Monday, October 01, 2007

Are there Genres (Different Types) of Truth in Scripture?

~ C Michael Patton ~ @

Does the message of the Bible condescend to cultural norms? Did Paul ever exaggerate the truth? Is God ever sarcastic? Does inspiration necessitate the preclusion of certain methods of communication? How many different ways can truth be communicated? Is there such a thing as a genre of truth?

Most would hesitate to answer this question since this is a Christian blog. More than that, it is an Evangelical Christian blog! This means that we not only believe the Bible, but we really really believe the Bible. The hesitancy turns into reluctance when we consider the postmodern tendency to doubt any truth claims along with liberalisms skepticism about “Christian” truth claims.

Truth is truth, right? I think we need to be careful. Those of us who believe in objective truth, know that while truth transcends any subjective opinions, time, or culture, the communication of this truth can be done in a variety of ways. I like to think of the communication of truth in terms of ”Genres of Truth.” It is very closely connected to genres of literature, but is different in that it speaks to the principled understanding of the types of truth that these genres of literature generate.

It is no secret that the recognition of the various genres of literature in the Scriptures is one of the most neglected areas in hermeneutics. Most people think of the Bible as a whole genre in and of itself. It is not fiction, fable, parable, poetry, (theological) history or anything else. It is “the Bible”—God’s word. No—better—it is God’s personal letter to us. Therefore the only type of interpretation that will do is that follows the ”God’s word hermeneutic.”

But there is a problem. There is no such thing as a “God’s word hermeneutic.” We suppose there is because we believe that the Bible is inspired. Being inspired means that it is true (inerrant). Being true means that any hermeneutic employed when interpreting the Scriptures must always begin with a presumption of its truthfulness. The problem is that this presumption often unnecessarily creates a foreign hermeneutic that is very Gnostic in its psychological origin.

Yet, in the real world, it would seem that we do have justification for seeing a genre-like categorization of truth statements. There are many acceptable ways in which we communicate truth without being accused of inaccuracies. We have a high tolerance for this type of communication, knowing that people speak with figures of speech, sarcasm, exaggerations, understatements, and in many other less than literal ways to make their communication more relevant, forceful, and understandable. Here are some examples of “genres of truth.”

Mathematical truth: Truths that are technically precise by definition. “Two plus two equals four.”

Approximate truth: Truths that represent reality in a loose fashion, but are generally accurate. Saying ”It is nine-o’clock” when it is really 8:45.

Hyperbolic truth: Creating emphasis by saying more than is actually or literally true. “It took forever for you to call.”

Sarcastic truth: A cutting and often ironic remark intended to ridicule or bring about contempt in its subject. After someone is caught robing a bank you say, “Boy, you are really smart, aren’t you?”

Understated truth: Creating emphasis by saying less than is actually or literally true. “That game was not bad.”

Colloquial truth: Commonly understood statements of everyday language which are not meant to be taken literally: “I will be there in a minute.” In answer to the question “How are you doing?” you say “Great!”

Metonymy: A figure of speech that substitutes a word for something closely associated with the word. “The pen is mightier than the sword.” “The White House said . . .”

Fictional or parabolic truth: Truth that is communicated through a commonly understood fictional story, place, or character. “You are stronger than Superman.”

Anthropomorphic truth (personification): The implied analogous attribution of human physical characteristics to things that do not have exact parallels. “Love is blind” or “the long arm of the law.”

Anthropopathic truth (personification): The implied analogous attribution of human emotional characteristics to things that do not have exact parallels. “The sea is angry.”

Truth of condescension: The use of folk-lore, fable, or simplicity to communicate something too complex or sensitive for the listener to understand. In answer to a child’s question “Where do babies come from?” you answer with simplicity “From God” or “From mommy’s belly” or “From a stork.”

Phenomenological truth: Truth communicated from the vantage point of the viewer. ”The sun is going down.”

Proverbial truth: Wise statements of general truth that are not necessarily true in every situation. “Your sins will catch up to you.”

Certainly there are many more, and people will define these listed in different ways. The basic point is that we communicate truth in many different genres. These genres help us to understand each other as well as provide much needed depth or simplicity to our communication.

What we must consider now is the level that these genres of truths might play into our reading and understanding of Scripture. If God communicated through humans without vetoing their human qualities and if this type of communication was common when the Scriptures were written, then wouldn’t we expect the Scriptures to communicate through these genres of truth?

Let me throw out some examples for your consideration (none of which I am necessarily committed to one way or another):

  • “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). Is it really? All evil? Can this not fit into hyperbolic truth? Maybe money is not the only root of evil, but Paul, in this context, is exaggerating the role that money has to play in evil. Just a thought.
  • “If someone spreads false teachings and does not agree with sound words (that is, those of our Lord Jesus Christ) and with the teaching that accords with godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing” (1 Tim. 6:3-4). He understands “nothing”? Really, there has to be something he understands. Could Paul be overstating his case? Is that possible?
  • “The mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds.” Is it really the smallest? Do we need to take this literally just because Christ said it? Or can Christ condescend to the common understanding of his audience. Maybe it was the smallest seed in their agricultural environment. Not only that, maybe it was just thought to be the smallest seed by most people in this culture, but it really was not. Does this violate truth?

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