A Literal Reading of Scripture

keller 1 dsI’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.

(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.

If you would like to comment please see A Literal Reading of Scripture at Jesus Creed.

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