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The Rules of the Road

Resident Faculty, Dennis E. Johnson   |   January 31, 1999   |  Type: Articles

Tricky title, you say. Don't I mean, "What does the Bible mean?" I thought the same about a college textbook, John Ciardi's How Does a Poem Mean? Leave it to a poet to tweak a straightforward question into something odd and provocative. That was Ciardi's purpose, of course, to provoke us to consider how poetry says what it has to say.

Students of Scripture may want to go straight to the bottom line, "What does this passage mean?" without wasting time on "How does it mean?" But you can't get to the "what" without the "how." Suppose, for example, that we misconstrue Jesus' story of the rebellious farm workers (Mark 12:1-12) as simple, straightforward history. We will be mystified that Jesus wants us to know about acts of violence in a vineyard: Does he report this event to sensitize us to class struggle? Or suppose we take the story as allegory, expecting one-to-one correspondence between the story's characters and actions, on the one hand, and the realities they symbolize, on the other. Then, when the vineyard owner (who obviously stands for God) says, "They will respect my son" (vs. 6), we will conclude that God is in for a shock, when Israel's leaders do away with Jesus his Son. But if we recognize that this story is a parable, a fictional narrative that may have one or several points of comparison with the reality it symbolizes, we are learning to listen to it as Jesus' first audience did: "They knew He had spoken the parable against them" (vs. 12). A lot depends on what kind of literature (genre) we are dealing with, and on recognizing how that genre means.

Starting Point, Destination, and the Road Between

Picture each biblical text as a road, designed to take its readers from their present situation toward a fuller experience of God's grace: more confidence in the Gospel, more conformity to Christ in motive and action, more wisdom, love, joy, unity. The road starts with a problem, question, need, defect, trial, error, or sin in the experience of the original audience. It leads to a destination, the goal to which he is leading his people through this text. The text is the road itself, leading from where the recipients are to where they need to be.

As we travel the route alongside the book's original recipients, and then see how our need parallels theirs, how God's goal for their growth would be reflected in ours, and how the text itself takes us from our need to God's goal, we are learning what the passage means. So let's examine these factors one by one:

Starting Point: Life Setting and Occasion

What need evoked this portion of God's word? Who were the people to whom God first sent this message, and why did they need to hear it? This is the life setting of the first audience and the occasion for writing: Were they confused over eating meat consecrated in a pagan temple (1 Cor. 8-10)? almost persuaded that they needed circumcision to be first-class Christians (Galatians)? newly freed slaves needing to learn to live in covenant with God (Exodus)? perplexed by suffering (Job)? mired in selfish materialism (Malachi)?

Destination: Purpose

What would the first readers become by taking this text to heart? This is the purpose for which the text was given, the goal that God intends it to achieve in hearts and lives by the life-giving grace of his Holy Spirit. Do they need to repent? to be comforted? to humble themselves? to have doubts put to rest? to grow in discernment, rejecting error and embracing the truth and thus knowing God better and loving him more? to see the connection between the truth they confess and the lives they are living? to replace selfish rivalry with loving servanthood? to endure persecution courageously? to be moved to praise the God who is worthy of all worship?

The Road Between: Genre

"How to say best what's to be said?" Every author asks this. C. S. Lewis explained the genesis of the Narnia chronicles in an essay entitled "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's to Be Said." The stories began, he insisted, not with a premeditated plan to disguise Christian doctrine in children's allegories, but with images: a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. As he mulled over the pictures, he saw an opportunity to recast biblical truth in an unexpected form that could slip past the "watchful dragons" of religious tradition and pious sentiment, enabling readers to experience Gospel truth afresh and full force. He chose the fairy story genre in light of his readers' religious background and the goal he wanted them to reach.

Our all-wise God always knows how to say best what's to be said, and in his infinite variety he has spoken to his people in many different genres, varying his approach according to their background, circumstances and attitude, and depending on what he intends to do for and in us through each part of his Word. Among the genres of biblical literature are historical narrative, parable, proverb, psalm, law, prophetic oracle, apocalyptic vision, sermon, and epistle. To paraphrase Lewis: "Sometimes parables may say best what's to be said. . . and sometimes psalms do, and sometimes history, and sometimes visions." Working through human authors, the Spirit selects, from the treasury of forms familiar to his audience, the right tool for each task.

Since God gave the Bible long ago to people familiar with different genres than we meet every day, we need to get acquainted with the Bible's different genres in order to grasp how it means, and therefore what it means. Every passage has characteristics that make it more like some texts than others. Shared characteristics define a genre, the "family" of related texts that use language the same way (more or less metaphor, rhythm, etc.). Inasmuch as different genres use language in different ways, they lead us to expect different "ways" of meaning, discovered through different strategies of interpretation.

Some of Scripture's Genres

Historical narratives and parables are both stories. Stories grab our attention because they are about people and contain action, starting with a problem and moving through complications to a climax, then resolution. Through historical narratives (Genesis, Samuel, Gospels, Acts, etc.) God declares his acts in real history to set people free from sin's slavery and death, to bring them into his covenant, and to judge his enemies. Biblical history focuses our hopes finally on the redemption Jesus achieved "when the fullness of the time had come" (Galatians 4:4). And biblical history is not just a record of facts and dates; it is a recital of God's deeds that calls us to trust and obey the God who saves in time and space.

Parables such as the one in Mark 12 are God's "end runs" around our defenses, camouflaging his demand in fictional form in order to ambush us from behind (2 Samuel 12:1-10). The key to the parable is the unexpected element that shows us to be guiltier than we had guessed, or grace to be greater than we had dreamed it could be.

Proverbs, like parables, are provocative, pushing us to ponder what's behind surface experience and to penetrate life's puzzles. Their very brevity teases our brains and provokes us to admit that "common sense" often isn't—isn’t common, that is.

Psalms are songs of the heart and mind in all circumstances, from the highs to the lows, and for all purposes: to raise lament in trouble, thanksgiving in rescue, praise in worship, training in wisdom, and more. As poetry they are marked by compact, intense expression and vivid symbolism. The Psalter as a whole moves from sorrow and suffering to joy and praise, providing a window on the experience of Christ for us and his Spirit's transforming grace in us.

Law reminds us that our God is the King of Righteousness, who rescues his people from slavery to other masters in order to bring us under his authority and protection. "Be holy, for I am holy," says the Lord in the wide range of his commands. His standards expose our guilt, making us flee to Jesus the Curse-bearer. His promises to those who obey turn our trust to Jesus the Law-keeper, who gives us his perfect record by grace alone, through faith alone. Viewed through the lens of Jesus' perfect accomplishment of redemption, the commands unveil the Spirit's design for renovating us into God's image, from the inside out.

Prophetic oracles are bad news and good news. Like prosecuting attorneys, the prophets file charges against the guilty, both Israel and the nations, presenting the incriminating evidence of our law-breaking, and announcing the coming sentence. Yet prophets also carry words of hope: when people have failed and all seems lost, God will come to rescue, through a new creation, a new exodus, a new conquest, a new David, a new temple. Through bad news and good, prophets whet appetites for Jesus.

Apocalyptic vision provides x-rays of spiritual forces invisible to the naked eye, using dramatic action in vivid symbol to paint the eternal dimensions of the struggle between Christ and Satan, faith and idolatry. The visions of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation speak a distinctive language, on the border between poetry and prose, rich in visual metaphor and allusion to previous Scripture. Those who seek to get their message must immerse themselves in the language of prophetic symbol.

Sermons (Deuteronomy, the prophets, Acts, and Hebrews) announce God's saving deeds as a basis for urgent calls to repentance and warm promises of mercy. Sermons persuade and motivate through appeals to history, to previous Scripture, to the demonstration of God's truth in creation and miraculous signs, and in other ways.

Epistles are interactive, preserving half of a conversation in correspondence. Some letters answer a single problem in depth (e.g., Galatians on getting right with God), while others address a host of issues on which God's guidance is needed (1 Corinthians). Some are heavy on doctrine and lighter on application, while others shift the balance the other way. But none omits gospel truth, and none ignores the difference it makes. Paul's letters, in fact, are often structured to move from a exploration of Christ's free grace to the changes this grace ignites in relationships, ethics, and communities.

From “How” to “What”

When we pay attention to a passage’s original occasion, genre, and purpose, we show respect for the fact that God chose to speak his Word in history and in human language, in a rich complex of contexts: the first recipients’ cultural background, their place in redemptive history (Old Testament promise or New Testament fulfillment), their spiritual experience and challenges, and the figures of speech and genres of literature they used. The better we understand these contexts, the better we grasp what God is saying and what he intends to do in us through each passage. As the Second Helvetic (Swiss) Confession of 1566 put it, to interpret Scripture “from the Scriptures themselves” is to glean its meaning “from the language in which they were written, likewise according to the circumstances in which they were set down,” comparing this text with “many and clearer passages” and keeping in view the goals of “faith and love” and “the glory of God and man’s salvation.”

Published in slightly edited form in Tabletalk, vol. 23, no. 2 (February 1999):8-10, 56.

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