Note: The November 2008 article titled, “Why Christians Should Avoid Great Books Like the Plague,” spurred a number of responses from readers who failed to recognize the satirical nature of the piece. As a result, we received numerous emails and comments from people who not only missed the point but also got it completely backwards. This reminded me of an all-too-common situation when it comes to reading the Bible: the failure to recognize the specific genre of the Biblical text leads to missing the point of the passage. The following article, written by New Testament scholar and professor, Walt Russell, provides a clear explanation of the first step to correct biblical interpretation: understanding the genre.
“INDIANS SLAY TIGERS!” — the newspaper headline virtually screams out at you. The thought of something being slain is repulsive. You’re gripped by a mental image of southern India’s Bengal tiger. You imagine its beautiful face, its stripes and piercing eyes. Then your image is shattered by the sudden blast of a high-powered rifle. You see the exquisite creature writhe in pain, fall gracelessly in its tracks and die. Having read no further than the headline, you feel sick, as if you’ve witnessed something tragic.
But should you feel this way? The slaughter of an endangered species — especially one as magnificent as the Bengal tiger — is horrifying, no doubt. But suppose you failed to notice that the headline “INDIANS SLAY TIGERS!” appeared in the sports page of the morning paper. Clearly enough, it now refers to different Indians, different Tigers and a different manner of slaying than you originally thought. And is it really that tragic that the Cleveland Indians badly beat the Detroit Tigers in a major league baseball game last night? Not unless you’re a long-suffering Detroit Tigers’ baseball fan. But how do you now know that the headline is about baseball and not tiger-slaying in India? You look at the words “INDIANS SLAY TIGERS” and you know exactly what each word means. When you combine these words, how can they not mean exactly what you first thought they did — that Indians slay tigers? Answer: because their meanings are communicated (as the meanings of all words are) through genres!
Whether we recognize that we are doing so or not, we interpret all things in life, from casual conversations to scholarly articles, in terms of their perceived genres or types of communication. When we develop an ability to discern cues within a text that indicate what kind of literature we’re working with and what to expect (or not to expect) from it, we have achieved what some call “literary competence.” We develop literary competence by growing up in a culture and learning its various genres — its various styles of communication. If we have literary competence, after reading “INDIANS SLAY TIGERS!” in the sports page, we would never picture tigers in India because we would instantly know that correct interpretation within this genre requires assuming that “TIGERS” and “INDIANS” refer to teams rather than people from India and large stripped cats. Our interpretation of any section in the newspaper begins instantaneously when we recognize the genre and adjust our expectations accordingly. The beauty of genres is that they are public, sharable forms of communication that immediately enable the understanding of meaning. Genres are one of God’s enduring gifts of common grace that help us communicate to one another with accurate understanding.
The words of the Bible are God-breathed, by the Holy Spirit, into the human-crafted genres exhibited in the Bible. We find every God-breathed word of Scripture within a genre. Because genres set limits on our possible interpretations of words, if God had not placed the words of Scripture within genres, we wouldn’t understand one word of the Bible. So God has spoken to us “in many portions and many ways” (Hebrews 1:1) through particular biblical genres such as historical narrative, law, poetry, wisdom literature, apocalyptic literature, prophecy, gospels, letters, parables, and on and on. If our literary competence with the Bible approaches the literary competence we have with the morning newspaper, we should be able to jump into any part of the Scriptures and interpret its words accurately. But sadly, much of our Bible-reading parallels our weeping for Bengal tigers after reading a headline in the sports section of the newspaper!
In front of a large adult fellowship in an evangelical church, I recently spoke on the topic of being genre-sensitive in reading the Bible. To illustrate, I turned to Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” I asked, “Can we claim this as a promise for parents?” Not wanting to appear a fool, no one ventured an answer. Most assumed that we could claim it as a promise and had, in fact, done so many times! To provoke them a bit further, I shared a proverb from American history — early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. “Anyone want to claim that as a promise?” I asked, rhetorically. “No. Why not? . . . Because it’s a proverb,” I said, answering my own question. “Then why do you think that you can change a biblical proverb into a promise?” I anticipated the answer that eventually emerged from the fog: “Because this proverb about child-raising is in the Bible!” I deadpanned, “So what?” Their response: “God can supernaturally do whatever He wants in the Bible.”
True, God can do whatever He wants, in the Bible and elsewhere. If He wants, God can tell us how to make lasagna through the gospel of John, tell us that Christ died for our sins through a cookbook and, of course, promise the salvation of our kids through Proverbs 22:6. But how is this relevant? If their answer is correct and we can change God’s proverbs into promises, then we really have no idea what God is saying in Proverbs, do we? If Proverbs 22:6 isn’t a proverb (or is a proverb, but doesn’t need to be interpreted as a proverb), then we don’t know what it is or how to interpret it. Having no limit for its possible interpretation, it can morph into whatever we want it to be. It really has no genre except what we choose to give it, based on our present needs. One person can make it a promise, another can make it a riddle, and the cynical, burnt out parent can make it an ironic joke. Without genre, it’s vague and meaningless, and we really don’t know what God intended to say. What it does provide, however, is an occasion for us to craft God’s words into whatever words we want to hear!
Hopefully, those of you familiar with such methods of interpretation get the idea of how foolish and dangerous much of our Bible reading has become. It is another example of the tragic shift in interpretive focus from seeking authors’ intentions to unpacking readers’ presuppositions.
When we ignore genres in the interpretive process, we are ignoring one of the most important aids to understanding. Why? Because genres are one of those community things that authors and readers must share if they want to communicate clearly and efficiently with one another. When I ignore the chosen genre of a biblical passage, I effectively individualize and privatize the interpretive process and jerk the Bible out of everybody else’s hands. Whether I’m teaching the passage or reading it, I have taken it out of the public arena where we can share and discuss its meaning.
The personal cost of ignoring biblical genres may also be great. I can still picture a distinguished, older gentleman I conversed with two decades ago. We were studying Proverbs that Saturday and I had just claimed that proverbs are not promises but instances of wisdom literature that emphasize wise choices. I used the example of Proverbs 22:6 and the earnest but erroneous claiming of that proverb by parents as a promise in child-rearing. The dear fellow literally stood up from his chair, red-faced and flustered. He and his wife had two boys who appeared to trust Christ as children but wandered from the faith as teenagers and had not returned as adults. As faithful parents, he and his wife had gotten on their knees and prayed for their wayward sons several times each week, claiming the “promise” of their return in Proverbs 22:6 for over 20 years! In the midst of their parental pain over the eternal well being of their sons, they took comfort in the “promise” of Proverbs 22:6. Imagine the disillusionment in God and His “promises” that would inevitably accompany their years of false hope if their sons never returned to the Lord. What’s worse, the pain and disillusionment were due to some well-intentioned but genre-ignoring saint who made a proverb into a promise — somewhere in the process of interpreting Proverbs 22:6, God’s words became his words and God’s intended meaning was distorted.
Such, however, does not have to be the case if we will brake for the genres of the Bible. As the diversity of biblical literature testifies, God seems to.
Dr. Russell’s areas of expertise are exegesis, hermeneutics, and New Testament theology, especially as they relate to world evangelism and the spiritual growth of the church. He has an extensive background in collegiate ministries, university teaching, and the pastorate, having planted two churches. He authored The Flesh/Spirit Conflict in Galatians and Playing with Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul. Dr. Russell has contributed articles to Bibliotheca Sacra, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Grace Theological Journal, Westminster Theological Journal, Trinity Journal, and Christianity Today.