On Reading the Bible Literally

An interesting but somewhat confusing editorial by John Wilson of Books and Culture magazine appeared in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. Wilson’s topic was the recent controversy at Calvin College over a professor who had been asked to leave his tenured teaching position after publicly stating that science proves impossible a literal reading of the Genesis account of Adam and Eve.

This professor has come to the conclusion that the world’s human population cannot possibly be the descendants of two “first parents.” But that’s not all! According to him, science has proved impossible the whole notion of the Fall as well. Obviously that would have pretty significant consequences for the doctrines of the Incarnation and Atonement as well.

As far as I can see, it’s impossible to tell what Wilson thinks of all this. He states correctly that there’s not nearly as much consensus in the Church, either historically or today, on how to read Genesis as there is on how to read the Gospels. He states, also correctly, that Young-Earth Creationists are not heads-in-the-sand anti-science rubes; they simply have a theological commitment to interpret the Bible in a way different from some other Christians.

Then he says this:

But an alarm should sound whenever the word “literal” is used in this context, whether as a badge of pride (“I just believe in reading the Bible literally”) or as a hint that low-browed fundamentalists are lurking nearby. No one—no one—reads the Bible literally. But some readers are more attentive, more faithful, more imaginative and more persuasive than others.

End of editorial.

Huh? Care to elaborate, Mr. Wilson? Are you saying that no one interprets every single word of the Bible in a literal fashion? If so, you’re not saying anything that isn’t painfully obvious to anyone. There are a great many passages in the Bible that are so obviously figurative in nature that no one has ever tried to “read them literally” (e.g., John 10:9, where Jesus says, “I am the door”). Why take up space in the Wall Street Journal to proclaim that?

But if that’s not your point, what exactly are you saying? What does it mean to be “attentive, faithful, imaginative, and persuasive” in Biblical interpretation? Are you critiquing the Young Earthers’ reading of Genesis? Are you critiquing Prof. Schneider’s scientism? Both? Neither? Are you striving for ambiguity to be all things to all men and increase subscriptions to Books and Culture? Please enlighten us!

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About Dr. J

I am an Associate Professor and head of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.
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9 Responses to On Reading the Bible Literally

  1. worldtake says:

    The problem is not that most people do not interpret every word of the bible literally — of course anyone with a functioning critical mind will not do this — the problem is the minority that wield incredible power over the rest of us this country and the world. They revel in and fully support their self-fulfilling prophesies. They support the idea that we should waste the resources of the world to quicken its destruction, so that they alone can be snatched up form their vehicles, living rooms and backyards when the end time comes to play shuffleboard with George Bush, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove for eternity. They are evil incarnate.

  2. Jack says:

    Why is it important to Christians that Adam and Eve be historical figures? How does viewing the Eden story as metaphor lessen the teachings of Jesus?

    • Dr. J says:

      Good question, Jack. For many professing Christians, it doesn’t matter. However, what’s at stake is more than things like the ethical teachings of, for example, the Sermon on the Mount. The historic Christian doctrine of the Atonement states that Jesus died for the sins of the world, and that this was necessitated by humanity’s fallen state. The doctrine of the Fall is tied to the story of Adam and Eve. So if Adam and Eve were not historical figures, these other doctrines must be jettisoned or revised to accommodate a metaphorical reading of Genesis.

      • Right! Without a historical Adam and Eve and a historical fall, the entire argument of the Apostle Paul in Romans 5 goes out the window, it seems to me:

        “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

        But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:12-17)

      • Jack says:

        Agreed, the doctrine of the Fall is tied to the the story of Adam and Eve. But I don’t think negating A&E negates the Fall. If A&E represent a period in human history wherein man gained self-awareness and language and therefore knowledge of good and evil, then the Eden story as metaphor still works (very nicely I think) and Jesus is still needed. And yes, I’m okay with jettisoning some of the other doctrines, as you so correctly say must be done if we want to read Genesis as metaphor. And since Shawn brought up Paul, let’s start with him! lol! :)

  3. Robert Hagedorn says:

    Is Saint Augustine’s exegesis correct? Do a search: First Scandal.

  4. Jon Burnett says:

    I think Mr. Wilson makes the mistake most do of equating ‘literal’ with ‘literalistic’. For a much better job of describing the difference and its theological basis, I recommend Packer’s “The Interpretation of Scripture” at http://www.bible-researcher.com/packer1.html.

    • Jack says:

      Thanks for the link, Jon. It was an interesting read even if there is little Prof. Packer and I agree on. But I can agree with him that sometimes the bible stories are couched in a “poetic and imaginative form.” And by saying that I’m not saying they aren’t true. Myths are not lies.

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