Periodical Reviews -- By: Anonymous

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 148:589 (Jan 1991)
Article: Periodical Reviews
Author: Anonymous

Periodical Reviews

“Literality,” James Barr, Faith and Philosophy 6 (October 1989): 412-28.

The term “literal” is frequently used and abused in discussions of hermeneutics. Barr helpfully continues the scholarly conversation by raising a number of questions to analyze the meaning(s) of taking a text “literally.” Rather than attempting to build a case for a particular understanding of “literal,” he concentrates instead on ways in which interpreters use the term. Barr shows that literality functions as an important concept not only for fundamentalists, but also for Roman Catholics and for those who suggest that they do not “take the Bible literally.”

Barr’s central question is the content of literality. In discussions of literality, he believes people commonly confuse literal intention and literal fact. For example whether in fact God created the world in seven days, if the author intended to communicate a literal seven-day creation, then investigation of that literal sense is an important first step in interpretation.

According to Barr, “physicality” offers a promising start for understanding literality. Many biblical statements manifest a physical character. For instance “miracle stories” such as Jesus turning the water into wine (John 2:1–11), are referring at least to physical objects like water changing into chemically verifiable wine. While Barr allows for other levels of meaning beyond the literal, the physicality of the text’s referents remains indispensable.

However, Barr finds difficulties in applying the notion of physicality to eschatological language and some theological statements. He asks whether hell is a physical place where a thermometer would give a high reading. Moreover, “physicality” seems inadequate to understand such assertions as “God is spirit” (John 4:24). So Barr adds the idea of “accuracy” to clarify what is meant by literal.

He then applies his tentative ideas about literality to apparently contradictory theological statements in Scripture (cf. statements about divorce

and about God’s repentance), the New Testament use of the Old Testament Law, and metaphorical language. He notes how “literal” at times expands its meaning to include even the nonliteral. For instance he quotes a person who said proudly, “Our parish priest is literally the father of every boy and girl.” In such cases “literal” comes to mean that in an important and authoritative way a certain interpretation is true.

Beyond the above difficulties, Barr...

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