Soli Deo Gloria: For the Glory of God Alone
Posted: Thursday, April 4, 2013 6:00 pm
The Messenger, April 4, 2013
Interpreting the Bible Literally: Sense and Genre
By RICHARD SMITH
Special to The Messenger
Martin Luther advocated and vigorously defended the second rule of biblical interpretation: The Bible should be interpreted according to its literal sense. To interpret the Bible literally is to interpret it as literature. We have to examine the historical situation in which a passage was written and the meaning of the words themselves to understand this.
The natural meaning of a passage is interpreted with the normal rules of grammar by taking into account all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text. While the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, word usage is still subject to the rules of grammar. A noun remains a noun; a verb remains a verb. Questions don’t become exclamations, and historical narratives don’t become allegories. To interpret scripture accurately, we need to know the rules of grammar.
The term genre means “kind” or “sort.” Genre analysis includes the study of such things as literary forms, figures of speech and style. When we study literature we distinguish between things like lyric poetry and legal briefs, or between paper accounts of current events and epic poems. We distinguish between the style of historical narratives and sermons, or between realistic graphic description and hyperbole. Problems can arise with interpretations if we fail to make these distinctions when dealing with the Bible. Literary analysis is crucial to accurate interpretation.
The historicity of the well-known account of Jonah centers on questions of literary analysis. Many scholars who believe in biblical infallibility fail to believe Jonah was swallowed by a whale (great fish). And since the second chapter is clearly poetic, they claim the book never intended to convey the idea that the incident actually happened in history. These scholars regard the book of Jonah as a kind of epic or dramatic poem and not actual history.
Other scholars believe the book does intend to be a historic narrative and that the poetic section is Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving for rescue from the sea. However, a miracle is indicated in the narrative. Since some of these scholars don’t believe in miracles, they reject the historicity of the book. One group rejects the historicity of Jonah on literary grounds and the other on philosophical theological grounds.
Literary analysis can’t decide philosophical questions of whether Jonah could have been swallowed by a fish. It simply gives a basis to decide whether someone was actually claiming that the event took place. A person who doesn’t believe in the possibility of miracles has no grounds to argue that someone else can’t say that a miracle took place.
Biblical use of hyperbole, which is a common linguistic phenomenon even today, is another example that may cause interpretive conflict. “Jesus went through all the towns and villages teaching” (Matthew 9:35). Does the author mean to convey that every single village was visited? Maybe, but it’s doubtful. We use language the same way when we read or hear expressions like “the whole city turned out” for some occasion. We don’t expect people to believe every single resident was there. This is meant to be hyperbole.
Literary analysis can also untangle some confusion caused from personification, a poetic device by which inanimate objects are given human characteristics. The impersonal is described in personal terms. Biblical figures of speech like Psalm 98:8 (rivers “clapping their hands” and hills “singing for joy”) cause no problem of interpretation; however, the record of Balaam’s donkey speaking (Numbers 22) may cause interpretive problems.
Is the account of the speaking donkey simply the presence of fable in the text, or do we find here an indication of a miracle recorded as part of the record of divine activity in history? To answer these questions subjectively is to prejudge them from a viewpoint that allows or disallows miracles. But if this episode is addressed objectively by applying literary standards to the text, we realize that this particular episode takes place in the midst of a section of scripture that bears all the marks of historical narrative, not poetry or fable.
We find that the Bible is a form of literature that contains elements of historical narrative and elements of symbolism, sometimes mixed in an unusual way. We also acknowledge that scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit and written by God’s chosen authors, is the inerrant, infallible Word of God and is the only standard by which the world is judged. Let us always be careful to note the difference between laboring to understand what the Bible is actually saying and questioning whether what scripture says is true or not. God’s Word is true: may the Holy Spirit give us grace to understand what He has written.
To God be the glory.
Editor’s note: Richard Smith attends Grace Presbyterian Church in Troy.