“The Last Word” and ‘Literal’ Interpretation

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.’

5 responses to ““The Last Word” and ‘Literal’ Interpretation”

  1. I tend to agree with your view here in principle. In application, however, I’m not completely sure that I do.

    How is one to discern what are the metaphors and what is straight fact? When it comes to the smoke pouring out of God’s nose that is one thing, but how do we suddenly transfer this over to “then God said . . . and there was evening and morning”?Is the understanding of Genesis as a beautiful poem replete with many metaphors that speak of God’s sovereignty over the other gods a theological compromise based upon the existence of other ancient Creation epics like the Enuma Elish and the Gilgamesh (?) Epic?

    I agree that Genesis 1 is not a scientific text. I also understand that science appears to rationally contradict a ‘literal’ (fact based) rather than ‘poetic’ reading of the text. Where then does the poem begin: 1:1? 1:2? 1:3?

    This is a fascinating issue that you raise. For me, I have found more comfort in Job 38 and Isaiah 40 when it comes to this particular ‘debate’. Some may think this a cop-out . . . but this is, frankly, what I believe God is saying to me on the issue. Few people (on any of the many sides of this issue) are willing to live with any degree of ambiguity when it comes to such things.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful reply here Colin.

    I’ll work my backwards here… You have hit the nail on the head when you say that we don’t want to live with ambiguity. We have this craving to be “right” about everything, and I think that we need to learn the kind of humility that Job 38 and Isaiah 40 should point us towards.

    As for the specifics of my interpretation of Genesis 1, I’m a little rusty on that passage. I’d have to consult some notes and things, but from what I remember, you can conceive of the poem beginning at 1:1. I don’t believe it to be a compromise; even Augustine thought that Genesis 1 was metaphorical. When you look at it as having been written in the context of a world dominated by other creations stories, Genesis 1 is an awesome, subversive alternative story of God’s people about how YHWH is God.

    It could be true that God created the world in 6 literal days, all the same. I just think that we are missing the point of we insist that that’s what the passage must say.

    The deep-seated fear here is that we’re going to explain away the Bible and let science and secular philosophy dictate what the Bible is allowed to say. And this is a truly a problem on which we must bring Scripture’s authority to bear. Unfortunately, Wright does not interact with this issue specifically.

  3. I personally just want to know if the resurrection literally happened – I don’t think Paul would budge on that. Of all the crap flying around the liberal mind I’d have to say this is where their pants fall off; or at least I hope they do because I can’t conceive of a worthwhile faith without a risen Christ.

    In the same breath I have to admit that I may never “know” for sure in this life. Oh, for the days of my iron-clad epistemology.

  4. Hey Cam

    The resurrection is something that we can’t dispense with and still have Christianity. As you say, this is a place where the pants fall off. Paul hit the nail on the head here: either Christ is raised or else our hope is in vain.

    And even though Wright is in and amongst much of the scholarly world of liberal-leaning, he does argue insistently for the actual resurrection of Christ.

    And yeah, life was simpler when I thought that I knew everything. Now that I know that I don’t, hopefully I’ll learn humility and faith. Being a cocky ass was much easier.

  5. Hi Matt,
    Just came across your blog looking for reviews of “The Last Word”. Your comments are excellent. Thanks for being thoughtful… (and thanks for being a much less dogmatic “Wiebe” than the Wiebes I know!)

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