Bible Interpretation Basics: What are you reading ?
Scripture was written in different genres.
Most people miss this fact when they approach it, which is why some of them have such a hard time trying to understand what scripture is teaching or attempting to communicate at different places.
That is to say, there are some parts that are written as instructional literature (Leviticus, Colossians) where step-by-step directions were given, or direct commands to do one thing and not another. Some were written as narrative (1 & 2 Samuel, Acts, the Gospels) where a story was being told to the reader and events were being related.
There is also prophetic language (Isaiah 40 and forward, Daniel 7, 9-12, Revelation) where images and symbols were used (in some cases) to represent actual things, people and events. Sometimes, the images used were literal; other times, they were/are figurative (i.e. the woman in Rev. 12 who gives birth to the man child that will rule the nations with a rod of iron). Other times (Isaiah 46 for example), simple direct statements on what will happen are given (no illustrations or images necessary).
There is wisdom literature (James, Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes) where the reader is taught truth via illustration, narrative and long-form arguments. A ‘long-form’ argument can be a number of illustrations, stories and logical statements all ‘piled up’ over time to point to one particular point or truth. They require a longer attention span, more reading and/or listening and more attention to detail. For example, Proverbs 1:20-33 takes wisdom (which is defined for us in Proverbs 1:1-7) and personifies it and then explains how wisdom will ‘mock’ when calamity strikes those who choose to ignore its’ counsel. The book of Job is a masterful piece of wisdom literature, as all of Job’s friends, Job himself and God Himself all go into extended long-form arguments and illustrations to make their cases.
Occasionally, we also see poetic literature (Psalms, Job, Song of Solomon). Poetic scripture, like wisdom literature (and in some cases, some books are both) may use illustrations and analogies to teach a particular point, or, like prophetic literature, it may also simply come straight out and say what it means (example, Psalm 150).
Understanding scripture entails that we take the time to understand first and foremost what it is that we are reading.
One blessing of the modern age in western society is that we have any number of biblical resources available to help us realize what it is we’re reading so that no believer has to be left wondering ‘what does scripture mean by this’ ? A responsibility in an age of much is that much is also required of us (Luke 12:48). The responsibility to handle scripture accurately (2 Tim. 2:15) is not just the job of the preacher, but of all believers (just like the qualifications for deacon and elder are applicable to all believers, not just those seeking the office).
So I recommend checking out sites like bible.org, carm.org, biblestudytools.net, reformed.org, graceonlinelibrary.org, ligonier.org, gty.org and others that support and encourage believers to engage in serious study of the scriptures for the purpose of knowing what you believe, why you should believe it, how to live it and what to proclaim to others.
Once we figure out what it is we’re reading, some rules begin to come into play to guide our interpreting.
For example, Acts is not a theological manual. It’s a narrative. Is there theology in Acts ? Definitely. There is theology (and by that word, we simply mean teaching about God, man and salvation that must be believed) in all of scripture. But was Acts written to teach us what is to be considered normative for every believer in every age or is it describing what happened in history (specifically in the early history of the church) ?
From this, we can deduce that taking a passage or event in Acts and saying ‘this happens to every believer in every age and was not just a one-time event’ is an error. Examples of this error can be readily found in the pentecostal movements’ use of Acts 2 as ‘normative’ (every believer must speak in tongues as a sign of the Holy Spirit indwelling them). Even in the book of Acts, every believer didn’t speak in tongues at conversion (Acts 16 for example).
On the other hand, books like 1 Thessalonians were written as direct instructions to believers. Is there theology here ? You better believe it. Is there narrative here ? Some. Paul makes references in both letters to the church at Thessalonica to when he and Timothy came and spent time among them, how the word of their Christian love has spread throughout other churches and more. But the primary focus of both letters (1 and 2 Thessalonians) is instruction, not narrative. Questions on the return of Christ and the coming final judgement are answered (1 Thess. 4, 5) , how to conduct ourselves in relation to other believers (1 Thess. 4:3-8), how to conduct ourselves in the church (1 Thess. 5:18 and forward) and more.
In the next installments, I’ll write for a bit on how to deal with some of the other genres of scripture and a bit more detail on what to ‘expect’ when you approach scripture and what you should expect so that your expectations don’t lead you to false conclusions regarding scripture.