A Literal Reading of Scripture (RJS)

I’ve just finished a year-long study of the book of Job, some of which has made its way into posts on this blog. The most read post in the series was one of the first – The accuser is not Satan. This is not really surprising, because it touched on a topic near and dear to many – the literal reading of scripture. Posts that touch on the literal, literary, and cultural interpretation of scripture are by far my most read posts.

Along this line I recently came across a short clip from Big Think featuring Tim Keller commenting on interpreting the bible, and using Genesis 1-3 as an example of the diversity in Christian interpretation. This clip raises some issues worth discussion.

Asked if he is a biblical literalist Keller comments that he doesn’t know anyone who is really a biblical literalist. He goes into a discussion of the genres of scripture, prose narrative vs. poetry for example. But he goes beyond this and talks about differences of opinion within the church when it comes to genre.

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(0:50) Then there are some places, like Genesis one, chapter one, … where the genre is not easy to discern and where people are going to be arguing about whether you take that literally or not. Obviously Genesis 1 has a big impact on how you understand evolution and so forth. So I would consider myself a person who believes in the full authority of the bible, and yet even if you believe that, there is room for debate about what parts of the bible you take literally or not.

(1:39) For example though, Genesis 2 and 3 I think are written you might say as historical prose narrative, whereas Genesis 1 is not. So you know, I would actually say personally I don’t take Genesis 1 literally, I actually do take the talking snake literally … and there’s people around me who have the same view of the bible who would draw the line on the other side of the snake. And there’s other people who would draw it all the way at the beginning and say “no, you have to take Genesis 1 literally.” … And this is all within the fraternity and sorority you might say of people who believe that you have to take the bible as the full authoritative word of God.

Note that Keller says that there are people who disagree with him on the issue of Genesis 3, and he doesn’t question their commitment to the authority of scripture. We need to be open to discussion, and I think Keller agrees with me on this (although we disagree on Genesis 3). We need to be able to have discussions concerning scripture, genre, and interpretation that refine our understanding of God and his work in the world.

In the second half of this clip Keller is asked “What is your approach to literal interpretations?” In his reply he uses the parable of the prodigal son and his book The Prodigal God as an example. I must admit that here he left me not quite sure of his point – although still thinking about it, which is always good. I think the point is that there are more than two categories when it comes to the approach to scripture. Perhaps others see something else in his response.

Jonah, the first 11 chapters of Genesis, the Song of Songs, and the account of wandering Saints in Matthew 27:52-53 are examples of parts of scripture where we have serious differences concerning the genre of the text. (See Wither the Fig Tree, Whither the Wandering Saints for a discussion of Matt. 27.) It isn’t true that there has been one clear understanding throughout all of Christian history.

Job, of course, is another book here we are in disagreement within the fraternity/sorority of believers about when or if it is to be taken literally. I received an e-mail this week (actually I’ve received several from different people over the course of the series on Job) from a person who is of the opinion that the rather immoral behavior in setting up the wager and killing off the sons, daughters, and slaves is one of the reasons that we should recognize the bible as an antiquated text that we have (thankfully) outgrown. But when we look at Job as a story designed to set up a philosophical and theological discussion we can see that the prologue is not all that different in form than the set-up material in many modern pieces of literature, although the context is ancient Near Eastern. Personally I think Job is a book where a literal reading damages, even destroys, the message. The point isn’t the accuser, the historicity of Job, or the destruction of real living and breathing sons, daughters, and slaves as part of a wager.

I don’t think a literal reading of Genesis 3 destroys the message, but I suggest that it keeps us from recognizing some of the powerful imagery in the text. John Walton (who does accept a literal Adam) has gone a long way toward helping us see this imagery of the Garden in Ancient Context. This is a discussion we need to continue, not a place to draw a line in the sand.

Are these disagreements over genre productive or destructive?

When (if ever) does it matter that Christians have divergent views concerning genre?

How can we carry on a fruitful conversation?

What do we gain from the conversation?

If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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  • Rick

    “Are these disagreements over genre productive or destructive?”

    Depends on the motive and tone. If to build up the faith, then productive.

    “When (if ever) does it matter that Christians have divergent views concerning genre?”

    When it impacts theological systems, especially systems that seem to have been held throughout the history of the church.

    “How can we carry on a fruitful conversation?”

    By stressing common ground up front, including essentials v. secondary issues.

    “What do we gain from the conversation?”
    A deeper faith, and stronger unified church.

  • LT

    Discussions over “literal interpretation” are often wrongheaded, IMO, because there is no agreement on what “literal” means. Keller indicates this when he says he doesn’t know anyone who interprets the Bible literally. Now, that may be a statement about the people he knows (or the people he doesn’t know). But more likely, it is expressing a view of “literal” that isn’t how it has been defined.

    Consider these quotations:

    This recognition of a metaphorical style is not to be thought of as a return to allegorization, nor is it a “spiritualizing” of the passage. When a writer employs metaphor he is to be understood metaphorically and his metaphorical meaning is his literal meaning: that is to say, it is the truth he wishes to convey. The term “literal” stands strictly as the opposite of “figurative,” but in modern speech it often means “real,” and it is used this way by those who want to be sure that they know what the writer really and originally meant. In this sense a metaphorical saying is “literally” true. … Thus a metaphorical statement is “literally” true but cannot be “literalistically” true. The “literal” meaning, then, is what the particular writer intended, and although he used metaphor, no one familiar with the language in which he expressed himself could reasonably misunderstand him (Kevan, “The Principle of Interpretation,” in Revelation and the Bible, ed Henry, p. 294).

    Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation. This means interpretation that gives to every word the same meaning it would have in normal usage, whether employed in writing, speaking, or thinking. It is sometimes called grammatical-historical interpretation since the meaning of each word is determined by grammatical and historical considerations. The principle might also be called normal interpretation since the literal meaning of the words is the normal approach to their understanding in all languages. … Symbols, figures of speech, and types are all interpreted plainly in this method, and they are in no way contrary to literal interpretation. After all, the very existence of any meaning for a figure of speech depends on the reality of the literal meaning of the terms involved. Figures often make the meaning plainer, but it is the literal, normal, or plain meaning that they convey to the reader” (Ryrie, Dispensationalism, p. 80).

    The literalist (so called) is not one who denies that figurative language, that symbols, are used in prophecy, nor does he deny that great spiritual truths are set forth therein; his position is, simply, that the prophecies are to be normally interpreted (i.e., according to the received laws of language) as any other utterances are interpretation—that which is manifestly figurative being so regarded (Lange, Revelation, cited in Ryrie, p. 81).

    So “literal interpretation” recognizes the use of metaphor, image, symbolism, etc. When the author uses those figures of speech, the literal interpretation is to understand what the author means by his figure.

    The problem comes when someone takes a figure of speech and interprets it as no a figure (literalistic) or when someone takes something not a figure and interprets it as a figure (allegory, spiritualization). Both are incorrect.

    But it is important to recognize that “literal interpretation” includes the use of figures of speech.

    Which means I think the discussions about genre are actually secondary. Until we are using the same definitions of “literal,” it will be hurtful or at least unhelpful to discuss things.

  • DMH

    I have run into that confusion in some discussions I’ve been in. I take Gen. 1 literally but in a “mythic” context/genre. I throw in the word “concrete” to describe the way that YEC’s use the term “literal”.

  • Melissa

    When (if ever) does it matter that Christians have divergent views concerning genre?
    It can get dangerous when interpreting the prophetic apocalyptic genre. Expectation of a literal fulfillment can create an escapist mentality that affects how we view (and thus treat) the physical world while embracing and endorsing (and in some cases, participating in) violent political events and entities. On the other hand, interpreting such texts strictly as a spiritual metaphor robs us of our understanding of the rich historical and political context that helped shape the text itself (thus, again, disregarding the physical).

  • Nathan

    It seems to me that divergent views become a stage for embracing “unity within difference”, learning to celebrate the ways our fellow believers have appropriated the sacred texts to their benefit, and gently challenge each other to dig into the texts in ways that challenge our assumptions.

    For example, I see no reason to bracket out “the accuser” from Satan. It seems like the move of a person/community uncomfortable with admitting the clear progressive development of the tradition around the person of Satan–where he begins within an ancient Ugaritic conception of “court prosecutor”, etc. and transitions into the the full blown interpretive choices of the Christian tradition over time.

    We admit it with the Trinity (or maybe not). Why not with Satan? My statements and questions can be the entrance to the very kind of unitive, deepening connection with those who disagree.

    But I might be a bit of an optimist… ;)

  • Andrew Dowling

    “On the other hand, interpreting such texts strictly as a spiritual
    metaphor robs us of our understanding of the rich historical and
    political context that helped shape the text itself (thus, again,
    disregarding the physical).”

    I don’t follow. One can appreciate the historical and political context of a writing like Daniel, for example, but not view the apocalyptic text as actual “prophecy” in the traditional sense and see it’s imagery through a metaphorical/allegorical lens.

    I do agree with your first point though. How we read the Bible has significant repercussions on what we prioritize and ultimately how we act towards others. Which is why, IMO, the big tent ideal is a nice and fuzzy thought but doesn’t work in real life. Some readings/interpretations of the Bible promote hurting and harm towards others (as history has shown time and time again) and should not simply be accepted as “differences within the Body of Christ.”

  • Melissa

    Ah, I see your point with Daniel. My primary concern is not whether one views the text as an allegory, but rather how that interpretation shapes one’s living, as stated in my first point. I was trying to say that one extreme either way can lead to a neglect of the physical world and God’s work on the physical (not strictly spiritual) level.

  • Jeff

    If Job isn’t to be read literally, what is the purpose of giving a location of where he lived? (the land of Uz) I do have sympathy for your view RJS, I just want to see if this can be answered.

  • RJS4DQ

    I’ve been busy this week – which slows down responses – but I don’t see separation of the accuser from Satan in the prologue of Job as denying progressive development (or indicating a discomfort with progressive development of the tradition of Satan). Rather it is an attempt to read Job for the message the book is structured to convey.

    I think that reading the prologue as a conversation between God and Satan twists the message of the book. The conversation between God and the challenger makes more sense as a set-up for what follows, a setup that uses the ANE idea of a divine council.

  • AHH

    RJS may have a better answer from the commentaries she has been reading, but one might as easily ask why Jesus, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, specifies the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.

    When figurative genres are used to convey messages, it is not uncommon for the literary style to mention specific locations (Chaucer wrote of the “wife of Bath” rather than a generic wife), and this can happen in Scripture also.

  • RJS4DQ

    There is also a suggestion that the book of Job could be constructed around a known character and story in the ancient Near Eastern culture of the day. I’ve also heard a suggestion that the same could be true of the parable of the Good Samaritan, … a real road, a real inn, and the very real danger of robbers forms the background for the parable. But the message isn’t really contained in these details.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Why is any fictional story set in an actual location? That’s like saying the Great Gatsby was meant to be taken literally because it’s set in Long Island.


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