You all have been so gracious to hang in there with me for this long blog series. Just a few more entries to go, and then we’ll take up some new themes.
Could I interest you in a Himalayan salt block? They’re made from natural salt deposits (from the Himalayas) that can be heated on your grill as you sear your vegetables or your seafood. They can even be used as antimicrobial cutting boards! Mark Bittman calls the salt block “the boldest new idea in cooking since the matchstick.”
Why do I mention this? Because the secret to good cooking is often found in the most basic ingredients.
When you and I take up a Bible passage, we have to determine its specific literary style. This is also known as its genre. Like salt in cooking, genre is foundational. It is usually one of the first matters that we want to settle as we embark on a new text.
In which style of writing were these individual words written? This is vitally important, as Scripture can be poetry, proverbs, history, parables, sermons, letters, apocalyptic literature, and on and on. The determination of a text’s literary genre will determine what rules we employ as we seek to rightly and wisely interpret the passage.
It would be wrong-headed to digest a parable and an epistle in precisely the same way. Each type of literature must be approached according to its distinct genre. For example, we cannot build an exhaustive doctrine of “the afterlife” on the interpretation of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). We do discover in that parable the concept of what might be thought of as different sections of Hades, but that’s the only place in Holy Scripture where we find that kind of description. So we can’t know beyond a doubt that Christ was intending to give us there a precise description of either heaven or hell.
Let me say that another way: Each parable is meant to teach a single point, and we are in danger of getting way off-track if we take all the specific details of a parable too far in our interpretation or application. The central message of the story of the rich man and Lazarus is not hell’s “compartments” – of that fact we can be unmistakably certain.
On the other hand, each point of an epistle is important. Often, unlike a parable, the key to understanding one teaching in an epistle is found in the previous point.
We need to know, then, the various rules of interpretation for each area of literary genre. Otherwise you might not know the difference between kombucha and sriracha. And that could cause some real trouble at your late-summer garden party, even as we continue to delight in these days when the sun shines bright on our old Kentucky home.