An article published in the magazine of St. Columba's Church of Scotland (London, UK) addressing the very important topic of genre within the Bible, and how responsible study of the Bible must include reflection on the literary elements of how messages are being communicated in Scripture. Please note that a sermon is also available on this topic (with the same title, give it a listen!). Click "Read More"!
All Christians understand The Bible as being the Word of God. What that means to various denominational traditions differs, but The Bible nonetheless plays a central and foundational role in understanding Jesus Christ, the church, and God’s relationship with humankind.
As Protestants, our tradition can be traced back to the Reformation call to sola scriptura, meaning “by Scripture alone”. The Reformers held the Bible up as the exclusive, complete, and infallible Word of God and, as such, sought to restructure Christianity in a way that stripped it of anything which was felt to be irreconcilable to the Biblical texts. In other words, if it wasn’t supported by Scripture than it ought not be done or believed because it runs contrary to God’s Word.
While this was a helpful correction insofar as it re-focused the church on the Biblical witness, it had a harmful element to it: it motivated people to read The Bible literally and one-dimensionally as this was sensed to be the surest way to understand it properly. There was little scope for interpretation or questioning; the Scriptures said what the Scriptures said and that was the end of the debate.
This tradition has persisted to this day. Many Christians continue to read The Bible literally as if the entire thing is a consolidated historical recording. Others read the Bible as if it were a single record, but a record prepared by ancient peoples and, as a result, they outright reject certain portions of it as being outdated.
Neither of these approaches to thinking Biblically are helpful or correct, though.
To understand The Bible we need to first understand what The Bible is and what The Bible isn’t.
It is important to remember that The Bible is not a single source. It is not one book with many chapters. Rather, it is a collection of books – a library of sorts.
Imagine that I gave you three books: a collection of poetry, a work of history, and a novel. Would you read these three books in the same way? Would you extract meaning from them in the same way? Would you take them all to be literal?
Of course not. You understand intrinsically that genre matters. Different literary genres are to be treated and read differently because they convey information and truth in different ways. There is certainly truth in the plays of Shakespeare and the poems of Tennyson, but you wouldn’t extract that truth in the same way as you would if you were reading a work of history or science.
Because the Bible is an anthology comprised of different works, by different people, written at different time and under different circumstances, it is important to remember that the library which is our Bible is populated by works representing many genres.
In addition, many books incorporate more than one genre.
The book of Psalms, for example, is exclusively a book of songs and poems. In fact, poetry comprises a significant share of the Old Testament canon. Like today’s poetry, words were often chosen because they rhyme or create melodies, not because they were meant to be read as a literal, legalistic, document.
Or consider the book of Revelation, one of the most disturbing and challenging books of The Bible. We often debate how this should be understood, but one of the keys to its interpretation lies in the fact that it is an Apocalypse. Today we correspond that word to end of the world, but in fact it is just a name for a literary genre which the ancient world was quite familiar with. There are a number of works in this genre available if we choose to read them.
Another important genre is that of the epic: a style of writing which emphasizes themes of power, heroics, nationalism, bravery, and authority; often by way of utilizing poetry, allegory, and thematic illusions. We see such a style at play in books such as Genesis, Exodus, 1 & 2 Kings, and even in some New Testament texts such as Acts.
Legal writing is prominent, too, in books like Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Like reading law codes today, law only makes sense when we understand its context, intention, application, scope and purpose. It is important to keep such considerations in mind when reading our Bibles.
Much of the New Testament is characterized by epistles (letters). Today, when you send an email to someone you do so for a particular purpose and you use language which is suitable for that purpose and context. The letters found within The Bible are no different. Often, it is like reading someone else’s mail: we are reading letters to particular people about particular matters and with particular scopes. Without the context of the letters in mind, the content makes little sense.
This is far from a complete analysis of genre in The Bible. However, my point is this: if we hope to discern God’s Word in scripture, we must be willing to consider the means and method through which God is speaking. Reflecting, therefore, on the abundance of various genres found within our Scriptures is a worthy – and essential – component of reading those Scriptures faithfully.