Paying Attention to Genre in Scripture

Reading Time: 5 mins

While all Scripture is the self-revelation of God, not all Scripture should be read in the same way.

Imagine you are sitting in your living room relaxing with a good, familiar book after a long day at work- sipping a scotch and reading Hemingway. You’ve read it before. You know what happens. The story still captivates you again and again. You can feel the romance between the characters, the fear as they paddle up the lake to get out of the country. The writing affects you. Then your son walks in with your old copy of Calvin and Hobbes’ Yukon Ho! he found in a box in the attic and asks you to read it to him. The writing makes you and your son laugh. The following morning you get up and, with a cup of coffee in hand, you open the paper. You digest the latest news about business, wars, politics, and pandemics. The writing informs you. At the office you are given two written proposals for software that will supposedly transform your business. You read them both and make a decision on the product you will purchase. The writing persuades you. In simple terms the differences between a novel, a comic book, a news article, and a proposal are differences of genre.

Genre is the technical word for different types of writing (or art, music, film, etc.). It is a way of categorizing various types of literature according to particular characteristics such as style, content, and purpose. One way to think about genre is in terms of what you expect in a particular piece of writing and what you expect from a particular piece of writing. It would be foolish to pick up your Hemingway novel in order to be convinced about which software to buy. If you did so, you would neither find in the novel any information about the software nor be persuaded from the novel about which software to buy.

When we read the Bible, understanding genre can be important; however, our thinking about genre can also be overdone, as we will see. While all Scripture is the self-revelation of God, not all Scripture should be read in the same way. What we expect to find in one part of Scripture (e.g. the Psalms) will be different from what we expect to find in another part (e.g. Paul’s letters). Likewise, though we will qualify this statement later, what we expect to get from one part of Scripture (e.g. the Torah) will be different from what we expect to get from another part (e.g. the Gospels). So, what are the different genres we find in Scripture, and how should they be read? In many ways, this is the million-dollar question. This question gets to the heart of what we are trying to figure out, but its answer starts to reveal why we must be careful as we proceed.

While all Scripture is the self-revelation of God, not all Scripture should be read in the same way

According to Richard Foster, “The broadest categorical distinction of genre within the Bible is that of stories (narratives) and speeches (discourse).” Foster is not alone in this conviction, and he goes on to offer the following explanation, “Narratives create expectations based on common genre features such as plot, character and setting. Discourse often presents the reader with the conventions of argumentation, premises and conclusions, theses and supporting arguments” (pg 1). That’s well and good, but if you have ever read through the Bible, then you are certainly aware that sometimes you find discourse right in the middle of narrative or vice-versa. What then?

Others have sought to define genres more specifically: law (or torah), history, prophecy, poetry, gospel, letter (or epistle), and apocalyptic. These categories seem to make sense. Law announces ethical obligations. History tells the story. Prophecy announces what God will yet do – typically in light of the law being broken or of Yahweh remembering his promise. Poetry draws heavily on various literary devices like parallelism and metaphor. Gospel, a sub-genre of history, tells the story of Jesus. Letters are often pastorally didactic, often communicating via propositions rather than story. Apocalyptic, a genre distinct from but not entirely different than prophecy, deals in what is yet to be in the coming epochs of history, specifically the end times. Again, these categories can be helpful, but we often see overlap between genres, sub-genres, and one genre appearing in the midst of another. How far do we push these categories? How much should we depend on them?

Still others find even more genres in the Bible. In an introductory article on reading the Bible as literature, after offering a handful of generic categories, Leland Ryken writes,

But those are only the tip of the iceberg. In addition to narrative and poetry, we find prophecy, visionary writing, apocalypse, pastoral, encomium, oratory, drama (the book of Job), satire, and epistle. Then if we add more specific forms like travel story, dramatic monologue, doom song, and Christ hymn, the number of literary genres in the Bible readily exceeds a hundred.

The importance of genre to biblical interpretation is that genres have their own methods of procedure and rules of interpretation. An awareness of genre should alert us to what we can expect to find in a text. Additionally, considerations of genre should govern the terms in which we interact with a text. [1]

How are we to eve read our Bibles and make sense of them? Let me offer three simple suggestions for you.

To be frank, this introductory article, designed to help people read their Bible’s better, functionally takes the Word of God out of the hands of both average pew-sitters and most pastors. Are we really supposed to be able to grapple with the intricacies of 100+ literary genres in order to understand our Bibles? Further, we haven’t even gotten into the distinctions between the generic categories of the ancient Near East, which informed the Old Testament, and those of the Greco-Roman world, which informed the New Testament. Certainly, these distinctions matter as well. So what is a regular, Spirit-filled, Jesus-believing Christian to do? How are we to ever read our Bibles and make sense of them? Let me offer three simple suggestions for you.

First, by-and-large, if you are aware that the Bible contains different genres throughout, you can generally follow your gut in how to navigate them. Following your gut is not a particularly academic exercise, but just as you can recognize the different genres of literature mentioned in the opening paragraph without being able to outline the characteristics of each one, you can generally recognize the various genres in the Bible. And, just as you know not to read Hemingway the same way as the Times, you can be pretty sure that you shouldn’t treat a Psalm like a section of historical narrative from Samuel or that like a theological letter from Paul. So, pay attention to what you are reading and to what the writing is doing and work with it accordingly.

Second, remember two words – law and gospel. If we can think of genre in terms of what we expect to find in a particular writing and what we expect from a particular writing, then we can understand that law and gospel are in fact genre categories. Recall the words of The Apology of the Augsburg Confession,

All Scripture ought to be distributed into these two principal topics, the Law and the promises. For in some places it presents the Law, and in others the promise concerning Christ, namely, either when [in the Old Testament] it promises that Christ will come, and offers, for His sake, the remission of sins justification, and life eternal, or when, in the Gospel [in the New Testament], Christ Himself, since He has appeared, promises the remission of sins, justification, and life eternal. [2]

Third, remember the goal of all Scripture is to bear witness to Jesus (Luke 24:27, 44-49). This is where we qualify our statement about what we expect to get from a particular writing. While genre can be a helpful tool for wrestling with Scripture, we must not let academically defined generic categories determine what we can get from a particular portion of Scripture. Rather, we should heed the words of Jesus, who is the Word of God, and find him wherever we turn in our Bibles. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me…” (John 5:39).

[1] Leland Ryken, “Reading the Bible as Literature,” in ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008), 2569.

[2] The Apology of the Augsburg Confession; Article IV (II).5