Admittedly, the genre of apocalyptic literature, such as Revelation, has its difficulties. Or at least, some people think so. About the book of Revelation, George Bernard Shaw said, “Revelation is a curious record of the visions of a drug addict.” Even some preachers shy away from apocalyptic Scripture: “Many good and faithful preachers rank preaching on apocalyptic texts alongside handling serpents; they have heard that people do it, but they have no desire to come anywhere near them” (Jeffrey D. Arthurs, Preaching With Variety. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007, 178).
What further muddies the water is that the study of genres, in general, is highly debated. Robert L. Thomas states that “analysis of literary genre emerged as a relatively new tool for New Testament study at the end of the twentieth century.” What makes this new kid on the hermeneutic block a problem child is that “no consensus exists as to a precise definition of genre, so attempts to classify portions of the New Testament, including Revelation, are at best vague” (Robert L. Thomas. Evangelical Hermeneutic: The Old Verses the New. 323-324).
To add to the dilemma is the disagreement on what constitutes more specifically the apocalyptic genre. “In some cases, however, it is difficult to decide what qualifies as apocalyptic, because there is uncertainty about how many characteristics of apocalyptic are required to consider a text apocalyptic…it must be remembered that genres as literary classifications are largely modern concepts” (D. Brent Sandy, and Ronald L. Giese, Jr. Cracking Old Testament Codes. 181). For example, the book of Revelation has been classified as epistolary, imperial edict, drama, narrative, poetry, prophecy, and apocalyptic or a mixture of some of these. Not only is there is no consensus on the definition of a genre nor is there agreement on the genre of Revelation.
The study of genres is not only difficult, but dangerous. Robert Thomas in chapter ten, “Genre Override in the Gospels” blows the whistle on evangelicals who deny the historicity of the Gospels. Thomas writes, “The preunderstanding of most of today’s evangelical scholars who specialize in Gospel study is that the Gospels require special rules of interpretation because they belong to a special literary category or genre” (page 272).
For example, prominent and much read, Robert H. Gundry, who denies that Jesus spoke the trinitarian baptismal formula in Matthew 28:19-20, explains why: “The data of the text understood against the backdrop of ancient literary genres, not a presumption that narrative style in the Bible always implies the writing of history, should govern our understanding of authorial intent.” Gundry justifies his rejection of the grammatical-historical interpretation of the Gospel account: “Radical historical reductionism has caused a recoil into conservative historical positivism, i.e., a system of orthodox belief based solely on the positive data of historical experience. Such an empiricism, blended as it is with a fixation on history, tends to exclude literary possibilities that would diminish even slightly the amount of history in the Bible” (R. H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church Under Persecution, 629).
C. L. Blomberg agrees with Gundry that the trinitarian baptismal formula was not spoken by Jesus but originated with Matthew (Matthew: vol. 22 of New American Commentary, 432-433). Thomas also identifies I. Howard Marshall as an evangelical who deneis the historcial accuracy of the Gospel accounts (Thomas, 276-277). This extreme dependence on genres has lead to a denial of the inerrancy of Scripture. In my next post, I will demonstrate how the abuse of the study of genres can supplement the allegorical interpretation of Revelation.