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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 - #29075

September 9th 2010

BTW ,  Mr. Allen,..One outstanding man who is a renown scientist but also in awe of the natural world is Richard Feynman.
You might look him up on Youtube.
He himself is just amazed at the “natural world” and he has tried to explain it in short videos.

There is one famous twin slit experiment with a single electron where the answer changes IF YOU LOOK FOR THE ANSWER.
But the “natural world”,...... is a spooky place

merv - #29092

September 9th 2010

Diane & others, you (we) may dismiss or scorn Conrad’s attempts to see 20th century science in each word of Scripture, but I think you also ought to admit that Conrad (sorry to be speaking of you in 3rd person, Conrad—I know that is rude and I probably shouldn’t—yet here I go…)  is an unusual animal in these debates.  How many hyper-concordists (I think Conrad qualifies) can you name that aren’t also automatically anti-evolutionist (which Conrad doesn’t appear to be—earth’s dust being DNA & all).  Correct me if I misrepresent you here, Conrad.  Even though I see the sense in John Garvey’s rebuttal that most folks in history didn’t need 20th century science to get what was needed from the Bible, yet still Conrad insists that nevertheless everything literally understood must be turning out to be true.  (Well, okay—maybe fudging a bit on domes of water or 24 hour creation days or trying to equate early hot plasma soup with waters, etc.  —it all gets a bit silly in the details).

But still you have to admit, how often does someone so passionately celebrate the findings of modern science AND champion a hyper-literal interpretation of Genesis 1?  Don’t think I’ve seen it in anyone recent.


merv - #29094

September 9th 2010

Sorry about that word ‘scorn’, Conrad——speaking for myself I don’t scorn what you write.  And I hope that I don’t qualify myself as a mocker.  I guess I just don’t put as much stock in modern science as you seem to (and that is saying a lot, because I do have tremendous—though not absolute, respect for much of what science has shown us about the world and about life, and its origins.)  If your way of celebrating Scriptural truth is to equate it with the current state of science in 2010, then more power to you.  But I won’t join with you in equating Scriptural truth with mere science or mere literalism (but nor will I say that it never should be.)  Carry on!


b allen - #29096

September 9th 2010

Mr. Conrad,

Thank you for the response, but I think your missing the line. I never said that the natural world wasn’t void of wonder. However, in relation to the thought, wouldn’t it be better to postulate that the creation/evolution of the universe and everything is beyond a miracle or even undefinable in the grand scheme of things(metaphysically speaking)?

Reasonably, you need humanity in order to observe & understand the natural world otherwise we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Prior to mankind there was no humanity to understand what was and what was not natural. Second, in order to define a miracle you would need the natural set in place in order to detect that which is not a natural phenomenon(supernatural).

As far as defining what is and is not a miracle seems to be tenuous at best. And science can only comment on what can be tested. We obviously agree that the natural world is that which God set in motion. It is the interpretation of Genesis that we primarily disagree. I tend to agree with Norm’s literary ancient world view analysis. Perhaps with more research you may see the logic in that particular interpretation. You can’t plug an Atari 2600 joystick into an XBOX 360 and expect to play.


conrad - #29097

September 9th 2010

I appreciate you buddy.

I believe the Bible is a message from outside this space/time continuum. and THE FACT THAT SUCH A MESSAGE EXISTS IS THE GREATEST GOOD NEWS IMAGINABLE.

Don’t worry about “scorn”.
It is a sign of something really new.
So to present a new thought I want to see Scorn as a sign of success.
[Later ridicule and eventually everyone says “oh yeah. We all know that!”]

If people nod approvingly when you present an idea you have NOT presented anything of value or anything new.

God told us stuff no bronze age man could have dreamed up in a million years,.... stuff about relative time,... stuff about the Big Bang,... and about the singularity.

isn’t it great!

conrad - #29099

September 9th 2010


Well yes miracles are defined by what humans consider “normal” events.
Anything beyond that falls into miracle territory.
So without human observers miracles could not be defined.


Along this line have you read anything about these “entanglements” of subatomic particles?

Boy there is something spooky for you.

conrad - #29107

September 9th 2010

What set me off on being a hyper-concordist was Day 4 THE NEGLECTED DAY OF CREATION.
Most discussions start with Day four and center on biology.
You almost NEVER hear any chat about day four when the sun, moon, stars, seasons, days, years all were established.
But theories about how we got our moon,.. formerly generated almost as much discussion as ideas about the origin of life.

And every theory that prevailed before 1950 was wrong.
Every theory that prevailed before 1950 would have conflicted irreconcilably with the Bible.

After 1983 [when the Apollo data was analyzed] they had a new theory,... THAT TOTALLY AGREED WITH EVERYTHING THE BIBLE SAID IN THE FIRST PLACE.


And we should start looking for strictly literal interpretations.
And since doing,.. that the understanding just multiplies.

We never discuss Day 4.
But we should.
The information is available.

merv - #29109

September 9th 2010

Remind me again, Conrad, how science has shown that earth, land, and EVEN vegetation were all in place already before sun or stars existed.  I know you’ve probably been over this ...  (and I know, this is starting the discussion at day 3 instead of day 4, but we need to have the setting in place.)


Beaglelady - #29114

September 10th 2010

Can’t anyone else see that a certain somone is having a little fun at our expense?

conrad - #29115

September 10th 2010

Well Day Three highlights land separated form sea.

To have air breathing life based on other than fish you would need.

We know that to avoid layering out of gas, liquids and solids something must constantly cause uplifting of land.
Otherwise erosion washes land into the sea floor and we have waterworld.
Plate   tectonics is that mechanism.
Aside from a thin [comparable to a sheet of paper on a basketball] solid crust the earth is molten.
Convection currents cause sheets of crust to collide and push up above the water level.

To have the molten earth a constant supply of heat must be available. AND IT CAN’T BE SHORT TERM.
This heat comes from radioactivity,... large molecules that fission, [split] releasing heat from the strong nuclear force.
Where do you get the heavy molecules?
They were produced inside stars through a process called nucleosynthesis under intense pressure.
Later these stars die and explode and scatter dust which can coalesce to form a solar system like ours.
So stars MUST come first before we could have plate tectonics on the earth .
  Remember day two is about creating the sky.
[To be continued}

conrad - #29116

September 10th 2010

SOooo… when God announces that it is DAY THREE,... and emphasizes it by showing us the new super-duper plate tectonic earth,.. it is His way of emphasizing that,.....[A].. all of that preliminary “sky work” with it’s back-breaking nucleosynthesis has been successfully completed and.. .. we have the heavy atomic parts needed to build and fuel a tectonic earth,..WHERE THE LAND MEETS THE SKY…. CONTINUOUSLY.

Sure, God cold have saved a little time and made us all into fish,.. but He wanted us to stand on dry land and breath air.
But this is the first time earth is mentioned, [except for the time it is mentioned as “being without form”]

On day four we got the moon. And that was due to a collision with another planet.
It has no core like we have.

Now I am going to say some as yet unproven things.
Some astrobiologists think life did not evolve on earth but came on space particles.
And that the earth was seeded with DNA fragments by space debris as it passed through a section of our milky way rich in such material.

conrad - #29118

September 10th 2010

Note the life on day three is not animal life.
The emphasis is on life that “contains it’s seed within itself”.

In other words self replication mechanisms were introduced.
And the earth had a reducing atmosphere so nothing that depended on oxygen could exist.
And the Bible clearly emphasizes PLANT LIFE!
Of course eventually the plants produced oxygen and oxidized the massive amounts of iron that was all around and eventually prepared the planet for animal life,.... ON DAY SIX,..... ONLY IN THE SEA.

This brings up the question of whether plants could have survived the Big Splat collision the produced the moon.
Perhaps some could and Archaea or extremophiles could be the answer.
The boiling hot springs in Yellowstone national park contain a form of extremophiles which adapt to the heat.
Also the smokers around the mid-oceanic vents harbor living things that live under a lot of heat.

But getting that Day three plant life to survive that Day 4 collision is a worrisome detail for us super-concordists.

BTW the day 4 collision blew away an atmosphere 90 time as dense as the one we have now SO LIGHT FROM THE SUN REACHED THE EARTH’S SURFACE FOR THE FIRST TIME,
So plants got started making the oxygen for us.

Jon Garvey - #29130

September 10th 2010


The problem I see with your “presto changeo” approach is that by working so hard to find cryptocosmology in the Bible, it’s easy to draw attention away from the big, theological correlations with the creation story which are indeed surprising and telling.

You have, I know, pointed out the hand of God’s creation in the big bang. But the great point is not that the Bible predicted it in detail, but that alone of ancient cosmologies, the One God who is beyond the universe and creates it for his own purposes is the only case where the universe will NOT be infinite and eternal. And, barring multiverses that’s still the case, string theory notwithstanding.

The maths and the universality of physics show both order (as opposed to the chance and disorder of the pagan gods) and a single mind (as opposed to the rivalry of the gods).

The comprehensibility of the universe in detail to the human mind is a mystery reflecting the intellectual “image” of the Creator.

It is notable that those scientists who “sense” a power behind the universe, though they may deny the Christian God, tend to think of one far more like him than like Ea, or Baal, or the pagan pantheon.

RichD - #29139

September 10th 2010

ah, if only Wright understood his Bible well enough to understand that the Temple God was creating was the “Body of Christ”, to which he would take His Sabbath rest in.  Prior to it (Temple/Church/Body of Christ) being fulling established in AD 70, God was still working.  Ever wonder how Genesis could state that God rested from all his work and yet Jesus could say that God (and himself) was still working when Jesus was walking around on earth (John 5:17)?

Genesis 1 is a temple text alright, but it’s about the construction of the Body of Christ/Church, which recieves the Image of God through Christ.  We (Christians) become the image of God by being clothed with Christ, who alone is the full Image of God.

An excellent audio presentation on Genesis 1 as a Temple text borrowing also a little from Walton’s functional creation (too bad even Walton can’t let go of the physical even though he tries to).


Chip - #29140

September 10th 2010

Hi John,

You have failed to properly understand N.T. Wright and his argument or methods

Fine; then interact with the content and correct me.  But I offer no apologies for rejecting the “he’s an authority, and therefore above criticism” defense that you’re offering. 

So, I’ll try again.  Here’s my understanding of what was posted. 

the formal structure has to sit around that as best it can

Presumably “the formal structure” refers to the actual language of the text itself.  The antecedent of “that” is “the literal meaning of Genesis,” in context.  Right so far? 

So, how was this “literal meaning” derived?  According to Wright, by “consider[ing] what the writers of Genesis intended to do.”  (my emphasis)

So, what we end up with is:  Wright’s understanding of “intent,” which determines “literal meaning.”  Once obtained, the actual language of the text itself must conform to this. 

You really OK with this method of interpretation?

Chip - #29142

September 10th 2010

Oh, and yes, I’d love some fries, thanks.

conrad - #29145

September 10th 2010

Well Jon I actually agree with you on that.

BUT getting back to the original topic,..... which was,...... 

.....“should the Bible be interpreted literally or in some symbolic way?”..
My answer to that is, ... LITERALLY!

As you say the human mind cannot fathom the wisdom of God,.... but you will be less confused if you interpret the Bible LITERALLY.
Of course there are also deeper meanings.
I wouldn’t give a hoot how the rocks and atoms were formed if it did not lead me to God’s love.

conrad - #29147

September 10th 2010

And Jon you are SO RIGHT in pointing out that only our Biblical “creation Myth”,.. [as the atheists call it,]... says that the universe will end.

It was only a few years ago that the analysis of supernova from the edge of the universe proved that “Heaven and earth shall pass away.”
The universe will expand into nothingness.
But God’s word will still be Good!

DWDMD - #29155

September 10th 2010

sorry for the misunderstanding, but to me, some of the people interacting were trying to be funny, so I wasn’t ridiculing their viewpoints but appreciating their humor. I also really like Conrad’s comments, though don’t agree that modern science has to be imported as predictive meaning into ancient texts. I celebrate the wonder and commitment that comes through on his posts, though.

Beaglelady, do you suspect that Conrad is poking fun at us? If so, I never woulda thunk it!


John VanZwieten - #29160

September 10th 2010


Now you are asking better questions!

However, you are still writing as if Wright just sort of “makes up” the literal meaning of Genesis 1.  For a better explaination of where he gets that, you’ll have to dig much deeper.  The Lost World of Genesis 1 by Walton would be a great place for you start.

In any good exegesis course, you talk about the “context horizon”—which expands from a given word in Scripture to the entire Bible and even extra-biblical literature.  With the goal of exegesis being to determine the author’s original intended meaning to his intended audience, you must look beyond a given text to find clues to that greater context.

That intended meaning of the text as a whole (as best determined through exegetical study) then gives you clues as to how individual paragraphs, sentences, words, etc. should best be understood.

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