Parameters of Meaning – Rule 6: Beware of basing an interpretation on the shifting sands of a supposed “genre”; especially “apocalyptic.” Make sure the interpretive decision is well grounded.
Rule 5 is here.
Over the last generation or so there has been a great stir in scholarly circles about “genre.” Genres are literary types or kinds. They can be broken down from larger kinds like, for instance, “narrative” into smaller branches. There are a lot of these smaller genre-types. A good selection will include historical narrative, poetic narrative, travel story, poetry, proverb, drama, wisdom literature, law, encomium, prophecy, apocalyptic, gospel, parable, type, epistle, etc. There can scarcely be any complaints about the identification of these genres in the Bible, nor that there are certain conventions related to genres.
a. The Problem
A problem enters in when we are told of all the various hermeneutical stratagems demanded of the reader because of the presence these genres. So, for example, it is said that one must understand that the first chapter of Genesis should not be interpreted “literally”, but is carefully structured so as to show a correlation between the first three days and the last three days (e.g. old-earth creationist Meredith Kline; theistic evolutionist Bruce Waltke). Alternatively, of late the principle of analogy has been invoked wherein man’s workweek and sabbath rest is analogous with God’s work of creation and resting on the seventh day (e.g. progressive creationist Vern Poythress; theistic evolutionist Jack Collins); even extending this notion and positing that Jesus entered into a sabbath rest at His ascension (G. K. Beale). Amid all this display of analogous hypothesizing it may seem too simplistic to read any intention to set out a chronology of a six day creation. The assertion is made that such a view must be discarded as naive; that there is a failure to recognize the ancient genre involved. Often ANE parallels are shuffled in to make the case more persuasive.
The bottom line is that to accurately determine what these texts mean one must take the particular genre-hermeneutic into account. In much the same way a covenant promise which happens to be written in meter might need to be disassociated from very similar promises written in prose – since the genres are different. Each genre is supposed to have its own hermeneutical rules. Although these rules do not isolate one genre from another, they nonetheless are often appealed to so as to avoid an unwelcome theological result.
b. Creationism and Genre
This maneuver is most often pulled on two topics: creationism and predictive prophecy. As to the first, many old-earthers will agree that what we have in Genesis 1 is narrative. However, they tell us it is not historical narrative. It does not tell us that God created in six 24 hour days! How do they know? Because the “high prose” must be taken account of, and the analogies with other passages are not properly considered.
Neither of these excuses really cut the mustard, but that is how the argument goes. “If you young-earthers only understood the genre” it is said; well, we wouldn’t be such an embarrassment to these brethren. Hence genre is being used to slip outside “scientific” conclusions into the exegesis. Nothing now bars the way for an all out embrace of theistic evolutionism. And so Genesis can be made to say exactly the opposite of what it actually says by the expedient of diverting attention onto the supposed genre.
Prophecy and Genre
It is, however, with the subject of prophecy that things really get into swing. Here there are lots of things to which one may appeal: poetry, motif, apocalyptic language, dreams and visions, uncreation, Eden and Exodus motifs. If one wishes to avoid coming to certain conclusions, modern scholarship has provided many avenues to duck down. Again, it is clear that while these things may be present, their presence is not for the purpose of subverting what is actually said.
To pick an example, Isaiah often employs a high “poetic” style for his oracles and visions. In chapter 6 we find the archetypal call of the prophet wherein he is permitted entrance into the throne-room of God where he receives his commission (cf. H. Wildberger, Isaiah 1-12, 252-253). The latter part of the chapter (vv. 9-13) is in the form of a Hebrew poem. Therefore we see two or even three genres present: vision, call-motif, poetry. So we grant. But we must proceed with care. For just because this chapter includes a vision and a call-motif and a poetical prediction does not mean it did not happen as it is written. Isaiah did see the LORD! It also doesn’t mean we must abandon any interpretation which sees in the poetic verses in this chapter a prediction of a regathering of the remnant of Israel which is portrayed by the prophet, particularly in the second half of the Book. In other words, the genre, though it must be taken into account, does not obscure the clear message of the prophet. It may accordingly be matched with non-visionary accounts elsewhere in Scripture (in this case John 12). What Isaiah saw and heard was not intended to undergo a “spiritual” interpretation just because two or more genres were present.
The Golden Child: The golden child of those who oppose “plain-sense” or “literal” fulfillment (meaning the normal sense conveyed by the words in context) is the genre of “Apocalyptic.” Even though most scholars usually only designate two books as apocalyptic (Daniel and Revelation), this word is often to be found on the lips of those who wish to give the title “New Israel” or “True Israel” or “Authentic Israel” to the Church.
The procedure is as follows: Point to prophecies dealing with a future Messianic kingdom on this earth (e.g. Dan. 2 & 7, Rev. 20), and the shout goes up, “Apocalyptic!” Point to predictions of a Jewish Temple within that future kingdom (e.g. Ezek. 37, 40-48; Zech. 6, 12), and one hears it again (or perhaps the less specific term “vision!”). Point to passages predicting an actual “Antichrist” who persecutes Israel for a designated period immediately before the Second Advent (e.g. Dan. 7; Matt. 24; Rev. 12), and a reassuring voice will once more inform us about “apocalyptic.”
But apocalyptic as a genre is a very unstable thing. As used by the majority of supercessionists it has a fixed meaning which goes something like “dramatic and hyperbolic symbolic imagery used to signify crisis events often signalling hope for the reader.” Andy Woods provides a helpful list of attributes of the genre:
These writings possess a common cluster of attributes. Such attributes include the following: extensive use of symbolism, vision as the major means of revelation, angelic guides, activity of angels and demons, focus on the end of the current age and the inauguration of the age to come, urgent expectation of the end of earthly conditions in the immediate future, the end as a cosmic catastrophe, new salvation that is paradisal in character, manifestation of the kingdom of God, a mediator with royal functions, dualism with God and Satan as the leaders, spiritual order determining the flow of history, pessimism about mans’ ability to change the course of events, periodization and determinism of human history, other worldly journeys, the catchword glory, and a final showdown between good and evil. – A. Woods, “Dispensational Hermeneutics: The Problem of Genre,” available at Spirit and Truth (link).
That’s quite a list! One could do a lot of skirting the text with so many things to choose from. But there are difficulties. Perhaps the main one is also the most foundational: Definition. This is what John Oswalt says:
What actually constitutes apocalyptic?…The problem of definition has been and remains central, because the literary material that has been labeled “apocalyptic” shows a bewildering variety in content, style, and focus. Furthermore, the historical information concerning the Jewish people during the period when this literature was produced (ca. 300 B.C. to A.D. 22) is so scanty that it provides few tools for categorizing the literature…But even more seriously, it has been difficult to say what are the precise characteristics of apocalyptic literature…Daniel is frequently used as a starting point…yet Daniel lacks many of the characteristics of apocalyptic that appear on any final list. – John N. Oswalt, “Recent Studies in Old Testament Apocalyptic,” in The Face of Old Testament Studies, eds. David W. Baker & Bill T. Arnold, 371-372.
As Oswalt’s article goes on to make clear, just smacking the label “apocalyptic” on a prophecy doesn’t mean one is relieved of the duty of explaining why it ought not to be taken at face-value.
The same goes for the category of “vision.” As we’ve seen a vision can (and often does) entail an actual encounter with real phenomena. For example, just because the seraphim are seen in a vision does not mean they aren’t real creatures. The same goes too for the cherubim which Ezekiel saw (Ezek. 1, 10, 43). The vision of the temple in chapter 10 may or may not have meant that the prophet was taken to Jerusalem (since in Ezek. 8:3-10f., he is told to dig through a wall he probably wasn’t taken there), but it did mean that these things were going on at the actual temple at Jerusalem. The temple was the Jerusalem temple, though seen in a vision. The same goes with the temple in the last chapters of Ezekiel. Ezekiel saw and entered a real temple – even though it was a future temple. Calling out “Genre!” alters nothing.
In view of this it is most unwise to accept what Robert Thomas has called “genre-overload” into ones Bible reading. As scholarship moves on, views on genre will inevitably change. Though they may help in understanding, they are not to be the foundation for ones interpretation. In reality, a careful study of the text will make the reader aware of genres. But it is a fact that God issues His promises across genres. They are immutable all the same (Rom. 11:29).