Generic criticism refers to the method of defining the basic “type” of some writing or speech. The phrase uses criticism in the sense of “analysis,” as related to the word critique. The word genre means “a category of similar things.” In art, writing, or music, it refers to compositions that share a common style. For instance, classical music and heavy metal music are two different genres. Romantic comedies are one genre of movies, while horror films are another. So, generic criticism of something like the Bible would involve defining a passage as either poetry, prophecy, history, narrative, or some other broad category.
The books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, for example, are in the genre of wisdom literature. This kind of writing is aimed at real-world problems from a common-sense, in-most-cases point of view. It’s not meant to be a series of absolute statements or prophecies or depictions of history. Knowing that Proverbs is “wisdom literature” helps in interpreting its intended meanings.
As another example, Paul’s letters of Galatians and Romans are mostly consistent with the genre of judicial argument. In other words, lawyers of Paul’s era would use that same style of writing or speech when presenting their case before a judge. That perspective helps a reader see how Paul intends to connect various statements or comments. It can also help to explain why Paul brings up certain points or facts and why he arranges them as he does. It gives the reader a “starting point” in interpreting those works—not an absolute requirement, but a good point of reference.
As with other methods, generic criticism is simply a tool, one that can be used correctly or abused. We might recognize that books like Ezekiel and Revelation are part of the “apocalyptic literature” genre and view them accordingly. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that any particular part of those books is false, imaginary, or otherwise to be dismissed simply because it can be categorized as apocalyptic literature. It would be just as false to reject the literal truth of everything in the Gospel of Luke simply because it’s clear Luke is trying to persuade the reader of a particular position.
Whether generic criticism adds to our understanding depends on if it’s being used appropriately. Correctly applied, it helps us in “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV) and can give us valuable information to use in discipleship (see Matthew 28:19–20).