Verse of the Day

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

N. T. Wright on the Literal Understanding of the Genesis Creation Narrative

A Critique of The Biologos Forum interview of N. T. Wright by Peter Enns, 
"What Do You Mean by ‘Literal’?" (September 8, 2010).[1]

Anyone who has read or listened to N. T. Wright soon develops an appreciation for his skill in communication, and for the high level of scholarship that he is capable of.  That, along with his extensive sphere of influence, makes what he does with the issues on the table here of critical importance.

N. T. Wright is very good on the difference between literal and metaphorical, and will find broad agreement with where he goes with the question right "out of the gate".  Notice, however, that he does not give a straightforward answer to the question.  Crediting him with the assumption that he  knows very well what the issue is, the immediate impression is that he answers like a "slippery" scholar!  It certainly seems that he does not want to be pinned down, knowing full well the implications of a clear answer in either direction!

He asserts at the outset that the difference between literal and metaphorical is not the issue.  By doing so he lays his foundation before proceeding  to the implications of the question for the Genesis account.  He gives what appears to be a very clear and straightforward answer to the exact same question when it comes to the Crucifixion.  The very fact that he is unwilling to do so, or at least that he fails to do so, when it comes to the Creation account should be seen as  significant. 

In the process of this initial development of the difference between literal and metaphorical he makes an issue about the nature of parabolic literature:

"The point is this is a cheerfully fictitious story, but often the real meaning remains concrete.  If they do not hear Moses and the prophets..."[2]

What is his point in doing so?  He is going somewhere with this!

"So it is a much more interesting and complicated question than your culture or mine has ever allowed us to get into by this literal/non-literal split.  When you get back to Genesis with all of that I really want to know what did the writer of Genesis, or the people who wrote the bits and pieces that came together as Genesis, what did they intend to do by this story?"

It begins to be clear at this point that Wright's concern is not with the words that God inspired, but with authorial intent.

Listen very carefully to the framework he casts the Creation account into, to how he speaks about it.  Wright makes it clear that in his understanding this is all about the meta-narrative!  The words, the explicit words of the Scriptural narrative, are made secondary to a meta-narrative that gives every appearance of being either preconceived, or brought to the passage from subsequent exegetical conclusions.  The construction of a Temple (G. K. Beale?!?!) to be inhabited by God is the primary thing. 

            "It's a Temple story..."

This is the important issue.  The rest of it, the "structure" is secondary.  The "formal structure" is the words of the narrative itself.

"And suddenly Genesis 1 instead of it being were there six days or were there five or were there seven or were there 24 hours, it's actually about God making heavens and the earth as the place where He wants to dwell, and putting humans into that construct as a way of both reflecting His own love into the world, and drawing out the praise and glory from the world back to Himself."

Wright's final sentence is telling:

"And that's the literal meaning of Genesis, and the question of the formal structure has to fit around that as best it can."

At the end of the day, our understanding of "literal", and the way Wright uses it in his conclusion appear to be saying diametrically opposite things.  Once this is understood the issue is, on one level, semantic.  However, on another level, we are back to the age old problem of the "high-jacking" of theological and exegetical terms via redefinition and obfuscation.  These terms then must be qualified to distinguish the Biblical truth from error.  This is precisely why we must now speak of believing not just that the Bible is the Word of God, but that it is the verbally, plenarily, inspired, infallible and inerrant Word of God written. 

Wright bemoans what he refers to as our cultures' "literal/non-literal split", and then takes the word "literal" and embraces the meta-narrative with it.  He did not hesitate to separate the Crucifixion from the Parables by employing literal and metaphorical respectively.  When he gets to the Creation account, however, he not only avoids referring to the account itself as metaphorical, i.e., as a figure of speech (non-literal), but actually shunts the narrative itself aside so that he can use the word "literal" to describe the authorial intent, i.e., the meta-narrative.  Wright's "literal" is not "literally" literal at all, rather the metaphorical of the Gospels is now the literal, and the literal of the Gospel accounts, as he expressed it, is either not to be found in Genesis, or at best, is not the "real meaning" or "concrete" meaning (Wright's words).  His purpose in stressing the need to understand the metaphorical nature of the parabolic literature now becomes clear.  The metaphor found in the words of Scripture is not the "real meaning", nor is it literal, or "concrete".  The literal meaning, the real meaning must be found elsewhere, and this elsewhere is sufficiently divorced from the figure of speech that it only provides a "formal structure" that must fit the "real meaning" as best it can.

At stake here is the issue of our age now subtly being attacked and undermined once again - the issue of Bibliology, the doctrine of the inscripturated Word of God including the hermeneutics utilized in understanding Scripture.  The conflicting views of propositional versus potential revelation, verbal as opposed to conceptual inspiration, and literal versus allegorical interpretation are once again on the table (as if they ever left), and the ivory tower of Anglican academia and American pseudo-science will not let it rest.

On the Biologos Institute and the Creation account in Genesis see also the following:

John MacArthur with Phil Johnson, Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Biologos Disaster, GTY136, on Grace to You at [accessed 5 APR 2012].  MP3 available on Grace to You at [accessed 5 APR 2012].  Transcript not available as of 5 APR 2012.

Albert Mohler, "No Pass from Theological Responsibility - The BioLogos Conundrum" (Nov. 9, 2010), on http:/ [accessed 5 APR 2012].

D. A. Carson, "Three More Books on the Bible: A Critical Review", Trinity Journal 27:1 (Spring 2006), pp. 1-62; reprinted in D. A. Carson, Collected Writings on Scripture, compiled by Andrew David Naselli (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), pp. 237-301.  The original article is available as a PDF file on The Gospel Coalition at [accessed 11 APR 2012], and without footnotes on Reformation 21 at [accessed 11 APR 2012].  This article and chapter by Carson includes reviews both of Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), pp. 18-45, pp. 255-283 respectively, and N. T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God (London: SPCK, 2005); also published as The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), pp. 45-62, and pp. 283-301 respectively.

Robert V. McCabe, "A Defense of Literal Days in the Creation Week", Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 5 (Fall 2000) pp. 97-123; available as a PDF on Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary at [accessed 11 APR 2012].

Sola Scriptura, Soli Deo Gloria,

John T. Jeffery
Pastor, Wayside Gospel Chapel
Greentown, PA
17 March 2012

N. T. Wright on the Literal Understanding of the Genesis Creation Narrative
by John T. Jeffery

Copyright 2012 by John T. Jeffery.
All rights reserved.
The use of excerpts or reproduction of this material is prohibited
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[1] The Biologos Forum at [accessed 17 MAR 2012].
[2] Is he giving with one hand while he takes away with the other?  Does he really believe that Moses authored the Pentateuch?  Is multiple authorship part of where he considers going with his authorial intent concern?  Consider the very next quote!  How can he knowingly cite this New Testament passage concerning Moses when J-E-P-D redactors or something  very similar is out there?  Are we back to meta-narrative issues even when it comes to the Scriptural documentation of authorship?  Are men like O. T. Allis rolling over in their graves?

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