The Case Against Karen Armstrong: Was the Ancient God Non-Literal?

Case for GodIn my last few posts (here, here, and here), I looked at how Karen Armstrong freely takes quotes of some of her sources out of context to make her case that the literal ‘modern God’ was recent and at odds with the original ancient view of God.

In this post I’m going to explore some of the other reasons I find this view suspect.

The Non-Literal Garden of Eden

One case she makes several times (so many it started to hurt) is that the Garden of Eden account in the Bible was not intended to be taken literally. She presents Origen as an ancient example of this.

Here she is basically correct. Of all the accounts in the Bible, there have always been many that the ancients took as highly (though not fully) symbolic. The Garden of Eden is just such a case. This might, in part, explain why (as Armstrong claims) the Jews had very little issue with imagining multiple, and mutually exclusive, creation accounts.

But what Armstrong seems to have missed is that ‘modern’ Christians feel just about the same way about this account. Even the extreme young earth creationists tend to not literally believe, for example, that a serpent came to Adam and Eve.

So Armstrong’s technique here is to simply take an account that has traditionally been understood as at least somewhat figurative, compare it to the most literal (and minority) view (that of young earth creationists), and then claim that all scripture is the same as this and therefore we shouldn’t take any of it literally. It’s an extreme form of cherry picking.

Worse yet, Armstrong, by cherry picking out symbolic and non-literal understandings of Eden, skips right over the fact that there simply is no doubt that the ancient Christians took significant portions of the account quite literally. The most overwhelming example of this is Paul’s doctrinal treatment of Adam as a literal person. (see 1 Corinthians 15:45; Romans 5:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 1 Timothy 2:13) Armstrong consistently leaves out counter examples like this.

Is it really even possible that make sense of Armstrong’s argument that the Bible stories were originally only meant to teach us something about ourselves through personal interpretation of a myth? Any amount of reading of ancient commentaries shows just how literally ancient Christians – from the beginning – took their beliefs in scripture. Admittedly they did not always understand the scriptures literally, but nor do any modern Christians that I know of.

Arguments over what should be taken literally and what figuratively is both an ancient and modern practice. Nothing has changed much here over the years here, contrary to Armstrong’s presentation of the subject. This seems to be another significant blow against her thesis of ‘the modern God.’

The Ancient Concept of “Literal”

Part of the problem we face when looking at Armstrong’s interpretations of history is that we moderns do not think like ancients. We cannot simply ‘pretend’ to not have the scientific knowledge that is now integral to our culture. It is therefore quite natural that someone like Calvin would decide that the Bible’s account of the creation was not intended as a scientific view of the world and read it ‘literally’ this way:

Moses wrote in a popular style things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; … He who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere

Whether or not Calvin is right about Moses’ motivations does not matter here. The key point is that one can ‘literally’ understand scripture through an interpretation like this. This is not necessarily an example of making scripture non-literal per se.

Further, Armstrong tries to hold up this quote from Calvin as an example of how Christian orthodoxy has changed to be too literal. But let’s bear in mind that Calvin is well into the era of the ‘modern God’ she is lambasting. Likewise, she holds up the Deuteronomists as bad examples of having taken their beliefs too literally, but fails to note that they existed in the ancient era before her ‘modern God’ was supposed to exist at all.


Another aspect of Armstrong’s presentation that does not square with fact is that just because some parts of scripture have traditionally been understood figuratively that therefore all of it was understood that way. Armstrong has claimed considerable support for her views in the figurativeness in the account of the Garden of Eden. But in reality, this is just a misrepresentation of how the ancients and moderns actually felt about scripture.

6 thoughts on “The Case Against Karen Armstrong: Was the Ancient God Non-Literal?

  1. Bruce, you have convinced me, and I am enjoying your points and agreeing, but I think you need to explain this better:

    “Part of the problem we face when looking at Armstrong’s interpretations of history is that we moderns do not think like ancients.”

    Isn’t that Armstrong’s point?

    I’m probably missing something.

  2. Hello Bruce, I am not sure how literal the OT people took the story or Adam and Eve, but you are right that by the time the NT came around, A&E were thought to be very literal.

    I think because of evolution being what it is today, many members of the Church are trying to find a way to distance themselves from a literal A&E. I believe that may help in some ways, but in others, creates more problems than it eliminates. Here are some serious problems I have yet to see dealt with if Adam and Eve did not exist.

    1) When did the Priesthood first enter the earth.
    2) How are we going to weld a link of all mankind back to, well, what? I am thinking temple work here.
    3)The atonement does what? If it cannot be shown just when God interacted with man and gave him commandments to keep, then whatever laws we have are man made, and therefore have no eternal consequences.
    4)We would have to rewrite much of our own scriptures and much of earlier leaders statements about Adam and Eve.

    Of course all of the above is just my opinion. It is possible all of it is just not true.

  3. I’ve always thought it was ironic that more conservative believers are perfectly happy to take some of the account of A&E figuratively (the rib, the serpent), but are loath to consider that other elements of the story could also be figurative.

    In my mind, Armstrong’s case points out this irony. Who are we to decide which parts of the Bible are absolutely figurative, and which are absolutely literal? If we admit that some things are figurative, don’t we necessarily open the floodgates and admit that other things could also be?

    I don’t understand how this all fits into the historical context of how it was understood by ancients. But I do think that Armstrong makes a good point. I think Biblical literalists should admit the inconsistency of their views (if they don’t take Adam’s rib literally).

  4. Geoff,

    Actually, I agree with Armstrong on some points and you just pointed out one of them. I am using her own argument against her, so to speak.


    There are really only a handful of difficult religious questions. A&E is one of them for the very reasons you point out. I think we have a number of tentative theories here, but none are strong as of yet.


    If Armstrong had made the point that *you* make (about the inconsistency), her book would have been considerably better. But she doesn’t.

  5. Since Greek and Roman culture were extant during the New Testament period, I’ve
    thought of that as the Classical period, not the ancient period. Although some would
    consider, like Webster’s, that everything before the medieval period belongs to the ancient
    world, but it just doesn’t seem right to me. The Renaissance captured much of Roman and
    Greek culture by way of manuscripts and then writing about the classical period, and their
    excellent use of references developed by the Humanists [Xian scholars included themselves
    in that group, and it wasn’t a pejorative term as used by some Xians today], brought the
    classical world into the modern world and we still have its influence today. So to me,
    the New Testament is not ‘ancient.’ The old Testament yes, but alot of light shed on
    those books via the Dead Sea Scrolls, I’m guessing, not an expert. The ancients, except
    maybe a few, did not suspect the earth was a sphere. So we might interpret their writings
    in hindsight. Was there a flood? Likely. Did it cover the whole world? Their whole world,
    but not the world they didn’t know about. Probably was the Dead Sea or Red Sea, I forget
    which. In Pascal’s and DesCartes time, they were discussing these issues of literalism;
    They resolved it in favor of metaphors, parables, histories with prophecy thrown in, etc.
    But these things have a way of revisiting civilization, much like the American Civil war
    settled things militarily but not really politically, and the South prevailed in recent
    history politically.

  6. My feeling is that we should take the scriptures at face value and stop treating them as something of less value as a source of truth than the ever-changing theories of men. Of course symbols are used, but that doesn’t mean the event didn’t happen as well. Also, we’ve been told by modern-day prophets that some things are purely symbolic – such as the rib from Adam’s side. My feeling is to lean toward the literal where no such statements to the contrary exist. By and large those who find difficulty with the literalness of the scriptures so do because they limit God or place the ideas of men on the same level or higher.

    The Flood is an example of this. I think it would not be hard for God to flood the whole earth. If it was not a global flood then the symbolism of total immersion (as well as a few statements by Church leaders on this point) become meaningless. A careful reading of the scriptures makes it hard to see how it could have been local: the waters of the flood are described in scriptures as existing both in the New World and the Old World (though then joined of course).

    Evolution is another bugbear. Like many areas of science, a great deal of assumption and interpretation goes on (and fraud I might add). Although I personally believe there is some truth to common ancestry (this is observable through breeding) and adaptation (again, observable), the idea of a fish becoming a frog etc. is neither observable and, to my point, it conflicts with scriptures (not to mention genetics). The scriptures clearly say that the various living creations of God were to bring forth after their own kind, that they have the seed of their own kind in them, and Moses 4 (iirc) goes as far as to say they can *only* bring forth after their own kind. That seems pretty clear to me. I don’t think such statements are fundamentally symbolic.

    This whole topic really comes down to how we balance trusting in the arm of flesh versus a common-sense, humble view of the scriptural record. I lived long enough to know that men’s ideas are limited and always changing…

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