The Literary-Generic Principle

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.

Underlying this principle is an acknowledgment that there is a more of a human element in the Bible than evangelicals are accustomed to seeing. For example, the genealogies in cultures contemporaneous and contiguous to the one(s) that wrote the Bible served as a way of affirming an individual’s importance, prestige, and right to authority based upon the significance of his ancestors. Often, there is an accurate remembrance of ancestry to a certain point, but beyond that, they had to consult whatever (often legendary or merely inaccurate) records were available. Now, since God was demonstrably under no constraint to override the limitations of men’s knowledge, being content to let His message shine through the earthen vessels, why should we expect that the genealogies would need to be completely accurate records of the chronology of long-forgotten dead men? Expectations such as that push the genre beyond its range of applicability, overstating and yet somehow missing the point that Jesus was a descendant of David and hence eligible for the role of Messiah.

As I said above, a literary analysis of Genesis shows that it contains mythological and saga-like features. Because neither myth nor saga is meant to give an empirically historical reckoning of the facts, you can’t very well blame them when they don’t. Mythology attempts to give the meaning of a situation (such as the creation of the world) even when the historical particulars are unknown; because Genesis is inspired, we know that it accomplishes this, better than the mythologies of other cultures. Students of genre should be able to understand the methodology of looking at features in the phraseology and other literary (originally oral) motifs with little trouble. The Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) mythology contemporary and antecedent to the material in Genesis 1-11 shows many striking parallels to what we see in early Genesis; this sort of analysis makes it difficult to believe that all narratives in the OT were intended as strictly scientific, historical narrative. Sagas are almost always based on historical occurrences and often are made up of true historical events, but the telling of them is often embellished and made for good campfire fare. These give evidence of having been composed from oral tradition, such as a patriarch’s wife being passed off as a sister in a foreign land not once or twice but three times – and with two different patriarchs! The story was floating around among the people in a few different versions, and Moses (or whoever) put them all in for good measure. This showcases the fact that at the time, the point of the stories was not history, but cultural remembrance and significance. God took these stories about and by His people and consecrated them to His purpose, inspiring these clay creations with the breath of life as He did Adam, imbuing them with power and ensuring that they are “profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness”, but not for “history” or science. God chose the stories, and so it is reasonable to talk of God’s indirect authorship.

Again, we must remember that the ideal of unbiased, objective, empirical historiography was only in its infancy at the time of Christ, and not fully formulated and utilized until the Renaissance; this way of recording history was not a concern in the ANE until after Hellenistic influence. It is safe to say there is absolutely none of our type of historical account in the OT, although Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah seem to come closest. Please note: that is not to say that most of the events recorded in the OT were not actual historical events. There is certainly little reason to doubt that the events recorded in the so-called “historical books” of the OT as well as in most of the prophetic books ended up being accurate historically, but not because the writers had the same ideals that originated in Greece centuries later and were not even developed there for centuries more. Ancient peoples simply did not see the need for writing mechanically objective, dispassionate, empirical history as we think of it. For instance, the writers of Chronicles and Kings apparently saw no problem with approximating or estimating numerical figures, or creating figures that gave an accurate impression (“maybe not quite 50,000 but it might as well have been”), much like our “rounding off” taken liberally. It was culturally the norm and good form, and not perceived as “lying” by any means.

Another characteristic of the early versions of historiography in the OT is the fact that there is no attempt at hiding – in some cases they blatantly divulged – the author’s intentions for writing, what modernists refer to derisively as “bias”. Theirs did not purport to be the modern historian’s “just the facts, ma’am” motivation. Rather, their intent for writing can often be seen in such recurring phrases as, “…but –iah did not follow in the steps of David his father…”, “…and –iah did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” So also the book of Judges is not strictly history, but is the author’s attempt to convey the consequences of the Israelites doing what was right in their own eyes, compiling cultural remembrances from their past. The unevenness of the accounts in Kings, in which detailed moments from some kings’ reigns are brought out while leaving the accounts of some kings virtually untouched, are part of the work’s sculpture that in most scholarly circles today would be attacked as “propaganda”. But this was what people at that time wanted, not mere encyclopedic coverage devoid of any foreseeable application! They wanted stories that gave them meaning, not history for history’s sake. There is definitely something to be said for that sort of worldview; if we had to sacrifice one, would we choose structure without function,[1] heartbeat without consciousness, or vice versa?[2]The ancients were not aware of the Baconian ideal, nor is this a defect in what they wrote: the history of Israel in the OT is a religious history, a Heilsgeschichte, not a product of modern scientific historiography.

The New Testament’s genres include the epistle and apocalypse. In regard to the Gospels, I want to make it clear that my emphasis on the fact that wording variations in the Gospels show that they do not reflect reality down to the jot and tittle was not intended to problematize the Gospels as largely historical. Rather, I want to emphasize the opposite: it is easy to get something like genealogies wrong, or to present variants in the exact wording of a parable being translated, or to have inaccurate notions of the human anatomy that leak into their presentations of the events they are testifying to. But that is about the extent of it: Jesus actually said the parables recorded in the Gospels, regardless of the fact that the wording slightly varies from account to account. Due to the spread of Hellenism throughout the Roman Empire by the time of the New Testament, historiographic techniques were being seen as the only truthful way of presenting facts, and so one must have very good reasons to doubt the historicity of the actions and people acting in the New Testament, even when the genre that records those events and people is not strictly historiography. It is not up for discussion that Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, was buried, and rose again in three days, since those were contemporaneous events and were thus subject to contemporary historiographic values in their recounting. One must have good reasons for discounting historicity.

Once again, in mentioning historiographic values, I am not trying to assert that the Gospels were, strictly speaking, historiography. The Gospels are often considered to comprise their own genre, because it has been hard to find extra-biblical analogues that match them and account for the characteristics the Gospels share. There is much diversity in the styles of the Gospels, however, and it is likely that they have either lost their extra-biblical analogues or that they are simply unique creations of their authors.[3] At the very least we can say that, because the writers of the NT were Christians and were interested in evangelism, they did not seek to give a cold presentation of facts; in fact, this approach would have altogether circumvented their motivations for writing. So although Luke, for example, tried his best to get the facts together from various sources, he was still writing for a purpose other than a simple chronicle of Christianity: he was writing to convince Theophilus, and hence brought out certain aspects of history and let others go. But we can say that the Gospel writers as members of a Hellenistic world were trying to present the events as historically accurately as possible, because that type of historiography had (Providentially) become the norm at that time.

Speaking of God’s sovereign plan of revelation, I would like to make one last point here in regard to the literary-generic principle’s impact on broad hermeneutical methodology. My insistence on interpreting the Bible literary section by literary section should not be construed as denying that there are threads of continuity throughout the canon; the process of distilling doctrine from Scripture is not made more piecemeal or hary-cary by using this principle. The research of Timothy Martin and Jeff Vaughn, for instance, has demonstrated that there are shared themes and other characteristics between the earliest and the last material, the myths of Genesis and the apocalypse of Revelation. So in the mechanics of Revelation’s composition, much of the shared imagery and the language was derived from Genesis (a mother/daughter relationship), but the significance of Revelation must not be seen as secondary in God’s intent, but if anything, the reverse: in the progression of revelation, the elementary principles became more and more revealed over time so that, practically speaking, Revelation has much more to do with the present state of affairs than Genesis does. But if we do not stop to analyze the links between the two based on literary motifs and expressions, we would never see the relationships properly; one expecting literal creation/Garden of Eden accounts will be more inclined to expect a literal fulfillment of Revelation. God had a plan in revelation, and a healthy recognition of this plan is key to appreciating the continuity of the whole canon.

Implications of the Literary-Generic Principle

Christians who deny inerrancy in a discussion with inerrantists are inevitably to immediately hear some version of the slippery slope argument:

1) If you deny the accuracy of one part, you cannot vouch for the accuracy of any part.

2) If not all the narratives are literally true, how can anyone know which passages are and which passages are false?

3) If the Noah accounts are not historical, who’s to say that the life or miracles of Jesus are?

This type of argument is only made by people who do not understand or are neglecting the literary-generic principle. Understanding this principle demonstrates why each of these questions is misguided:

1) We can vouch for the accuracy of the spiritual matters discussed in the Bible regardless of inaccuracy in peripheral matters using the same reasoning you do: we believe the Bible is infallible in matters of faith and practice because 2 Tim. 3:15-17 teaches that. We should not, however, claim more for the Bible than it does for itself.

2) Every passage is true in that it reflects a spiritual reality and is used to communicate God’s Truth to mankind, whether the historical or scientific reference it uses is factual or not. Besides that, we know by generic classification or by the identification of literary features (such as parable or genealogy) whether we are dealing with historical narrative. Unfortunately for lazy Christians, this identification requires a little work.

3) The presupposition behind this common charge is that we want to deny miracles because they sound too fantastic; in fact, the only reason to de-historicize a miraculous event (such as the Flood or the story of Jonah), is because its original intent as history may be in question for contextual (literary/historical) reasons. Once we have determined that a given passage was intended to represent actual events, a general principle is that, based on our understanding of the evolution of historiographic values through time, the later the book’s date, the more likely we are dealing with factual events and personalities. Christians were as dedicated to truth as we are today, and would by no means be responsible for fabricating lies about Jesus, who called himself the Truth.

Although the Bible is explicit about Jesus being the Word of God made flesh, there is no such claim that the Bible itself is the Word of God made paper. Men bore witness to their glimpses of the Word of God as it was revealed in a progression of revelation that culminated in the person and work of Jesus Christ. With the realization that we are further removed from the truth being testified to, we must make every possible effort to see with the original authors’ eyes what they saw. The historical-grammatical method making full use of the literary-generic principle is the only way to do that.

Many Christians would much prefer to believe that the Bible is pure, raw, unfiltered Truth. I would like to end by sharing the insight C. S. Lewis had concerning that view.

To a human mind this working-up (in a sense imperfectly), this sublimation (incomplete) of human material, seems, no doubt, an untidy and leaky vehicle. We might have expected, we may think we should have preferred, an unrefracted light giving us ultimate truth in systematic form–something we could have tabulated and memorised and relied on like the multiplication table. One can respect, and at moments envy, both the Fundamentalist’s view of the Bible and the Roman Catholic’s view of the Church. But there is one argument which we should beware of using for either position: God must have done what is best, this is best, therefore God has done this. For we are mortals and do not know what is best for us, and it is dangerous to prescribe what God must have done-especially when we cannot, for the life of us, see that He has after all done it.


We may observe that the teaching of Our Lord Himself, in which there is no imperfection, is not given us in that cut-and-dried, fool-proof, systematic fashion we might have expected or desired. He wrote no book. We have only reported sayings, most of them uttered in answer to questions, shaped in some degree by their context. And when we have collected them all we cannot reduce them to a system. He preaches but He does not lecture. He uses paradox, proverb, exaggeration, parable, irony; even (I mean no irreverence) the “wise-crack”. He utters maxims which, like popular proverbs, if rigorously taken, may seem to contradict one another. His teaching therefore cannot be grasped by the intellect alone, cannot be “got up” as if it were a “subject”. If we try to do that with it, we shall find Him the most elusive of teachers. He hardly ever gave a straight answer to a straight question. He will not be, in the way we want, “pinned down”. The attempt is (again, I mean no irreverence) like trying to bottle a sunbeam.[4]

[1Walton talks about the contrast between our view of structure determining function and the ANE view of function as a consequence of purpose, quite regardless of structure. John H. Walton, Genesis, from the NIV Application Commentary Series, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001, 82-87.

[2There is value, as well, in coming to the table with all our prejudices and biases stated outright rather than pretending we are really being objective about things. Modern historiography cannot be what it is cracked up to be because full empiricism is impossible.

[3Many of the shared characteristics may be explained with the solution of the seemingly intractable Synoptic problem; one of the many arguments for Markan priority includes its obvious craftsmanship as a narrative, its creative sculpture being considered less likely to have been derived from other material than to have been a source itself. The specific genre that Mark seems to be emulating is itself unresolved. Many see it as a Christian contribution to either the Greco-Roman novel or closet drama, while Vines, for example sees it more in the tradition of the Jewish novel of the Hellenistic period (see Michael E. Vines, The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel, Academia Biblica. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, 2002). Matthew seems to adapt the material of Mark for a Jewish audience, while Luke is definitely trying the hardest to present historiography in both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. John shares little enough with the Synoptics to warrant its own classification, being constructed for the explicit evangelistic purpose to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.

[4C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1958.

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