Tom Wright on reading the Bible literally

Theology / Biblical Studies

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One issue that I’ve seen pop up in a number of different contexts recently (one prominent example is the debate between Matt Flannagan and Ray Bradley on God and morality) is the issue of whether and when to interpret biblical passages literally or metaphorically. It’s an issue that I think highlights the shortcomings of “fundamentalism” (OK, I don’t like that word but it’s convenient sometimes). Interestingly as was highlighted in that same debate, and is also painfully clear in a number of similar exchanges, is that it also highlights the shortcomings of the way in which a number of self-proclaimed sceptics and atheists interpret the Bible when trying to discredit it or Christianity. In fact I can’t see any appreciable difference between the way those two groups, in general, interpret the Bible.

Geoff recently brought the following clip to my attention (thanks Facebook!). It’s a brief but interesting discussion of the issue of interpreting the Bible “literally” from N T (aka Tom) Wright. Enjoy! 🙂

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{ 19 comments… add one }
  • Jonathan September 13, 2010, 2:35 am

    Excellent find. But the real question, for us Americans anyway, is who has the better accent, Tom or Glenn?

  • Jason September 13, 2010, 8:52 am

    The problem is the number of skeptics who start life as “fundaliteralists” and then when confronted by a Biblical difficulty that their hermeneutic doesn’t cover, throw the baby out with the bathwater and become atheists while holding onto that same hermeneutic.

    A more reasoned approach would be to adopt a different hermeneutic. Perhaps pulling back from “fundaliteralism” and accepting that the Bible records truthful statements in the style that their writers and audience would recognise. Polemic, rhetoric, metaphor, apocalyptic imagery.

    Basically trying to read the Bible as a historical book written to a foreign people. Not reading it as something written yesterday by people like ourselves.

  • Rob September 13, 2010, 1:42 pm

    Playing devil’s advocate Jason, what is to stop interpreters just picking and choosing what they want to interpret literally and otherwise.

    The “fundamentalists” I have been taught by — if you can call them that — use a consistent grammatical-historical approach. Pretty simple I would have thought.

    Or, “take everything literally unless the context suggests otherwise”.

  • Glenn September 13, 2010, 5:09 pm

    Rob, I think the answer there is that “the context” is a much broader and more complex matters than some conservative evangelicals are prepared to realise. It includes factors in broader sociological considerations, it may mean recognising subtleties in types of genre that some “fundamentalists” were not previous aware of and to which they are unnecessarily resistant and so forth.

  • Jason September 13, 2010, 8:47 pm

    You have a point Rob, and it’s something to be careful of.
    I would say that there’s nothing preventing it, however we should try to guard ourselves against it.
    Historical-grammatical is the method I’d prefer, and it is not what I’d class as “fundaliteralism,” (not to confused with fundamentalism, which is adherence to the fundamentals of the Christian religion).
    I advocated reading the Bible as a foreign ancient document because it is. Where there is difficulty in understanding we should give the benefit of the doubt to the writer.

  • Glenn September 13, 2010, 8:59 pm

    The question then becomes: benefit of the doubt? But doubt about what?

    For example, when you come across a passage that might be literally true and it might not, how do you know what giving the benefit of the doubt would mean? Does it mean assuming that the text is literally true? But how is that giving the benefit of the doubt? What if the author intended otherwise? It seems to me here that talking of giving the “benefit” of the doubt assumes that we are somehow presuming the writer’s “innocence” if we allow the text to be read literally, when this doesn’t seem right to me at all.

    Where there is difficulty in taking a text as “literally true” in the fundamentalist sense, surely we should allow for the possibility that it’s not!

  • Jason September 13, 2010, 10:19 pm

    Sorry Glenn, that was a thought that didn’t go anywhere. I think I was referring to things such as the Hittites, which people believed the Bible to be wrong about, which the Bible turned out to be correct about after all.
    I blame trying to tap my thoughts into an E70 at work rather than being on my computer. 🙂

  • Nathan September 14, 2010, 1:06 am

    This video explains it well, the same kind of thing said a bit differently (and in some ways more forcefully!).

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BP1PpDyDCw

  • Travis September 15, 2010, 1:28 pm

    Glenn,

    You wrote
    “Where there is difficulty in taking a text as “literally true” in the fundamentalist sense, surely we should allow for the possibility that it’s not!”

    I agree with what you’re getting at here but I wonder if you could talk more about the fact that the “difficulty” in taking a text as “literally true” may come not from the text (whether it’s literal or something else) but from modern, Western, post-enlightenment, understandings and sensibilities? It seems to me that many of these conversations tend to centre on explaining away what we consider difficulties (literal or otherwise) instead of learning from the text itself. For example, in the recent debate between Bradley & Flannagan it seemed to me that both speakers were approaching the topic of morality from a very similar position of what was truly moral (namely modern, Western, post-enlightment morals and values). Surely Scripture presents a morality that is, at least in some points, radically different from the morality many of us feel naturally comfortable with due to our time and culture. It seems to me that in situations like this we are the ones who need to be interpreted by Scripture more than the other way around.

    Again, I agree with the basic principle you’re talking about. Just wondering if you’re thoughts on this other issue.

  • Glenn September 15, 2010, 4:45 pm

    Travis, that’s true. Obviously if there’s a problem created by reading in a modern fundamentalist way it’s not obviously the fault of anything in the text. the fault is indeed with modern fundamentalist reading methods.

  • Travis September 15, 2010, 10:18 pm

    Sorry Glenn, I may have miscommunicated. I was referring to modern non-fundamentalist readings of the text. Sometimes I think we can flatten out a text in an attempt to avoid sounding like a fundamentalist or in an attempt to make the Bible more palatable for modern ears. I say this not to endorse an overly/inappropriate reading, just to say we need to interpret ourselves as we interpret the text. No one come to it from a neutral position. Does that clarify what I was asking?

  • Matt September 16, 2010, 12:16 am

    Travis, I find your comments a little frustrating. In the debate with Ray, I did not reject literal readings of certain passages merely because they contradicted a modern liberal moral position. I don’t hold to modern liberal values on many issues nor did I express them. What I did do is cite issues such as context and Genre, and I drew predominately on conservative evangelical scholarship into the context of the passages in question. I am getting a little sick of people saying things like this because the transcript and the audio show its false. if people think I am wrong then it behooves them to address the actual arguments I offered. Not to assert without evidence that I am a liberal, that my motives were something and then dismiss the conclusion.

  • Travis September 16, 2010, 10:04 am

    So here’s why I read but don’t comment on blogs often… it’s just so easy to miscommunicate.

    Matt, my apologies. I wasn’t trying to call you a liberal. I mentioned the morality issue and the debate because that was what prompted Glenn’s post. In retrospect this was me conflating two separate things in my head and wasn’t a good example. The overall impression of the basis of morality I mentioned came from some comments you made in the debate (when I get a chance I’ll go find the actual quote I’m thinking of). However, it’s a bad example because this impression came more from the flow of the debate than a particular interpretation. As far as I can tell from what I’ve read and heard you say we have pretty much the same approach to hermeneutics so please don’t hear me trying to fault your general approach. Sorry for the confusion, and sorry if it seemed like I was trying to brand you a certain way.

    The issue I was trying to raise was that it’s not only the fundamentalist who comes to the Bible with various commitments in place. We all do (please note the type of personal pronouns used in my previous posts). Thus, we sometimes “make” a text difficult because we’re being overly-literal/fundamentalist and we sometimes “find” a text difficult because we bring our presuppositions to the table. In the first case we need better interpretation dealing with all the relevant data and contexts (which is something I commend you on). In the second case no amount of good hermeneutic will remove what we find difficult and we are forced to either reject it or change our view.

    I guess all I’m saying is this isn’t just a fundamentalist problem. We all have to be on our guard against ourselves to avoid coming up with creative interpretations (simplistic or scholarly) that make us more comfortable with the text. Please note again, I’m saying “We”, not Matt or Glenn.

  • Matt September 16, 2010, 4:23 pm

    Travis, apology accepted. I have been under attack recently from evangelicals who have suggested I deny scriptural authority on the basis of my not intepreting everything in the biblical narrative as an accurate account of what happened. Some people refused to support Glenn’s talk on this basis recently and friends of mine have been approached by concerned Christians who claim things like this on the basis of what they heard, I said, at the debate. So I am a bit sensitive at the moment.

    I agree with you about the presupposition issue, I am preparing a blog post on this issue at the moment. I agree that often we need to adjust our moral beliefs when confronted with a defensible reading of the text. I think in addition to the fundamentalist problem there is a in my opinion more problematic liberal problem which refuses to accept God would say anything contrary to contemporary secular mores. I in fact had prepared a rebuttal to Ray along these lines prior to the debate but his line of response meant I did not have the opportunity to say it.

  • Glenn September 16, 2010, 5:29 pm

    Travis, yes it does clarify. I’d say, though, that the enlightenment approach you speak of is a major player in the rise of fundamentalism in the first place.

  • Travis September 16, 2010, 6:07 pm

    Matt – No worries. I’m sure I’d be pretty sensitive as well given your circumstances. Hope things become more civil for you soon.

    Glenn – Excellent point. I’ve done some reading on this but had forgotten about the connection. Any reading in particular you’d point me to on that?

  • Matt September 17, 2010, 9:53 am

    Travis for the record my position is that if one does not adopt an excessively fundamentalist reading of the OT and takes into account what much contemporary conservative evangelical scholarship tells us about the Genre and context of the OT and if one does not dogmatically assume that secular mores are beyond question. Most of the issues with the OT are resolved. Its not an either or approach.

    On some issues its an interpretation issue on others its a dogmatic assertion of liberal mores issue. In the debate most of the examples Ray gave were the former. The values he cited were such things as not killing non combatants and not torturing people for having the wrong beliefs. In fact if you read his writings acontextual fundamentalist readings seem to come out everywhere.

  • Glenn September 17, 2010, 10:33 pm

    Travis, one book that does have some helpful things to say about this is Holy Scripture by Donald Bloesch.

  • Travis September 20, 2010, 6:53 pm

    Glenn – Thanks for the heads up. I’ve read some of Bloesch before and appreciated his thoughts. I’ll have to pick up this work. As I’ve been thinking more about this connection I think that Newbigin has done some writing about this.

    Matt – You didn’t need to go on the record for me but thanks for sharing your position. I didn’t really have any suspicions of your orthodoxy or evangelicalism but hopefully your clearly stated views here can help clear up some misunderstandings others have had. Shalom brother.

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