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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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conrad - #28891

September 8th 2010

Well Chris I do believe that we are the first generation that has had an opportunity to know what those Bible verses meant.
I think we are in the last days,... when knowledge will increase.
Certainly knowledge has increased

I know,.. . every generation has thought they were living in the last days and I ‘m no exception.

As for “Waters”, the physicists talk about primordial “soup” or quark/gluon plasma.
These were HOT waters!

There was an epoch when the universe expanded faster than the speed of light.
Now within the universe objects can only travel at speeds less than the speed of light.
So the hot moving “water” particles inside,.. could not keep up with the expansion rate of the universe itself ,.... and matter became unevenly distributed.
Ordinarily water exerts equal pressure in all directions, as does a gas.
But during this instant spaces opened up within the “waters”.
And when inflation ceased it “froze” the irregularities into that form which persists today.
And this is what dictates the form of galaxies that we have now.
Go to TED.com and watch George Smoot’s 20 minute talk.
He has a computer simulation of the whole thing.

conrad - #28893

September 8th 2010

Chris the Bible says Day two was about forming “sky”.

  And this is how sky, i.e. all of those stars we see when we look up at night, ...really formed.
So I think the “expanse” mentioned in the Bible represents the space that opened up within the hot quark/gluon plasma [“waters”} during cosmic inflation.
Science is the study of God’s miracles.

The Bible tells us about it.
The scientists write about it.

Praise the Lord!

Chris Massey - #28897

September 8th 2010


“I think we are in the last days”

Ah, so not only are we living in the uniquely privileged generation that is the first to understand what Genesis really means, we are also a part of the unique generation that will see the fulfillment of 2000 year old apocalyptic prophecy. How lucky for us!

“I know,.. . every generation has thought they were living in the last days and I‘m no exception.”

conrad, doesn’t the above statement give you any reason to pause? People in every generation before you looked at their Bible and looked at current events and thought they were living in the end times. And they were wrong! Isn’t that a very, very good reason NOT to do the exact same thing in your own time? Aren’t you, like them, probably wrong?

Don’t you suppose that every generation before you also looked at Genesis and compared it to the cosmology of their day and tried (as you are doing) to make it fit?

conrad - #28899

September 8th 2010

Hey we end-timers have to be right some time. Give us a break!

Every generation did NOT have cosmology “of their day” to turn to.

Sure they had big inventions,.... fire,..... sharp sticks,...... sex,... [uh no maybe not on the last one.]

But the Hubble telescope,.... no!

katz - #28903

September 8th 2010

Joel, Chris:

You don’t have to talk to conrad.  It won’t help.

merv - #28905

September 8th 2010

It’s spiritually healthy to treat all times as end times (as the rich fool who built bigger barns should have done).  Because for all we know these ARE end times for us personally, if not globally.

Hence the danger of endless cycles of claims over the centuries that because this nation X or that nation Y is now doing Z that this HAS to be it ( ... and oh yes, this time is different than all those previous times because of ... this or that ... or they didn’t have the Hubble ... etc.)  Scoffers will always be around, to be sure, but we shouldn’t be deliberately crying ‘wolf’ all the time to give them more fuel.  Jesus’ warning continues to apply ...  “many will come in my name saying ‘I am He’ and ‘the time is near!’.  Do not go after them.  When you hear of wars and disturbances, do not be terrified ... the end does not follow immediately.” 

We all know the end comes some time, but the sane thing to do is keep living faithfully *knowing* that you personally come with an ‘end-of-this-lifetime’ guarantee even if you know nothing about the end of the world.  So you might as well stop obsessing about it and get on with the daily business God puts before you.


nedbrek - #28906

September 8th 2010

katz - #28903

I like Conrad.  If BioLogos is good for anything, I would of never read Conrad if not for them.  Thank you!

Jon Garvey - #28973

September 9th 2010

@nedbrek - #28906

Erich von Daniken’s fun to read as well…

conrad - #28990

September 9th 2010

Uh, Jon,..... excuse me.
Erich von Daniken is junk science writer of fiction.

I try to get you people to read the works of current Nobel prize winners.

I doubt if anyone here went to the TED.com web site and spent 20 minutes watching a computer simulation,.. of creation by a recent Nobel prize winner and the head of the cosmology institute at UCLA and learned a little bit about how the universe was created.

I think deliberately remaining ignorant is a sin, if you purport to be a minister of the gospel who explains these things to a congregation.

Chip - #28994

September 9th 2010

This fascinates me, not from the perspective of content, but from methodology.  Consider:

Wright then considers what the writers of Genesis intended to do…

Note what the actual claim is here.  Wright claims to be able to understand the intent of the writer, from which he is able to derive the literal meaning of an ancient text (this, when I often misconstrue the intent of my closest friends’ and family members’ communication to me…).  But it gets better:  he concludes, “the question of the formal structure has to sit around that as best it can.”

In other words, he makes an assumption of intent, calls that the “literal meaning,” and then insists that the actual language of the text must conform to his assumption. 

Wow.  Is discussion of eisegesis still an important part of seminary curricula?

John VanZwieten - #28998

September 9th 2010


LOL at you trying to instruct N.T. Wright in the principles of biblical interpretation.

Chip - #29004

September 9th 2010

Hello John,

Which part of what I said are you disagreeing with?

Jon Garvey - #29026

September 9th 2010

@conrad - #28990

Well, I’m not a minister of the Gospel - just a retired physician with a theology diploma who sometimes preaches.

I may be ignorant, but I have taught a congregation, by way of fleshing out Psalm 113, on the four fundamental forces, the age and dimensions of the Universe, and sixteen or so of the unusual factors that make life possible on earth. Much appreciated - the glories of creation tend not to get into the Evangelical magazines, and people don’t read much nowadays if there aren’t pictures.

But what I haven’t done is abuse the principles of Biblical interpretation and try to claim that all these things are mentioned in Scripture in coded form, to be squeezed arbitrarily into random bits of modern cosmology and biology simply because an english word matches. I haven’t taught that people have been wasting their time studying these Scriptures for 2,000+ years because only educated westerners in the 21st century have the key to making any sense of them.

Von Daniken at least tends not to make outrageous statements, but just to ask leading questions, like “Is it not possible that ‘light’ in Genesis actually means “background microwave radiation??” That gives one the great pleasure of saying, “No.”

conrad - #29041

September 9th 2010

“In the beginning” is not a coded statement.

“God created the heavens and the earth” is not a coded statement

‘But the earth was without form and void” is not a coded statement.

But they are statements that have only been proven true in the last 3/4 of a century.

Before that, all of the big brains thought they were extremely foolish statements.
The Bible gave CLEAR statements that were not believed by Newton, Einstein. or the other leaders.

There is nothing “outrageous” about any of those statements.
And they are not in coded form

They were just disbelieved.

But now science has proven them true.
You need to adjust to that reality.


This is the first generation that has known that these opening verses were absolutely TRUE!

Live With it!!!

By the way,... your “no” doesn’t mean a thing ,....so say it whenever you wish.

John VanZwieten - #29051

September 9th 2010


Which part of what I said are you disagreeing with?

I’m just laughing at the thought of you (or me for that matter) instructing one of the worlds leading New Testament scholars in proper interpretation methodology.  So I guess I’m disagreeing with the entire post.

b allen - #29052

September 9th 2010

This is wonderful discussion. I appreciate the amount of insight and input regarding Ancient Near Eastern Understanding by some of the participants in this thread. I do have a question for Conrad that i’m not quite sure I understand.

Mr. Conrad,
In #28876 of the thread you said “BUT SCIENCE IS THE STUDY OF GOD’S MIRACLES”

Could you elaborate on this statement. Forgive me if I seem a bit obtuse, but I was under the impression science was the study of the natural world. I am not saying miracles don’t exist, but in order for something to be called an un-natural occurance (ie miracle), wouldn’t you need a natural absolute for the un-natural to be detected? I think a lot of natural phenomenon is attributed to miracles and thus undermining the realization of actual miracles…but I could be wrong.

Additionally, the evolutionary creation of the universe most likely can not be considered a miracle due to the very definitioin of a miracle.

I appreciate any insight.

Thank you

Chip - #29053

September 9th 2010

Yes, I guess you’re right.  Folks with reptutations should never be questioned.  Thanks for setting me straight.

John VanZwieten - #29067

September 9th 2010


Really, which do you think is more likely?:
a) One of the worlds leading New Testament scholars has made an egregious error of interpretation methodology
b) You have failed to properly understand N.T. Wright and his argument or methods

Care for any fries?

DWDMD - #29072

September 9th 2010

CONRAD, Joel, nedbrek, Katz, Jon, John, Chip - I just have to thank all of you guys for the best laugh I have had all week!


conrad - #29073

September 9th 2010

Mr, Allen the real world IS A MIRACLE.
And the smartest people in the world understand that it is.

But let us go again to the opening statements of the Bible.
  “In the beginning”
Well prior to 1917 this was considered to be a foolish statement because “common sense” told us there was no beginning. I mean,.... you could always ask “What happened the day before that?”

But Einstein told us time was relative and it was actually possible for a two events to be seen as happening in reversed order by two different observers.
And if a family traveling in two spaceships were traveling and one ship took a shortcut traveling nearer a black hole,.. the people in that ship skirting the black hole would be younger when both ships arrived at the destination.
  But doesn’t it seem miraculous to you?

When the entire universe was first created it was a tiny dot too small for the eye to see.
But it grew to the present size.

But isn’t also a miracle?

These are God’s miracles,.. also called “the natural world”!

Science studies them using the scientific method… and it’s called science.
If they were studied otherwise it might be called religion.

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