESS,.. THAT WE CAN READ TODAY?

I think not!

Note to Steven HAWKING:
 
YOU HAD BETTER GO WITH THE “GOD” OPTION STEVE.
GRAVITY CAN’T WRITE!

  Yours Truly,
Conrad


conrad - #28860

September 8th 2010

Norm,
  The Bible is literally correct on the facts of creation.
Following Ocam’s razor I see no need to go further.


andy - #28861

September 8th 2010

@ conrad - #28853

You said: “WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO GET SOME OF YOU GUYS TO SAY IT IS LITERALLY CORRECT?”

I think you need to listen to the video again.  You should realize that when someone says “I literally believe it to be correct,” that still doesn’t settle whether this literalness is achieved concretely or abstractly.  I commend Kevin Vanhoozer’s work to you, who will say that we interpret something literally by interpreting it according to the illocutionary stance of the person making the speech-act.

Thus to prove the point, I’ll state here: “I literally believe that Genesis 1 is correct.” 

And yet, does this mean that you and I agree?  Not necessarily.


conrad - #28862

September 8th 2010

Correction , that is OCCAM’s razor.


conrad - #28863

September 8th 2010

Norm,

So “light” refers to faithfulness?
Does that mean Penzias, Wilson, Smoot and Mather must return their awards?


conrad - #28864

September 8th 2010

Andy,
Maybe you proved a point but I can’t recognize it.

I recommend “Wrinkles in Time by George Smoot and Keay Davidson for your reading list.


Joel - #28867

September 8th 2010

Conrad,
Your examples suggest a particular view of inspiration that suggests that the authors of Scripture wrote words for which the knew not the meaning or import.  In this case nearly the entire meaning of these versus appears to only be for the benefit of 21st century folk.  I suspect that if you were to follow your reasoning for how you are interpreting the text you will find yourself in some interesting interpretive conundrums. 

Just recently I heard a pastor make the following argument regarding II Timothy 3:16.  “What do we take the “all” to mean in “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God?”  Although I don’t know the mind of Paul when he wrote these words he likely was thinking of the books of the Old Testament for that is what he had.  However, we know that the “all” refers to the 66 books we have today for these are Gods words not Pauls.  God knew what his Word was and has proclaimed it to all be inspired.” 
continued…


Joel - #28868

September 8th 2010

(continued)
Here is an example where this very “literal conservative” pastor is not taking the words of Paul literally but is assuming he knows the actual meaning of the words.  To make this example more complex, if “all” to Paul were the books of the OT and Paul thought of the OT as the Septuagint text he often quoted from then did he mean that the “other” books that are found in the Septuagint that we don’t except today are also inspired?  A literal approach would certainly point in that direction.  If we lift Paul’s words out of context and just say that God meant something different than what Paul was thinking, what tools do we use to discover what God really meant?


Norm - #28870

September 8th 2010

conrad,

Do a word study on how light is used in the scritpures and interpreted in the NT. I stand by the NT interpretation of the meaning of Light from the begining. The word interprets the word.

2Co 4:4-6 ESV In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  ...  (6)  For God, who said, “LET LIGHT SHINE OUT OF DARKNESS,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.


conrad - #28871

September 8th 2010

Norm,.... they found ....REAL LIGHT!  ......REAL LIGHT!
[NOW CALLED THE COSMIC MICROWAVE BACKGROUND RADIATION.]

Much of our understanding of the universe is based on the study of that light.
The “pattern of last scattering” is being mapped now by the Planck satellite.

FOR ONE THING WE LEARNED WE ARE PLUNGING INTO A BLACK HOLE [called the Great Attractor]

Don’t worry! It will take a while for us to get there.

It also explains the “expanse” mentioned in the second day of the Creation story.
[These are the so-called “wrinkles”]


Norm - #28874

September 8th 2010

conrad,

For both the OEC and YEC who think Gen 1 is about science I’ve got bad news: its not. In fact it’s not even really about ancient ANE science.


conrad - #28875

September 8th 2010

Joel I think that through the ages men had no way of knowing what God really meant.

But in these days,...[which I think are the “last days”] we are learning what the words meant.
The Bible says that in the end times knowledge will increase.

I think that is what we have going on right now.

The idea of a singularity would simply be too bizarre for any “reasonable” man to entertain PRIOR TO HAWKING’S WORK ON THE BLACK HOLES.

For centuries men did NOT know what a universe ‘without form” could possibly look like.
Now we know the universe was once a singularity.

Thank God for giving us that insight, which was not given to previous generations, because He makes it much easier for us to believe.

BUT YOU CAN’T CLOSE YOUR MIND TO THE NEWLY DISCOVERED KNOWLEDGE.


conrad - #28876

September 8th 2010

Well Norm,... even though it pains me,.. I will agree with you to some extent.

The Bible is not about science.
  It is about God’s miracles.

BUT SCIENCE IS THE STUDY OF GOD’S MIRACLES.
So they are parallel accounts of the same events.


Norm - #28878

September 8th 2010

Yes indeed conrad, the bible is about the miracles (works) of establishing His people in His Image.


Chris Massey - #28885

September 8th 2010

conrad,

Could you explain what the primordial waters are in Genesis 1:2? Or perhaps what the solid dome firmament is in Gen. 1:6 (which the NIV misleadingly translates “expanse”)?

Still a mystery? Maybe the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider will finally help us understand what the Iron Age authors of the text really meant.

Or maybe you’re reading modern 21st century science into a text where it doesn’t belong. It is quite the presumption to suppose that the Bible was written so as to make sense only to your own generation.


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