John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture, and he has penned an OP-ED for the most recent issue of The Wall Street Journal. In the article, Wilson covers the ongoing debate among evangelicals about the existence of an historical Adam. It looks to me, however, that Wilson has not framed the issue accurately. Wilson writes,
What is at stake in these disputes is not a choice between following biblical authority on the one hand or science on the other, as the matter is often misleadingly framed. Rather, we see rival theological commitments, rival understandings of how to read Genesis…
Critical to debates over “the historical Adam” are theological motifs such as Christ as “the second Adam.” These lose their meaning, many evangelicals argue, if Genesis isn’t read literally.
But an alarm should sound whenever the word “literal” is used in this context, whether as a badge of pride (“I just believe in reading the Bible literally”) or as a hint that low-browed fundamentalists are lurking nearby. No one—no one—reads the Bible literally. But some readers are more attentive, more faithful, more imaginative and more persuasive than others.
I want to comment briefly on two items from this excerpt.
First, biblical authority really is at stake in this debate. The plain meaning of scripture simply does not allow for the evolutionary model. The only way for the evolutionary model to stand is for the biblical account of creation to be set aside. Whenever this happens, the Bible’s credibility and authority is called into question. This regularly happens in the work of evangelical proponents of evolution (whether they mean for it to or not).
Second, I do not think that Wilson has accurately represented what biblical scholars since the reformation have meant by “literal” interpretation of scripture. “Literal” does not mean the inability to identify figures of speech or other non-literal genres. Since the Reformation, the “literal sense” of scripture has to do with interpreting according to the author’s intention. In his introduction to his commentary on Romans (1539), John Calvin put it this way:
“The chief excellency of an expounder consists in lucid brevity. And, indeed, since it is almost his only work to lay open the mind of the writer whom he undertakes to explain, the degree in which he leads away his readers from it, in that degree he goes astray from his purpose, and in a manner wanders from his own boundaries.”
Contrary to Wilson’s contention, there are in fact countless people who interpret the Bible literally in this sense.