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Biblical Genre and Relational Truth

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November 7, 2011 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's video features Chris Tilling. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

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HornSpiel - #66036

November 8th 2011

I think perhaps “symbolic theological accounts”  may also be reading too much into the genre. It sounds as if it were written for theologians. I think not. I think it was written for the basic Hebrew to understand who they are in the world, and why they are special. So I prefer to think of Genesis as a Hebrew origin story, or myth, in the best sense of the word. True but not literally true. Richer in meaning than what it would be as a literal story.

At the same tie, the Gospel accounts are not without their moments of trying to be more than history. Not only are events tied to passages in the OT, some accounts differ, it seems, because the author was trying to make a theological point. Matthew’s ending in which Jesus is emphasized as going to Galilee, and which differs markedly from the other accounts, comes to mind.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66040

November 9th 2011

Hornspiel wrote: 

I think it was written for the basic Hebrew to understand who they are in the world, and why they are special.

You are right, but your conclusion is flawed.  What you need to remember is that the basis for the Hebrew nation is spiritual or theological if you will.  The Hebrews are the Chosen people of God based on their Covenant with YHWH.  That is who they are and that is why they are special.  The NT Covenant is the basis for our identity as Christians.

Now you are right that this is not the “scientific” basis for who they are, but it is not also a myth even in the best sense of the word.  The fact is that God did create humanity in God’s own image and God did make a covenant with Abraham, and Moses, and later a New Covenant through Jesus Christ.  These are historical events, which are not scientific or mythological.   

Covenants are relational while science, mythology, and philosophy are not.  That is why the Bible as it was written is relational, and we have lost much of its real meaning when we impose our non-relational understanding on it. 

The Hebrews understood reality to be relational.  The Greeks did not.  We have accepted and cling to the Greek view, even after science has demonstrated to be flawed, instead of trying to determine how the relational Biblical understand is better. 

Thus the problem is not with our relationship to the Biblical text although that part of it, but our understanding of the character of reality as non-relational.    


HornSpiel - #66042

November 9th 2011

Roger, I agree that there is a historical basis for the covenant in the patriarchs. I do not dispute that. I do dispute that the character of the primeval Origin Story, Genesis 1-2 at least, is such that it should not be seen as historical in any modern sense.

In my journey, I studied cultural anthroplogy as part of a missiology degree. I also served as a missionary in several tribal situations. So I have read about and encoutered many tribal cultures and know that all such cultures have origin stories. The tribe of Israel is no exception to the rule. Now most tribal origin stories are pretty imaginative and no educated person would consiter them to be historical. they are also  part of oral traditions that morph from the Mythic to the Legendary to the recent “Historical.” 

Now is the Origin Story of the Hebrews any different? Perhaps it is. I am open to that. But I am also open to the possibility that the Creator worked in a different way. A way more in keeping with normal way that cultures work. Now looking at the evidence, to me, the latter is far more probable. God, it seems, reveals his Glory in much more subtle ways than miraculous interventionism. To me the miracle is that God can communicate his purposes and will through such a strong-headed people as Israel. This includes thier now written, but originally oral history that morphs from the Mythic to the Legendary to the Historical. 

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66045

November 10th 2011


Thank you for your comments.

I think we are on the same track.  The first question is the form of the Creation story.  I would certainly agree that the textual evidence indicates that God used mythic, legendary, and outmoded scientific thinking to form the basis of the Creation story, which God then reshaped through the Holy Spirit to give us the strong theological and philosophical basis for our faith and modern science. 

One could say that just as God created the cosmos out of the ocean of chaos, God also gave divine order to the disorder of ancient pagan thought.  YHWH used the Logos to accomplish both of these wondrous feats.

The other question is the content of the Creation story.  The pagan Origin Stories portray the universe as eternal, while the Creation has the universe as temporal.  This is important because modern science is based on a temporal universe.  The Creation story is scientific in this important sense, but sadly some people want to limit the temporal aspect of the story to make it fit their human concept of the age of the universe.

The other unique aspect of the Creation story is God is completely in control.  In other stories gods must struggle to overcome the Dragon of Chaos, but not in Gen. 1. 

For the Big Bang theory the universe was formed in a matter of seconds, for Creationists it was a matter of days, for others it is a matter of millions of years.  Atheists believe that Nature did it.  Christians believe that God did it.         

JenG - #66043

November 9th 2011

“In my journey, I studied cultural anthroplogy as part of a missiology
degree. I also served as a missionary in several tribal situations. So I
have read about and encoutered many tribal cultures and know that all
such cultures have origin stories.” - HornSpiel

Wow! You must have such a unique perspective on these issues - I appreciate hearing your take on this matter from your vantage point.

HornSpiel - #66046

November 10th 2011

Thanks Jen for your nice words.
Roger, we may well be on the same page, though I still have problems with your insistence on abandoning Greek [materialist?] thinking for a Jewish relational understanding of reality. Be that as it may you make an important point:

God is completely in control.

This is certainly as important to day as we look at the findings of science as it was to the ancients countering notions that God was somehow at the mercy of forces he could not control. This is an insight we apprehend by faith, not by sight—of which science is an extension. Some Christians feel threatened by the scientific observation that the world is governed by “chance” (actually described as probabilities). I don’t. Neither do I look for scientific “proof” that what we see is designed. I know it is by faith, not by sight.

Yet Genesis also teaches that God did not make the Garden (the world) a safe place. It is not a place completely under his control. There is a place, a role, for man to care for it and to, if you will, tame it (don’t let the snake get the better of you.) It is to that end that I think it behooves Christians not only to listen to science but to participate in it. The evidence is that we are threatening the planet by our burning of fossil fuels. We need to listen to that, not deny it.

That is what Genesis teaches me.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66048

November 10th 2011


The reason why Christians need to be involved in science is because God is in control of the world and thus God speaks through the natural world. 

The world is not a place free from difficulty because God made humans to be free and to be problem solvers. 

Certainly Jews and Christians do not deny the reality of the physical nature of reality.  Indeed Christians upheld the goodness of God’s universe when Greeks were calling the body and the physical evil.  Christians are not dualists in that we belikeve in the resurrection of the body, according to the Apostles’ Creed.

I am definitely with you when you speak of climate change.  The only problem I have is with those who blame our lack of response to conservative Christians, when it appears that the primary fault is with the prosperous, who know better but are using others as a scapegoat.  In other words those and I include myself in part who benefit financially from wastes and pollution, but ease their guilt by blaming others for not making the changes what they themselvs need to be making.           

HornSpiel - #66050

November 10th 2011

The reason why Christians need to be involved in science is because God
is in control of the world and thus God speaks through the natural

Well put. And may I add I like your take on humans as problem solvers.

What changes do you think we/you need to be making? I too think Chistians need to be part of the solution. For my part I am trying to make people aware of a potential solution in Liquid Floride Thorium Reactors and encourage support for its development by the public and the government (for more info see http://energyfromthorium.com/).

Chip - #66047

November 10th 2011

God is completely in control…
Genesis teaches us that… [the world] is not a place completely under his control…

Hornspeil, you’ll have to forgive me for not understanding this.

HornSpiel - #66049

November 10th 2011

I noticed that contradiction immediately after posting .  I was wondering if someone would comment.

I do actually hold both views simultaneously. I could explain it away as simply a paradox. More analytically, it is that God is ultimately in control, but chooses to not control all the details. Or, that God has chosen to give some of his control to his image-bearers, humankind.

It is actually for me very satisfactorily summed up in Romans 8:28 “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” Such knowledge comes only by faith. It affirms the ultimate control of God, but does not deny the freedom inherent in the system he has created.

The World is full of evil and pain. We are all in danger of being afflicted at any moment. This is ultimately the greatest philosophical/theological stumbling block to belief in a good, omnipotent creator. The biblical answer to this, IMHO, is a balance between God’s control and non-control of creation, encapsulated brilliantly in the first chapters of Genesis, and worked out in the rest of Scripture.

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