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Bible Literalism and various Literary Genres

Posted: February 14, 2009 - 21:36 CT

As the number of readers on our website grows, we're getting some folks linking to our articles and others using them in discussions of various topics.  We would like to thank all those who choose to utilize our material and encourage others to do so.  We only ask that you link back to any material that you use.  If you print stuff out to use for a class, please email us and let us know how the class went. 

We received an email from a reader, Tim in San Antonio, who alerted us to someone who posted some material from our Bible Genre Analysis section to a forum discussing whether Adam and Eve were real persons or fictional characters.  A person had posted his or her opinion that they were fictional, based upon the belief that the entire Bible was merely a series of metaphors.  Another person then quoted our material, stating that the Bible's inclusion of so many literary types apparently supported the first person's erroneous theory about the Bible containing all metaphors. 

Unfortunately, the person quoting our material misunderstood the Bible author's use of the various literary types in two basic ways.  First, the use of so many genres by the authors was necessary to more fully describe God's revelation to us.  This is not to say that God is fully described in Scripture, but excluding the various genres would have strictly limited God's revelation.  It took the full range of all literary types to maximize our understanding.  So the use of various genres points to the divine authorship, authority and inerrancy of the Bible, rather than to the view that it is only metaphors.

Second, the poster misunderstood the meaning of Bible Literalism as handed down by the Reformers.  This view held that the "literal" sense of Scripture (sometimes called the “realistic sense”) was the sense that was intended by the original authors, according to the rules for the type of literary forms used by the author.  That is, the literal meaning of a passage is what the author intended it to mean, and if this meaning included hyperbole, allegories or metaphors, so be it.  For example, in John 10:9, Jesus says "I am the gate" (or door).  We obviously would not interpret this to mean that Jesus is literally a gate complete with handle and hinges, but that metaphorically, He is the gateway to salvation.  Likewise, interpreting a passage as a literal statement when the author wrote it as hyperbole would actually violate the intent of the “intended literal sense" of Scripture, since the reader did not interpret it using the rules of the proper literary form intended by the author.

See the Bible Literalism chapter in our “Bible Genre Analysis” section for a continuing and expanded discussion of Literalism as it relates to interpretation of Scripture.

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