Are you a premillennialist, amillennialist or preterist? Believe it or not, the interpretation of Biblical genres will have something to do with your millennial position. Hold that thought until we discuss the difference of opinion on the genre of the book of Revelation as either prophecy (as do some premillennialists) or apocalyptic (as do amillennialists and preterists).
The study of genres is both necessity and dangerous. The examination of genres, however, cannot be avoided because the Ultimate Artist wrote His word with a variety of kinds of literature: Hebrew poetry, narratives, parables, proverbs, epistles, prophecy, and apocalyptic literature. We are accustomed to reading different genres every time we pick up a newspaper (maybe there are a few of us who still read the daily news). There are the genres of editorials, classifieds, comics, sports, etc.
Roy Zuck, in chapter six in Basic Bible Interpretation, calls this aspect of hermeneutics the “Rhetorical interpretation” which “is the process of determining the literary quality of a writing by analyzing its genre (kind of composition), structure (how the material is organized), and the figures of speech (colorful expressions for literary effect).
Literary Genre in the Bible
Chapter six, “Bridging the Literary Gap,” demonstrates that the authors of Scripture were literary artists. Robert Alter has written two helpful books about this subject: The Art of Biblical Narrative and The Art of Biblical Poetry.
A genre is a literary type that has a unique form and content. It is important in hermeneutics to be genre specific. Zuck notes that 4 of the 25 affirmations in the 1982 Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics refer to literary form. Article XV states that the literal interpretation of Scripture is not negated by the recognition of different genres: “We affirm the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal or normal sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense — that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text.” This point is important because of the debate over the genre and interpretation of Revelation. It is the contention of Robert L. Thomas that if you believe Revelation is apocalyptic then you are more likely to interpret Revelation allegorically but if you believe Revelation is prophetic then you will interpret the book literally.
Zuck Identifies Seven Different Literary Genres in God’s Word
There are two kinds of legal material. One is apodictic law or direct commands as in the Ten Commandments. The other is casuitic law or case-by-case laws.
The uniqueness of narratives is seen in its own conventions or characteristics, such as, plot, scenes, and dialogue.
Poetry is the language of the soul, which expresses emotions as well as thoughts. In narratives, generally, we hear what God thinks about people, and in Hebrew poetry, generally, we hear what people feel about other people and God.
4. Wisdom literature.
There is proverbial wisdom found in Proverbs which teaches wisdom for godly living. This wisdom is found in general principles that sometimes have exceptions. For example, Proverbs 3:8-10 says that if you honor the Lord, you will be healthy and “your barns shall be filled with plenty.” There is also reflective or philosophical wisdom found in Job and Ecclesiastes. Job struggles with the righteous suffering sickness and poverty. Job would be the exception to Proverbs 3:8-10.
The synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are much more similar than the Gospel of John. One of the reasons for their uniqueness, is the fact that each author had his own specific purpose. Zuck contrasts the acceptance and rejection of Jesus that runs throughout the Gospel of John. This contrast fits the theme of John’s Gospel presents Christ as the Son of God in whom the sinner must believe in order to possess eternal life (John 20:31).
6. Logical discourse or Epistles.
These Epistles have their own style. The letters generally open with the author identifying himself and his recipients, greetings, thanks, and the body. When this pattern is broken, there is usually a significant reason. There is no thanksgiving, for example, for the Galatian believers because they were listening to false teachers which outraged Paul.
7. Prophetic literature.
Prophetic literature obviously contains predictions which were preached to produce either hope or repentance in the original audiences. “A special form of prophetic literature is apocalyptic material, which focuses specifically on the end times, while presenting the material in symbolic form.”
The genre debate intensifies over which genre is the Book of Revelation: Prophetic or Apocalypic. Robert Thomas addresses this debate in his book Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Verses the Old. Thomas in chapter 11, “Genre Override in Revelation,” discusses the origin of the debate: “Analysis of literary genre emerged as a relatively new tool for New Testament study at the end of the twentieth century. Genre classification has affected how scholars have interpreted various New Testament books, particularly the last book of the New Testament.” In my next post, I will discuss notable evangelicals, like Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., who connect their allegorical and preteristic interpretation of Revelation to the apocalyptic genre.