Which One?: A Quick Note On Genre and Context in Biblical Interpretation

Someone recently asked me what I do with the passages in the Bible that discuss postmortem retribution, eternal damnation, and the condemnation of some to eternal torment... in short, they were asking me what I do with passages that talk about hell. It was likely their assumption that I am a universalist (probably because we were talking about my affinity for Rob Bell... and everyone assumes that Rob Bell’s a universalist because they are confused by Love Wins). The fact is, I’ve never really considered myself a universalist... at least not whole-heartedly. Nevertheless, I have a hard time with that question... what do you do with those passages that talk about hell?

It’s not that those passages necessarily present a unique exegetical challenge (although some of them do). The real problem with this question is that you can’t do anything with them as a whole, really. The answer to the question, when presented as such, can really only be, “I read them and interpret them...” But what happens after that is fair game. You can’t be much more specific than that because you can’t deal with all the passages in question as one monolithic whole. They each have to be read and interpreted on their own terms. I’m open to the possibility that one might operate one way, according to its genre and context, and another might operate completely differently. It’s possible that one is more literal and another is more metaphorical. It’s possible that one is directly theological and another is only allegorically so. It’s possible that one is prophetically hyperbolic an another is plainly and chronologically literal. It’s possible even that, in one case, context might preclude a univocal application to our current conceptions and in another case, we should build a theology directly therefrom. When it comes to scripture, we have to read it and interpret it on its own terms. Genre, context, mood, even grammar--it all matters!

The same principles apply to any question that tries to lump a whole bunch of verses, from various contexts and genres, into one whole. Ask me what to do with one passage or one chapter or one book at a time, and I will probably be able to help you out. But ask me, “what do you do with the passages that talk about hell?” or “what do you do with the passages about homosexuality?” and I might just have to ask, “which one?”


todd said…
It's easy. Exegesis is not so difficult as people make it sound. We can just believe what we want, and find a way to show how the Bible supports what we already suspected. That part there rubs me and you the wrong way when taken literally, well, don't worry... that part's most likely allegorical. Just look at the context. And this part here is clearly literal. We can use what we know from this verse here (the one which is perfectly clear), to assess what those less clear verses over there must mean. Throw a little icing of greek grammar on top for good measure, and voĆ­la! Why does everyone try to make exegesis seem so complicated? Any theology you wish to build from Scripture can be built and defended. Just ask both parties on any given theological debate whether they are reading it and interpreting it on its own terms, and both will insist that it is the other party that is not treating Scripture on its own terms. What was is it that Irenaeus said awhile back, something about a king and a fox?