Literally a Matter of Interpretation

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.

As Christians we take the bible seriously as the Word of God. It provides touchstone through which we can discern the will and ways of God. Paul wrote to Timothy:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

A powerful word that we would all do well to take to heart. But it is not true that all we have to do is read the Bible and everything else will fall into place. If that were true I seriously doubt that people would have found it possible to use it to justify the institution of slavery in America, Jim Crow laws, antisemitism, or rioting in the US Capitol building.

The Bible is written in ancient languages and into ancient cultures, using literary forms and genres common to those times and places. It must be translated, studied, and interpreted. Prayer, the power of the Spirit, and an openness to learn all play important roles.

In The Bible & Ancient Science Denis Lamoureux outlines a number of principles for interpretation. The first two deal with literalism and with genre.

No one takes the Bible as 100% literal. Figures of speech are common. Lamoureux points to Isaiah 55:12

You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.

and to Psalm 91:4

He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart

Few, if any, of us believe that trees have hands, mountains can sing, or that “God is some sort of a cosmic bird.” (p. 15)  Figures of speech can be used to convey truth –  often with far more power than a wooden literalism can convey. Jesus used stories to convey truth quite regularly. Lamoureux sums up:

It is necessary to emphasize that everyone who reads Scripture must make a decision on whether to read a biblical passage literally. And everyone makes this interpretative choice whether or not they are aware of it.  (p. 18)

Lamoureux’s emphasis is on science and faith. As such, he focuses on the way the natural world is portrayed in Scripture to determine when a literal or non-literal reading is appropriate.

The literary genre of a passage provides an important guide to interpretation. The Bible contains many different genres. Some apparent and some less obvious to our modern ear. Lamoureux lists a number of these – “poetry, hymns, proverbs, prophecies, sermons, stories, parables, allegories, genealogies, narratives, historical reports, personal letters, and gospels with eyewitness accounts of real events.” Hyperbole – intentional over statement – is used to make a point, even by Jesus as recorded in the Gospels.

One of the most important decisions in biblical hermeneutics is to identify the type of literature being used in Scripture. To be more precise, the literary genre of a passage dictates how it is to be interpreted. If we misidentify the genre of a passage, then we will misinterpret the passage. … Determining the literary genre of a passage in Scripture is a key to its interpretation. (pp. 22-23)

I would expand this a bit, and expect that Lamoureux would agree. The identification of literary genre is key. But beyond this, it is important to identify the literary forms that are used with in that particular genre and to consider, as far as we are able, how they would be interpreted or understood by the original audience.

The first two commandments of interpretation:

Thou shalt not assume the Bible is 100% literal

Thou shalt consider literary genre and form

So how does this apply to the Creation accounts in the Bible?

Stay tuned.  We will look at Lamoureux’s approach beginning with the next post on his book.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

This post is also available at Jesus Creed, now published as a Christianity Today blog.

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2 Responses to Literally a Matter of Interpretation

  1. llamapacker says:

    This will be interesting. Reading the book now. I think many will be shaken to think they need to analyze the words more carefully. Will be looking forward to future articles. Some won’t even consider it.

  2. Dave says:

    Great posting and I look forward to coming posts on the book.
    On a lighter note – someone once told me jokingly that the trees of Isaiah 55:12 can clap because they are PALM trees!

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