Soli Deo Gloria: For the Glory of God Alone Understanding the Bible as literature
Posted: Friday, April 26, 2013 9:19 am
The Messenger, April 25, 2013
By R.B. TOLAR
Special to The Messenger
The Bible is the Spirit-inspired Word of God; a unified whole, complete in all its parts.
The Bible is also a book. Viewed in a strictly literary sense, it is 66 books written by many people over many centuries. We will be aided in our understanding of the Bible if we are aware of the various literary genres we encounter as we read and study it.
The Psalms, for example, are Hebrew poetry, with the figurative and alliterative language that is found in poetic literature. If we attempt to interpret the Psalms in the same way we understand the straight historical narratives in I and II Kings, we are in danger of coming away with an incomplete (or even false) understanding of what we have read.
The events recorded in the historical portions of scripture actually occurred and have been corroborated by other ancient sources. At the same time, while we understand that the writer of Psalm 139 did weep beside the rivers of Babylon, we would end up in trouble if we acted on his desire to smash the heads of the children of God’s enemies.
Another kind of trouble might attend a woodenly literal reading of the prophetic and apocalyptic literature found in the prophets and the book of Revelation. In fact, we already have a biblical example of this in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians. Some of them had the mistaken notion that the second advent of Christ had already occurred. It seems that certain of their number had misinterpreted scripture and Paul’s own teaching.
Many of the prophecies, both in the Old Testament and New, have already been fulfilled, sometimes within the lifetimes of those prophesying them. In fact, this is one of the scriptural criteria laid down for the determining whether a prophet truly spoke in God’s name (Deuteronomy 18:21-22).
Some of the OT prophesies (those of the Messiah in particular) would not be fulfilled for hundreds of years. Those speaking of the End Times have yet to be fulfilled. Interpretation of prophetic imagery could also be problematic if these portions of the Bible are not approached with an awareness of the literary types we are encountering.
For instance, the last several chapters of Daniel have generated much controversy with their highly symbolic language. We need to remember that the New Testament teaching of Christ and the apostles sheds light on much of what we read in the Old Testament and that the clear interprets the less clear.
We should also realize that Wisdom Literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, etc.) is not the same as the Books of the Law (Moses’s writings). The first contains general guidelines for various situations. The latter contain specific commandments from God.
So we see that, regardless of which literary styles we encounter in studying the Bible, it is a whole and its parts complement and explain one another.
In 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, Paul speaks of the indispensable nature of the Holy Spirit’s work in revealing the truths of scripture to us. But he also instructs us to study and rightly handle the word of truth (II Timothy 2:15).
We are called to view the study of God’s Word is serious business. How should we suppose it to be otherwise?
Editor’s note: R.B. Tolar attends Grace Presbyterian Church in Troy. He encourages readers to examine the scriptures, to see “if these things are so.”