Saturday, October 4, 2014

Genre, Genre, Genre

Poor interpretation of the Old Testament invariably leads to all sorts of problems for the church. One primary cause of these problems is a misunderstanding of genre.

Genre refers to types of literature. The bible as a whole is composed of many different forms of genre. For example, the Gospel of Matthew follows a back-and-forth pattern between narrative passages (what Jesus did) and teaching passages (what Jesus taught). The first four chapters of Matthew detail for us the birth narrative, Jesus' baptism, Jesus' temptation, and his beginning to preach, teach, and heal. However, when we reach chapters 5-7 we read one of Jesus' great teaching passages: the Sermon on the Mount. In chapter eight, Matthew returns to narrative.

The bible is full of many different types of genre besides teaching and narrative. We must be aware of what genre we are reading in order to know how to comprehend it today. To treat all genre the same is take a foolish approach to scripture.

One serious problem that plagues the church is the application of narrative passages from the OT to church life. The OT provides us with narrative accounts of priests doing various things at the tabernacle and later the temple. I've heard these OT passages referred to many times as reasons why the church today should have clergy who perform religious activities in special church buildings. The clear problem with this is that the OT is simply describing what was happening in a particular place and time. No indication exists that God expects us to follow these descriptions.

God told Noah to build an ark. Therefore, are we supposed to build an ark today? Of course not. However, God told the children of Israel to follow the Ten Commandments. Are we required to follow those ten commands? No we are not. They were given to a particular people in place and time. We are not Israel. We are not of the Old Covenant. Despite this, many Christians still believe we have to follow the Ten Commandments today. One reason for this confusion is that they treat the Exodus 20 passage as if it is a teaching passage from the New Testament. Rather, we should all see it for what it is: a narrative passage from the OT.

I'm not suggesting that we cannot learn from the OT. We must take care, however, in what we learn and how we apply it. Genre has direct impact upon this. Whenever we read the bible, regardless of what particular book and chapter, we must ask ourselves what type of genre we are reading; is it narrative, teaching, poetry, prophecy, epic, apocalyptic, etc.?

God has given us plenty of information to know how we should live as his people today. We are his New Covenant people. Not surprisingly then, much of this information is to be found in the New Testament. To reach back to the Old Testament, especially to narrative passages, is to ask for trouble.

The church must realize that genre makes a difference.


Randi Jo :) said...

thank you! this explanation was helpful to me :)

Eric said...

Randi Jo,

You are very welcome!