Friday 11 February 2011

D.A. Carson on the Bible’s Literary Genres (1)

I was present at the London School of Theology 2011 Laing Lecture earlier this week. The speaker was D.A. Carson, and the title was: ‘The Bible’s Literary Genres: Reflections on What They Say About God’.

There was lots of familiar material for those who have heard or read Carson before, but it was good to have it reiterated. The lecture came in two main parts:

(1) What does the diversity of genres itself tell us about God?

(2) What do each of the genres individually say about God?

I’ll post separately on these two questions; obviously since these are my notes of his lecture, it’s possible that I’ll misrepresent something he said and/or fail to do it proper justice; but here goes...

On the first point, Carson began by reminding us of the sheer diversity of literary genres in Scripture – narrative, poetry, apocalyptic, letter, etc. – as well as genres within genres (beatitudes and parables within gospels, for instance) and genres within genres within genres (e.g., metaphors).

After this brief preamble, he took us through a number of points:

1. Although many true things can be said about God, God cannot be domesticated.

Systematic theology has its place, of course, but a biblical narrative can push the categories we use. We can line up biblical passages that speak of God’s sovereignty. He is sovereign, but is also a personal, talking, interactive God. Or we may speak of his aseity (his utter independence, his need of nothing), but then find other passages that strain the categories we use. Unlike Islam (described by Carson as ‘monotheism simplex’), Christianity (‘monotheism complex’) holds that God is love.

2. The diversity of Scripture’s literary forms attests different modes of inspiration.

Unlike, say, The Book of Mormon, or the Qur’an. 2 Timothy 3:16 says that Scripture is ‘God-breathed’; his word may be breathed out in different ways – but the result is always that Scripture is his word. In one case, Jeremiah dictates God’s word to Baruch. Which is different from the way God’s word comes to Daniel – through visions, which Daniel does’t even understand. Other forms are different again, such as David’s psalms, which are a reflection of his own experience, where he is not a ‘dictation machine’, like Baruch – and yet the resulting word is still God’s word. Luke engages in careful research before he writes. Etc.

3. Biblical treatments of interaction between God and humans are recorded not only in affirmations, commands, and propositions, but in stunning depictions.

There are affirmations and commands (Carson cited parts of the Sermon on the Mount and Philippians as examples), but biblical depictions push us in other ways:

• Genesis 15:19-20 – God and human interaction in one and the same event in the different intentions of Joseph’s brothers and God – the mysteries of providence.

• Isaiah 10:5-19 – God uses Assyria (as one would use a club) to bring judgment on his people, and then promises to punish the Assyrians.

• Acts 4:27-28 – The apostles recognise the evil that brought about the crucifixion of Jesus, and yet also describe it as ‘determined beforehand’.

4. The diversity of materials placed along an historical axis generates some of the most important trajectories in the Bible.

Carson used the example of Melchizedek here, in his three occurrences in Genesis 14, Psalm 110, and Hebrews 7. They are different literary genres, but when placed in historical sequence say some crucial things about Jesus.

• Genesis 14 – Melchizedek is described as a priest and king, which could never happen under the Mosaic covenant, and he receives a tithe from Abraham. Unlike other significant characters in Genesis, he has no genealogy, seemingly arriving out of nowhere and disappearing again.

• Psalm 110 – Between Genesis 14 and Psalm 110 comes the Mosaic covenant, where priests descend from Levi, and kings (after Saul) from Judah; the two roles are not found in the same person. David becomes king and rules from Jerusalem over a united kingdom. The kingship is established and the priesthood is established, but – as David writes in Psalm 110 – there was a priest-king (of Jerusalem? Salem?) a long time before, who was great enough for Abraham to pay him homage.

• Hebrews 7 – God’s promise of a priest-king only makes sense if the priesthood itself, in principle – including the covenant on which it was based – was becoming obsolete.

5. Sometimes there are interesting lessons to be learned within literary genres.

Ecclesiastes, Job, and Proverbs are all wisdom literature – but are very different.

What is a gospel, and why are there four of them? Carson pointed here to the titles of the gospels – The Gospel According to Matthew, etc. – such that there is one gospel with several witnesses. The gospel is the good news of what God was doing in his Son – which is why we announce it and preach it (what else does one do with news?).

I’ll post notes on Part 2 of the lecture anon.

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