This is the fifth of a series of posts on inspiration, inerrancy, and hermeneutics.
The Importance of Determining Genre
Because the Bible is a compilation of literary works, in order to get the sense of it, we must interpret each of them in the manner in which it was intended, viz. according to the appropriate literary category. Surely the principle of interpreting things in the manner in which there were intended approaches tautology, but how many Christians ever really follow it through? As mentioned before, the assumptions that determine the “manner in which it was intended” are too often based on what meets the eye alone. So what do I mean by interpreting the Bible as literature?
You read a novel in much the same way that you read the newspaper, realizing that they are both forms of narrative. How you interpret the narratives in each, however, depends on your recognition of the type of literature you are reading. No one would say that Great Expectations was “errant” or “a pack of lies” unless he thought it was written as history. The same goes for the Bible, which is far from uniform in literary genre. We have farmers, shepherds, doctors, and kings for authors; what thoughtful person, recognizing that God chose this diverse crowd rather than three or four prophets or priests to bear witness to Himself, would conclude that God would homogenize their testimonies into one nameless genre, erasing the distinctiveness of each one in His quest to dole out a series of unanalyzable propositions? Instead, within the pages of Scripture we find a broad range of writing styles that includes poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy, apocalyptic, and epistle.
Moreover, there is not always a one-to-one genre-to-book correlation. Not every segment within the book of Genesis, for example, is to be interpreted as the same sort of narrative, as is somewhat obvious to someone doing comparative literary analysis on the type of stories being told. The Creation part of Genesis shares many characteristics of Ancient Near Eastern mythology, whereas the stories of the Patriarchs remind us of the Icelandic sagas, collections of family stories that give a group of people a common heritage.
The historical-grammatical (or grammatico-historical) method of biblical interpretation is the practice of taking into account the original language and the culture of the original audience when researching the original meanings of Scripture. By and large, though, inerrantists have used this principle as a defensive and reactionary measure to clear up problems rather than as an active interpretive method: for instance, it is responsible for the observation mentioned before that Judah (and later Israel) used accession year dating, because Edwin Thiele looked at Persian (and that of other ANE cultures) record-keeping and saw that this explained a lot of long-supposed errors in the dating of the kings. The historical-grammatical method has been modified by many exegetes to act as a sort of middle-ground that suspends the value of a plain reading if by any means it helps to demonstrate the scientific inerrancy of the Bible. What is missing from that version of the historical-grammatical hermeneutic is the principle we have been discussing that insists upon interpreting the Bible in terms of the literary characteristics, devices, and genres that make it up. We may call this the literary-generic principle; this principle is a tool that cannot be neglected by anyone claiming to use the historical-grammatical method of interpretation and exegesis.
Continue Reading →