What Do You Mean by ‘Literal’?
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.”
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.