The Status of Biblical Language Literal Metaphorical Poetic or Accommodated

The Bible frequently makes statements of the form "A is B." Debate has often arisen over whether the deceptively simple word "is" means "is literally identical with" or something rather more nuanced, such as "is like" or "points to." We have already seen how precisely this kind of debate fractured both the personal relationship between Luther and Zwingli and that between the German and Swiss Reformations. That debate was over this statement made by Jesus of Nazareth at the Last Supper: "This is my body" (Matthew 26:26). For Luther, this statement was literally true; for Zwingli, Jesus was using a figure of speech meaning "this represents my body."

Protestant fundamentalism is often portrayed as interpreting the Bible literally at every point. It requires only a modest familiarity with the writings and sermons of fundamentalists to realize how inaccurate this characterization is. Fundamentalists undoubtedly regard as literally true certain texts that other Protestants might interpret symbolically or allegorically—for example, the visions of the Book of Revelation. Yet fundamentalists interpret other texts spiritually—such as the prophecies of the liberation of the poor and oppressed (Isaiah 61), which they generally take to mean "spiritually impoverished and oppressed." Untidy though it may seem, all Protestants agree that some texts are to be interpreted literally and others metaphorically. The problem is that there is no universal agreement on which texts should be allocated to each category.

John Calvin introduced another category that proved to be influential at this point. Noting that classical orators adapted or accommodated their language and imagery to their intended audience, Calvin argued that God adapts or accommodates revelation to the abilities of those toward whom it is directed.40 God might use strongly realist imagery—such as the "arm of the Lord"—to enable effective communication to its recipients. Biblical statements that at first sight appear to be literally true might therefore be "accommodated" and might need to be interpreted in this light. This issue would become of major importance in the Protestant reaction to the Copernican model of the solar system, which we shall consider later.

A related issue concerns the literary genre in which a given text is located. For example, the Psalms declare that "the mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs" (Psalm 114:4) in response to the great saving acts of God. Is that to be taken as literally true? Most Protestants have argued that it should not. It is a poetic statement, pointing to the exultation of all of nature at the redemptive action of the creator.

While this point might seem straightforward in theory, it is rather more problematic in practice. Who decides what literary genre a given section of the Bible belongs to? Protestants often find themselves in disagreement over how to categorize a section of the Bible. For example, is Genesis 1 to be understood as history, myth, or poetry? Each position has found its advocates within the Protestant tradition, with important implications for how the passage is interpreted, especially in relation to the Darwinian theory of evolution—a point of no small importance to which we shall return in a later chapter.

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