Tag Archives: Science and Faith

Thoughts on ‘Literality’

Editor’s Note: We received the following comment from David the Older, as part of a running dialog following Clarke’s recent post Terry Mortenson on the Problem of Millions of Years. Due to its length and substance, I decided to publish it as a post in the hope that it will promote thoughtful and charitable dialog on this topic.


(From David The Older)

A thought on Lyn’s response with regard to “literality.”

Your response to Brother Clarke was very helpful to me in attempting to sort out some things concerning the reading and understanding of Holy Scripture.

First, I want to say that I have no interest in the age of the earth.  To put it another way, I have no interest in the “age of rocks;” I do have an intense interest in the “Rock of Ages.”  And I have an intense interest in truth.

The words “literal” or “literally” occurred six times in your response to Clarke.  None of these six occurrences were within Bible verses.  The word “truth” occurred twice in your post, both times embodied within Bible verses.  That got me to thinking about the word literal (and derivatives thereof) and the word truth (and derivatives thereof) and their place in my personal Bible reading/study as a layfolk (that is, a person without professional or specialized knowledge in a particular subject).

It came to me that I don’t open my Bible and say to myself that I am going to read it literally.  I don’t think to myself now this text must be read, digested, and processed literally.  The literality of Scripture is simply not at the fore of my mind when I read my Bible.  What then is on my mind, if anything?  What then do I say to myself, if anything?  I say to myself something like this, and what is on my mind is something like this, “David, in your old age, read God’s Word, Scripture, for truth, that is, read the Word truthally (a made-up word).”  Truth is the focus of our Sacred Texts as is stated in many biblical passages. For example:

John 17:17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.

Ephesians 1:13-14 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit…

John 1:17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

Indeed, E. J. Young (Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary for 36 years and an Evangelical luminary) entitled his book, which is a “classic … exposition of the biblical doctrine of inspiration,” Thy Word is Truth not Thy Word is Literality.  Allan Harman writes of Young that he “held unswervingly to a high view of Scripture …”  The word literal does not occur in the Bible to my knowledge.  So, I read the Bible firstly and primarily “truthally.”  I want to know what the truth of Scripture is that I might apply that truth in my life to “be conformed to the image of the His Son [Jesus]” as Paul commands in Romans 8:29.

Here is an example of what came to my mind after reading your response to Clarke’s post on Mortenson.  Max Lucado has written many books that Christians find helpful, so I am told.  Actually, I haven’t read any of Lucado’s books for adults.  However, I have devoured his children’s books, some of which are superb.  My favorite Lucado children’s book is You Are Special (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15QuHygLwFU) featuring mythological people including Punchinello, Lucia, Eli, etc.—Lucado’s story is myth.  What do I mean by myth? This.

“Myth is the language of imaginative insight into ultimate reality, which reveals [uncovers]… truth under the form of symbol  …  To know myth, therefore, in the proper sense, is to be initiated into a unique experience of reality [that is, a unique experience of the real/literal].” (Alan Griffiths)

Lucado’s characters are wooden people, call Wemmicks, who were made by Eli the master wood carver.  They live in Wemmicksville.  It is a powerful story/myth/allegory/metaphor/parable (it is not fantasy) about finding our true and abiding identity in a vertical relationship with the Creator God rather than in a horizontal relationship with peers.  Lucado’s narrative is described well by Goodreads:

Max [Lucado] was interested in helping children understand their value – not from the world’s perspective, but from God’s. Wemmicksville is a land created by Eli, the “God” figure of the story. He creates each Wemmick in Wemmicksville uniquely, each with its own look and personality. Each story and video is a new adventure with the citizens of Wemmicksville. Punchinello is the central character, along with his friends Lucia, Splint, and Chip. When Punchinello strays from Eli, he begins to have problems. Only when Punchinello stays close to Eli does he clearly see how to walk through his life in Wemmicksville.

In this heartwarming tale [myth/story], Eli helps Punchinello understand how special he is—no matter what other Wemmicks may think. Children [and adults] will learn a vital lesson—regardless of how the world sees them, God loves each of them just as they are.

Thus, truth can be conveyed to me, to any reader, in either a literal textual genre or in a genre of story/myth/allegory/metaphor/parable, or, further, the text may be both literal and story/myth/allegory/metaphor/parable at one and the same time.  Consider the account of the man who had two prodigal sons in Luke 15.  Luke’s text does not say, that is, does not say, that this is a parable!  The text begins with only this: “And he [Jesus] said, “There was a man who had two sons …”  Nowhere in the narrative does Jesus call this account a parable.  So, should we read this narrative literally or parabolically/metaphorically/mythically/etc?  We really don’t know with certainty whether this narrative is literal or parabolic.  But—Does it make any difference here to the truth value of Jesus’s teaching?  I propose that the truth value in this case, and perhaps in other cases in Scripture, is independent of literary genre.  Now, Alan Griffiths’s definition of myth must be recalled: “Myth [maps] into ultimate reality [that is, a literalness] … To know myth … is to be initiated into a unique experience of reality [that is, a literalness].”  So there is a necessary and essential reciprocal mapping between myth and reality.  This is different than fantasy; I am speaking of myth, not fantasy.

So, distinctions/differences among the ideas of literality, history, story, allegory, metaphor, myth, parable, and language itself may not be quite as simple as I once thought, particularly as we are in pursuit of God’s truth.  The vehicles for conveying truth are varied. And truth may encompass more than one dimension of reality—for example, John 3:6: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” I remember the words of Paul in II Corinthians 4:18:

“… we look not to the things that are seen [e.g., the material, rocks, flesh] but to the things that are unseen [spirit]. For the things that are seen are temporal/transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

For the Christ-follower, there is an abiding reality that is beyond visible, tangible, material phenomena, beyond the “literal.”  I see such a reality in Paul when he says in II Corinthians 12:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter [Why can they not be uttered?—Perhaps, I suggest, to the limitations of language].”

And then there are those lines in the hymn Break Thou the Bread of Life:

“Beyond the sacred page, I seek thee Lord …”

Thanks for challenging me to think carefully concerning the truth value that is embodied in text of our Scriptures, which is inspired (God-breathed) and the final authority in matters of belief and behavior. Evangelicalism (i.e., Christian, biblical orthodoxy) is defined by this commitment to inspiration and authority and a commitment to the historic creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed (as well as perhaps the Statement of Faith of the National Association of Evangelicals)—within these boundaries there is interpretative (hermeneutical) elasticity as evidenced by the multiplicity of conservative, orthodox denominations/traditions and even different views within denominational frameworks.

Postscript from the world of physics related to Paul in II Corinthians 4:18:

HydrogenGasHere is an example from physics bearing on myth and literality and truth value. I will now argue (briefly) that myth in literature is similar to theory in physics. As myth communicates truth in a literary form, so theory communicates truth in physics.  Consider this illustration. If you pass an electrical current through hydrogen gas, a brilliant reddish glow is observed, as shown at the side.  This is the literal appearance of electrically energized hydrogen atoms.  Erwin Schrodinger (Nobel Prize for Physics 1933) asked the proverbial question, “Is there more here than meets the eye?”  That is, is there an unseen reality behind the visible experience (the seen red glow) of energized hydrogen atoms? Schrodinger’s answer to these questions is embodied in his mathematical creation for a hydrogen atom shown below.


It is an abstract/symbolic “narrative”—that is, it is mythical in that it is a non-material reality generated in the mind that God gave to all men within the bounds of common grace in the creation. Upon solving Schrodinger’s equation one quantitatively generates all the unseen electronic energy states of the hydrogen atom and thus understands that the visible reddish glow is the composite of four electron transitions that release energy in the region of the color spectrum that we can see with our eyes. This is analogous to St. Paul speaking of seen and unseen realities in II Corinthians 4, of which the unseen (non-sensate) reality is the abiding, essential, eternal reality. Furthermore, the complete set of solutions to Schrodinger’s equation provides an elegant explanation for the periodic table of the elements which is foundational to all of chemistry. Physicists are interested in the truth concerning God’s material creation—they want to know the “mind of God” as many have put it. From my perspective God allows human beings created in His image to learn and know the truth of the physical world by both literal and symbolic/mythical/metaphorical pathways. Both pathways are crucial. If there is no literal hydrogen atom, there is no Schrodinger equation. If there is no Schrodinger equation, there is no understanding of the essential, abiding, eternal nature of the hydrogen atom. It may be a serious over-simplification to say that we read our sacred Scriptures literally and leave it at that, just as it is a serious over-simplification to say that we know all about a hydrogen atom by simply observing its sensate, material appearances. There is a reality that is behind the literal both in spiritual world and in the material world, both of these worlds being created by God. For more in this vein it is instructive to read C. S. Lewis’s essay Myth Became Fact in God in the Dock. It is available on the web–katrinageiger.weebly.com/…/myth_became_fact-god_in_the_dock.doc.

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