What Do You Mean by ‘Literal’? with N.T. Wright and Pete Enns

What Do You Mean by 'Literal'?
Conversation with: N.T. Wright and Pete Enns

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?”

To discuss this video, see the post "What Do You Mean by 'Literal'?" at Science & the Sacred.

Video Transcription

Dr. Peter Enns, The BioLogos Foundation: Hi, I'm Dr. Peter Enns. I'm a Senior Fellow in Biblical Studies at the BioLogos Foundation, and we're here today with the Rev. Dr. Tom Wright. We have a chance to ask some questions, some of which we've gotten via Twitter and e-mails, and also about a lot of topics such as his recent book, "After You Believe", and science and faith issues. So, welcome Tom.

Rev. Dr. N.T. Wright, Author: Thank you. Good to see you again.

Enns: Now, to science and faith discussions specifically, and there are many questions about this. One question is: if you take Genesis in a non-literal fashion, especially the creation stories, why take anything in the Bible literally, like say, the Gospels? Do you take the Gospels literally?

Wright: I want to say that the word "literal" is confusing. The word "literal", like the word "metaphorical", actually is a word which refers to the way that words refer to things, whereas what we often mean is the distinction between concrete and abstract. Concrete being something definite, physical, substantial. Abstract being like an idea.

Now, you can refer metaphorically to something concrete. If I call my car the old tin can, that's a metaphorical reference to something that is definitely solid. Or you can refer literally to something abstract. If I say Plato's Theory of Forms, that theory is itself an abstraction and the forms are themselves abstractions. It's doubly abstract, but I'm referring literally to it.

When we ask, "Is Genesis to be taken literally," what I want to say is, "That doesn't settle ahead of time the question of what it actually refers to." When we are reading any text it ought to be an open question. What does this text intend to refer to, and how does it intend to refer to it?"

Famously, when you read in the Gospels Jesus saying, "There was a man who had two sons and the younger one took the cash and ran and then came back, etc.," it makes no sense for a reader of the Gospels to say, "I need to know where this farm was. I want to know what the name of that father was. Can I go and visit him, or could you have done at the time?"

That's just Jesus himself, and his first hears would have said, "Don't be silly. That's a parable." So I want to say, "You've got to go case by case." When it says Jesus was crucified, it really means Jesus was crucified. That isn't a subtle metaphor for something else, but when Jesus himself tells a parable, the point is not that this actually happened somewhere and we're drawing lessons from it.

The point is that this is a cheerfully fictitious story, but often, the real meaning remains concrete. If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they believe, even if one should rise from the dead. The concrete application of that is if you've got a poor man covered in sores by your gate, you ought to be looking after him.

So it's a much more interesting and complicated question than your culture and mine has ever allowed us to get into by this literal/non-literal split. When you go back to Genesis with all of that, I really want to know what did the writer of Genesis, or the people who wrote the bits and pieces which came together as Genesis, intend to do by this story? As we know from various people, telling a story about somebody who constructs something in six days, it's a temple story. It's about God making a place for himself to dwell, and this is Heaven and Earth, and what you do with that is the last thing you put an image of the God into this temple.

Suddenly, Genesis 1, instead of it being: were there six days, or were there five, or were there seven, or were there 24 hours? It's actually about God making the Heavens and the Earth as the place where he wants to dwell, and putting humans into that construct as a way of both reflecting his own love into the world, and drawing out the praise and glory from the world back to himself.

That's the literal meaning of Genesis. The question of the formal structure has to sit around that as best it can.