This lesson is part of Mel Lawrenz’ “How to Study the Bible” series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
Later today I will go to my mailbox, remove its contents, go into the kitchen, and sort the mail. I will be able to tell from the size, packaging, and addresses on the mail which pieces are advertising, bills, and personal mail. This sorting into types helps me discern the value of the different pieces.
There is a large bookstore I frequently visit. I know just where to find histories and biographies, novels and picture books, technical manuals and reference works. Knowing the different genres and where to find them helps me gain what I am looking for.
And when I open the Bible, I know from having studied it for decades whether I am reading a gospel passage, a prophecy, a Psalm, or an epistle. I do not expect Isaiah to lay out the details of the history of Israel as do the books of Kings and Chronicles. I know when I’m studying a Psalm that the forms of a poem or song will help me understand the meaning. And when I read 1 Corinthians I know I’m listening to one side of a two-sided conversation.
One of the most powerful and complex features of the Bible is that it consists of many different types, or genres, of texts.
The major genres of Scripture include the following:
This includes books of the Bible or sections of books which simply tell the story of what happened. Exodus is an expansive, epic narrative. Ruth focusses on the story of one family. Acts tells the spectacular events of the first generation of Christians, as they were led and inspired by the Holy Spirit. Narrative tells us what happened, according to the purposes of the author. Sometimes there are spiritual lessons from events, and sometimes we are just gaining the context of the history of God’s people.
This is all of Psalms and sections of other books. The power of poetry comes through the use of vivid figurative language (“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.” Ps. 42:1.) Also, ideas are repeated, sometimes with the same words, other times with synonyms (synonymous parallelism). The Psalms and other poetic sections of the Bible communicate ideas, but they especially express emotion. They show life in its fullness.
Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes are collections of wise sayings meant to shape the moral and ethical lives of their readers. They cover many practical topics. The book of James in the New Testament in many ways is like Proverbs in the Old Testament.
The four major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel) and the 12 minor prophets (Hosea through Malachi) are all God’s word to his covenant people, warning them and bolstering them during periods of pronounced spiritual and national danger. They are mostly oracles, later written down. We gain spiritual lessons from them about the disposition of God (e.g., disappointed, indignant, sorrowful, tender, caring), and the condition of the people addressed (e.g., frightened, disobedient, humbled, arrogant). We must read Old Testament prophetic books as God’s challenge to the original audiences, and then we apply the lessons to our day.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are similar to the genres of narrative or biography, but they are more than these. The Gospels are proclamation. The people who wrote them were true believers relating first-hand accounts about the life and teachings of Jesus. And so we read the genre of Gospel as faith documents, announcing a world-changing event centered in the person of Jesus. (The teachings of Jesus we know as parables are their own genre. These unique stories communicate lessons embedded in extended similes and metaphors.)
The letters of the New Testament were communications to specific individuals or groups for specific and varied purposes. The apostle Paul meant Romans to be an overarching description of Christian faith, whereas 1 Corinthians was occasioned by problems, including a list of questions they had for Paul (“now concerning the matters you wrote about,” 1 Cor. 7:1), and the letters to Timothy were to encourage and guide a younger church leader in a challenging spot. Epistles are “occasioned” texts, and so we need to get at the circumstances that led to them being written.
The book of Revelation and parts of the book of Daniel are revelations. Like other prophecies, they proclaim urgent messages to their original audiences, in particular, warning and comfort. To a greater degree than other prophetic books, they employ much symbolic language, which can be understood by studying preceding similar expressions in Scripture.
When we sit down to study the Bible we recognize what genre we are looking at in order to gain a head start in getting at the meaning. If we don’t account for genre we will certainly misunderstand and misapply the truth of God’s word. Genres also show how God’s word is wide and varied and deep, and worthy of a lifetime of study.
Mel Lawrenz trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s minister at large. He has a Ph.D. in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, the latest, How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.