Tim Keller on Interpreting the Bible

Question: Are you a biblical literalist?

Keller:    I don’t know of anybody who’s really a biblical literalist because everybody says, you know, in the Book of Luke Chapter 1 says, “This is [an] account.  I put together from eye witnesses of life of Jesus.”  So, that’s a historical prose narrative and you read it as a historical prose narrative.  When you get to Psalms, it’s got, it’s strophic in nature, it’s got parallelisms, so we know it’s poetry and so you read it as poetry, you don’t take it literally.  And when David says, “The stars came and fought against the Assyrians.”  You know, we know that that’s poetry.  Then there are some places like Genesis 1, Chapter 1, like the Book of Ecclesiastes, there’s a couple of places in the Bible whether genre is not easy to discern and where people are going to be arguing about whether you take that literally or not.  Obviously, Genesis 1 has a big impact on how you understand evolution and so forth.  So, I would consider myself a person who believes in the full authority of the Bible, and yet even if you believe that, there’s room for debate about what parts of the Bible you take literally or not.  Yet when somebody says, “Are you a bible literalist?”  They probably will still think I am a biblical literalist because I think Jesus actually rose from the dead.  And if some people say, “Well, that’s makes you a literalist.”  Then, I don’t think that’s what the word “literal” means but I’ll go with it.  For example, though, Genesis 2 and 3 I think are written you might say as historical prose narrative whereas Genesis 1 is not.  So, you know, I would actually, if personally, I would say I don’t take Genesis 1 literally.  I actually do take the talking snake literally.  That’s why I… and there’s people around me who have the same view of the Bible who would draw the line on the other side of the snake and there’s other people who would draw it all the way at the beginning and say, “No, you have to take Genesis 1 literally.”  So, and these are all, this is all within the fraternity and the sorority, you might say, of people who believe that you have to take the Bible as the full authoritative word of God.  So I do think [Bill Maher] is missing the spectrum.  It’s a little bit like if you say to a person of a particular race, “All you people look alike.”  That’s awfully insulting, and for [Bill Maher] to look at, say, Evangelical Christians and say, “All you people are literalists,” is just as insulting.

Question: What is your approach to literal interpretations?

Keller:    The essence of the model is in the book “The Prodigal God” because the prodigal god is about the famous story in Luke 15 where Jesus tells that is usually called the Parable the Prodigal Son.  If you read it fully, it’s actually about two sons.  One is the younger brother who goes off and squanders his money on prostitutes, and the other is the elder brother who stays home and obeys the father.  And what I’d look at that as is the younger brother symbolizing, you might say, the secular person who says I can live anywhere I want.  The elder brother is symbolizing the religious person who’s very moralistic and self righteous.  And both being alienated from the father and as Jesus way of saying these are both wrong.  So, that is a great way to explain in one simple, with one simple narrative how our model differs.  I think most people tend to say, well, there is you can go off and live your way or else you can live God’s way, and that’s the two approaches.  And a lot of secular people say, fine.  I’ve seen that the God’s way thing.  It’s full of moralism, self righteousness and oppression, I’m going to go and make up my own mind as to how to live.   And a lot of believers think that that there’s only two ways and I’m trying to show that there’s three and there’s another approach.

The Pastor does not believe anyone is truly a biblical literalist.

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