Friday, January 20, 2023
Before we can embrace a literary approach to the Bible with enthusiasm, we of course need to be relieved of anxieties about viewing the Bible as literature. Resistance to viewing the Bible as literature has rested on misconceptions about what literature is, both in itself and as it relates to the Bible. Below are five false characterizations that have prevailed in some Christian and non-Christian circles, accompanied by an explanation of why the allegations are untrue.
It is untrue that viewing the Bible as literature is automatically to adopt a liberal theological attitude toward the Bible. A survey of commentators who conduct literary analysis of the Bible shows the same range of viewpoint from conservative to liberal that other approaches to the Bible possess. There is nothing inherent in a literary approach that requires a liberal perspective. In fact, it is entirely possible to begin a literary analysis of the Bible exactly where all study of the Bible should begin—by accepting as true all that biblical writers say about the Bible (its inspiration by God; its reliability; its complete truthfulness; etc.).
We need to remind ourselves that it is possible to approach the Bible theologically and miss the mark of truth, too. Theologizing by itself is no guarantee of truth. There has been as much false theology as there has been true theology, so a literary approach to the Bible is neither more nor less suspect than a theological approach.
The idea of the Bible as literature began with the Bible itself. The writers of the Bible refer with technical precision to a whole range of literary genres in which they write—proverb, saying, chronicle, complaint [lament psalm], oracle, apocalypse, parable, song, epistle, and many another.
Furthermore, some of the forms that we find in the Bible correspond to the literary forms current in the authors’ surrounding cultures. For example, the Ten Commandments are cast into the form of suzerainty treaties that ancient Near Eastern kings imposed on their subjects, and the New Testament epistles, despite unique features, show many affinities to Greek and Roman letters of the same era.
Mainly, though, we can look to the Bible itself to see the extent to which it is a literary book. Virtually every page of the Bible is replete with literary technique, and to possess the individual texts of the Bible fully, we need to read the Bible as literature, just as we need to read it theologically and (in the narrative parts) historically.
While fictionality is common in literature, it is not an essential ingredient of literature. The properties that make a text literary are unaffected by the historicity or fictionality of the material. A text is literary based on a writer’s selectivity and molding of the material, and the style of presentation, regardless of whether the details really happened or are made up.
Nor does the presence of convention and artifice in the Bible necessarily imply fictionality. The modern television genre of the docudrama is filled with conventions (interviews of people, film clips of events, material from archives) that do not detract from the factuality of the account.
A fear that prevents some people from embracing the concept of the Bible as literature is the fear that to speak of the Bible as literature necessarily means to pay attention only to the literary features of the Bible and ignore more important aspects of it. The same argument might be used to preclude a study of the history or language of the Bible, since with these approaches, too, a person might remain fixed on those aspects only.
To analyze the Bible as literature need not entail an abandonment of the special religious belief and authority that Christians ascribe to the Bible. Nor does it necessarily mean that a person will not pay equal attention to other aspects of the Bible—its history, its language, its theology, its sociology, its psychology. The Bible requires multiple approaches, and the literary approach is one of these. A theological approach to the Bible by itself is incomplete. A literary approach seeks to complement other approaches, not to replace them. It is appropriate to say again, however, that the literary forms of the Bible are the means through which the content is expressed, with the result that a priority needs to be assigned to literary analysis as the only adequate starting point for other kinds of analysis.
If we believe in the inspiration of the Bible by the Holy Spirit, we believe that whatever we find in the Bible is what God wanted us to know and possess. We do not believe in the inspiration of the Bible because of the content that we find there. It is actually the other way around: we begin with the premise of inspiration, so that whatever is in the Bible is what God the Holy Spirit inspired the human authors to compose.
If God moved the writers of the Bible to write as they did, the only plausible inference is that God inspired the forms of the Bible. We should not say “the forms of the Bible as well as its content,” because the content is embodied in the forms. The three modes of writing that we find in the Bible—theological, historical, literary—are all equal in regard to inspiration. God inspired the writing of all three, and the writers of all three were equally dependent on inspiration by the Holy Spirit to write the truth.
2 Peter 1:21 tells us that the writers of Scripture wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. Thus when the Bible gives us literary subject matter—the concrete embodiment of human experience—that subject matter is present through the agency of divine inspiration. So are the genres and forms of the Bible. If God inspired some writers to tell stories, others to write poems, others to write satire or letters or visions, then those forms deserve an attention in keeping with their inspired nature.
The foregoing material was composed by Leland Ryken as part of the introduction to The Literary Study Bible: ESV, published by Crossway Books of Wheaton, Illinois. The entire introduction can be found in that book.
Leland wants to see people growing and reading the Bible as literature. He has been a college teacher of literature for over half a century, authored some sixty books, and now continues to bless the Church through his resources made freely available on this site.
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