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Genre and Interpretation

July 11, 2013

“You can’t read Genesis like a science textbook!” Maybe, but what does this even mean?

This post is the first part of a continuing debate between myself and my good friend over at Unapologetics concerning human/cosmological origins and the Bible. I have no training and little experience in science, so I will try to stay away from the more specialized scientific aspects. Rather, I will focus more on the contributions of theology, philosophy, metaphysics, and literary criticism to the origins debate. I hope that this exchange will prove fruitful to all involved. Please keep all comments civil, and don’t troll.

So can you read Genesis like a science book?  The vast majority of the book of Genesis contains nothing scientific. This isn’t the pretentious dismissal of a theological liberal; it’s the plain truth. The stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are vastly important to  both theologians and everyday believers, but there is no scientific controversy over whether Abraham did, in fact, attempt to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah. When someone speaks of Genesis and “science” in the same breath, they are usually referring to Genesis 1-10, and particularly the “problems” created by the creation narrative and Noah’s flood.

One approach to these problems is to begin with the science and try to work your way back to the Scripture. There are two problems with this. First, there is a high risk of confirmation bias–an atheist’s “objective” research would disprove the biblical narrative as much as a fundamentalist’s “objective” research would prove it. Second, it puts the cart before the horse. If we want to know what the Genesis narrative is telling us, we need to look at the narrative itself first. The debate over origins isn’t a debate about science; it’s a debate about hermeneutics.

The key to the difficult passages of Genesis is a correct hermeneutic, and the first step to a correct hermeneutic is understanding the genre of the text. If I am looking for a plot in a computer manual, I am not analyzing it according to its genre. So we need to understand the genre of Genesis if we want to avoid making any serious hermeneutical mistakes. And genre is complicated. Vern Poythress writes:

Language exhibits flexibility not only at the level of words or numbers, but also at the level of genres. Historical writing represents a genre in a broad sense. Within this broad genre, there are many variations…Genres are not infinitely precise, so even someone who immediately recognizes the genre of a particular text must still adjust within that broad genre to the particularities of the one text he is studying. And authors may choose to “stretch” the boundaries of an existing genre or combine genres. Readers coming from other cultures may sometimes not be familiar with all the ins and outs of a genre specific to one culture.” (66)

This gives us at least five questions we can ask. First, what is the overall genre into which the book of Genesis fits? Second, what genre(s) does the specific passage we want to interpret belong to? Third, what is the relationship between the passage in question and the work as a whole? Fourth, how do we read this work within its original cultural and linguistic context? And Fifth, what is the relationship between this work and related works of the same genre?

If we are able to ask these questions, and do our interpretive work with caution, only then will we come up with a more correct reading of the text. The challenge to those who would interpret parts of Genesis using a scientific hermeneutic is this: When you answer those five questions, are you able to come up with a warrant for your claim that a scientific reading fits the text better than another reading?

To be continued…

Current Listening: London Calling by the Clash, Land of the Living by Matthew Perryman Jones

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