Literally a question of interpretation | Jesus’ Creed
Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my way.
As Christians, we take the Bible seriously as the Word of God. It provides the touchstone through which we can discern God’s will and ways. Paul wrote to Timothy:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and of which you are convinced, because you know those from whom you have learned it, and how from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which can make you wise to salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. All scriptures are inspired by God and are useful in teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that God’s servant is fully equipped for any good work.
A strong word that we would do well to take to heart. But it’s not true that all we have to do is read the Bible and everything else will fall into place. If this were true, I seriously doubt that people have found it possible to use it to justify the institution of slavery in America, the Jim Crow laws, anti-Semitism, or the riots in the United States Capitol.
The Bible is written in ancient languages and 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 openness to learning all play an important role.
In The Bible and ancient science Denis Lamoureux sets out a number of principles of interpretation. The first two deal with literalism and gender.
No one considers the Bible to be 100% literal. Figures of speech are common. Lamoureux points to Isaiah 55:12
You will go out in joy
and be led in peace;
mountains and hills
will burst into song in front of you,
and all the trees in the field
will clap their hands.
and Psalm 91: 4
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his loyalty will be your shield and your bulwark
Few of us believe that trees have hands, that mountains can sing, or that “God is some kind of cosmic bird”. (p. 15) Figures of speech can be used to convey the truth – often with much more power than wooden literalism can convey. Jesus used stories to convey the truth quite regularly. Lamoureux sums up:
It is necessary to emphasize that all who read the scriptures must decide whether to read a Bible passage literally. And everyone makes this interpretative choice whether they are aware of it or not. (p.18)
Lamoureux emphasizes science and faith. As such, it focuses on how the natural world is described in the scriptures 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 others less obvious to our modern ears. Lamoureux lists a number of them – “poetry, hymns, proverbs, prophecies, sermons, stories, parables, allegories, genealogies, stories, historical records, personal letters and gospels with eyewitness accounts of real events.“Hyperbole – intentional on 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 used in the scriptures. 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 of Scripture is a key to its interpretation. (p. 22-23)
I would expand on that a bit and expect Lamoureux to agree. Identifying the literary genre is essential. But beyond that, it is important to identify the literary forms that are used in this particular genre and to consider, to the extent possible, how they would be interpreted or understood by the original audience.
The first two commandments of interpretation:
You won’t assume the Bible is 100% literal
You will consider the literary genre and form
So how does this apply to Creation stories in the Bible?
Stay tuned. We will examine Lamoureux’s approach starting with the next article on his book.
If you want to contact me directly, you can do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net
If you would like to comment on this article, you can do so at Reflections on Science and Theology.
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