Correctly Interpreting God’s Word: Part 5 Literary Genres

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Eminem is a rap artist. He has released several albums and has a reputation for writing songs with a heavy biographical emphasis. If you follow his albums, you will encounter a guy who demonstrates a clear shift from wild and bad to a struggling individual to recovering drug addict. He has made a career out of putting his marriage and family out in the public eye. If I were to pick up his albums and go through them one at a time, I could establish a progression of sorts. Does that make it a biography? Sort of, because there are autobiographical elements to the albums he has released. However, these are rap albums, not hardcover books. They are meant to be autobiographical, but their genre is poetry. If I read his lyrics, I do not have a full understanding of his life as I would with a larger book. The genre of the material we are reading is significant to our understanding of the material we are encountering. Poetry is not narrative. Prophecy is not prose. Gospel is not wisdom literature. In learning to understand scripture, it is important to take into account the genre of literature you are reading.

How is the genre helpful in discerning the message of scripture? Well, my illustrative example aside, let’s look at apocalyptic prophecy in the scriptures. If you have paid any attention to Christianity over the last 30 years, you will undoubtedly have encountered a rash of stories about the end times. There are whole movements devoted to deciphering the words of Revelation and setting them against current events. But, is this a valid way to interpret the text based on the genre? There are several characteristics of apocalyptic literature that should affect the interpretation of the genre. For example, Jewish apocalyptic literature frequently made references to the current events of the day. For example, Revelation was written during a period of heavy persecution for the church. Much of the imagery clearly references those things. The city on 7 hills is an obvious reference to the city of Rome, which was a city built on seven hills. Modern prophecy interpreters have tried to associate this reference to the Catholic Church, which is headquartered in Rome. While it may be the case that there is a double reference here, a more reasonable reading of the reference is to understand it as talking about Rome and the emperor.

Another example of genre is the narrative account to Ruth. Ruth is the narrative account of Ruth, who is a widow and is not properly treated by her husband’s family. This results in her living in destitution. Boaz, a foreigner, ultimately marries her. There is a tendency to read the book of Ruth and interpret it as an allegory of Christ. There is, at times, a tendency to want to allegorize (make it into symbols) everything in the scriptures to make them about Jesus. This is not the strongest reading of the text because this story is a narrative account. To interpret it entirely apart from the historic and narrative account isn’t right for the genre.

The following are a brief list of the various Biblical literary genres:

Prophecy: Prophecy needs to be read and understood in the context of the historical setting. Isaiah, for example, is the prophetic interaction between God and His people during the time of the Assyrian conquests. God speaks to specific nations and situations. In addition, He speaks of his larger redemptive plan through the suffering servant. These prophecies are best used in an attempt to understand the work of God through the scope of Israel’s history. It is not unusual to see folks take up this book and attempt to apply it to modern world affairs. However, this isn’t a legitimate reading of prophecy. Reading and interpreting prophecy requires a history book and a lot of time. Or, you could just use a reputable commentary.

Narrative: Narrative is best read and understood as history. There is a tendency to read narrative and try to allegorize it and apply it to our situations. We see this often with the story of God’s people crossing into the Promised Land. This is a narrative. It is not the story of your church growing or moving into a new building. It’s also not the story of moving into our best life now. It’s the story of God fulfilling the promise made to Abraham. When reading this account, we do better to look for parallels in the story of Christ, like the 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, which parallels the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Narrative is best read with an eye on the larger story of Israel and God’s interaction with His people.

Poetry: Poetry is poetry. It can bring to the table elements of prophecy, as most prophecy is written in poetic form. Interpreting poetry requires that you consider the poetic form and the author’s intent. Poetic forms are well documented. I will not be delving more deeply into the poetic forms in this setting. There is plenty of documentation on this matter to be found.

Epistle: The epistle is a genre of letter. When interpreting epistles, it’ts important to understand the context (see previous articles) and to interpret the epistle based on the fact that the letter was written by an author to a specific audience. It needs to be read based on this.

Gospel: Gospel is an unusual genre of literature. It is a biography of sorts, but it is more than a simple biography. The Gospel account sets out to tell the biographical account of Jesus’ life while making a larger point about Jesus’ work and mission. Each Gospel account has a specific message in mind. The details of Jesus’ life are chosen in order to support that message. It is often asked: “Why don’t the Gospel accounts include narrative about Jesus’ childhood? The reason is that the information doesn’t support the larger message. This is part of the reason that a Gospel account is not a biography in the purest sense.

Wisdom literature: Wisdom literature as a genre includes the books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Wisdom literature sets out to depict principles of life through specific forms. These can almost be seen as poetic forms. It’s important to understand that wisdom literature is comprised of observations, not hard and fast rules for the universe. So, when we read that the dishonest don’t prosper in a wisdom saying, we cannot say that this means that the dishonest never prosper. In fact, the dishonest sometimes do quite well. Rather, this is an indication that to be dishonest can bring downfall.

Law: Law is exactly that: law. It needs to be read as such and understood as part of the larger covenant agreements in which it takes place. The Ten Commandments are an example of this. The commandments are stipulations related to the Mosaic covenant. They are sort of like part of a treaty. In fact, they are written in an ancient treaty literary form. So, when we read the commandments they reflect God’s treaty agreement with Israel. Further, laws relate to different settings. Some laws are civil, some relate to temple worship, etc. They must be read according to these contexts.

Lists: Lists, like genealogies or lists of items, serve a specific purpose beyond boring the socks off the reader. They act as a concrete demonstration of proof as to what happened in a specific setting. They tie specific events to real people and places. In addition, they demonstrate God’s working through the covenants. We see God working with the Israelites in different settings through the genealogies. One prime example of this is the line from David to Jesus. This is vital for understanding Jesus as the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant set forth in 2 Samuel.

This list of genres of scripture is by no means exhaustive. It reflects the larger areas of literature. A good commentary or Study Bible ought to offer a more detailed accounting of the genre of literature in any given section.

On Pluralism In Western Culture

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I am currently reading a book on apologetics from my Logos library. The opening chapters of the text are littered  with quotes from D.S. Carson. CArson is an intellectual heavyweight in the area of Biblical scholarship and Christianity. I learned a great deal from his books while I was in seminary. The following are a few of the quotes I lifted from the text. These are all Carson quotes from God and Culture.

In the religious field, this means that few people will be offended by the multiplying new religions. No matter how wacky, no matter how flimsy their intellectual credentials, no matter how subjective and uncontrolled, no matter how blatantly self-centered, no matter how obviously their gods have been manufactured to foster human self-promotion, the media will treat them with fascination and even a degree of respect. But if any religion claims that in some measure other religions are wrong, a line has been crossed and resentment is immediately stirred up: pluralism … has been challenged. Exclusiveness is the one religious idea that cannot be tolerated.

Pluralism has managed to set in place certain “rules” for playing the game of religion—rules that transcend any single religion. These rules are judged to be axiomatic. They include the following: religiously based exclusive claims must be false; what is old or traditional in religion is suspect and should probably be superseded; “sin” is a concept steeped in intolerance. The list could easily be expanded.

Those who are committed to the proposition that all views are equally valid have eliminated the possibility that one or more of those opinions has a special claim to being true or valid. They have foreclosed on open-mindedness in the same breath by which they extol the virtues of open-mindedness; they are dogmatic about pluralism.…

Both the irony and the tragedy of this fierce intolerance stem from the fact that it is done in the name of tolerance. It is not “liberal education” in the best sense; it is not pluralism in the best sense. It is fundamentalistic dogmatism in the worse sense.…

Weekly App Review: Reformation Study Bible

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The Reformation Study Bible App is an English Standard Version study Bible edited by R. C. Sproul. The app itself is very stable and easy to use. The Bible texts are easy to navigate and the features are simple to use. The app allows the user to reference over 20,000 study notes, which are generally insightful, intelligent and useful in a pinch. The app allows the user to search the text, take notes, and highlight passages. This app is pretty useful for simple and cursory study of texts.

The app also offers a handful of downloadable resources like a Strong’s Analytical Concordance, a Mathew Henry’s Concise Commentary, a Bible Dictionary and Sproul’s devotional collection. The user can also download several additional translations. This app is feature heavy and the features are generally useful, though some of them, like the Mathew Henry Commentary or the Strong’s KJV concordance, are not. These two resources are ok, but are not the best of the best available.

The most important thing I can say about this app is that it is stable, fast and useful. The in-text notes are easy to pull up and typically give a good information when its needed. As a teacher, I use this app daily. It has replaced my Chain Reference Study Bible entirely.

I have occasionally found the search feature frustrating simply because it tends to be very unforgiving to variations in words. This is a particular detriment for a guy who had never used the ESV translation before now. Occasionally, the app gets hung up in the text preventing the user from accessing the features. This is generally fixed by simply restarting the app.

The Reformation Study Bible’s main weakness is the lack of depth of resources, but this is certainly excusable considering that it is essentially a Study Bible. For deeper study, I use the Logos Bible App. The Reformed Study Bible is faster and tends to be easier to use in relation to handling the scriptures directly. This is particularly the case when offline, which is no issue for the Reformation Study Bible App, but the Achilles heel of the Logos app.

Another weakness is with the fact that you cannot copy and paste text from the scripture you’re referencing. While not a fatal flaw, this feature would definitely be a useful addition to this app.

The Reformation Study Bible works well on both the iPad and iPhone. It’s a little easier to use on the iPad because of the larger screen. For $9.99, it is certainly one of the more pricey options for Bible apps, but I would argue that it is worth the price, particularly considering that most study Bibles will run you $30 plus.

Correctly Interpreting God’s Word: Part 4 Using Translations

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My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.

 Song of Solomon 5:4 KJV

Song of Solomon is the greatest love poem ever written. There is a story that young men were not allowed to read it until they reached the age of 30. If you read it, you will find line after line of flowing poetry. You might even choose the King James Version because it is more poetic. If you did, at some point in time you will encounter this verse. Chapter 5 verse 4. What the heck are you supposed to make of this one? I’ve been married a long time and I have never associated bowel movements with romance. A brief consideration of an alternate translation ought to clear up any weird misconceptions:

My beloved thrust his hand through the latch-opening; my heart began to pound for him.

Song of Solomon 5:4 NIV

A bit of a difference there. This passage is a very silly way of demonstrating our next rule for understanding the scriptures: Use several translations.

This is necessary because the Bible has been translated from languages that are noticeably different than English and originated in a very different era and culture. Translations typically reflect the best demonstration of the meaning possible. However, some concepts are difficult to portray, so using multiple translations frees us from being subject to one version’s translational decisions. To understand this, it is necessary to understand how translation happens. Most of the modern translations we use are done by teams of scholars working in committee with the manuscripts. For each portion of the scripture, roughly 5000 individual manuscripts exist. When a translation is done the scholars evaluate the manuscripts and consider how to best translate the text. There is a spectrum of translating styles that come into play here, which we will deal with momentarily. These scholars work for years doing a version of the Bible. So, when we choose a translation, we are relying on the expertise and work hours of a team of scholars (sometimes quite a few). The advantage of working with multiple translations is that we then use the collected expertise of every scholar involved.

Greek is an inflected language. What that means is that the context in which a word appears alters it’s meaning. I read an excellent example of this recently on another blog that dealt with Judas’ betrayal of Christ. The word that the scripture uses is “handed over” and is usually associated with malicious intent. This, along with the fact that the “handing over” was in exchange for 30 pieces of silver has caused many translators to say “betrayed” instead of “handed over”. This is a judgment call by the translator and is not an unusual thing. Most words have several meanings and shades of meanings based on context and situation. This prompts translators to make interpretive decisions. In addition, certain words like the Greek word “kai” can literally mean dozens of things. Kai is a generic conjunction whose meaning is totally based on the argument in which it is presented. This is another one that requires an interpretive decision. The oddest example of interpretive decisions shows up a lot in Paul’s letters. Greek sentences are often composed of multiple clauses that modify a main point. Sometimes those clauses can be very numerous. Paul occasionally wrote sentences that will go on for pages. The translator must essentially break up the sentence because it would not make sense in English. These are just a few of the challenges involved in translating. The impact of these decisions is diminished the more translations a reader references.

Using multiple translations is necessary when trying to understand a particularly challenging passage of scripture or when studying. This is less necessary when you are casually reading the Bible. When you choose the translation you will use, it is necessary to understand the various translating styles. There are three styles that represent a spectrum of approaches. They are:

Static equivalent: A static equivalent translation is word for word, pr as close to it as possible. The most word for word translation available is the New American Standard Version, which courteously makes note of alterations for the reader by putting additions or alterations in italics. The King James Version is also fairly word for word, though the translation can be a tad wooden at times.  The New Revised Standard Version is mostly word for word, but is controversial for making interpretive decisions that are based on how a modern audience may receive the passage, like gender neutrality (getting rid of gender specific words like brothers). The NRSV also tends to have a more liberal theological leaning.

Dynamic equivalent: Dynamic equivalent translations are the word for word balanced with translating the meaning as best possible. So, the word for word is important, but some paraphrasing or rewording is necessary to reflect the original message of the author.  The trick with this type of translation is that there are more interpretive decisions involved, which means that the translator is doing some interpretation for you. This is a bit of an advantage for the lay person, but a detriment of sorts for scholars. These translations tend to be easier to read and are the direction most non-scholars go when choosing a study Bible. The New International Version is the most common dynamic equivalent translation.  Others include: The Holman Christian Standard Bible, The New English Translation and the New American Bible.

Free/paraphrase/commentary: These Bibles tend to lean in the direction of paraphrase with the least amount of emphasis placed on the word for word aspect of translation. The goal is to get the message of the passage across. The most popular versions in this category are: The Message, The New Living Bible, God’s Word Translation and the Contemporary English Version. These translations are the most subject to the interpretation of the translator and leave the least amount of judgment up to the reader. There is clearly a spectrum within these books. The Message, for example, is a very loose translation with a great deal of influence from the translator. The Contemporary English version is much less so. These Bibles are best suited for casual reading.

It is important to note that each of these categories is a spectrum of its own and none of the translations falls strictly in the middle ground.

When interpreting a passage, it is important to select translations from across the spectrum. The reader will benefit from each of the styles of translation because each offers some benefits to the reader as far as word usage. It is important to compare the word usage and recognize that the consensus will generally indicate the stronger understanding. It is also important to recognize that the variations reflect shades of meaning in the passage.

There is one thing that folks sometimes do with comparing translations that is a technical foul. It is not a good practice to shop translations in search of the meaning you want. This is because the passage means what it means, not what you want it to mean. When you shop the versions of the Bible you try to find the message you want the passage to mean. This also works as a red flag when reading or listening to teachings. When a pastor jumps from version to version, it’s a sign of possible shopping.

Below I have included a spectrum I borrowed from the apologeticsindex.org website.

Josephus Mentions Jesus A Second Time

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Josephus mentions Jesus twice. I posted the primary reference to Jesus a few weeks ago. Here is the second.

Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned;

Josephus

This is yet another example of an external proof of the existence of the historical Jesus.

Faith and Reason Comic: 21st Century Christian

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Introduction to Spurgeon’s 1500th Sermon

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I came across this quote from the front end of a sermon by Charles Spurgeon.

This discourse when it shall be printed will make 1,500 of my sermons which have been published regularly week by week. This is certainly a remarkable fact. I do not know of any instance in modern times in which 1,500 sermons have thus followed each other from the press from one person, and have continued to command a large circle of readers. I desire to utter most hearty thanksgivings to God for divine help in thinking out and uttering these sermons—sermons which have not merely been printed, but have been read with eagerness, and have also been translated into foreign tongues; sermons which are publicly read on this very Sabbath day in hundreds of places where a minister cannot be found; sermons which God has blessed to the conversion of multitudes of souls. I may and I must joy and rejoice in this great blessing which I most heartily ascribe to the undeserved favor of the Lord.

I thought the best way in which I could express my thankfulness would be to preach Jesus Christ again, and set Him forth in a sermon in which the simple gospel should be made as clear as a child’s alphabet. I hope that in closing the list of 1,500 discourses the Lord will give me a word which will be blessed more than any which have preceded it, to the conversion of those who hear it or read it. May those who sit in darkness because they do not understand the freeness of salvation and the easy method by which it may be obtained, be brought into the light by discovering the way of peace through believing in Christ Jesus. Forgive this prelude; my thankfulness would not permit me to withhold it.

Charles Spurgeon from sermon no. 1500 “Lifting up the Brazen Serpent” October 19, 1879

I found this humbling. This great man of God was not puffed up by his readership. He was not driven to preach about himself. When he reached 1500 sermons he pointed to God in thanks and did another sermon on Christ. Every sermon was about Christ. This is an amazing witness of what it means to be Christlike. I hope to learn this lesson and pray that the leaders of the faith today know this as well.

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