In this video, N.T. Wright emphasizes the importance of understanding the context of biblical texts in order to know whether to read them as literal or metaphorical narratives.
Any text that you pick up and read, it makes sense to say, “What is the author trying to tell us? Did this really happen?” An obvious example is if somebody opens The Bible at random and lands on the parable of the prodigal son. “Wow, this is a really interesting story. I’d like to go and meet these people.” Sorry, this is very old. “But if I had been there, could I have met them?” No, because this was a story Jesus made up. We actually all know that it was a story Jesus made up. There pretty certainly wasn’t a father who had two sons and all that stuff happened. It doesn’t make any sense to us what breed of pigs the prodigal son was feeding in the far country.
But if somebody then says, “Well, a few pages further on we have a story about the risen Jesus meeting these two people on the road to Emmaus. Was that a parable as well?” I say no, actually, Luke intended us to understand that that actually happened. In other words, it actually doesn’t take a huge amount of intelligence to be able to go through and see which bits were intended to refer to something that actually happened. Certainly the resurrection stories were, just like the crucifixion narrative. Those aren’t just parables about the human tragedy. They actually happened.
But it makes sense to ask the question. By the same token, as a colleague of mine in Oxford used to say, when we read a text from Isaiah saying, “The sun will be turned into darkness, and the moon will be turned into blood, and the stars will fall from heaven,” we ought to know as a matter of literary genre that the next line is not going to be that the rest of the country will have scattered showers and sunny intervals. This is not a primitive weather forecast. This is simply the sort of language that people use to refer to concrete events, but to invest those events with their theological significance.
Creation, therefore, ‘this is a good world made by a good God who has put humans within that world as his image-bearers within the earth’ bit of the combined heaven-earth reality, that’s what Genesis 1 is all about. I’m very happy to affirm that that is concrete reality, but within that concrete reality, I want the whole investment of the theological stuff not to say because it’s literal, therefore it doesn’t have any meaning to it. We’ve got to be able to do concrete plus meaning all the time.