The Bible, its various genera’s, and the implications for interpretation by Jack Kettler
The Bible uses many literary forms. For example, the Bible uses genera’s such as law, historical narrative, wisdom, poetical, gospel, didactic letters, or epistles, predictive, and apocalyptic literature.
In this primer, the different genera’s will be looked at, in addition, other interpretive factors such as Literal, Figurative, Allegory, Symbolic, Metaphorical, samples of language will be considered. Then briefly, the importance of recognizing typology, context, scope, grammar, syntax, and hermeneutics will be surveyed.
A contemporary definition of the genre is a type of art, literature, or music characterized by a specific form, content, and style – examples: fictional, non-fiction, mysteries, westerns, science fiction, dystopia, and romance.
A particular challenge for the interpreter, each genre has its own set of general rules.
Examples of biblical genera or category:
Law: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
In these books, one will find legal codes and divisions of the Mosaic Law, civil, ceremonial, and moral.
Poetical: Psalms, Song of Solomon.
In these genera, a collection of spoken or written words expresses ideas or emotions in a vibrant and artistic style. This style utilizes a particular rhythmic and metrical pattern such as Hebrew parallelism.
Wisdom literature: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes.
In this literature, one finds teachings about spirituality, and virtue and how to attain it.
Historical narrative: Genesis, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Acts of the Apostles.
This type of literature uses the writing of history in a story-based form.
Gospel is also historical: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Didactic: Letter or epistles like Romans, Ephesians, and James.
Biblical didacticism is a type of literature that educates the reader, in soteriology, ethics, ecclesiology, and eschatology teachings.
Predictive or prophetic: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel.
This type of biblical literature describes or predicts things that will happen in the future.
Apocalyptic: Daniel and Revelation.
Apocalyptic literature has features, principally involving the prediction of future events by incorporating symbolism or imagery.
Additional interpretive factors:
Literal language means what it says.
An example: The dog is black.
A biblical example: Jesus died on the cross.
Figurative language: uses similes, metaphors, hyperbole, and personification.
An example: He drowning in a sea of grief.
A biblical example: Isaiah 55:12, “the trees will clap their hands.” Jesus’ figurative language is seen when He said, “I am the door” in John 10:7, 9.
Allegory language: involves characters and events that stand for an abstract idea or event.
An example: Animal Farm by George Orwell is a political allegory about the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the rise of communism.
A biblical example: The parables of Jesus
Symbolic language: A symbol is a thing that stands for another thing, giving it a particular meaning.
An example: The dove is a symbol of peace.
A biblical example: The Song of Solomon
Metaphorical language: A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not applicable.
An example: He is doing a tightrope walk with her grades this semester.
A biblical example: When James, Cephas, and John are called “pillars” of the church, in Galatians 2:9, it is evident that the word “pillars” is a metaphor.
Words of association: One word stands for something else. Examples: Circumcision meaning the Jews. Israel referred to by God as a vineyard.
Typology: The Bible identifies certain things, people, and events as typical. That is, beyond their place in Old Testament history, they foreshadow the realities of the gospel. For example, the ceremonial rites and laws of Israel portrayed the gospel and have been fulfilled by it. They have, therefore a unique place in biblical interpretation, but they must never be used to establish a doctrine that cannot be established by the plain statements of Scripture.
Simile: a comparison between unlike objects.
A biblical example:
“They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts.” (Judges 6:5 NIV)
Context: the parts of something written or spoken that immediately precede and follow a word or passage and clarify its meaning.
Example of the Bible verse taken out of context:
“Do not judge or you also will be judged.” (Matthew 7:1)
This verse is not saying, “do not ever judge anyone or anything.” This verse is a warning against unjust, hypocritical judgments.
Scope: The scope of a passage under consideration sets the borders of what the writer means to say. The scope will often help in understanding a problematic expression in a text. Considering the author’s goal in writing the passage and setting the text under deliberation in its proper context will help the reader, grasp its sense.
Grammar: The study of how words and their parts combine to form sentences.
It also involves the study of structural relationships in language or in language, sometimes including pronunciation, meaning, and linguistic history.
Syntax: a set of rules for or an analysis of the syntax of a language.
Hermeneutics: is the science of interpretation. From the Greek hermeneuo, “to explain, interpret.” Hermeneutics is known as the science of biblical interpretation. The apostle Paul nailed it about the goal of all accurate hermeneutics in 2Timothy 2:15 when he said, “rightly dividing the word of truth.”
The grammatical-historical hermeneutic:
The goal of the historical-grammatical hermeneutic or method attempts to recognize what the writer intended and what the original hearers would have understood it to mean. Grammar and syntax are used to determine the various parts of the thoughts in the text and how they are to be understood.
In consideration of all the above examples of the types of language, and an accepted recognized hermeneutic, and now the interpreter is ready to dig into a text. How is it done?
Exegesis, the interpretive Norm:
Exegesis (from the Greek ἐξήγησις from ἐξηγεῖσθαι’ to lead out’) is a critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially a religious text. Traditionally the term was used primarily for exegesis of the Bible; however, in contemporary usage, it has broadened to mean a critical explanation of any text and the term “Biblical exegesis” is used for greater specificity. The goal of Biblical exegesis is to explore the meaning of the text, which then leads to discovering its significance or relevance.
Exegesis includes a wide range of critical disciplines: textual criticism is the investigation into the history and origins of the text, but exegesis may include the study of the historical and cultural backgrounds for the author, the text, and the original audience. Other analysis includes classification of the type of literary genres present in the text and an analysis of grammatical and syntactical features in the text itself.
Eisegesis, the Interpretive Danger:
Eisegesis (from Greek εἰς “into” and ending from exegesis from ἐξηγεῖσθαι “to lead out”) is the process of misinterpreting a text in such a way that it introduces one’s personal ideas, reading into the text. Eisegesis is best understood when contrasted with exegesis. While exegesis draws out the meaning of the text, eisegesis occurs when a reader reads his/her interpretation into the text. As a result, exegesis tends to be objective when employed while eisegesis is regarded as highly subjective. An individual who practices eisegesis is known as an eisegete, as someone who practices exegesis is known as an exegete.
The next entry is an excellent overview of biblical interpretation.
Hermeneutical Principles by R. C. Sproul. The article is abridged:
The Analogy of Faith
“Sacra Scriptura sui interpres
Scripture is to interpret Scripture. This simply means that no part of Scripture can be interpreted in such a way to render it in conflict with what is clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture. For example, if a given verse is capable of two renditions or variant interpretations and one of those interpretations goes against the rest of Scripture while the other is in harmony with it, then the latter interpretation must be used.
Since it is assumed that God would never contradict Himself, it is thought slanderous to the Holy Spirit to choose an alternate interpretation that would unnecessarily bring the Bible in conflict with itself. The analogy of faith keeps the whole Bible in view lest we suffer from the effects of exaggerating one part of Scripture to the exclusion of others.
Interpreting the Bible Literally
The literal sense offers restraint from letting our imagination run away in fanciful interpretation and invites us to examine closely the literary forms of Scripture. The term literal comes from the Latin litera meaning “letter.” To interpret something literally is to pay attention to the litera or to the letters or words being used. To interpret the Bible literally is to interpret it as literature. That is, the natural meaning of a passage is to be interpreted according to the normal rules of grammar, speech, syntax and context.
The Bible may be a very special book, being uniquely inspired by the Holy Spirit, but that inspiration does not transform the letters of the words or the sentences of the passages into magical phrases. Under inspiration a noun remains a noun and a verb remains a verb. Questions do not become exclamations, and historical narratives do not become allegories.
Literal Interpretation and Genre Analysis
The term genre simply means “kind,” “sort” or “species.” Genre analysis involves the study of such things as literary forms, figures of speech and style. (E.g. Miracles – Jonah; Hyperbole “a statement exaggerated fancifully, for effect” [see Mt. 9:35]; Personification “a poetic device by which inanimate objects or animals are given human characteristics” [see Isaiah 55:12]).
The Problem of Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or a phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (e.g., Jesus saying: “I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved.”).
The Medieval Quadriga
The “fourfold” method of interpretation examined each text for four meanings: literal, moral, allegorical, and analogical meanings. The literal sense of Scripture was defined as the plain and evident meaning. The moral sense was that which instructed humans how to behave. The allegorical sense revealed the content of faith, and the analogical expressed future hope. Thus passages, for example, that mentioned Jerusalem were capable of four different meanings. The literal sense referred to the capital of Judea and the central sanctuary of the nation. The moral sense of Jerusalem is the human soul (the “central sanctuary” of a person). The allegorical meaning of Jerusalem is the church (the center of Christian community). The analogical meaning of Jerusalem is heaven (the final hope of future residence for the people of God). Thus a single reference to Jerusalem could mean four things at the same time. If the Bible mentioned that people went up to Jerusalem, it meant that they went to a real earthly city, or that their souls “went up” to a place of moral excellence, or that we should someday go to heaven. During the reformation there was a firm reaction to this type of allegorizing. The Martin Luther rejected multiple meanings to biblical passages, he did not thereby restrict the application of Scripture to a single sense. Though a scriptural passage has one meaning, it may have a host of applications to the wide variety of nuances to our lives.
The Grammatical Historical Method
The grammatical-historical method focuses our attention on the original meaning of the text lest we “read into Scripture” our own ideas drawn from the present. Grammatical structure determines whether words are to be taken as questions (interrogative), commands (imperative) or declarative (indicative). For example, when Jesus says, “You shall be My witnesses” (Acts 1:8), is He making a prediction of future performance or issuing a sovereign mandate? Though the English form is unclear, the Greek structure of the words makes it perfectly clear that Jesus is not indulging in future prediction but issuing a command.
Other ambiguities of language can be cleared up and elucidated by acquiring a working knowledge of grammar. For example, when Paul says at the beginning of his epistle to the Romans that he is an apostle called to communicate “the gospel of God,” what does he mean by of? Does the of refer to the content of the gospel or its source? Does of really mean “about,” or is it a genitive of possession? The grammatical answer will determine whether Paul is saying that he is going to communicate a gospel that comes from and belongs to God. There is a big difference between the two, which can only be resolved by grammatical analysis. In this case the Greek structure reveals a genitive of possession, which answers the question for us.
For example if we follow the notion that Mark was the first Gospel written and that Matthew and Luke had Mark’s Gospel in front of them as they wrote, many of the questions of the relationship of the Gospels can be explained. We see further that both Luke and Matthew include certain information that is not found in Mark. Thus it seems that Luke and Matthew had a source of information available to them that Mark did not have or did not choose to use. Examining further, we find certain information found in Matthew that is found neither Mark nor Luke, and information that is in Luke that is found only in Luke. By isolating the material found only in Matthew or only in Luke, we can discern certain things about their priorities and concerns in writing. Knowing why an author writes what he writes helps us to understand what he writes. In contemporary reading it is important to read the author’s preface because the reasons and concerns for writing are usually spelled out there.
Authorship and Dating
If we know who wrote a particular book and know when that person lived, then of course we know the basic period when the book was written. If we know who wrote a book, to whom, under what circumstances and at what period of history, that information will greatly ease our difficulty in understanding it. By using methods of source criticism we can isolate materials common to particular writes (e.g. – most of the material we have about Joseph is found in Matthew because he was writing to a Jewish audience and the Jews had legal questions concerning Jesus’ claim of messiah-ship. Jesus’ legal father was Joseph, and that was very important for Matthew to show in order to establish the tribal lineage of Jesus).
When Martin Luther said the “Scriptures never err,” he means that they never err with respect to the truth of what they are proclaiming.” (1)
Why understanding language is essential:
“Suppose the word mountain meant metaphor, and dog, and Bible, and the United States. Clearly, if a word meant everything, it would mean nothing. If, now, the law of contradiction is an arbitrary convention, and if our linguistic theorists choose some other convention, I challenge them to write a book in conformity with their principles. As a matter of fact it will not be hard for them to do so. Nothing more is necessary than to write the word metaphor sixty, thousand times: Metaphor metaphor metaphor metaphor…. This means the dog ran up the mountain, for the word metaphor means dog, ran, and mountain. Unfortunately, the sentence “metaphor metaphor metaphor” also means, Next Christmas is Thanksgiving, for the word metaphor has these meanings as well.” (2)
We must not abandon literal biblical revelation:
“When Paul in human Greek says that God justifies believers, did he speak the literal truth or some other, unknowable kind of truth that is not truth at all? A phrase similar to “human language” occurs frequently in other authors. They contrast “human logic” with “divine logic.” But do they dare make explicit what this phrase means? Human logic says, if all men are mortal, and if Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal. But if divine logic is different, then all men can be mortal and Socrates can be a man, yet Socrates will not be mortal. Or, again, if human mathematics says that two plus two is four, and if divine truth differs from ours, then for God two and two are five or ten or anything but four. The point here is that human logic and divine logic are identical. Human logic is a part of the divine image in man. It is God’s trademark stamped upon us. Only by rejecting the Biblical doctrine of God’s image can one contrast human language with divine language and divine logic with human. Finally, if human language cannot be literally true, any assertion “language is not literal” cannot be literally true. The position is self-refuting, and one can have little hope of explaining how “language formed on mythical patterns” can convey God’s truth.” (3)
As a principal interpretive rule, Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture the plain statements of Scripture is the best explanation of a text!
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2Timothy 2:15)
From the notes of the Geneva Study Bible on 2Timothy 2:15:
(1) Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
(2) The fifth admonition: a minister must not be an idle disputer, but a faithful steward in correctly dividing the word of truth, in so much, that he must stop the mouths of other vain babblers.
(3) By adding nothing to it, neither deleting anything, neither mangling it, nor rending it apart, nor distorting it: but marking diligently what his hearers are able to bear, and what is fit to edifying.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
1. R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, Abridgement is from Chapter 3: Hermeneutics: The Science of Interpretation, (Downers Grove, Illinois, IVP 2009) pp. 41-56.
2. Gordon H. Clark, God’s Hammer: The Bible and Its Critics, (Jefferson, Maryland, The Trinity Foundation), p. 49-50.
3. Gordon Clark, God’s Hammer: The Bible and Its Critics, (Jefferson, Maryland, The Trinity Foundation), p. 161-162.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: http://www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
Biblical Hermeneutics – A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments by Milton S. Terry