This past week I had the opportunity to interact with colleagues at a gathering of the Evangelical Theological Society in San Diego, CA. I presented a paper entitled, “Recapturing the Voice of God: Sermons Shaped by Reanimation of the Genre of the Text,” where I argued simply that the meaning of a text of Scripture is beyond the level of the words of a text. I began by saying that rhetorical theorists have noted there is a relationship between how words are presented and the content of those words, concluding that rhetoric is not just words. Rather, “rhetoric” should be understood as a way of managing meaning. Thus the meaning of a text, and thus the meaning of a sermon that is to re-present that text, is a mixture of what the words says in the way that Scripture says them. Yet, we preachers often try to deal with the words of Scripture as if they are isolated from the genre in which the Holy Spirit placed them:
Yet, for those of us whose message is Scripture and whose medium is also Scripture, this relationship has often been ignored. Instrumentation is to a song what structure is to a sermon. Scripture is the medium of its own message.
Scripture not only says things, it says things in certain modes of communication; i.e., certain genres. These genres can only be ignored if we think that somehow what is said is not influenced by how it is said. Yet again, the reach of our doctrine of inspiration is greater than this. It extends to how the Word was and is communicated.
After this intro, I made three observations about the genres of Scripture. First, there are not an infinite number of them. I find it helpful to divide them into nine generally accepted categories: narrative, law, prophecy, poetry, wisdom literature, gospels, parables, epistles, and apocalyptic. Further, these nine can be collapsed into three macro level categories: narrative, poetry, and epistle. Everything in the Bible is a story, a poem, or a letter.
The second observation was that the genres are situational. Each text of Scripture was written to accept a certain situation and, as God’s word, it speaks to an unlimited number of situations. The final observation is was that the genres are moving. They are not static. They are moving toward a very specific destination: the exaltation of Christ in the consummation of God’s ultimate design for all things. This is where the illustration of the train is helpful. The genres are like individual cars in a train and, while they are all unique, their movement is possible because they are linked together. Thus, the paper concluded:
The text is not static, it is moving like a train. And like a train it is composed of individual vehicles whose shape is determined by the cargo that they carry. In the same way, the shape of the genres of Scripture are not things that need to be bent toward Christ, rather they exist like they do because of the Gospel message. This argument, from the nature of Scripture, gives warrant to the desire to clear a spot and preach Christ from any Scripture. The commonality is the destination. They are each moving individual, car-specific, cargo to the final destination: the culmination of God’s plan in redemptive history.
The genres are limited, there are a finite number of them. The genres are situational and speak to every contemporary situation. The genres are also moving. They are carriers of a message that is complete, but a story that is not yet complete. These three realities could be summarized as such: the limited genres speak to unlimited situations that are all reaching their climax through the message of the Gospel. The genres are the individual cars that carry the entire message. Thus, the existence of different genres speaks to the compassionate nature of the Gospel.
If this is true then one can make the Gospel explicit from any genre. It is warranted in any situation, because the nature of Scripture demands it. In other words, the composition of Scripture begs for the explanation of the Gospel from it.
If this is the case, then the genres are carrying us as well. While we are studying the genre, the genre is studying us. Preaching is explaining to people how God is reading them. It is our situation to which they speak; therefore it is to the present situation that we must speak. And that situation demands the Gospel.