Competency to decide scriptural genre

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dr_parsley

Puritan Board Freshman
I post this in genuine desire to learn the point of view of others, and not as a debating ploy. I want to talk about a hyptothetical situation, without arguing about whether the hypothetical assumptions are true. Suppose there is a difference of interpretation over a piece of scripture. Some think this passage is figurative and poetical, some think it is a historical account. For this exercise, it doesn't matter which passage it is, it could be a part of Revelation, or Song of Solomon, or a Psalm or Genesis 1.

Assumption: The weight of evidence (i.e. what we see with our eyes and can logically infer from that) is overwhelming in its contradiction of a literal reading. In that case, I have two options. I will present them as arguments for and against each option.

Option 1: I am forced to interpret the passage in some way other than a literal historical account, probably as figurative or poetical depending on the text. When I became a Christian I was amazed and delighted to discover that Christian doctrine was eminently and perfectly rational. If it's not I'd better be prepared to tell people that when I evangelise them and truly be a fool for Christ. I would not take a text as non-literal for other reasons, e.g. because the interpretation gives license to my desires, or because it makes peace with the world, or because it's a pragmatic way to evangelise, but I cannot in good conscience disregard overwhelming evidence and logic for what seems to be little practical or theological purpose.

Disagreement with option 1: You are not competent to interpret your senses and your mind is not competent to infer true logic from them, because they are damaged by the fall and you have been corrupted by the world. Your premise being false, all that follows from it is false.

Option 2: Being badly equipped to interpret my senses and inferring true logic, all I can do is submit to God's revelation as contained in and described by the bible assumed to be literal historical fact. If it disagrees with evidence and logic, then I must believe something that appears to be irrational. I must believe that I have misinterpreted and wrongly analysed the evidence.

Disagreement with option 2: If Christian doctrine was irrational, why is that irrationality not evident elsewhere? If it was regularly irrational, like a mystery religion crossed with Lewis Carrol where the message was to believe in spite of our understanding, that would be one thing and we could decide on that basis, but it seems inconsistent to treat Christian doctrine as irrational in only one small respect. Furthermore, if I am not competent to decide the genre of this passage, why must I default to "historical narrative"? The bible nowhere instructs me to do that. If I cannot trust my own senses, or even correctly utilise, say, the logic of the excluded middle, then I can't trust myself to any interpretation, even of the bible. I'd be half way to Roman Catholicism, where I would have no recourse but to trust the bible according to an interpretation provided by an infallibly inspired church.

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Your thoughts on this, gentle reader, would be appreciated, but I'd be please if you were indeed gentle, as I'm not after a fight.
 

SolaScriptura

Puritanboard Brimstone
Let me respond briefly by using Genesis 1 as an example.

Should Genesis 1 be interpreted literally or figuratively?

There are some who say it is "figurative," but this passage doesn't bear any of the trademarks of Hebrew poetry or idiom. There's nothing about the passage itself that indicates the author intended to convey anything other than a straight forward message.

The only way that anyone interprets this passage in any way other than as a literal rendering is if they come to the passage influenced in some way by "scientific" findings of the 20th Century.

I'm certainly not advocating a fidiestic mentality, but if we believe in Sola Scriptura then I think that the safest course of action is to interpret the Bible on its own terms and allow that to be the primary grid through which we judge other things in life.

And that, my friend, I think is the key to all sound biblical hermeneutics: Take the passage as a straight forward statement of fact unless the passage itself gives reason to believe that it is employing hyperbole or idiom or poetry to "make a point" other than the straight forward reading.
 

Turtle

Puritan Board Freshman
I appreciate the desire to discuss a framework in an abstract way.

May I please address the assumption you did state. It appears to me that in order to accept the premise that external evidence can persuade me to rethink the genre of a text, I have to accept that the text itself may not be sufficient to explain its own claim, or express its own genre, if you will.

I am skeptical of any necessity to understand genre first to understand the text. Is not one's conclusion or assertion of "genre", in and of itself, an assertion of an understanding of the text? And perhaps a very constraining one at that.

Option #1 seems possible only if I accept the text might occasionally require assistance.

Option #2 admits I need assistance and can't know anything unless it is revealed to me.

The Disagreement with Option #2 seems to accept the premise that partial knowledge cannot be actual knowledge, and excludes any and all actual knowledge. However, it is evident that partial knowledge is actual knowledge. Even if we see dimly as in a mirror, we now know in part (1 Cor 13).

May we adjust Option #2 to say we don't have the whole story, but we can have confidence in the parts that have been revealed (that is, the One who has revealed, and will reveal)?
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dr_parsley

Puritan Board Freshman
Let me respond briefly by using Genesis 1 as an example.

Should Genesis 1 be interpreted literally or figuratively?

But can you also consider the question itself? It's a question of personal conscience; should someone accept (apparent) irrationality to win an easier way to interpret scripture? Or is that a tendentious way to put it? Anyway, as per my original post.

I'm certainly not advocating a fidiestic mentality, but if we believe in Sola Scriptura then I think that the safest course of action is to interpret the Bible on its own terms and allow that to be the primary grid through which we judge other things in life.

And if that implies (to the best of ones ability to discern and to the best of ones knowledge, overwhelmingly implies) fideism? What should a person do?
 

dr_parsley

Puritan Board Freshman
I appreciate the desire to discuss a framework in an abstract way.

May I please address the assumption you did state. It appears to me that in order to accept the premise that external evidence can persuade me to rethink the genre of a text, I have to accept that the text itself may not be sufficient to explain its own claim, or express its own genre, if you will.

I wrote out a long paragraph about genres, but deleted it because for the purpose of the hypothetical dilemma, we can move that corollary assumption into the main one and the question remains exactly the same. To the best of his ability, our subject considers the non-literal interpretation to be a thousand times more in accordance with the evidence than the literal one. Should he disregard the evidence or accept a less easy interpretation?

I am skeptical of any necessity to understand genre first to understand the text. Is not one's conclusion or assertion of "genre", in and of itself, an assertion of an understanding of the text? And perhaps a very constraining one at that.

It's only an assertion of an understanding of "text" in general. To assume a genre at all constrains you for sure, and literal historical narrative is a genre. If you hope to do exegesis, you can't ignore the type of document you're looking at, any more than you can ignore the writer. If you had excerpts of Shakespeare and some records from the Elizabethan secret police (which are phenomenal by the way) they will give very different results if you’re investigating an historic murder.

The Disagreement with Option #2 seems to accept the premise that partial knowledge cannot be actual knowledge, and excludes any and all actual knowledge. However, it is evident that partial knowledge is actual knowledge. Even if we see dimly as in a mirror, we now know in part (1 Cor 13).

In the case in question it would not be impossible for me to have actual knowledge, but it would be impossible to know which of my knowledge is true or how much of it. Without rationality as a benchmark for interpretation of scripture, my concern is that a Reformed person is only as legitimate as a Roman Catholic for their treatment of scripture (one as literal and personally interpreted and the other as interpreted by an infallible church). It can be only our rational exegetical investigation of scripture that gives us our authority to interpret it. If we give that up, we are no better than Roman Catholics and have no way to decide not to become one!

May we adjust Option #2 to say we don't have the whole story, but we can have confidence in the parts that have been revealed (that is, the One who has revealed, and will reveal)?

Yes. But does that change the dilemma? That only works if we can place reliance on rationality and in option 2 we have decided that the individual cannot.

Thank you for your thoughtful response.
 

dr_parsley

Puritan Board Freshman
In the absence of replies I'll take it that in such a dilemma one should follow ones own reasoning, not disregard it in favour of a desired interpretation of scripture...
 
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