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?


5 Answers 5


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 analyzes 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.

  • 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? Commented Oct 19, 2011 at 19:01
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    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
    Commented Oct 19, 2011 at 19:03
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    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. Commented Oct 19, 2011 at 19:20
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    Documentary theory... Biblical polygamy... We have to be careful to come at sacred text purely from a textual perspective.
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 19, 2011 at 19:25
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    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
    Commented Oct 20, 2011 at 6:40

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
    Commented Oct 19, 2011 at 19:21
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    @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. Commented Oct 19, 2011 at 19:42

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.

  • 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
    Commented Oct 19, 2011 at 15:19
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    Welcome to BiblicalHermeneutics.SE!
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 19, 2011 at 15:22
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    @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 Haber
    Commented Oct 20, 2011 at 18:22
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    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. Commented Oct 20, 2011 at 20:53
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    @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 Haber
    Commented Oct 24, 2011 at 1:36

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.



While several other answers have argued for or against a particular hermeneutic approach, I do not believe that anyone has answered the question "What hermeneutical approaches lead to a literal interpretation of Genesis"

As far as I am aware, there are only 3 categories of interpretation:

Of these three approaches, only Young Earth Creationism and the Framework View supports a literal interpretation.

Young Earth Creationism

The are two main issue in Young Earth Creationism. The first has to do with the age of the earth, while the second has to do with Archeology/Palentology and the Fossil Record. The Young Earth Creationist viewpoint adheres very strictly to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy which states

Article XI

We affirm that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses. We deny that it is possible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions. Infallibility and inerrancy may be distinguished, but not separated.

Article XII

We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud or deceit. We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

Because the genealogies given throughout scripture indicate that the earth is between 6,000 and 10,000 and the fact that all animals were created at the same time according to scripture, you have a conflict and collision with scientific consensus which believes the earth is 4.5 billion years old and different species of animals appeared over time. Because of this, you are basically left with 3 options:

  • Scientific consensus is wrong
  • Scripture is wrong
  • The Chicago Statement is wrong

Young Earth Creationists generally come to the first conclusion.

The Framework View

The Framework View of Genesis holds that Genesis is nothing more or less than a Literary Framework which allows the author(s) of Gensis to communicate theological truths through narrative. Framework View proponents note that Creation is generally divided into two sections where Genesis 1 appears to have a semi-poetic structure and appears to be a prologue for the book of Genesis (Wenham, Genesis 1-15; Word Biblical Commentary, Pg 37), while Genesis 2 is pure theological narrative like the rest of the book. This means that Genesis 1 acts as a summary to Genesis 2-3. Framework View proponents also note that the days of creation can be divided into triads where days 1-3 correspond to days 4-6. There are also several other literary structural points of interest like those noted by Wenham (Pages 45-51)

This literary scaffolding then provides a structure which invites a polemic comparison which acts as a corrective response to other [ancient creation myths].(What are the similarities and differences between the Genesis creation account and other creation stories of the time) This comparison demonstrates the superiority of the Jewish God Yahweh over all of the other gods of the Levant according to the Framework View.

This results in some interesting features. As a literary scaffold, the Framework View can actually support multiple Hermeneutic Approaches. For example, nothing about the above precludes the text of Genesis from being a journal or news report of creation. Nothing about the Framework prohibits the use of the Bible as a science textbook and the Young Earth Creationist interpretation can fit within the Literary Framework.

At the same time, this Framework is also capable of supporting an Old Earth Creation model. The Day-Age, Gap models and Theistic Evolutionary models can all fit within the Literary Framework. The Framework can also contain allegory, fable or metaphor. But this still not the most interesting feature of the model. By far, what is most interesting about the Literary Framework View is that it allows for a blending of features and attributes of both Young Earth Creationist thoughts and Old Earth Creationist thoughts which results in something new altogether. And even this can still support a literal interpretation.

To understand what I mean, a distinction must first be made as to what exactly "literal interpretation" means. There are two ways to define this. The first is to say that "literal interpretation" means "the way it actually happened" while the second would mean "the way the author(s) of Genesis believed it happened".

For example the Enlightenment has proved that the earth is round. Despite this, most scholars do not believe that biblical authors thought the world to be round, but instead, it is thought that they believed that the earth was flat. If this is true, then the Enlightenment proves even if biblical authors thought the world was flat and intended scripture to literally say that, our faith can still be true and meaningful. If we accept that, we would still interpret scripture literally - not literally as the way things are, but literally they way authors thought them to be.


While the Framework View allows a blending of the strengths of the Old Earth and Young Earth Creation models, it is not and attempt to blend these models. The Framework View simply attempts to approach the text without preconception or agenda.

With the Young Earth Creationist literary approach, where the exegete is unable to cast doubt on science (such as the fossil record and age of the earth) the exegete must find a way to read the text in a manner which at least attempts to conform with that which is incontrovertible within science (eg, that the earth is round and the solar system heliocentric) but in order to do so the exegete is not engaging exegesis (reading meaning out of the text) but is instead engaging in eisegesis (reading meaning into the text) by virtue of the assumption that The Bible was written by authors with a secret and privileged knowledge of helocentricism which all other cultures of the time lacked.

Likewise, with the Old Earth Creationist Literary interpretation, the exegete must read scripture under the assumption that scripture must somehow speak of Evolution and that days must not really mean days, but must be some euphemism, slang or colloquial saying. Where the Young Earth Creationist is attempting to fit scripture into science, the Old Earth Creationist is attempting to fit science into scripture and engaging in eisegesis as well. Another option for the Old Earth Creationist is to claim that the creation story is purely allegorical fable, using metaphor to teach a lesson. This however risks the eisegesis inherent in the Young Earth Creationist's age-old critique that it allows readers to read the creation story as you would view modern art where the meaning is in the eye of the beholder and subject no absolute meaning or truth.

On the other hand, The Framework View attempts to discard all modern knowledge about cosmology and the age of the earth and approaches the text without agendas like the above and simply attempts to ask what the author intended to communicate to the reader. It is unencumbered by a need to fit modern knowledge into an ancient text. The Framework View does attempt to investigate the genre of the creation account(s), but only so that it can be better informed regarding the message and intention of the author. It genuinely doesn't care if the text is or is not allegory, fable, journalism, metaphor, high prose, poetry, prologue, theological narrative or anything else and attempts to evaluate the genre of the text purely based on the merits and feel of the text without preconception or prejudice.

This typically results in a view in which Genesis 2:4 and onward are regarded as the same genre to be interpreted in a prima facie (literal) manner. There is debate about the nature Genesis 1:1-2:4, but most regard it as a prologue which is something between prose and poetry (similar to Shakespeare who's plays are not quite prose due to the use of Iambic pentameter, yet cannot accurately be described as poetry either).

At the same time, most proponents of the Framework View also accept the idea that the age of the earth is 4.5 billion years (or so) old. It simply does not matter to the Framework View if the details are wrong because the text and author intends to tell us about the theological significance of creation and what that tells us about mankind's relationship to the creator.


Obviously, where the Framework View comes crashing down to earth from the lofty goal of being without agenda is in the doctrine of inerrancy. In order for one to adhere to the Framework View, one must be willing and able to dispense with the Chicago statement's claim that scripture never makes any mistake ever. The Framework View does not need to dispense with the idea of infallibility, only inerrancy. The point of the story (infallibility) can be true even if the details are wrong (inerrancy). God can still be creator, have created out of love and have given man a companion even if the bible is not without error according to the Framework View. Mankind can still be sinful and fallen and disobedient to Gods plan even if God used evolution and 4.5 billion years to bring this about, but this can all be a hard leap for many outside of the Framework View to make. Many are not willing to accept the idea that while God may be infallible and inerrant, perhaps the text and the people who recorded it weren't inerrant and might be humans capable of mistake. This is typically due to the doctrine of inerrancy. Most people believe it has ramifications for their faith in that it can mean nearly anything in scripture might not be "true" which could undermine the authority of The Bible and therefore their faith. Most of those who hold the Framework View however would point out that it does not undermine all of scripture, just the text of Genesis at most and say that each book of The Bible should be independently assessed on each of its' own merits.

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    I do agree none of the answers address the question properly (probably because of a combination of it being from the early days of the site and being edited after discussion)... I don't think YEC or OEC are "hermetical approaches", rather they are hypothesis about the nature of creation. (Framework is a "hermetical approach.") A hermetical approach would be something like "assuming something that sounds like history is intended to be literal history" (YEC) or "using internal clues (like a day before there is a sun) to conclude the author did not mean to convey history" (OEC).
    – ThaddeusB
    Commented Nov 9, 2015 at 16:30
  • And there are no doubt many other hermetical approaches that lean one way or another. (And certainly way more than three approaches in general!) So if you could perhaps change your wording to something more accurate like "three hypotheses on how the creation story should be understood," I would appreciate it.
    – ThaddeusB
    Commented Nov 9, 2015 at 16:32
  • BTW, theistic evolution is distinct from Old Earth Creationism, so it actuality there are more than three theories on origins as well.
    – ThaddeusB
    Commented Nov 9, 2015 at 23:54

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