Bible Interpretation Is Closer Than You Think – Q&A with Orpheus J. Heyward
*Editor’s Note: The Bible has been subject to some wild misinterpretations. And yet some of the basic tools which would help us interpret the Bible accurately are tools we use every day in other areas of our lives. In order to interpret the Bible accurately, we need to be able to incorporate these commonsense tools into our reading of the Bible. I recently caught up with Dr. Orpheus J. Heyward, a minister, scholar, and teacher of Bible interpretation (hermeneutics) to get his thoughts on ways we can interpret the Bible accurately and faithfully. Other articles in this series deal with the dangers of misinterpretation and the importance of context.
Q: So a lot of people are going to hear the words “Bible interpretation,” and they might get a little nervous. Like, “It can seem hard enough just to read the Bible sometimes. You mean I have to figure out the correct interpretation too?” Can you share some ways we already use tools of interpretation?
Well, we use interpretation with text messages, emails, newspapers—you name it. Plus, we are all already experts in interpretation. I teach people all the time when I teach hermeneutics or expository preaching that understanding the notion of interpretation is not foreign to anyone. Actually, each one of us already knows a couple of things.
One, we understand the importance of context. If you’re going to send me a text message, I had better read it in context so that I don’t take your text message out of context. Text does not have tone, so we already try to make sure that, when we read texts, we read it in context so that we don’t misapply it.
Second, we also already have an understanding of the idea of genre. Take the newspaper. I don’t read the editorials the same way I read the comics. It’s all in the same newspaper, but it’s different genres. So we understand that there are various ways to read different kinds of literature. We don’t read poems the same way we read a novel. We understand we’re reading a different kind of literature. So, we already understand how genre is important to interpret properly.
Third, we already know that if we read an email and there’s a word we don’t understand, we get a dictionary. We look the word up because we want to make sure we understand exactly what is meant when something is stated.
Q: What happens when people come to the Bible? Do they forget what they know about interpretation?
Everybody I know is an expert in interpretation. We only lose that expertise when we don’t want to bring it to reading the Bible. We have this very interesting thing where we want to treat the Bible in a way that is not common to any other literature. While it is a book that is from God and is inspired, it is also, in fact, literature.
So, we need to bring our rules of literature to reading the Bible. When we do, we’ll find that we ascertain its meaning much better. Already, when it comes to life, we understand interpretation quite well.
Q: You used the word genre. What is genre, and what are some of the genres we find in the Bible?
Genre by definition just means a kind of literature. When we ask what the genre is, we are asking what’s the style of writing of this particular document. There are historical narrative, poetry, novels, emails. Knowing the genre helps you know whether it should be read as symbolic or figurative.
When it comes to biblical literature, one of the most major genres in Scripture is historical narrative. Around 60% of the Bible is historical narrative. There is also prophetic literature where the writing is a forthtelling of the wisdom of God or it’s a predictive foretelling of future events. The Bible contains poetic literature and wisdom literature.
The Bible sometimes uses apocalyptic literature, which uses vivid, symbolic language to paint a picture, usually depicting the power and victory of God on behalf of His people. So, when you read the book of Revelation, which is written in apocalyptic genre, you see Jesus having hair like wool, eyes like fire, and feet like bronze. The imagery sounds completely odd to us, but it’s apocalyptic literature. Then, when you look at individual books in the Bible, you also find subgenres such as parables.
So we want to be familiar with the kinds of writing in the Bible so that we can bring the right rules of interpretation to that genre. So that’s the essence of what genre is all about.