How to Approach Reading the Bible: The 7 Types of Bible Literature
This article is the second in a series on how to approach reading the Bible. You can read the first article, “How to Approach Reading the Bible: 66 Books, 1 Focus” here.
A few years ago, our lead pastor preached a sermon that got him labeled a heretic, a false teacher, a deceiver, and everything in between. The uproar over this sermon took many of us by surprise. We were used to him addressing issues that some tend to shy away from, so the idea of overturning the apple cart wasn’t really anything new for us. But judging from the reaction to this sermon and subsequent article, you would have thought he had denied the deity of Christ. What was all the uproar about? The Rapture. It was a sermon that will live in infamy.
One thing that came to the surface through the ensuing conversations was the fact that many Christians have never been taught how to read the Bible. Many never learned to read the context of the surrounding text, much less understand the genre in which the passage is located. When it comes to end times passages, these types of errors abound. Everything ever written, whether the Bible or anything else, is written within a particular genre. That genre determines much of the way we interpret and apply the writing.
I once heard an illustration from Dr. Michael J. Kruger that went something like this: we’ve all read something online that looked like a news article or informational piece only to get halfway through it and realize that it’s actually an advertisement. Once we realize that it’s an advertisement, what do we instinctively do? We change the way we read it. Even if all the information in the ad is factually correct, we still read it differently. Why do we do this? Because we understand that advertising is a different type of writing and that it has a different goal in mind, namely, to sell you something. Every single one of us does this every time we read something.
The same is true for the way we read the Bible. The Bible is one book composed of different revelations of God throughout history and they are not all interpreted and applied the same way. You would not want to pick up the book of Psalms to develop a formal doctrine of natural science. We should not read Psalm 19:1-2, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” and conclude that if we go outside we might hear the sky uttering audible words. This seems obvious to us, but why? Because this is clearly poetry. That’s not to say that poetry can’t tell us true things about the natural world – it certainly does. The Psalms are still the inspired Word of God. We just want to make sure that we are not asking them to do something that they are not intended to do.
Many of the common errors in the way the Bible is understood and applied can be corrected by simply seeking to understand what the particular passage means in its context and genre. Another example that illustrates this is Revelation 13. Revelation is what we call apocalyptic literature. It is a genre of literature that is filled with graphic imagery to communicate a point. However, the point being communicated about the beast in Revelation 13 is not that we should expect a monster with seven heads and ten horns, but that what this image represents is terrifying and powerful and that the heads and horns are representative of something specific about him.
So how do we approach the Bible with these different types of literature in mind? First, we need to know how to identify the type of literature that we’re reading. Scholars have named and divided the genres of the Bible in various ways, but a basic list is below:
- Historical Narrative
- Law Codes
- Wisdom Literature
- Poetry and Song
- Biography and Gospels
A good study Bible will typically give you the genre in the introduction to each book of the Bible. There are also subgenres within each genre. For instance, the Gospels read like Historical Narrative and Biography, but that doesn’t mean that the parables of Jesus are to be over-literalized. A parable, by definition, is figurative and metaphorical. So, you might read some of the Gospel of Matthew historically, understanding that it is describing real people and real events in real history, while reading other portions of Matthew understanding that parables are meant to illustrate a spiritual truth to us.
Once you know the genre of the passage you are reading, simply begin to ask questions of the text. For instance, going back to Psalm 19:1-2, one might ask:
- What idea or truth is the Psalmist communicating here?
- How is it being communicated (e.g., poetry, history, prophecy)?
- What do the verses around it say?
- What would the original audience have understood this passage to say?
- What would God have me understand from this passage?
In doing this, you might come away with the idea that the Psalmist is communicating the extensiveness of God’s self-revelation in creation - that God testifies to Himself in the beauty of the skies and that no one can escape this revelation. You might apply this in your own personal worship or in your conversations with unbelievers. And you would be right!
Reading, understanding, interpreting, and applying the Bible is not nearly as complicated as some may think. By learning and using a few simple rules, like reading in context and with the respective genre in mind, we can open up more of God’s word to us than ever before!
Nick Judd is the Kids Pastor at The Journey Church in Lebanon, TN. He is also the co-host of the "Everyday Apologetics" podcast. Nick is passionate about growing people in their knowledge of the Word of God and in their ability to defend it in the midst of a culture fighting against truth.
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