“Dear Father, In a recent discussion in our Bible study group about the interpretation of the scriptures, someone mentioned that we have to take into account the different literary forms that are used. I hadn’t heard of them. What are they?
In order to interpret the biblical texts correctly it is important to know what particular literary form, or genre, each text has. A literary form is a type of writing used in a particular age or region and regulated by customary norms in order to express one’s ideas. Among these forms are the historical, juridical, prophetic, poetic, sapiential, evangelical, epistolary and apocalyptic.
An important official teaching on the matter comes from the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum: “To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to ‘literary forms’. For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse.
The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture.
For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another” (DV 12; cf. Pius XII, Enc. Divino afflante Spiritu).
In order to interpret the biblical texts correctly it is important to know what particular literary form, or genre, each text has.
Recognition of these different types of literature goes back to the early centuries, where the Fathers and Doctors of the Church mentioned and classified them. St Thomas Aquinas, for example, teaches that in the Bible “multiple forms or modes are found” (In Psalmos, proem.).
He distinguishes the narrative form used in the historical books; the deprecative, exhortative and preceptive forms in the Pentateuch, prophets and wisdom books; the disputative form in the book of Job and the letters of St Paul; the laudative or deprecative form in the psalms, etc. He also mentions parables, metaphors and allegories, which he usually groups under the heading of metaphors (cf. STh I, q. 1, a. 10, ad 3).
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, scripture scholars were moved to develop further the concept of literary forms in order to defend the truthfulness of Scripture. Among those scholars were Marie-Joseph Lagrange, F. Prat, A. Poels and F. von Hummelauer, who made a systematic exposition of the literary forms.
In his encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu in 1943, Pope Pius XII accepted and recommended the study of literary forms, and the Second Vatican Council’s document Dei verbum made reference to that encyclical.
The Church over the years has given us principles for the correct use and understanding of literary forms. First, in Sacred Scripture there is room for any literary form as long as it is not repugnant to the truthfulness and holiness of God. For example, the form of legend, understood as a deformed or mythical account of a supposed historical event, cannot be found in the Bible.
Second, God made use of our human ways of writing and speaking in communicating his revelation, and we should understand the biblical texts in this light.
Third, the truth is not identical in the different literary forms, but rather conforms to the proper nature of each form. For example, the truth in an historical narrative is not the same as in a parable, where truth lies not in the facts narrated but in the message conveyed by the parable. Similarly, the truth in the primitive form of history used in the book of Genesis is different from that in the Gospels, in relating the life of Christ.
Fourth, which literary form is used in each text must be established only after careful study, based on solid scientific foundations.
In all of this, biblical fundamentalism, in which each text is to be interpreted literally regardless of the literary form employed, is, of course, unacceptable. The Pontifical Biblical Commission’s document The interpretation of the Bible in the Church, 1 F (1993) is very clear on this.
- Q&A with Fr John Flader: The interpretation of Scripture
- Fr John Flader Q&A: The truthfulness of scripture