Sweeping Genrelisations

or How Modern Conservative Theologians Unwittingly Use Literary Genres to Mask Their Unbelief 

One of the big problems with modern theology is its habit of categorising parts of the Bible into literary genres. For sure, the Bible contains historical prose, visions, poetry and songs. But many passages won’t actually fit into these neat little pigeon holes without hamstringing their intended purpose. And as it turns out, these “genre-lisations” are excuses to compromise with humanistic pop-philosophy and pop-history.

The three main gripes I have are misuses of the genres poetry, polemic and apocalyptic.


There’s plenty of poetry in the Bible. But Genesis chapters 1-3, or even 1-11, are not poetry. Yes, they are carefully structured and often chiastic (symmetric), but they do not possess the forms of Hebrew poetry.1 Classing them as such is an excuse to relegate them to the realm of ideology instead of history. Yes, the Hebrews were “event orientated” in their literature, but the jury is still out on whether this was actually an oral tradition. Maintaining that Adam couldn’t write (or that Christ’s disciples didn’t write a gospel immediately, a la Dr. John Dickson) is a view based on pop-history, not the Bible.2


“A polemic is part of the prophet’s speech, but not the speech of a king. Not to imply it is ‘beneath’ the king, but it seems to be a rhetorical crowbar to pry open ears.”3

The prophets were the Lord’s lawyers, bringing a covenant lawsuit to covenant breakers. This is not technically polemic. Or, it was as polemic as a sheriff turning up on your doorstep to serve papers.

It seems that certain passages of the Bible are classed as ‘polemic’ because we have problems with the actual history, at least, the parts that embarrass us because they ride against pop-history.

The same goes for early Genesis. None of Genesis is polemic for the benefit of Moses’ people. It is not addressed to them, and shows no signs of being an attack on ancient gods or a modification of Ancient Near East suzerainty covenants. Genesis is very clearly the original. The problem is our unbelief.

Neither is Revelation a polemic against Rome, despite what Richard Bauckham says.4 It concerns the Old Covenant people and their compromise with Rome. They were Covenant-breakers, and the Covenant structure is laced throughout the Revelation like brandy in a Christmas pudding (Get a review copy of my book Totus Christus to see this in action).

The only real polemic in the Bible might be the speeches of Job’s accusers, as they stitch their case together to scapegoat him. And they were the bad guys, the snakes in Job’s wilderness.


This one applies mainly to Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation. The parts of these prophecies that don’t fit our interpretation of history get relegated to ideology, akin to the Jewish fables of the intertestament era. They lose their grip on actual history.

Sometimes this is understandable. Those who rightly refused to see Ezekiel 38-39′s Gog and Magog as a future battle still found it hard to pin it on something historical (including David Chilton). Jordan figured out that it was fulfilled in the book of Esther, and the Covenant “Egypt to Canaan” structure of Ezekiel confirms this (among many other more minor proofs). The prophecies of Isaiah concern the Restoration Covenant era, but this was an expansion of Israel’s spiritual influence. Because history doesn’t record a physical Jewish empire, the oracles are misunderstood and applied to the first century directly, or to some future Israel (applying oracles that concerned the Restoration of ancient Israel to modern Jews who are actually outside the Covenant!).

The apocalyptic sections of the New Testament suffer that same fate. Dispensationalists don’t understand that these concern a major change in the spiritual realm that was played out upon the first century Jews and the Roman empire, but the confusing imagery used is all firmly rooted in the Bible’s Covenant structure. It speaks a language we don’t understand.

So, these passages may be classed as apocalyptic, but unlike the Archibishop of Canterbury, we cannot conclude that John did see Jesus but it made him insane, and Revelation was the result!5 Nor can we cop out and say Matthew 24 jumped to the end of time, or that Revelation is just a general picture book of the church in the world. These prophecies commanded a moral response from their first audiences. All was to happen soon, upon this generation. Anything after that is just application, however helpful and important this may be. The prophecies are rooted firmly in history (a point which Bauckham makes, despite his misunderstanding of the purpose of the Revelation).

Apocalyptic is by definition a revelation of near historical events. It is not ideology from the subconscious of man for the purpose of rallying the troops or defining cultural identity.

None of these genres are an excuse for gnosticism, which, according to Jordan’s definition is this:

“Throughout history, the Christian Church has had to guard against the heresy of gnosticism. Gnosticism is not an ordinary heresy, because it does not manifest itself as a set of defined beliefs. Rather, gnosticism is a tendency: the tendency to replace the historic facts of Christianity with philosophical ideas. Gnosticism is the tendency to de-historicise and de-physicalise the Christian religion. Gnosticism transforms history into ideology and facts into philosophy. Gnosticism tends to see religion as man’s reflections about God and reality instead of as God’s revelation of Himself and His Word to man. As a tendency, gnosticism has always plagued the Church, and it is alive and well today, openly in ‘liberalism’, and in a more concealed fashion in ‘evangelicalism’.”6

So why is the Bible written the way it is? Peter Leithart writes:

As much as pragmatic Americans might wish it to be otherwise, the Bible is not an answer-book.  It includes advice, and laws, and rules, but a lot of it consists of puzzling prophecy, ancient history, obscure parables and apparently abstract theology.  What are we supposed to get from that?  We ask for an answer key, and God gives us poetry. Can’t we just skip the story and get to the moral?

No we can’t.

God gave us the Bible to guide us, but also – more fundamentally – to form us. By studying the Bible, hearing it, reading it, learning from it, we are being remade.7

So, it is we who are being recategorised, reformed according the Covenant. But we fight against it, and use literary genres to mask our unbelief and make the Bible palatable to an unbelieving world.

I guess this article is a polemic against gnosticism.


  1. “Given the ratio of verbal forms, the statistical evidence for the text [of Genesis] being prose is overwhelming.” See Francis Humphrey, “The meaning of yôm in Genesis 1:1–2:4”, Journal of Creation 21(2):52–55, August 2007. Article online at www.creation.com
  2. See James B. Jordan, Toward a Chiastic Understanding of the Gospel According to Matthew, Part 1, Biblical Horizons Newsletter No. 94. “Matthew is the first of the gospels; there can be little doubt of this. The notion that Mark was first because Mark is shorter is nonsensical. Matthew was one of the disciples and was a man of letters. Who better to take notes during Jesus’ lifetime? Moreover, immediately after Pentecost there would have been a demand for a book containing the teaching and works of Jesus. The Jews were a people of the book. Each time God did a great work, a new part of Scripture was written to tell about it. The 3000 converts on the day of Pentecost would have expected such a book, and we can be pretty sure that Matthew set right down to write it. Doubtless he spoke with the other disciples, and perhaps Matthew’s gospel is to some extent a joint work. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that within a month after Pentecost copies of Matthew’s gospel were in circulation.”
  3. Sorry, can’t remember where I found this quote.
  4. Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation.  The use of “commercial imagery” to describe worship that is used in Revelation begins in Genesis 2 and appears many times throughout the Old Testament. See Worship as Commerce. If you want a handle on that, get into James Jordan’s lectures.
  5. “The rantings of John the Divine about his theological rivals are part of the by-product of the very vision of the Living One that shows these ravings for what they are, by showing the radical and unconfined purpose of God in Jesus Christ” … ” we aren’t called to believe and endorse all they say, only to ask ourselves what we are taught here about the strangeness and sometimes the terror of the Word of God to fragile minds.  Rowan Williams, Open To Judgment, p. 115-116. (Thanks to David Field for this).
  6. James B. Jordan, Creation in Six Days, A Defense of the Traditional Reading of Genesis One, Chapter 4: Gnosticism Versus History.
  7. Peter J. Leithart, Exhortation, Second Sunday of Trinity.
Share Button

One Response to “Sweeping Genrelisations”

  • john cummins Says:

    Great stuff once again. I know we like to pigeon hole. I will be speaking to friends about the historicity of Genesis, that it is pure history (which obviously the creation story is) and then I realize that as Chilton (or was it Jordan) pointed out all of the symbols which start in Genesis reach a crescendo in Revelation.

    The point you make about the scriptures shaping us is an EXCELLENT point. It makes me recall a set of articles by RE McMasters in the Chalcedon magazine years ago where he talks a lot about our brains, about environmentalism, feminism and other subjects but with regards to God’s brainwashing us in a healthy way by his very Word.


    Ah, and I just found this Bull’s Eye poem for the Bully Pulpit, from REs website, LOL.

    We enter this world alone, uncomfortably, out of control, with nothing, facing the unknown.
    We depart this world alone, uncomfortably, out of control, with nothing, facing the unknown.
    In between, we spend our lives (for the most part) avoiding being alone and uncomfortable, controlling,
    Striving to accumulate something, fleeing the unknown.
    It’s foolishness.
    We flee the inevitable.
    The finish is like the start.
    Besides, in between we know not how much time we have.

    Life’s key then is to be settled, relaxed, at peace with being alone, uncomfortable, not in control, with nothing, and the unknown.
    All else is a futile escape from reality, a self-styled delusion,
    a cruel joke we play on ourselves, self-deception.
    We are frantically busy unconsciously chasing our own tails.
    We can never return to the known security of our mother’s womb
    where we were never alone, were comfortable, controlled, and wanted for nothing.
    The full illumination of this folly stops us dead in our tracks.
    Then we can at last be still, alive, and know God.
    We can more fully appreciate good company, comfort, order, the trappings of life and knowing.
    We can be human BEINGS instead of human DOINGS.

    How then shall we live in this precious, precarious, short middle?
    Consciously, compassionately, considerately, caringly, lovingly, faithfully, responsibly, humbly.
    When we face the truth of the beginning and the end,
    we can more wisely live the middle.
    We can live truly free, discarding our invisible chains.

    For what unique and higher purpose have we been created and called?
    When we discover and develop that plumb line, that living laser beam, and abide in it,
    we have enveloped the essence of life.
    We have escaped the snare of self-deception.

    Well I can’t find the Chalcedon articles but they were excellent. Soon after McMaster wrote the set of articles they evidently canned him!???