Last week, Justin Taylor highlighted an article on the history of the interpretation of Genesis 1. I almost posted a rapid response, as the history of biblical interpretation is my big specialty. But I feared the appearance of posturing for traffic, and I strongly dislike origins debates. They tend to be clear as mud, sticky as pitch, uncivil, and arrogant. And I’m not just talking about the conventionally dreaded young-earth set. The days of creation and the age of the earth are not tier-one issues, but they are hardly minor technical points. We must not rank theological disputes by how agreeable we find the topic, our conversation partners, or what those who overhear us will think.

Taylor’s post touched on points that need to be raised if we want to have a real, productive debate. For now, I’ll limit myself to the post and not the underlying article, which was not easily obtainable by a general audience when he posted it. His list of conclusions looks unhappily similar to a list of common misperceptions and oversimplifications in the use of historical interpreters. Mere variety of approaches does not exclude the possibility of clear truth, as I’m sure Taylor would agree on other matters. The use of, and accommodation to, science by Augustine and Calvin was a two-way street. They often modified received science to suit their theological and hermeneutical purposes. Likewise, to modern ears their insistence on adherence to scientific reason seems inconsistent with their actual interpretations of Genesis. Likewise, “theological” interpretation and “literal” interpretation are not mutually exclusive. One can find the theological significance of creation to be more important than duration and means, and still be “literalistic” when directly addressing the latter. Calvin certainly was, and Augustine had his moments. Too often, old-earthers (including theistic evolutionists) claim the “spirit” of Augustine or Calvin, while young-earthers claim their direct statements on the points in question.

On a more meta level, Taylor’s list (and the underlying article) tend to act like strong interest by a past author in theological, moralistic, or allegorical readings of the creation account is testimony against strict young-earthers. But the problem with that common disjunction should be obvious. It is curious how many people act, even if only on a selective basis, as if fact and significance were at war with each other.

But the elephant in the room for most discussing of creation week, age of the earth, and Adam is the idea of “literal” interpretation. Whether it is your whipping post or your gold standard, it’s often invoked and seldom defined. This post is already getting long, so I can only put out some broad strokes for now. The biggest lesson to be drawn from the history of interpretation, and from good scholarship on it, is that the category “literal” is not fixed.

For guys like Origen, the literal sense of the Bible is intentionally flawed, and allegorical interpretation virtually supplants the literal text. But, his definition of “literal” is so narrow that even garden-variety metaphors are examples of “impossibilities” in the text. Augustine, on the other hand, talks about language as a system of “signs” that point to “things.” Divine inspiration, however, is taken as giving an extra level of meaning to the biblical text. The “things” pointed to in scripture (i.e. the literal sense) are themselves, providentially, signs that point to spiritual things. This means that, for Augustine, the “literal” sense, or the “sense of the letters” includes all the ordinary rhetorical tools, including figures of speech and parables. This also means that the importance of the literal sense is (almost) never removed by Augustine’s allegories. He might use allegory to justify Abraham’s polygamy as a theological symbol, but he also writes a literal-historical treatise to answer the moral questions raised by a literal read of them.

Medieval interpreters have a similar range. Hugh of St. Victor, who actually valued the literal sense more than many of his contemporaries, saw the literal sense as rough-hewn stones that serve as the foundation for “allegorical” interpretation. But his idea of “allegory” is most similar to our idea of systematic theology, just like his tropological sense looks suspiciously like what we call “application.” Nicolas of Lyra sees human and divine flavors of literal meaning in the Psalms and various prophetic texts, but the Song of Songs is literally a moral allegory of God’s love for His people. Later medieval authors develop such a robust literal sense that their “literal” sense did a lot of the work that earlier medieval authors assigned to the spiritual senses. It is that literal sense that the Reformers claimed in their critique of spiritualized allegory, one that allowed for all kinds of shades of theological meaning and significance. The Old Testament histories could simultaneously be real historical annals and typology, moral/theological commentary, or both.

Such a “thick” literal interpretation may be more than most young-earthers are given credit for. Likewise, it does serve as easily as a litmus test against mythological or day-age readings. But it also does not do much automatically to help old-earth readings. The old-earther needs to do a lot more than gesture in the direction of “nonliteral” or “theological” interpretations, because many of them can happily coexist with a straightforward, seven-day read that is accessible to any literate reader.

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Posted by Kevin White


  1. In the last paragraph, it should read “does not serve”. Just noticed that error, and it really fogs up the meaning of that line. (BTW, you should see the typos that my wife [a historical theology grad student with an undergrad English major] caught for me. She has proofed all but one of my posts so far, and that one is the most typo-addled post of the set. Huzzah for her!)


    1. Kevin: This was an interesting survey of what “literal” interpretation has meant in church history. I recently came across Alister McGrath’s chapter “Augustine of Hippo on Creation: A Theological Lens” in A FINE-TUNED UNIVERSE. He draws a helpful distinction between Augustine’s literal interpretation (sensitive to literary genre and authorial intention) and the literalist interpretation (a non-metaphorical rendering of the text) that prevails among creationists. By emphasizing the two “moments” of creation – “a primary act of origination and a continuing process of providential governance” – Augustine’s framework becomes a “helpful heuristic” for contemporary Christians in the war between religion and science, exposing the choice between creation and evolution as a false dichotomy. The literalist interpretation is strange because it ignores how “God created the world complete with a series of dormant powers, which were [and are] actualized at appropriate moments through divine providence.” What Augustine offers is a dynamic view of God as Creator, whose handiwork is not only in the past tense but also in the present and future tenses. As McGrath says, “It was the lens through which Scripture was read, not Scripture itself, that was challenged by Darwin’s notion of the evolution of species.”


      1. I think the word “literalist” is very hard to use without committing a straw man fallacy. Part of my point was that a lot of young earth readings are compatible with a deeper sense of “literal” that is compatible with a theologizing approach to the text and the doctrine of creation. In fact, history provides several good examples of exactly that.

        But “literalist” is a lot like “fundamentalist”: both are terms with legitimate meanings and uses, but which in practice (alas, even academic practice) tend to mean (to quote Alvin Plantiga), “stupid sumbitch whose theological views are significantly to the right of mine.” The difference is, I’m pretty sure more people call themselves and their movement “fundamentalist.”


  2. Matt, I appreciate your words here. Because there are a number of definitions of what it means to interpret the text “literally” it makes it easy to talk past each other on this issue.

    On a side note – I watched the interview you had on “The Bottom Line” as referenced on the First Things blog – loved it so much it made me want to get the book!


  3. […] the Bible – Rabbi David Wolpe, Huffington Post Talk Like a Theologian – Mark Altrogge Literally? – Kevin White, Mere Orthodoxy Does Regeneration Precede Faith? – C. Michael Patton Why […]


  4. Some passages of the Bible can make sense only if understood as allegory. No grocery store sells knowledge of good and evil fruit. No pet store sells talking snakes. Do a search: The First Scandal.


  5. […] heads and fail to define what ‘literal’ interpretation really entails. I came across this blog post by Kevin White which, I think, is a pretty good examination of the issue through a historical lens. […]


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