Beyond Biblical Literalism?

I am not a complete student of history but I wonder when Biblical Literalism and literal inerrancy became such a strong aspect of Christian theologies (that affect the evolution debates) because it has not always been so, The early Church Fathers often used analogy, parable and allegorical methods of interpretation.

As a student of Franciscan theology I came across what St Bonaventure wrote on “The Dimensions of Scripture”. For Bonaventure the bible is centred in the Eternal Word, from the Father who has spoken through the writers in the OT, that could be interpreted with allegory rather than the literal, pointing to Himself and then shown forth more fully in the Incarnate Word in Jesus Christ. This is what makes a unity of the OT with the NT and makes it whole. This is what gives the whole bible its dimensions of truth with New interpreting the Old. The literal details are less important than the Spirit inspired meaning it can still give to our lives in the present and leading us to union with Christ.

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  • N.T. Wright and Jon D. Levensen have, IMO, certainly been giving the Old Testament, in general, and Genesis, in particular, a heck of a workover.
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If you trace it back, it starts appearing a fair bit of time after scientific materialism became part of the common Western worldview. That worldview infected the church with the idea that for a writing to be true it had to be 100% scientifically and historically accurate. This idea, imposed on the scriptures, set aside the long-common understanding that scripture is true because it comes from God, effectively removing God as the source of authority and replacing Him with science and history. With that shift, everything in the Bible had to be totally scientifically and historically correct or the whole Bible failed.
That proposition has been the biggest driver of people losing their faith for a couple of centuries: they hear the assertion and its subsequent logic, so when they learn that the Bible is not in fact scientifically accurate they follow the path set for them by those preachers and abandon the Bible and thus their faith.

Gotta love Bonaventure; I’ve always loved his response to an elderly woman who commented that with all his knowledge he must be close to God – he said all his knowledge was often a weight that kept him from being close to God!

Precisely. The foundation is Christ; the written word is true because it tells us about Christ. Literalists move the foundation away from Christ by insisting that everything has to be totally scientifically correct. That view cannot be found in the scriptures.

More precisely, the literal details are not important in and of themselves; they are important for understanding the portion of scripture in which they are found. That’s actually an element of some Old Testament literary genres: the details should be read literally within the story in order to understand it, but not taken literally outside that story.

In that connection, it should be kept in mind that no ancient people involved with the scriptures regarded literal (scientific) accuracy as relevant to the authority of the scriptures; they saw the scriptures as authoritative because of their source – YHWH-Elohim.

One of my huge problems with literalism and inerrancy (as commonly understood) is that I have never seen those to lead anyone to Christ while I have seen them drive many away, including Christians.

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thank you for this…i have purchased and downloaded the Kindle version of The Journey of the Mind to God by St Bonaventure, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

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you know i will respond to this…and so i am going to disagree with that claim and for a simple logical reason;

The fundamental question, i will go further and state the universal question, on all fully developed individuals minds at some point in their lives is one of Epistomology. Anyone who has studied any philosophy at all knows this already so I’m not going to debate it in this post.

When we seek to answer the question of our existence, we do not find credibility in mythical tales…whether you agree or not St Roymond, turning the start and finish of the bible into mythical tales destroys faith in the philosophy (which in this case is the foundational premise “there is a God who created us”). contrary to what you appear to claim sometimes, salvation is pointless without a literal explanation of why its even required in the first place. The answer you seem to make is that God stuffed up when he created us, or he was learning Himself, and so through Gods cockup in the beginning, we now need saving because we didn’t meet the standard…we were too primitive (which is simply not biblically supported…anywhere!) Anyone who has read the writings of the prophet Isaiah knows that God neither makes mistakes nor was He ever learning!

… nobody here is doing that, Adam.

The Bible is a large collection of writings and they aren’t all the same thing. So claiming to identify a bit of poetry here or hyperbole or myth there is not a claim that there is no historical material in it too.

The. All-or-nothing approach to how scriptures need to be understood simply can’t be made to work without doing extreme violence against the very thing you want to be seen as venerating.


The magnificent “Journey of the Mind…” has always fascinated since I read it. It’s an all embracing spiritual journey that begins with what we can see and know that for me as bird watcher and scientist summons me to do these as a God given vocation. Science and examination of the world and material reality is God given activity! Bonaventure then probes the depths and potentials of our mental functions and leading us to things we can only only find by revelation from Christ, contemplation of scripture and becoming conformed to His goodness and a journey into ultimate union. Enjoy!


One of the first steps you will have to take is to decide if observable facts matter. You will also have to decide if evidence leads to conclusions, or if conclusions can be used to exclude evidence.

Christians find no value in the parables that Jesus told?

Added in later edit as thoughts came to my mind . . .

Jesus already did that. Jesus stated that salvation is required because of the sins people have committed. Even I remember this from my days in Sunday School class.

I don’t see why it matters how our species came about. We have each individually sinned in our lifetime. That’s what we need forgiveness for.

It’s also interesting to see how YEC/OEC seem to squirm at the idea that our species came about through natural processes. From what I can tell, the vast majority of Christians and YEC/OEC are dualists in that they believe the soul is separate from the physical body. So why does it matter how our physical bodies were produced? For that matter, is anyone in doubt that their conception and development into adults was anything other than natural? If we as individuals were the product of natural processes, why would it matter if our species as a whole was also produced through natural means?


Bonaventure’s point of view that you cite here is literally biblical (cf. Hebrews 1:1-2). And as a Protestant, I’m glad to say that this approach could have been - and can still become - a cross-denominational principle.

E.g., Luther has written in the cornerstone work: ““What is this word, and how to use it, whereas there are so many words of God?” Thus I answer: the apostle explained what it is in Romans 1: that is, the Gospel of God about his incarnate Son who suffered, was resurrected, and was glorified by the sanctifying Spirit” (“Quod nam est verbum hoc, aut qua arte utendum est eo, cum tam multa sint verba dei?” Respondeo: Apostolus Ro. 1. id explicat, scilicet Euangelium dei de filio suo incarnato, passo, resuscitato et glorificato per spiritum sanctificatorem. - Luther, Martin. Tractatus de Libertate Christiana In Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesammtausgabe. Vol.7. Weimar: Herman Bohlaus Nachfolger. (1520) 1897. P.51).

That is to say, the New Testament narratives about Jesus Christ - his birth, his life, his words and deeds, his death and resurrection, and his exalted state afterwards - are the written Word of God in the proper sense. It doesn’t exclude the other Scriptures from the biblical canon - but it establishes the Gospel narratives as the guidelines for biblical exegesis.

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Back to lying as a debate strategy, I see.

Then you’re limiting God. He spoke, and speaks, in terms the audience will understand; He isn’t limited to speaking in ways that make you comfortable. In the ancient near east, myth was a perfectly good way to present truth, as was mythologized history (e.g. the Tower of Babel story).

“Turning” is incorrect: whatever literary genre the original writer used is what a “tale” is. God the Holy Spirit was under no obligation to speak in worldview terms that modern folks can understand with a shallow reading.

That’s not a philosophy, it’s a truth presented in three ways in the opening Creation account in Genesis: in ‘royal chronicle’, in temple inauguration, and in polemic; the first tells us that YHWH-Elohim is our mighty king Who conquered chaos and established order; the second tells us that this world is YHWH-Elohim’s temple that He personally established and that where a pagan temple would have a carved image of stone or gold the image in YHWH-Elohim’s temple is us humans; the third announces that the gods of the Egyptians are nothing more than tools that YHWH-Elohim created to serve Him. All three are theological myth full of meaning that the YEC approach tosses in the trash bin.

This is true only if you set up modern logic as an idol higher than God Himself and demand that God had to behave in accordance with your logic. You should know better; after all, it is written:

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!

Now, if you had said, “Salvation is pointless without a literal problem”, you’d be on much firmer ground. People don’t have to understand Genesis or any other part of the Old Testament to know they need a Savior; everyone knows they are broken, even though we humans put great effort into pretending we’re fine.

Your claim is a lot like saying that without an explanation of how the sun works its light and warmth can’t benefit the Earth, or even just us humans. That’s silly when it’s about the sun, and it’s even sillier when it is about the word of God, which is more living and active than any star!

Where has anyone said we were “too primitive”? That’s something else you’ve made up.

I’d say He learned what it was like to be a single cell, what it was like to learn to walk, what it was like to eat, what it was like to build things, what it was like to be whipped with a Roman scourge, what it was like to be nailed to a cross!


This is so true! I love the point made by a number of scholars these days, that we need to let the Bible be what it is, not what we would like it to be or what would be convenient for it to be. But we can’t let it be what it is without knowing what it is, and that begins with knowing that it is not all the same, indeed that it was written under worldviews that are alien to us and in types of literature that can be equally alien. Letting it be what it is requires asking, “Who wrote this? What was his worldview? What type of literature was he using? What did his audience understand by this?” and letting the answers to those guide our understanding.

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The text can be found here:

= - = + = - = = - = + = - =

Text can be found here: On the Freedom of a Christian (1520) by Martin Luther, 1483-1546

As a fundamentalist (I’m not trying to disparage you - I don’t consider your position something evil or silly, just mistaken) you should not have any problem with accepting that God, being the first and the last (Revelation 1:8), encompasses the entire length of time. In other words, God creates, sustains, and knows all the ages - past, present, and future.

Moreover, while the doctrine of predestination has been hotly contested, divine omniscience enjoyed almost universal acceptance before the arrival of process theology, open theism, and the like. So I trust that you also accept the doctrine of omniscience. In this case, there is no contradiction between Romans 5:12 and evolution. The motive of a particular divine action may well postdate the action itself. God doesn’t need to wait for emergence of the first human beings in order to find out whether they will sin or not. Thus, human sin may be a reason (although not necessarily the only reason) of God temporally tolerating creatures’ mortality in the world shaped by evolution.

Certainly, you would reject this possibility citing the biblical writers who have ostensibly supported the six-day narrative. But to mention this narrative as authoritative is one thing, whereas to explain the exact meaning of these “days of creation” is quite another.

In this context, I’d like to repeat what I’ve recently wrote in the other thread.

The Epistle to the Hebrews interprets God’s rest on the seventh day as the abode of God that humans are still expected to approach unless they reject the divine invitation (4:3-11,16). Thus, the seventh day is clearly not the 24-hour day but rather the eternity of God, wherein the faithful hope to be accepted in the eschatological perspective. That’s how Wolfhart Pannenberg has summed up this exegesis: “Others set the final consummation under the sign of the seventh day of God’s sabbath rest. In this regard we may think of Hebrews and its description of the consummation of salvation for which Christians hope as an entry into the rest of God” (Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology, Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1994. P. 144-145).

Thus, understanding “days” in Genesis creation narratives as 24-hour periods of time is highly questionable, to say the least.


I beg your pardon for verbosity – but this thesis of yours deserves a lengthy discussion. This “foundational premise” idea is misleading and, in a sense, even dangerous. It implies the world where the generic notion of God the Creator was universally taken for granted. Like it or not, things have changed – at least throughout the Global North countries. Likewise, the authority of the Bible (or the authority of the church hierarchy) is no longer “properly basic”. Refusing to admit the reality does no good to apologetics and helps nobody to become a believer or to retain faith.

That’s not to say that the Bible is not foundational; it is foundational, but in a special sense: every Christian believer’s faith stems from hearing or reading the Gospel. No conversion is possible without a future Christian being fascinated by the image, words, and deeds of Jesus Christ. “Were not our hearts burning” (Luke 24:32) – this is how faith begins.

Nonetheless, one may be captivated by the story of the benevolent, courageous, and non-violent Jewish preacher and healer without acknowledging him as (the Son of) God. To accept him, according to the Bible and the ecumenical creeds, as the Son of God who has been creating and sustaining the entire world, means going much further. To make these steps, believers often need a rational theological discourse about the world. Instead of judging and rejecting the modern knowledge, Christian theology should rather understand and utilize it.

The religious fundamentalists and atheist intellectuals of our age share the foundational premise that modern sciences are incompatible with faith or, at least, with theology as a rational endeavor. But it’s possible to demonstrate that not only natural theology in general, but even the teleological argument, however denigrated and ridiculed it was, may be utilized without rejecting modern scientific knowledge about biological and cosmological evolution.

It’s even possible to start from the naturalist premise that only the physical Universe exists – and return to the notion of God the Creator.

The naturalist premise implies that the Universe doesn’t have any external causes. It exists, although nothing causes it to exist. Therefore, it is primordially active itself. It is the causa sui.

In fact, a materialist philosophy may be quite happy with the notion of primordially active matter (e.g., that was the case of classical Marxism). But grasping that the primordially active matter is also the primordially ordered matter is a game changer.

I’m not hinting at the claim that the Universe or multiverse must necessarily be “fine-tuned” to permit the emergence of complex structures, life, and so forth. The argument may follow the similar vein but be somewhat simpler. No evolutionary process, whether it results in emergence of life or not, could unfold in a world void of any kind of order. At the very least, there should be a certain regular interdependence of phenomena, events being contingent on some circumstances and bringing about their own effects. In short, having some kind of order is prerequisite for any further evolutionary development.

So, the primordial order can’t be established from the outside – there is nothing outside the world according to the naturalist premise; likewise, the primordial order can’t be an outcome of the evolution it precedes and enables. Its existence is the primary, spontaneous act of the primordially active reality – and this spontaneous act is ordering itself. The free self-ordering may be fittingly called an intentional and reflexive, self-relational act. The intentional and reflexive act as the ground of being – this notion is clearly beyond naturalism as philosophy.

At the same time, it corresponds with the Christian theism perfectly well: God is the primary actor who creates everything and, therefore, is not limited by any other power; the creative activity of God ad extra is premised on the intra-Trinitarian relation between the Father, who creates through his Word, the Word, or the Son, who is freely humiliating himself in order to accomplish the creation and hand it over to the Father, and the Spirit, who is common to the Father and the Son.

Certainly, this correspondence between the big theological picture emerging from the Bible and a rational discourse about the world is not a proof in the strict scientific sense of the word. Nonetheless, it helps to make the biblical faith comprehensible and plausible without making it less paradoxical: the self-humiliating God is the paradox incarnate. In the end, the authority of the Bible is reinforced without the doomed attempts to deprecate sciences.


One does not need to be a student of history to be competent in sound reading skills. Such skills have been taught from grade school forward. While some of the early “church fathers” followed the allegorical methods of the Greeks, going back to BC with Philo and subsequently with Origen and some of his contemporaries with the Alexandrian School and especially the Gnostics in the early 2nd century, they were a minority and departed from the biblical authors. Today, we see a similar occurence with deconstructionism, a postmodern rendition of Gnostic reading beginning with Derrida. He and some of his contemporaries decided to depart from author intent, taught in basic reading skills, and subscribed to their own rules of reading that simply ignored the author and sought meaning in the margins.

Besides, “literal” is not always literal in all respects as the word is used with many today who apply it as a pejorative, especially when one uses it in this sense without defining what the term means. Please define “biblical literalism” and who is applying it today.

Any literary work has both literal and figurative parts. The reader must learn how to determine the difference in the text, and the author is the place to start. Postmodernism has redefined “literal” to mean something altogether differently from what it meant 50-60 years ago and promotes illiteracy today not only in secular but also in biblical reading and study.

Besides, “literal” and “inerrancy” are not categoriclly the same. To conflate these terms is erroneous.

As just two examples. Some types of literature have neither of those.

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You seem to have forgotten Augustine and his understanding of “literalism”. Surely, you know that his De Genesi ad Litteram is a “literal” interpretation only in a peculiar sense. In this commentary, Augustine treats the Genesis creation narratives as the description of the world’s origin rather than some allegory of purely spiritual matters; hence, this interpretation is called “literal”. But this degree of literalism doesn’t imply understanding every verse or word according to its common usage.

Thus, Augustine notes that “hours, days, and years as we habitually understand them would not arise without the celestial bodies’ motion” (horae, et dies, et anni, quos usitate novimus, non fierent nisi motibus siderum – De Genesi ad Litteram. Liber II. Caput XIV. In Patrologia Latina 34: 275). He has also clarified that the day he is here speaking about is the 24-hour period – “the entire circuit of the sun from the east to the east" ( totos solis ab oriente usque ad orientem circuitus – Ibid .). Therefore, the sequence of these days could not start before the fourth day of creation.

Due to this and some other reasons, Augustin concedes eagerly that the days of creation are not the sun-dependent 24-hour periods. He concludes that “with regard to the days when everything was created, we understand “evening” as the termination of the [particular] creatures’ shaping, and “morning” – as the beginning of the other creation” (In illis enim diebus quibus omnia creabantur, vesperam terminum conditae creaturae; mane autem initium condendae alterius accipiebamus – Liber IV. Caput XVIII. PL 34: 308).

Certainly, these thoughts of Augustine are not infallible. But they are an important part of the church tradition that should not be downplayed or marginalized.

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No, I did not forget Augustine. While the Reformers and Conservative theologeons today praised him for his theology, they also critizied him for his allegorical approach he received from Abrose who in turn received it from Origen, all from the Alexandrian School. While many from the Alexandrian School went astray in the doctrines of redemption, also, Augustine did not, because God preserved his voice in his monumental writings. That does not mean he was right in all things.

The Reformers and Conservatives, especially in the Reformed movement, today after them were critical thinkers and were unafraid to distinguish right theology from error while refusing to follow the Pied Piper of Rome. They did not trust in the authority of men but the authority of God’s word alone as opposed to the Roman church and many today who held and hold to two authorities like their predecessors, the Pharisees, the traditions and authorities of men and secondarily the word of God.

I am not sure what you are concluding concerning this topic since you ignored my main point and salient reply but concentrated on what was not said.

Name one after you defined your terms. I am not sure of your point regarding the salient topic. It is off topic.

Ok, I was mistaken when supposed that you forgot Augustine. Sorry for that. As for your main point, unfortunately, I can’t agree that high school reading skills are sufficient to grasp the meaning of an ancient text.

One can’t even translate a foreign text without a profound knowledge not only of the language itself, but also of the historical and cultural context wherein the author belongs. In short, the translator must be aware of the realities the author mentions or just slightly hints at. And to master such knowledge, one has to study a lot longer and harder than you seem to assume.

P. S. I understand and even share your position with regard to the fathers: they are not infallible; we should check them by reading and comprehending the Bible ourselves.

But I’ve already written (several posts above in this very thread) that the Bible itself - namely, Hebrews 4 - implies that the days of creation in Genesis 1-2 are not the 24-hour periods. Therefore, Augustine’s interpretation is quite biblical in this regard.