Biblical Genre and Relational Truth
Today's video is courtesy of filmmaker Ryan Pettey, director/editor of Satellite Pictures.
In today’s video, theologian Chris Tilling, New Testament Tutor for St Mellitus College and St Paul's Theological Centre in London, discusses biblical genre and the relational truth of Scripture. Tilling notes that when we read the Biblical text, we bring our own presuppositions and assumptions to the text (what theologians call “eisegesis”). The genre of the text is central to how we understand the Bible. For example, we read poetry very differently than we would read a phone book.
The text often contains clues to how it was intended to be read. The rhythmic nature of Genesis 1 and 2 hints to the hymnic and poetic functions of the text. The Gospels, on the other hand, parallel ancient biographies, which were concerned with historic events in a way symbolic theological accounts were not.
Ultimately, Tilling notes, it boils down to the questions that we ask of the text. The author of Genesis was not asking biological questions but theological ones. To stay true to the text, we too must be asking the theological questions, because theological truth is always more than information; it is transformation . The Truth (capital T) of Christian theology is relational truth which addresses us, which has us as the objects. That Truth is a person. That Truth is one to whom we relate. What kind of truth are we talking about?
Dr. Chris Tilling: “The crucifixion is detailed in the gospels. We assume that the suffering of the cross, that the physical agony, is the main focus of the crucifixion. This may tie in with various theological commitments, but it also ties into our own world view in various ways. Yet, when we actually go to the gospels, they focus more on the shame of the crucifixion, and less on the pain of the crucifixion. So there is an example where it is just a subtle difference, but it does illuminate how we read a text or how we misunderstand a text.
Now, to come to the question of historicity—what it means to write history—we have particular presuppositions about what makes history work. Today, we would prefer (to a greater or lesser extent) some kind of unbiased, impartial observation of evidence, but what we are actually doing is what scholars would call eisegesis: we are bringing our own presuppositions and assumptions into a text and reading it in light of that as if it were in the text. One way of responding to that is to point to the centrality of genre in understanding the Bible. We read poetry in a way that is very different to the way we read a phonebook, and there are clues in a text as to how the text should be read. So with Genesis—the rhythmic nature of Genesis one and two—the almost poetic and hymnic effect it would have played in the liturgy of the earliest Jewish lives. There is liturgy of life, there is the snake which eats dirt, there is God walking in the garden…it seems to me that there are clues here that it should be read in a theological way.
When you get to the gospels, however, the closest parallels that we have for the gospels is ancient biography—they seem to look like the way ancient biographies were written. In other words, they were concerned with what was happening in a way that a symbolic theological account would not. So, the genre of the different parts of the Old Testament will determine to what extent there was historical factuality involved. It boils down, ultimately—though we might not like to put it so sharply—it boils down to the questions that we are asking. The author of Genesis was not asking the kind of questions that we are often asking in a biological sense. These were theological questions that were being asked, and our questions, if we want to stay true to the text, likewise, need to be theological…because truth is always more than information, it is transformation. It isn’t just about things that we can look at and that we can put in a test tube—small “t” truth if you like. Capital “t” truth is relational…is the truth which addresses us, which speaks to us, has us as the objects. That truth is the subject. Jesus Christ speaks of himself as the truth, the way, and the life…that truth is a person, that truth is one to whom we relate. What kind of truth are we talking about?”
Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.
Chris Tilling is Tutor in New Testament Studies and teaches across the whole at St. Mellitus College. He studied at St Andrew’s University and London School of Theology and has completed a doctorate under Max Turner in Pauline Christology. He has written several articles on aspects of New Testament studies, and has translated many others from German into English. Additionally, he is the author of a popular theology blog site entitled Chrisendom.