More on the Bible and Metaphor

This is from my commentary on 1 Peter and follows my post from yesterday:

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • gingoro

    It seems to me that there is another hint when two portions of scripture that seem to be describing the same events differ and are very hard to reconcile. For example Gen 1 and 2.

    You mention brother above. I grew up surrounded by a Semitic culture and language. Their word for brother has a very different meaning than the word in English. Brother in that language could mean a real male sibling, a cousin or even a close friend and sister had corresponding meanings for females. Mother and father would also be used to refer to none biologically related older mentors and teachers. Maybe the same was true in the languages of the New Testament? Story was also important in that culture and often it was hard to distinguish if what you were being told was fact or embellished imaginative fact to make a point.

  • DRT

    gingoro, are you in the Richmond area?

  • DRT

    I find the Gen 1 story impossible to believe literally in exactly the sense that Scot describes. The universe was not created in six days barring a total obfuscation meant to deceive.

  • holdon

    “The universe was not created in six days”

    Where does it say that? Or: how do you know?

    All other stories apart from Genesis have this in common: “God couldn’t have done it that way”. How do you know and who do you believe?

    If you think like hordes of other people today that “the universe” came about by accident, then how can we rationally suppose that the accidental interactions of electrons and atoms in your brain that make you think this today can ever give an rational account of other independent and completely accidental interactions of electrons and atoms in the universe? In other words: “accidental == irrational”.

    Gen 1:1 says in-the-beginning God created the heavens and the earth. I believe it, just like that. I believe that is the creation of “the universe”. [Not 6 days, but just: “Beginning”.
    The 6 days came after that as seems pretty clear to me from the text in Gen 1. There is no need to ridicule the text, just because we don’t fully understand it. Just the opposite I would say.]

    To believe that God created the universe is much more rational than to think it just happened by chance.

  • RJS


    I don’t think many of us here think the universe just happened by chance. Certainly I don’t.

    The discussion is over how God created, and how literally or figuratively the details are presented in Genesis.

  • holdon


    Good. I just canvassed my position in case DRT thought that the universe wasn’t created at all, as it could be interpreted as “the universe wasn’t created” (certainly the majority position in the scientific community I think), stopping short of the six days.

    Anyways, if you want to know “how God created” as you say, we need to listen to what He says, no? I don’t see any irrationality with taking His word for it.

    If you take “what He said” as figurative, then you need to come up with a plausible explanation what in the world He could have meant. We certainly don’t think He would deceive us, now would we? I don’t think it is easy to interpret the things we still can observe today: sun, moon, plants, seas, as being different things in Gen 1 or in the rest of the bible for that matter.

    Of course there is much more to the story in Genesis as solely “the mechanics” how our physical world came about. In that sense I fully allow for “figurative” because there are other meanings in the text than just those mechanics.

  • JP

    I wrote under another post about the interesting dynamic/conflict that has grown between science and faith. It also seems that any mention of literal vs. metaphorical on any christian blog results in the creation debate.

    The timing on these posts is interesting to me as I have been dialoguing with an elder and a deacon at my Church for about a week about the various issues that arise with the creation vs. evolution debate. Some of the issues that are brought up are interpretation of Scripture, inerrancy of Scripture, Jesus’ own knowledge and the Gospel itself.

    In researching this, I have found that while many claim how central a literal creation belief is to a believer; there was no consensus on this idea before Darwin. In fact, it wasn’t until early 1900’s that the modern literal creation argument began. It’s roots actually started with the Seventh Day Adventists. Their leader/pioneer/prophetess Ellen White had visions, and in one of these visions she witnessed the Great Flood. George Price, who also was an Adventist with no geological training, began to write books on “flood geology.” His influence grew in Adventist Circles.

    The reason the flood geology was important was because it provided an alternative explanation to the data that proved an old earth. Later, it was Henry Morris and John Whitcomb who popularized the idea (Morris himself credits the influence of Price on his views) in their book “The Genesis Flood.”

    It is interesting to see the viewpoints about how important a literal creation is because this is a relatively new idea based on theology itself and not science. If we want to get a consensus on what believers said before Darwin, we can also find out that there was no consensus on the subject.

    Going back to Augustine, his conclusion in “Literal Interpretation of Genesis” was that in areas where Scripture and Science conflict, we should not read Scripture literally (the reason was that we not try to answer the questions we are unqualified to answer lest we become a laughingstock to people who make a subject their livelihood).

    While he did not hold the same opinion as Augustine on how the earth was created, Calvin was also careful to allow science room to speak when he writes,

    “..Moses described in popular style what all ordinary men without training and education perceive with their ordinary senses. Astronomers, on the other hand, investigate with great labor whatever the keenness of man’s intellect is able to discover. Such study is certainly not to be disapproved, nor science condemned with the insolence of some fanatics who habitually reject whatever is unknown to them…”

    We can also look at the numerous sermons by Charles Spurgeon (his sermons database is the equivalent in size to the Encyclopedia Britannica). It seems from his preaching that he advocated the “gap theory” where there was a period of time between earth’s creation and Adam’s formation. For example, he states:

    “In the 2d verse of the first chapter of Genesis, we read, ‘And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’ We know not how remote the period of the creation of this globe may be—certainly many millions of years before the time of Adam. Our planet has passed through various stages of existence, and different kinds of creatures have lived on its surface, all of which have been fashioned by God. But before that era came, wherein man should be its principal tenant and monarch, the Creator gave up the world to confusion. He allowed the inward fires to burst up from beneath, and melt all the solid matter, so that all kinds of substances were commingled in one vast mass of disorder.”

    I am writing this because I hear often how it is “orthodox” or important that we hold to a literal creation when this idea is more modern than much of what we hold true in Christianity. It is not a firmly held belief by Church Fathers, and in fact, historical figures in the Church often advocated that science needed to be trusted.

    With the history of the creationist movement known and in understanding the viewpoints of just a few historical Church figures (there are many more; both current and historical) are our views changed? When we understand that “flood geology” started with a vision and a schoolteacher (not a scientist) and when we understand the history of our Church fathers; do we still think that a literal creation account is all that important?

  • Norman

    Biblical metaphor was so pervasive in Hebrew literature that it was necessary to have those in the know explain it to you even during the first century AD. Pull out a copy of the First Century Epistle of Barnabas commentary of sorts in which the author is trying to explain even to this ancient audience how to read and interpret the bible through its intended analogies. It’s not written in a natural manner of speaking even for the ancients. Almost all OT and NT literature if not written from metaphorical perspectives interact with stories that have been constructed as such. Learning to get your head around that issue is extremely challenging.

    Therefore reading for metaphorical intent is a real task and much more complex than what has been laid out here. You have to delve into the entire corpus of literature of not only the OT and NT but all of 2T literature to begin to grasp the pervasiveness of its usage. Just when you think you are reading something correctly you come to find out that you have been following the wrong instincts. It’s an acquired art form that needs to be remastered. In other words it’s a lost art.

  • DRT


    There are no atheists here. At least not that I have seen. Everyone who has posted here even close to regularly believes that god is a creator god.

    I have not read the other responses yet, but just want to make sure that I don’t have defend that I think god is a creator god, and Jesus did rise from the dead, OK?

    Having said that, I think there could be a multiverse, or repeated universe in infinity or things we have not yet imagined.

    My personal favorite is that everything balances out and cancels out in the end, and it is only the instability caused by god that enables everything that exists. In our current state of knowledge it is shown by a non-zero higgs state equilibrium that allows there to be an imbalance and that imbalance allows there to exist a material universe. Impressive.

  • DRT


    Here is where I am. The evidence is so overwhelmingly in favor of the current theories that it is pretty much impossible that it was created in six days. BUT, I concede that god could have decided that he would trick everyone and make it look as it does but only give the truth in the ancient israel bible…..but that would be against the god I believe in. Yes he could have done it, but my god is a god of truth, righteousness and good. If he did indeed create it in six days but made it look, absolutely in every way, that it looks like he did not, then I really don’t care that he did it in six days. He made it look like it does so convincingly that he must have meant for us to interpret it that it is indeed old and made approximately like we think it does. If you want to believe in a god who wants to trick us or try and test us if we would believe in a book instead of every single bit of material evidence, then you be my guest. You just won’t find a lot of support for that view.

  • holdon


    Ah, and you get that all from Genesis 1? Quite an “imagination” you have.

    C.S. Lewis wrote: “These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards way in broad daylight.”

  • DRT

    holdon, [last for right now I hope, sorry for being verbose]

    If you take “what He said” as figurative, then you need to come up with a plausible explanation what in the world He could have meant.

    Once you make the change of mind that Gen 1 is not talking about the physical construction, and instead is trying to give a much deeper meaning then the story comes to life in ways that it never has before.

    Some of the points are:

    – Yahweh is the creator, not the other gods
    – There are not multiple gods
    – The creation was created to be good, not a torture
    – Life is cared about by our god

    And it goes on and on. Look at what it says and compare that to someone who feels that it is all meaningless and maybe multiple gods and we are here to be tormented etc etc.

    Some people in the modern world have decided that the books have to be literally correct and represent physical creation for them to be correct. That is a shallow and short sighted view of our Bible. It is a wonderful and deep, very deep, representation of the relationship we have with our god. The universe, and god, is not so simple as us.

  • DRT

    JP, now I am confused. I thought I replied to your post (perhaps in a previous life)…

    The Calvin quote, I believe and can try to find the evidence again, is trying to refute Augustine’s assertion that the universe was made instantaneously, and Calvin said, No!, it was made in a long time, the whole six days.

    I don’t have access to the original texts, but earlier I found and article that did and they made it seem like that was the actual argument.

  • Matt

    Personally, I don’t think the debate over a literal six days vs. long ages really gets to the heart of the chapter. As an alternative to both positions of that largely stalled-out debate, I think the “creation account” of Genesis 1 reflects more of a functionally oriented cosmology than a materially oriented one, and that the point of the chapter is not “creation out of nothing” (after all, “in the beginning… the earth was desolate and bare”, but materially existent nonetheless), but rather the establishment of the cosmos as dwelling place fit for YHWH to take up his residence (to “rest”) and begin the expansion of his kingly reign. Not that Genesis 1 denies that YHWH originally created everything ex nihilo (the affirmation of which is fundamental to Judaism), but simply that its concern is focused elsewhere, namely on the inauguration of the earth as a temple in which God might rest and from which he might reign.

    To use John Walton’s analogy of the “creation” of a college, Genesis 1 would be focused more on the establishment of classes and the hiring of teachers for the school to function as a school than on the construction of the buildings. In our post-Enlightenment world we tend to focus more on the material than on the functional, and our reading of Genesis 1 has reflected this worldview – but which is really more important? Who cares about the building if there are no classes (the functions of a college) and no teachers (the functionaries of a college). It’s not technically a college until all of those elements are in place and students are attending.

    Similarly, I think the first three days of creation focus on the establishment of functions within the cosmos (assigning the roles of (1) night and day, to divide light from darkness, (2) the “firmament”, to divide the waters above from the waters below, (3) separating bodies of water from the land, for vegetation to grow and make a place for land animals) and the second three days focus on the installment of functionaries into the respective spheres established in the first three days (assigning the roles of (4) lights to govern the sphere established in day 1, i.e. day and night, (5) creatures to inhabit the sphere established in day 2, i.e. the waters below and the face of the “firmament” above, and (6) creatures to inhabit the sphere established in day 3, i.e. dry land). The “creation” scene climaxes on day 6 in the establishment of humanity as the viceregents of YHWH in the government of creation, installed (of course) into the sphere established on day 3.

    To anyone interested, I would highly recommend OT scholar John H. Walton’s book, The Lost World of Genesis One.

  • Phil Miller

    Lewis isn’t necessarily someone you should be quoting to support a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3. In The Problem of Pain he wrote:

    T]hat man is physically descended from animals, I have no objection … For centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself … The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man … n the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism … a new kind of consciousness which could say “I” and “me,” … which knew God … [and] could make judgements of truth, beauty, and goodness…

    There are other places where Lewis affirms evolutionary theory as well. Oddly enough, though, the one thing he had no time for was atheistic thought. He saw evolution as part of the mechanism of creation but not the purpose of it. That is what many theistic evolutionists would say.

  • JP


    This was not a previous life. I did post there, and I meant to answer your comments. Actually saying that Calvin did not agree with Augustine proves the point I was trying to make and that is when it comes to Genesis being interpreted literally/figuratively/metaphorically, there is no real consensus.

  • holdon

    Hi Phil,

    I know that fully well about Lewis. But for Lewis as an author speaking from experience, he had great problems with “reviewers” who were reading all kinds of stuff between the lines and commenting on “where” the author might have gotten it from, without any reason not correctness.
    Lewis seems to have given in here and there to the “God creating through evolution” thought.

    If someone believes the 5th day to have lasted “ages”, I don’t have so much trouble with other than I should ask “why”? What is the reason for thinking so: it’s not from the text, so it must be from “imagination” which helps no-one, or from outside sources like Evo theory.
    I don’t see that the 6 days could not have been normal days and I would like to hear arguments to the contrary.
    By the way, I see so much misquoting here from the simple text of Gen 1 that I wonder whether ppl can indeed read the lines correctly.

    So, the question remains valid: on what authority can anyone say: Gen 1 is BS or nicer put: “metaphor” or whatever nice word one may imagine in order to accommodate for the “enlightened” view. What is so fundamentally different between what God does in Gen 1 or by resurrecting Jesus from the dead? Why do you believe one and not the other, as someone here says he does.

  • Ann F-R

    Thanks for Caird’s 4 rules, Scot, to help us discern metaphor better. (I just wanted to say that before the Gen. 1 discussion overwhelmed the wisdom in Caird’s helpful thoughts. :) )

  • gingoro

    DRT no I am north of Lake Ontario in Canada.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    The word day (yom) is used in a variety of ways. Usually meaning a “day” of the week, the word can also mean “time” (Gen.4:3), a specific “period” or “era” (Isaiah 2:12; 4:2), or a “season” (Josh.24:7). I will say the plain sense or meaning for most Christians through the ages has been evening and morning indicated a regular solar day of twenty four hours. But the question still remains, whether the format of the Genesis account is how does the literal and figurative features work out or teach us? Is this work week with its highlight on the Sabbath an “analogy” of God’s creative activity or a chronological account of how many hours God worked?

    I for one believe we take the wrong course when we try to read science, or biology or bontany from the biblical creation accounts (this was not its original intended purpose). Nor is it helpful to get bogged down in literalISM of how long did God actually do it? (did it take 24 hours to create? instanteous? created in phases or all at once?, etc.). Again, this is NOT the point of the text. Does the text “demand” we take a one-to-one correlation of seven literal days to God’s creative activity or could it be the pattern or analogy of a human work week which the text is highlighting?

    Actually, if we are not careful, we will miss the real point of the Genesis creation narratives which is to critique paganism and idolatry of its surrounding neighbors. Genesis chapter one draws a sharp line in the ground to other pagan stories of creation which viewed the world’s creation as cyclical or reoccuring creations, etc. This creational monotheism radically debunks every kind of polytheism, syncretism, idolatry and the like that would rather worship the stars and and animals, and the moon rather than the one who created them in the first place!