Biblical Literalism


Thanks for responding. Do you give credence to the genealogies shown in Genesis as well? Personally, I have a very hard time believing that the account in Genesis describes a local flood when the impression of the scale of the event does not comport with this interpretation.

I’ll consider your perspective on kenosis more.


Thanks for responding. Please give me examples of what you believe would be literal approaches to the law and prophets.

I used to mean pretty much one thing by “literal”, but I’ve since become aware that there is a genuine literal sense that we modern readers (whether creationist or not) have largely lost and would do well to recover. But I’ll get back to that in a moment, since you asked for an example in the sense I just used it.

An example of “literal” among Jesus disciples and would-be disciples would be when he spoke of eating his flesh (in John), and as a result many were confused or disgusted. Or when he warned his disciples to “beware of the yeast of the pharisees”, and they launch into a discussion thinking they had forgotten to bring bread. In some cases Jesus puts a stop to it right away and explains the actual truth to them (which had nothing to do with the literal events --those descriptive words being merely vehicles for the real meaning).

The same kinds of literalism may rear up in modern times as well when we, say, hear a story in Sunday school about Jonah and the big fish and we think: “Cool! Here are some really confounding things God can do --making storms come and go and sustaining a man in a fish for three days!” But then on deeper reading we discover the story isn’t about those things (naturalism vs. supernaturalism) at all, but about something entirely different. The ancients didn’t need convincing that gods or God could do amazing things (that’s our modern agenda that drives that skepticism); that would have been a “no-duh!” for them … and when we realize that we can go on to plum the story for its greater (and real) messages about our own stubborn reticence to bring good news to others not like us, and our reactions when even our enemies repent and do things we don’t expect.

Or of course, the elephant in the room here would be our literalism in thinking that all words used in both Genesis creation accounts (or usually just the first account) must correspond only to literal meanings as they would be understood in a newspaper report.

The second form of literalism is to try to understand the accounts literally as the original audience would have understood them, with their own questions and agendas being addressed. Sometimes that might coincide with the first form of literalism I used and gave examples for above, but scholars (including devout Christian ones) have been able to show that quite often there is little or no correspondence of agendas from then to now, and hence our misreading of the texts now. As a student of scriptures myself, I want to recover that higher and real literalism as opposed to today’s literalism which I think is ironically driven by enlightenment agendas.

It can be freeing to just try to read Scriptures on their own terms (after studying to know something about the agendas of those times), and to put aside the fortress mentality of reading to buttress against those who want to challenge this or that of our own cherished understandings.


If you want to say the Bible scribe made a MISTAKE in thinking the Flood was a GLOBAL one … fine.

But there is NOTHING about the Biblical version of the flood story that can be interpreted as regional flood.

I will agree that regional floods INSPIRED the story … but it is not a story ABOUT a regional flood. No regional flood ever reached the Ararat mountain range.

8 posts were split to a new topic: George and Jon’s scholarly quibbles about the Flood and what happens when you die


Thanks for responding. The major problem with what you say is this:

The problem here is that both allegory and parable are indeed fictional, despite whatever truths that they’re intended to transmit. Don’t mistake that I’m asserting that all the claims in the Christian bible are false because I am not. But the fact of the matter is this. Either the accounts in Genesis are literal, allegorical or mistakes. If they’re not literal, then they’re by definition fiction, despite whatever truths they’re intended to transmit. If the foundations of Christianity in the Old Testament are fiction, then by what rationale do you accept the legitimacy of the remainder of the Christian bible?

Again, the distinction between the parables of Christ in my mind here is that it was plain, even if in immediate retrospect, that these WERE parables and by definition fiction. Certainly there was truth transmitted through these parables, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t by definition fiction. That kind of fiction presents no difficulty whatsoever since they were INTENDED to be fiction. To repeat, the problem here is that the accounts in Genesis were clearly intended to be historical.

What you say is mostly true, but you’re making a distinction where one does not exist. It reminds me of those, mostly atheist, who try to make the distinction between belief, faith and giving credence to fact concluded by empirical science or rational thought. The motivation, of course, is to distinguish themselves from their opponents, but it’s meaningless.

You seem to be doing the same, only here your opponent is the difficulty in reconciling what you believe are (fictional) mythologies with the truth of the Christian bible. You’re giving fact the character of tangible existence while you believe that (broader) truths are more abstract.

If you find the formal definitions of both words, you’ll find that they’re very nearly entirely synonymous. Facts are truths, and truths are facts.

The accounts in Genesis were clearly intended to be historical, probably with the exception of Genesis 1.

[quote=“Christy, post:28, topic:4738, full:true”]
My sympathies, you probably have a lot of baggage to unpack. I think it is relevant to how you understand Christians who answer your questions. Over the course of many discussions with people who have grown up in this subculture, I have noticed that there seems to be an awful lot of “either it has to be this, and if it is not, it must be this” kind of thinking.[/quote]

Thank you for your sympathy, but it’s entirely unnecessary. I’m simply interested in the truth behind all this. I’ve considered both the perspectives of young-earth creationists and those more aligned with BioLogos. The real crux of the disagreement of course is deep time and universal common ancestry, the proposition that evolutionary theory accounts for the origins of all biota on the face of the planet including mankind. I have absolutely no a priori commitment to either the perspective of young-earth creationists or theistic biological evolutionists because of worldview. Maybe young-earth creationists are right. Maybe theistic evolutionists are right. Maybe they’re both wrong. Personally, I’ve grown to become very skeptical of evolutionary theory where in the past it really wasn’t relevant to me. Questions of deep time are related but not necessarily so. But this is another discussion entirely of course.

I think there’s a problem with the way you’re using the words “literal” and “fiction”. When the prophets saw visions, what they saw wasn’t literal. But does that make their visions fiction? I think you’re better off drawing a distinction between a literal reading and a natural reading.

No, this is not so. I’m simply defining them by the meanings of the words themselves. Of course visions that were experienced by prophets were literally true if they truly happened. What you mean is that visions experienced by prophets wouldn’t be perceived by anyone else but the prophets themselves.

Ok so when you say “literal” what do you mean? What’s a “literal” reading of this?

Numbers 14:
18 ‘The LORD is slow to anger

No what I mean is the visions experienced by prophets included creatures which don’t exist, like beasts with seven heads and ten horns. Are those literal beasts or is the prophecy just a fiction?

So I have a question for you, Joseph. When you walk into a library, do you avoid the entire fiction section as a plague of lies? I.e. Are all our libraries divided into a “Truth section” (nonfiction) and a “Only gullible dummies will come over here” (fiction) section? Because most books in the fiction section will not come with explicit labels that “this is fiction” --in fact many of them go on to spin a yarn just as if it really happened. Just like Jesus is not recorded as having begun every parable with the warning “now this is only a parable I’m about to tell you, okay? …this stuff didn’t really happen… so feel free to ignore these stories as the 2nd-class fictions that they are.”

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Please don’t misunderstand me here. If you’re Christian, ultimately, I’m not your opponent. I fully accept Christ’s divinity. Parables are not lies for instance because they’re fictional. This is another false conclusion because of POTENTIAL connotations within the word fiction.

i am. And thanks for that. I don’t consider myself your opponent either though we will obviously have disagreements --even over some things important to both of us.

Wow --you are quick on the responses. I was just going to sneak a couple of posts in quick here before heading off for church, so I won’t (for the moment) be hanging around for extended conversation. There is more to be said, of course, but I won’t butt in any more for now since you have several other conversation partners here too.

Blessings in Christ to you.

Formal definitions aside then (I’m really most interested in how people use words and communicate), would you say there is a qualitative difference between the assertions “God is faithful,” “Love is patient,” “Human life has intrinsic value,” and the assertions “Abraham Lincoln was shot in 1865,” or “Water boils at 100 Celsius.”? If so what is the difference? If everything can be labelled fact or fiction, in what category do you put David’s emotive Psalms asking why God has forsaken him in his distress, or the apocalyptic vision imagery of Daniel 7-12, or pretty much all of Song of Songs? How do you reduce that kind of material to facts and propositions without stripping it of the essentials of the truth it communicates?

When everything the Bible is (stories, histories, laments, prophesies, building instructions, dietary regulations, worship songs, parables, memos, genealogies, personal letters, travelogues, visions, etc.) gets reduced to a set of propositions to build systematic theology or a set of instructions for holy living, or a set of facts to be believed, you lose meaning and you lose truth.

(I’m asking a lot of questions below, but I don’t intend to have an argumentative confrontational tone; I’m actually genuinely interested in how you arrive at your conclusions and categories.)

What is poetry, fact or fiction? Because Genesis 1 is clearly presented poetically, (I see from a quote further down that maybe Genesis 1 is not your main concern.) The binary categories of fact or fiction are not full enough to fit all of revelation in. Can you express history in poetry? Sure, but it’s going to come out a little different. Are the feelings and imagery that get expressed in a poetic account of history fictional if they aren’t factual?

Pretty much any record of ancient history has mythology (or fictional elements, or artistic embellishment, or selective memory, or whatever you want to call it) mixed in with the “historical facts.” Do you think the accounts of the wars between the Greeks and the Trojans that Homer told were purely fictional? If something isn’t pure fact, is it fiction? Most people these days don’t believe any history is pure fact because the perspective and the goals of the historian inevitably shapes the reality that gets presented.

What made you decide that if something in the Bible intended to communicate history, it has to be either 100% objective fact or it is fiction? Is that just based on some other belief you have about the nature of revelation or inspiration? Because it doesn’t obtain just from the notion of “history.” Most early American history that we read to kids is mythologized to a certain extent. We have to make sure the Redcoats look like the bad guys and our good guys are truly heroic and nobody thinks too hard about any noble founding fathers sleeping with their slaves. We want to make sure we tell about the beautiful drama of “westward expansion” not the terrors of Native genocide. Does the fact that we design our accounts to privilege certain controlling narratives over others make the history fiction?

The Bible and how we arrive at ultimate truth discussions are far more interesting than the science anyway. :wink:

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It seems to me that often writings may be historical, but they are not always history. And I think the intent of scripture is not to convey history, just as it is not the intent to convey scientific knowledge, but rather to connect the mortal to thre immortal, the finite to the infinate, humanity to God. Certainly, that poses a lot of questions when you try to define inerrency and such, and I like the definition That it “perfect in respect to purpose.”


@joseph1979 Hi Joseph! Glad you are here. I recommend reading tomorrow’s post on Karl Barth on Creation. Some good thoughts about precisely the questions you raise.

Sorry about the typos in my last post. I think my ipad is demon possessed. Or maybe I have fat fingers.

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A link to a brief review of The Invention of Science by David Whootton. While the book discusses the development of science it also provides some perspective on how words like ‘fact’ and ‘discovery’ came to use. Perhaps the book would also provide perspective on how pre-1500s cultures viewed the world and how they ‘knew’ it worked.

Just a side remark: when dealing with pre-modern cultures, I don’t think the presence of genealogy can be taken as a sure-fire indicator of historical-factual intent, and my favorite example of this is with the Japanese Imperial House. Traditionally - and to this day even - the Imperial House of Japan traces the ancestry of the Emperor back to the mythical Jimmu, a descendant of the gods. Read about it here: Family tree of Japanese monarchs - Wikipedia. Somewhere along the way the genealogy transitions from purely historical to quasi-historical to mostly, and then purely, fictional, and it is a matter of scholarly debate where those transitions lie - showing how unclear it is and paradoxically how little it matters. That’s because the purpose of the Imperial genealogy has never been to record only factual history; above all else, the genealogy has been a way of saying that the Emperor’s rule is cosmically legitimate. That it is still used for that purpose to this day, even when most Japanese do not take it literally, shows that genealogy is not necessarily an indicator of historicity, when used in a similar, deeply traditional context. This doesn’t prove that ANE genealogy, from an entirely different culture of course, is doing something similar, but I think the parallels are rather striking.

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@dscottjorgenson What a great post!!! I’m recommending it to the Hall of Fame … if I can find that folder again!!!