The Parameters of Meaning: Rule 6

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).

10 thoughts on “The Parameters of Meaning: Rule 6”

  1. I generally agree here, I think that your post is a good corrective to overemphasizing genre in unhelpful ways. I actually think, however, that critical scholars are the ones who do not pay enough heed to genre. It seems to me that they believe that accurate historical truth can only be conveyed in modern, Western, and “historical” writing. But poetry and metaphor can convey historical truth too! Maybe better. Even in contemporary times, poets reflect on historical events all the time. If Christian theologians could never derive doctrines from poetry or “exalted” prose then what? Almost 2/3 of the Bible is out. I think conservative scholars, then, actually do a better job of paying attention to both the genre of biblical literature and the historical events recorded in Scripture.

    1. Good comment Chris.

      I agree with you about critical scholars and the way they can neglect genre (because of their concern with sources, etc.).

      And I second your words about genres conveying theological truth. My comments about God’s promises crossing genres assumes that very thing.

      God bless,


  2. Those who posit a genre overlay of Scriptures that a literal hermeneutic would clearly identify as a messianic text often expose their theologica bias. My suggestion is that this genre mantle is given to provide a mechanism of obscurity when a plain reading of Scripture that points to a future messianic referent does not fit nicely with a presupposed theologica viewpoint. It is encouraging that Andy Woods of was quoted in your article. I would encourage anyone to carefully consider what Dr. Woods has contributed via his many articles on the Spirit and Truth Website. Andy is a young scholar willing to stand for the truth of Scripture wherever that truth leads him.

    1. Thanks Ray,

      As well as being a fellow contributor to Spirit & Truth, I know Andy personally. I agree with your opinion of him. I also have to agree with you that the “genre card” is often played so that a person can avoid what the text is saying.

      God bless you and yours.

      Paul H.

  3. @Paul, sory for not commenting this earlier. I found the issue of old earth creation and theistic evolution are endemic in Reformed circles, particularly in non-US English-speaking nations. Many British conservative evangelicals could make IFBs blush over beliefs on sin, salvation, secular philosophy, psychology, but capitulate on theistic evolution. I’ve seen as you mentioned Gen passages up to 2:3 being described as poetry and thus shouldn’t be taken too literally!

    1. Joel,

      You are dead right on British evangelicals and creationism. In fact, apologetics generally in the UK is very poor on the whole. There are some bright lights like (though OEC), and there are guys like Edgar Andrews and the chap who wrote ‘Hallmarks of Design’ – whose name escapes me. But it’s not good on that score.

      Why? One reason really is because of the dominance of Reformed theology in conservative churches there (especially FIEC churches).


      1. Thanks Paul for providing additional insights. I’m moving in evangelical Anglican circles and even many Sydney Anglicans will fail on this. A reason I’m often told is the modernism-fundamentalism controversy originated in the US so it had a cultural angle yada yada.

        An additional observation i want to add is is Reformed teachers are generally reluctant to assign predictive prophecies that are yet to be fulfilled, but not directly to Jesus’ return to judge and eternity (heaven and the lake of fire) as to be fulfilled and may well be unfolded in our time. Depending on whom you ask you may get differing variations, a version I heard is the climax is gone (Jesus died and resurrected) and all remains is Jesus coming and wrapping the earth up. I could appreciate this could be their reactions to avoid sensationalist reading you find in some dispensational circles like Jack van Impe, but dismissing these types of yet to be fulfilled prophecies as visions doesn’t give us confidence. I’m in particular not satisfied how they explain away Jesus must rule on earth as King. (Jesus as priest for us on heaven means He can’t function as a king at the same time as well, a point dispensationalists have made well and I’ve yet to see a satisfactory Reformed response)

        Another puzzle the Reformed can’t answer is why the continuing survival of the Jewish race, even in unbelieving form, and despite Christendom’s (yes there were mainly Catholic or Orthodox, but Refirmed Protestant took part at times as well) anti-Semitism? Dispensationalists use this as an apologetic point, but the Reformed are so silent on the Jews??

  4. Right, Joel. And those old-Earthers, who think Genesis 1 is poetry, don’t even have their genres correct. The Hebrew scholars well know that Genesis 1 is NOT poetry; even in the original language it does not show the characteristics (such as parallelism) of Hebrew poetry. Psalm 104 is a poetic genre description of creation, but Genesis 1 is not. But then, when did the facts ever prevent people from pushing their own ideologies instead?

    1. Lynda,

      My point exactly. One cannot plead genre either to push away young-earth creationism or to push away God’s covenant promises to Israel, or anything else. Therefore, “Rule 6” above.

      One tiny correction. Hebrew poetry may have parallelisms or may not. A “high” style and meter are the important things.

      God bless,


  5. Joel.

    “Another puzzle the Reformed can’t answer is why the continuing survival of the Jewish race, even in unbelieving form, and despite Christendom’s (yes there were mainly Catholic or Orthodox, but Refirmed Protestant took part at times as well) anti-Semitism? Dispensationalists use this as an apologetic point, but the Reformed are so silent on the Jews??”

    It saddens me that although the charge of anti-Semitism against most Reformed covenant theologians is unfounded, the charge of anti-Israelism is only too true. The fact is, the grasshoppers are easily heard chirping whenever the name “Israel” comes up. This is for several reasons, but for sure it has to do with the fact that CT has no room for the present state of Israel and has, for all intents and purposes, called itself by Israel’s name. This is why they too easily believe CNN or AP and co. reports against Israel when they wouldn’t believe those sources about anything else.

    I truly believe there is no excuse for this. And although dispensationalists will have to give accounts for their shortcomings, I am glad that I shall not have to account for anti-Israelism. Israel IS “the apple of His eye,” whom God calls “O virgin of Israel.” and who “are beloved for the sake of the fathers.”

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