An increasing number of Christian scholars and lay people are utilising a more sophisticated program to dehistoricize Genesis 1. Normally indicative of the liberal end of the theological spectrum, conservatives are also coming to rely on a literary theory approach supported by a postmodern epistemology. This recent trend either downplays or even eliminates the importance of content and permits structure or form to carry the traditional role of determining a text’s meaning. This paper examines the theory’s philosophical foundations and the history that laid the ground for its reception.

What is literary theory?

Any literary work, whether an oral presentation such as a sermon or lecture, or a written composition like a job application, a technical treatise, a piece of historiography or a book of fiction, possesses organizational structure. Communication of the information held by the text, its content, and which is intended to be conveyed from author or speaker to reader or listener, is intimately tied to literary form or structure. John Breck goes as far as to say, “Form expresses content, therefore content determines form [and thus t]he author of a literary work … chooses the particular structure that best expresses the meaning he or she wants to communicate.”1

The philosophy that focuses upon the “nature and function of literary texts” is termed literary theory.2 Historian Keith Windschuttle claims, “Rather than explaining what individual works mean, literary theory attempts to analyse the figures and conventions that enable works to have the forms and meanings they do.”3

Despite the clarity of this definition, literary theory has been found to be an extremely difficult and complex body of thought and writing to comprehensively specify, because it has quite broad application to very disparate academic disciplines. Its interdisciplinary use is recognised within art, film, gender and social studies, philosophy and politics. Nonetheless, as Jonathan Culler insists, “The main effect of [literary] theory is the disputing of ‘common sense’.” 4 According to Culler this means that literary theorists reject the following:

  • the conception that the meaning of an utterance or text is what the speaker ‘had in mind’
  • the idea that writing is an expression whose truth lies elsewhere in an experience or a state of affairs which it expresses
  • the notion that reality is what is ‘present’ at a given moment5

All these counter-intuitive aspects are expressed, either directly or implicitly, by a majority, if not all, of contemporary interpreters of Genesis 1 who have situated themselves outside its literal meaning as established by the historico-grammatical approach to the text. In other words, the narrative sections of this section of Scripture are no longer ‘strongly realistic’ so that “[t]he words and sentences meant what they said, and [thus] accurately described real events and real truths that were rightly put only in those terms and no others.”6

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