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imagesIn our doctoral seminars this week, we keep coming back to the concept(s) of “’literal’ hermeneutics.” Evangelicals long have affirmed that “literal” refers to both “a system that takes what the Bible claims to be true of itself as a necessary framework for interpretation,” and two commitments within that system: (1) “A commitment to understanding that the Bible’s authority is embedded in the meanings expressed in the words of the text,” and (2) “meanings expressed in the Biblical text are true and have reference to what is real unless the context indicates otherwise.”[1] They acknowledge with Longman, as he expressed a dispensational understanding of “literal” in discussion with dispensationalists as a covenantalist: “Indeed, that is a part of a literal approach to treat as metaphor what is metaphoric.”[2]

While interacting with, Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters, we came across this quote:

Galileo thought that these passages should be interpreted not according to their strict, grammatical meaning but according to a different set of rules: rules that take into account the complexities of communication such as metaphor, symbolism, and imagery…. Galileo had the courage — or what his inquisitors regarded as hubris — to read the Bible with sensitivity toward its various genres…. His statement was not a literal description of fact. It describes something different than what its grammar implies; we know this intuitively.[3]

I would suggest that to interpret according to “strict, grammatical meaning” is to “take into account the complexities of communication such as metaphor, symbolism, and imagery.” The aforementioned suggested dichotomy between the two concepts is false. So while Galileo did “read the Bible with sensitivity toward its various genres,” it is not true that “his statement was not a literal description of fact.” It was a literal description of fact, for literal takes into account that which is figurative.

Now, to contradict myself in order to make my point even clearer, I agree with the statements about Galileo above. For as I read the above, based on Galileo’s critics’ understanding of Galileo (which I elided from the quotes), and the contrast of “strict” with “complexities of communication,” and the contrast between “literal description” and “what its grammar implies,” I know that the authors of those selections of quotes mean “literalistic” when speaking of “literal.” If I make a literalistic reading “literal” rather than a literal reading of “literal”—one that accounts for the use of the term in its grammatical, historical, literary context, then I will misread “literal” as I did intentionally in the previous paragraph while yet correctly defining “literal.” Yet it is my recognition of “literal” readings’ accounting for literary clues that allows me to critique the paragraph on Galileo, set up a “literal” straw man, and then make a literal critique of my use of “literal” such that it reveals my “literalism” when first discussing another’s use of “literal.” Even so, it is my recognition of “literal” readings’ accounting for literary clues that allows me to make a double-entendre in the second use of “literal” in the previous sentence. So I am not ready to abandon a literal hermeneutic; neither are you if you are trying to make sense of what I just said.

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[1] Elliott E. Johnson, “Literal Interpretation: A Plea for Consensus.” Paper delivered at the 1992 Pre-Trib Study Group Conference, http://www.pre-trib.org/article-view.php?id=107, accessed September 24, 2015.

[2] Tremper Longman III, “What I Mean by Historical-Grammatical Exegesis: Why I am not a Literalist,” Grace Theological Journal (1990), 148.

[3] Kenton L. Sparks, “Response to James K. Hoffmeier,” in In Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters, James K. Hoffmeier, Gordon J. Wenham, and Kenton Sparks, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015, 63.