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I had always been told that a day meant 24 hours, but a systematic theology textbook I read disputed that pretty well. (Please do not address this item in particular. This isn't the question I'm asking about.)

So I'm now interested in knowing what other hermeneutical arguments are commonly made for a literal interpretation (seeing as though it seems reputable scholars still hold that viewpoint).

My question:

What hermeneutical approaches lead to a literal understanding of Genesis and what are the principle arguments made for these approaches being valid for the Genesis text?

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Please ask specific hermeneutical questions on this site, like "Does the hebrew word for "day" used in Genesis 1 mean 24 hours." for example. –  Lance Roberts Oct 5 '11 at 5:45
@LanceRoberts 1. This is absolutely a hermeneutical question--asking what hermeneutical principals support that interpretation. 2. Your example is not even a hermeneutical question. –  Ray Oct 5 '11 at 11:37
Lance, to see them as the same is simply ignoring the meaning of the words. See this question: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/36/… –  Ray Oct 5 '11 at 13:56
Maybe someone can help me out with knowing what questions to ask, then? I had always been told that a day meant 24 hours, but a systematic theology textbook I read disputed that pretty well. So I'm now interested in knowing what other hermeneutical arguments are commonly made for a literal interpretation (seeing as though it seems reputable scholars still hold that viewpoint). –  Smashery Oct 5 '11 at 19:49
Does that help? I think you could make the question better (and get the votes even or better) by expanding on what you mean in the body. Just putting your comment in the question could go a long way. –  Jon Ericson Oct 18 '11 at 21:13
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4 Answers

Sensus Plenior is one hermeneutic approach that argues for a literal day.

Every scripture has four meanings relating to the voices of prophet, priest, king and judge.

A literal reading is the voice of the king. The narratives are examples were the visible layer is in that voice. In these, the spiritual layer contains the other voices.

Revelation on the other hand is primarily written in the voice of the priest. From it, the literal must be discerned as well as the other two voices.

Genesis 1 appears to be primarily the voice of the prophet. The spiritual layer would contain the literal account.

The underlying principle is that the voices of priest, judge and prophet, must have an associated literal-historical account which is true, no matter what the principle voice is.

We expect the voice of the prophet to use figurative language... and there was evening and morning... (even when the sun has not been created yet), but behind that figurative language is a literal day, even if there was nothing physical to measure it by.

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Hermeneutic Circle

Part of the problem that this question has suffered is known as the hermeneutic circle.

The idea is that we use the text of the Bible to determine our doctrine. However, in order to interpret the text of the Bible, we have to come from a doctrinal predisposition.

When we approach hermeneutics seeking to understand a particular doctrine, we have to realize that the people translating the text are translating them in light of the doctrine that they are seeking to understand.

So, for example, if a person believes that polygamy is solidly within the will of God, they will interpret text based on that stance. And you will end up finding very solid support for it. (See Biblical Polygamy.com as an example).

In regards to literal interpretation of creation (which goes hand-in-hand with--if it's not another name for--Young Earth Creationism), is going to be the same way. People who believe in Young Earth Creationism will interpret the Bible based on the doctrine of Young Earth Creationism.

Therefore, many of the hermeneutical principles that they use will be identical to the ones used by Old Earth Creationists or people who believe that the Genesis account of creation is not literal.


There are some principles that seem to coincide with the idea of the literal interpretation of scripture:

  • The Direct Statement Principle

    This principle says that God makes direct statements and if he says something, this is exactly what he means.

  • The Divine Inspiration Principle

    This is nearly doctrine, but this principle states that all scripture comes from God (as if God himself wrote the Bible). This means that anything in the Bible can be taken as if God himself was speaking to us.

Furthermore, techniques that are used by many can also be used by people who believe in the literal interpretation of Genesis in order to support these beliefs. Here are two examples:

  • Lexical-syntactical analysis

    This technique analysis words ("Lexical-") and syntax ("-Syntactical") in order to gain a better understanding of what is being said.

    This is often used to support, for example, the 24-hour day.

  • Contextual Analysis

    This technique is used to show that verses must be taken in context of the larger passage in order to be understood.

    This is often used to support the idea of the Garden of Eden being literal as well as being able to place the creation of the Garden of Eden and all the items within (animals, trees, humans, etc).


Ultimately, most of the hermeneutical principles used by Old Earth Creationists (accepting Genesis 1 and 2 as allegory) can also be used by Young Earth Creationists (accepting a more literal interpretation of Genesis). It really comes down to the viewpoint from which you are interpreting these events.

Admittedly, there are some principles and techniques that lead away from the literal interpretation of Genesis. However, these techniques and principles can be used to lead away from any sound, established doctrine as well. So, they must be considered in moderation.

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If I understand you correctly, you view the "literal" interpretation as largely a result of reading doctrine ("the Earth is very young") into the text and that the alternative is to read a different doctrine into the text. What would you suggest as a way out of the circle? –  Jon Ericson Oct 19 '11 at 19:01
Aah! There isn't one! That's why it's a circle. All interpretation must come from a doctrinal standpoint--even the interpretation that creates doctrine. I personally like to think of it as a process of refining doctrine, but it's still "pulling yourself up by the bootstraps". –  Richard Oct 19 '11 at 19:03
The philosophical side of me is compelled to point out that there is a very similar problem in science: new observations are informed and limited by current theory. Our understanding of the world is trapped in a particular paradigm. According to Thomas Kuhn, when the weight of evidence against the current paradigm becomes unsupportable, the paradigm violently shifts to another theory that has been waiting in the wings. I suggest we escape the circle by piling up textual evidence and see what breaks. –  Jon Ericson Oct 19 '11 at 19:20
Documentary theory... Biblical polygamy... We have to be careful to come at sacred text purely from a textual perspective. –  Richard Oct 19 '11 at 19:25
In Sensus plenior, there is no spiritual meaning unless there is a literal one. However, literal means to interpret by the literary devices used. The sun wasn't made until day 4, therefore the light and dark were caused by something else. If time itself is a result of the fall, then creation happened in timelessness. Timelessness does not demand a lack of sequence. A guy at Berkeley was rewriting the laws of physics as a quantum experience without time in the equations. SP principle: there is no true spiritual meaning if there is not a literal one first. Truth is not built on fiction. –  Bob Jones Oct 20 '11 at 6:40
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A basic hermenuetical rule for any text is that the surface meaning is the correct reading of a text unless other evidence shows otherwise. If I say I'll finish something by the end of the day, you expect me to be done within the current 24-hour period. I would be either a nut or a liar if I explained that my "day" is actually 1,000 years metaphorically.

Let's leave aside the textual clues for not using a literal day and consider the other reasons people take Genesis 1 metaphorically: Cartesianism. René Descartes began a radical change in the way we view the world by suggesting that all received traditions are wrong until proven true to a skeptic. His philosophical tradition has carried down to the current time when we are inclined to reject ancient creation accounts and replace them with stories derived from our greater powers of observation (aided by telescopes, particle accelerators, etc.).

The literal interpretation has arisen due to two related trends:

  1. The reaction to the Cartesian agenda. (Taken too strictly, Cartesian fundamentalism denies everything and ought to be opposed.)

  2. The ability and desire for laypeople to read and interpret Scripture. (This is wholly good, though it does have side-effects.)

Number 2 is especially significant to us, since the way most people read Scripture (and I am no exception) is in their own language. It's possible to translate words easily, but the culture and sensibilities of a language are much harder to convey. Further, since modern creation stories not only are literal, but refuse to be metaphorical, we are conditioned to read Genesis in a way that would be literally foreign to the ancient Hebrews.

Number 1 is probably the main reason for the literal interpretation's popularity, but it's outside of hermeneutics.

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Even this viewpoint comes from a doctrinal stance. Catholic hermeneutics, for example, believes in the four-fold sense of scripture. In other words, all scripture has four meanings, not just the surface (literal) meaning. –  Richard Oct 19 '11 at 19:21
@Richard: Definitely. Christian fundamentalism, which we are obliquely talking about (so the question is still off-topic, I suppose), derives its philosophic justification from Cartesianism whether its proponents know it or not. The idea that we can strip away old traditions has become a tradition in itself. My (unstated) answer would be to go back as far as we can into the culture of the ancient Hebrews and see if we can rebuild their creation story as they saw it. Or to put it another way: to reclaim the original tradition as much as possible. –  Jon Ericson Oct 19 '11 at 19:42
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Please allow me to start my response with a preface about the nature of literal interpretation.

Traditionally, through the Church's history, literal interpretation has not meant "reading the text to mean just what it seems to me to mean." At least as far back as St. Augustine we see that this is so. Rather, the literal sense of scripture was contrasted with the spiritual sense. The literal sense is the meaning intended by the human authors at the time of writing, and the spiritual senses are the meanings embedded into the text by the Holy Spirit at that time and thereafter. In his The Literal Meaning of Genesis, he asserts theological reasons to believe that the world was created, together with all its component parts, simultaneously. He also make the case that the literal meaning of the Genesis creation accounts are figurative. See Wikipedia's summary of Augustine or an excerpt from The Literal Meaning of Genesis to see how early and how prominent a teacher of the Christian faith held this view.

How can the literal meaning be figurative, though? And moreover, when did people start thinking that a "literal meaning" was a "face value" reading, or "the text as it appears to me"? As to the first question, if we bear in mind that many writers often write figuratively to convey a meaning or moral, and that they do not always start by telling us that this is their endeavor, but rather, expect us to understand that fact, we can see how the same thing happened in antiquity. Nobody in modern times expects the story of the Three Little Pigs to be either (a) false or (b) literally about three talking pigs and the talking wolf who stalked them. Rather, we all know that it is about a moral, about doing things right the first time as a security against future adversity. Nobody needs to tell us that. Small children pick up on it because they know that pigs do not talk and that their parents, telling the story, are not fools who think that pigs talk.

As to the second question, I do not know that I can put an exact date when the shift in understanding about literal interpretation happened. It certainly happened after the medieval period because none of the medieval theologians interpreted Genesis as modern scholars might. In fact, if anything their vice was the contrary vice - they are accused by the Reformers of over-symbolizing every account and story. I suspect Luther's insistence on the ready interpretability of Scripture may have facilitated this shift. Certainly by the time of the fundamentalist revival of the early 20th century, the practice was well established in the Protestant world, and even earlier, since the Protestant liberal theologians of the mid-19th century reacted against the practice of interpreting scripture at face value, of asserting that the "plain meaning" of Scripture is what the scriptures plainly meant.

I make this preface, although it is actually the bulk of my response, because it's a game changer. If the words of Genesis 1-3, say, aren't meant to be taken at face value, then all the questions we ask of them shift. It suddenly doesn't matter so much if a day is a 24-hour period or a period from sunset to next sunset. That is a good thing, because obviously, if the words of the account are to mean what they plainly seem to mean to modern readers insisting that the story be taken at face value (as we never take our own stories), then the text becomes hopelessly confused - which is a far worse thing than for the reader to be hopelessly confused. After all, how could there be sunset-to-sunset periods before there is a sun? That question does not answer itself plainly. And moreover, the concept of a 24-hour period only makes sense in the context of a sun shining on a more-or-less equatorial environment, where days are about the same length all year, and nights about the same length as the days.

But if we can set aside how long a "day" is supposed to be and whether it is supposed to represent any particular period of time at all, as Augustine did, we can get down to the important work of finding the actual intention of the author (the literal sense, according to Augustine). If that literal sense, rather than our "literal reading", has embedded in it a moral value, a spiritual teaching, or a truth about the nature of God or the Kingdom, we may miss it altogether by arguing about geological questions the text was not intended to discuss and that frankly did not interest our forefathers in faith.

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This is a very thorough answer, but fails to do what the question asks, which is to provide a hermeneutic that yields the 24-hour day conclusion. –  Ray Oct 19 '11 at 15:19
Welcome to BiblicalHermeneutics.SE! –  Richard Oct 19 '11 at 15:22
@Ray, I did not fail to answer the question, but rather chose to answer a prior question whose answer obviates the question asked. If somebody asked me the best interstate highway to travel from New York to London, I would be bound in duty to tell him that there was no interstate route that could answer his need. In like manner, here I am in duty bound to explain why the question asked isn't an entirely sound itself. I did so at some length to make my point clear, and also to try to make it clear that I am not discounting the scriptures and do indeed believe them to be fully inspired. –  Ryan Oct 20 '11 at 18:22
There's been quite a bit of debate on meta and the chat about how questions like these should be asked, if at all. As you point out, the question seems to start off on the wrong foot altogether. Personally, I upvoted your answer and agree with it. Your excellent analogy about the route from New York to London probably belongs in the answer itself. –  Jon Ericson Oct 20 '11 at 20:53
@JonEricson - and I see you like Alvin Plantinga. Excellent! I read his Warranted Christian Belief in my epistemology class while in (Catholic) seminary. (I left without getting ordained.) –  Ryan Oct 24 '11 at 1:36
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