Is it possible to misinterpret Biblical passages if we don’t understand the nature of genre?

I would argue that I sure have been guilty of this.

Let me make my case here. Please read closely. I think that identifying the correct genre within the various books of the Bible is absolutely critical to understanding what the author tried to convey. Some may not be familiar with the word ‘genre’, for which I supply what dictionary.com has to offer:

-of or pertaining to a distinctive literary type.

The Bible has an abundance of different genres. Here are a few off the top of my head: prophetic, narrative, wisdom, parable, apocalyptic, poetry, covenants, etc. Each of these pieces of literature has certain restrictions and, more importantly, have certain expectations for readers. It would be wrong for me to read a poetry passage the same way I would read a narrative section of Scripture. One of the main problems raised by believers in my circles is that most of the Christian world fails to see that John 1:1-18 is precisely poetry, and thereby misses out on a dynamic which the author is trying to extend to readers. Another example of confusion common to Bible readers is a reading a Genesis chs. 1-2 as science instead of theological cosmology. More could be said on these two examples, but I’ll press on for the time being.

Readers of a newspaper have different sets of expectations when reading the front cover than when they get to the comics. Even today’s movies are organized by comedy, drama, action, thriller, documentary, etc. To confuse an action movie, such as the film The Da Vinci Code, with a documentary, would lead to many thinking that all the details of the movie are truly factual.

Back to the Bible. I assume that most of my readers thus far would agree that the Bible has different genres. The problem is, most Christians don’t read the Bible as if it has more than one to distinguish. Rather, we tell ourselves that the Bible only has one single genre; a prophetic genre. We think that the Bible must, by necessity, have something in nearly every single passage that speaks to us as individuals directly in the year 2010. We call this by many names, such as personal application, or life meanings, or whatever. When we choose to ignore the distinctive features of genre found in the Bible, the text gets reduced to merely “What is it telling me today?”

One of my biggest pet peeves is people using Jeremiah 29:11 as a verse which God has for them as an individual. Most of you know it, or perhaps have heard it before, “For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.” The problem is, this was written to the historical Jeremiah, not to me, or you, or your best friend. Some may feel threatened by my assumption, but if you don’t believe me, read the context. The previous two verses should be enough to show that this cannot refer to anyone in 2010, or 1999, or 300 C.E.  

Let me be clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that God does not have a plan for you, or that you cannot use this verse for moral comfort. What I am saying is that this verse was written in a context, and that was to the prophet Jeremiah, not to me. It has a specific meaning for him and that should be given top priority.

Another example is the parable found at the beginning of Luke 16:1f, sometimes labeled the ‘Unrighteous Steward.’ I challenge anyone to try and read this with a 2010 application; I don’t think it can be done. It makes the best sense in the contexts of Jesus’ ministry as being told to his opponents. Again, the tendency to read it as prophetic for the year 2010 seems to miss the point.

Where am I going with this? My point is that if we simplify the Bible too far, we lose significant information and are in danger of accidently distorting what the original authors intended for their readers to hear and understand. Yes, the Bible has clear and specific points of application for all readers, such as the call to repentance and belief in the gospel. Yet the Bible also has context specific instructions, like the command to the Corinthians to greet one another with a holy kiss (does anyone still do this today?)

Scholars who are trained to recognize genre have a lot of help the church in this area. I recently have asked myself, “What is a Gospel?” I always assumed that they are histories, similar to what I read in US History in High School. Many scholars today have pinned the ancient Gospels found in the New Testament as Greco-Roman biographies, of which we have many others which survived from the same time period (over ten others). It seems that they are ancient biographies of Jesus shaped by resurrection faith and distinctives of the various four authors. I could say more on this, but I’d rather open things up for comments. Here are my questions to those who are still reading:

-Do you only read the Bible as if it had a personal meaning for you in every passage?

-Does recognizing genre and taking the various forms of it found within the pages of Scripture diminish the Bible in any way or does it enhance it? Why?

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6 thoughts on “Is it possible to misinterpret Biblical passages if we don’t understand the nature of genre?

  1. this is a very interesting discussion. i’ve got a lot to think about, especially whether or not every verse or passage has a direct application for christians today.

    the jeremiah passage will illustrate my issues. exegetically, that verse in chapter 29 follows God’s assertion that he will send his people into exile. although they are the people of covenant, they have been unfaithful, & so God will send them out of the land. now, we don’t live in 6th century israel, and the neo-babylonians are long gone. but, the passage shows us something about God. God desires a relationship with his people, he wants to take care of his people, but he is also willing to punish his own people. the conduct of his people matters greatly to him. we are not exempt from retribution. yet for his people, it seems the punishment has a purpose. God would restore his people, bring them back to himself when they have wandered away, bring them back under his wing when they have experienced the heaviness of his retributive hand.

    i think that verse & passage directly applies to us today. maybe not the exile-babylon-israel part. but the passage is pregnant with theology, & when we learn something about God, it should alter our very lives, our steps, our actions right here, right now. for christians today, i think that passage means we had better not take God for granted. he is willing to punish us, with, of course, an eye towards restoration. it’s about relationship.

    just some thoughts. it seems to me that every passage of scripture is pregnant with application because all scripture is revelation. it reveals something about God. and when we learn something about God, everything must change. everything is affected.

    1. I agree, Mike. I appreciate how you responded to this article. I to agree with DustinMartyr as well, wholeheartedly. It is so important for people to STUDY Scripture and not just read it. Not only is the genre of writing important, there is so much more context and many underlying lessons that should not be glossed over. Thank you…

      1. good words, and i agree with him, too, that we shouldn’t read the bible and apply it to ourselves without thinking through some things and doing the hard work of interpretation.

  2. Dustin, I gave you my questions, and I’m glad you refered me to Mike’s comment. I could appreciate what he was saying. I think he’s probably closer to the truth.

    Again, it’s something I’m still working out how to explain. I told you though, I feel that God can speak to heart’s using anything in the Bible and I do feel like sometimes we are supposed to claim those words as promises of our own. There’s a lot more to think about.

  3. Dustin, I agree that context is extremely important when studying scripture. Genres tell us something about the intentions of the author. The intent of the Genesis account of creation was not necessarily to explain it in scientific terms, but that has not stopped many Christians from using it like a science textbook (this is not to say that modern evolutionary theory is adequate by any means).

    For the Jeremiah example, yes it is important to study this primarily in the context of that story, but as Mike has touched on, this reveals something about the heart of God and the nature of his relationship with his children. And for this reason, I think I am justified in applying this verse to me also.

    So to try to answer your questions, I try to put passages in their proper context first. More often than not, the understanding I gain from that can teach me something about my relationship with God. If all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16), then I think that helps to validate my approach. If it is part of scripture, then I am confident that there is something God wants me to understand from it and apply carefully to my own life.

  4. Thanks for this post (as you had mentioned the same in class.) And its all good. I love how you compare the genre to that of movies. (Would someone please translate a Bible with the genre and Parental Guidance rating for each section included?)

    Still, as you note, the Bible IS the LIVING Word….and if it doesn’t have anything to say about my life today, it would be irrelevant (and not the number one bestselling book in the world.) And…Bible or no Bible, God can speak to us even through false prophets, no?

    Don’t know if you’ve commented on I Corinthians 7…but that’s one I’d really like some clarity on…

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