One of the major divides in the church today is those who interpret the Scriptures literally, and gay-loving liberals who are going to burn in hell. At least, that’s what the “literal” camp would have you believe. The “literal” interpretation of Scripture is traced back to the Reformation, which any good Protestant venerates as the second Pentecost. (I’m not a very good Protestant)
Now for some context: the medieval scholastic theologians had developed a fancy system for reading the Scriptures that included four senses: literal, allegorical, anagogical and moral. The allegorical sense discovered meanings in a passage that had nothing to do with the actual content. For instance, Abraham’s sending of his servant to find a bride for his son (Gen. 24) could be an allegory for God sending the gospel and/or the Spirit, and/or an evangelist to find a bride (the church) for his Son.
The anagogical sense was the most esoteric: it was a way of discovering in the text a picture of the future life. For example, the Psalms’ talk of going up to Jerusalem is interpreted as referring to the Christian’s destination in the heavenly city.
The moral sense was a method of uncovering lessons on how to behave in texts that weren’t explicitly saying anything of the sort. Anyone who has grown up going to Sunday School will recognize this one. Anyone who has wasted brain cells on “Left Behind” will recognize the first two mentioned.
Over against these esoteric and highly subjective senses, the Reformers held up the literal sense as the only sensible way to read the Scriptures and to let their authority flow into the life of the church. A relief, after all of the vanity of the other senses! But maybe “literal” meant something a bit different to them than it does to our ears.
When the Reformers insisted on the literal sense, it was within this context, not over against some “liberal relativizers.” The literal sense means ‘the sense of the letter,’ and if the ‘letter’ is metaphorical, that is how to ‘literally’ read the passage. So, when Psalm 18:8 talks about smoke pouring out of God’s nostrils, we don’t need a fire extinguisher, we need to see that He’s pissed off. The literal sense was the sense that the first writers intended, which then becomes dependent on what kind of writing we are reading in the Scriptures.
So, in this sense, I read Genesis 1 literally. That is, seeing that this kind of literature is best seen as a creation myth that echoes much of the literature in its day, I read it as such. It is not a scientific account of God’s methods in creation. Rather, it is a beautiful and highly structured poetic account of affirming that God has created all that is. Not only this, but a further ‘literal’ reading will reveal that it also subverted the dominant religions of Babylon and Assyria and claimed that Israel’s God was sovereign over the gods of other nations. You can (and should) read these metaphors into this text, because it is a metaphorical text.
Wright does not dip his toes into the troubled waters of Genesis 1 as I have done above. But of course this is one of the major battle lines between these camps. I’m not interested in a war (although debate is good!), but I do want to show how the meaning of literal interpretation has changed over time and that metaphorical interpretation is perfectly consistent with interpreting the Bible ‘literally.’