What Do You Mean By Literal?

A common question raised any time the question of creation and evolution comes up is the impact of this discussion on our understanding of scripture. After all, if we can’t take Genesis 1 literally why take any other part of the Bible literally? This is one of the four common questions Tim Keller reports from his 35 years of pastoral experience, it is a question I’ve gotten in church and one we have come up against on this blog. While this question is not specifically mentioned in Dr. Mohler’s reasoning in his recent speech, Why Does the Universe Look so Old?, is based significantly on the veracity of scripture as the Word of God.

Clearly our understanding of the bible is an important question, one we must think through carefully. I think we believe in the bible as the Word of God because we believe in God and his work in the World. When we make the bible the foundation we have it backwards. This means that we need to look to scripture itself to understand what it means for scripture to be the Word of God. We cannot impose criteria from the outside.

BioLogos has had a series of posts recently that may help reason through some aspects of this question. The first is an excerpt from a video conversation between Peter Enns and N. T. Wright on the literal reading of scripture. The second two are posts by Peter Enns on the problem with literalism – especially apparent when comparing Samuel/Kings and Chronicles (one, two).

The title of this post gives the question we need to address.

What do we mean by literal? Does this impact the way scripture can convey truth?

In this excerpt from the video conversation between Pete Enns and Tom Wright the discussion centers around the meaning of the word literal – as in the literal reading of scripture.

The word literal is not synonymous with concrete, physical, or historical. Wright suggests that the literal meaning of a text can be concrete, physical, or historical; but it can also be something abstract – an idea or a fundamental truth. We have to look at a text in a broader context to determine the meaning of the text. Wright’s comments are summarized in part on the BioLogos blog:

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.”

But this is not first and foremost a science question. It is a Bible question. Even if we assume a young earth, six day creation, Adam, Eve, and a snake we will run into problems with a rigid “literal” view of scripture as history. This brings us to Pete Enns’s posts on the books of Chronicles. In these posts Pete outlines some of the problems reconciling the historical accounts in Samuel/Kings with the historical account in Chronicles. He notes that all of these books claim to be histories. We are not mixing genre – comparing poetry and history for example. Yet there are fundamental differences. Differences that are best understood if we consider how the Chronicler is using the history of Israel to convey a message for Israel after the exile.

The promise of God related by Nathan to David is one such example – discussed in Pete’s first installment. In 2 Samuel 7:16 Nathan says to David: “Your house and your king will endure forever before me. Your throne will be established forever.” In 1 Chronicles 17:14 Nathan conveys a message “I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.” The word change, Pete suggests, is significant.

In his second installment Pete describes more completely the depth of the differences. The Chronicler is reshaping Israel’s history to convey his message. David and Solomon become great kings, their failing are ignored. The story of the succession from David to Solomon is whitewashed.

Again, these two accounts of Solomon’s succession are not two complimentary angles on one story, but two versions. The transition of power is utterly different. The two accounts are incompatible if we approach the Bible expecting historical accounts to provide no more or less than literal accuracy. “Literalism” cannot explain why these two accounts are so different.

Chronicles, although undeniably written as an account of history, is not a journalistic, objective, blow-by-blow account so his readers can know what happened back then. And he is certainly not writing to distort the past by white-washing it. The Chronicler is presenting an ideal David and Solomon to cast a vision for the future.

But, and this is the main point, none of this undermines scripture as the inspired Word of God. Rather the message conveyed in Chronicles is the inspired message from God. Pete concludes where I conclude:

Chronicles is no less the word of God because of its reshaping of history to make this theological, pastoral, point. Rather, reshaping the past to speak to the present is precisely what this author was inspired to do.

The Bible is the inspired Word of God – and we must let scripture itself tell us what this means.

em>What do you think? What do you mean by literal as you look at interpretation of Scripture? When is the ‘literal’ reading a useful filter for understanding the truth conveyed in scripture?

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

If you have comments please visit What Do You Mean By Literal? at Jesus Creed

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