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Reading the Bible as Literature (2)

Last week we began a series on reading the Bible as literature. In our first article we summarized and gave some examples of a literary approach to Scripture. In this installment we’ll address some possible concerns with this method, especially as it relates to the inspiration and historical reliability of the Bible.

Can God’s word be subject to literary analysis?

The Bible is the divinely inspired word of God. Some Christians conclude from this that the Bible as a text is so unique and otherworldly that it cannot possibly be analyzed using secular techniques. Words directly from God are incomparable to human words, and should therefore be treated differently. This position would rule out any literary analysis of the Bible.

However, this is not the traditional Reformed view of Scripture, and it is, in fact, untenable. Anyone who reads Scripture uses his “secular” reading skills—the grammar of Bible sentences is no different from regular grammar and translators apply the same principles to the Bible as to other texts. Yes, God has spoken through the Scriptures, but he has spoken human language, and may we say, human literature.

The traditional Reformed view of organic inspiration emphasizes that God’s communication in Scripture happens through the instrumentality of people, including Old Testament poets and narrators, who are carried along by the Holy Spirit to write, without circumventing their personalities, experiences, circumstances, styles, rhetorical abilities, grammatical skills, etc. Thus what is composed is a thoroughly human text, yet one that is nevertheless a fully divine text. Because of this we can freely apply analytical methods to the text of Scripture, as long as we understand that through this very human text, it is ultimately God himself who brings a message to the world and to his church.

Is the Bible literature?

Even so, for some people it sounds strange to label the Bible as “literature.” One skeptic was C. S. Lewis, who complained: “You can read it as literature only by a tour de force. You are cutting the wood against the grain, using the tool for a purpose it was not intended to serve. It demands incessantly to be taken on its own terms: it will not continue to give literary delight very long except to those who go to it for something quite different.”[1] In other words, the Bible is not meant to be read as literature, and for this reason a literary approach is an improper tool to get at its meaning.

Certainly there are “literary” theories that are rather unhelpful—they are too abstract, too tentative, too elitist, too reductionistic; they make things complicated and seem to overlook the obvious, simple meaning. “There is something artificial in the idea of the Bible as ‘literature.’ Or rather, it can be artificial and contrary to the perception of both most believers and most unbelievers.”[2] But not all literary approaches are like this, and most Bible scholars who take a literary approach have no intention of covering the plain meaning of Scripture in a cloud of esoteric theory. On the contrary, some of the leading researchers endeavor to explain their methods to a broader audience.[3] Meir Sternberg, author of an impressive book on literary analysis of Scripture, states: “Even the listing of so-called devices and configurations—a fashionable practice, this, among aspirants to ‘literary criticism’—is no substitute for the proper business of reading.”[4]

There can hardly be any objection to a “literary” approach if it means the proper business of reading—careful, detail-oriented reading of the text and its surrounding context, aware of the complex communicative situation of the human and divine author, original and current historical situation, and so on. Even C. S. Lewis finds no fault with that: “But there is a saner sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature.”[5]

The Bible is literature because it communicates using an artfully composed form (see our first article). It is not a list of bare facts, but a collection of stories, poems, letters, and so on. Elegant arrangements of stories, beautiful parallelisms of poetic lines, and other such devices prove that the human authors (and through them, the Holy Spirit himself) found it important to communicate in an artful manner. It is not only possible, then, but even mandatory that we recognize the care and beauty of the composition, and endeavor to find out what light it sheds on the message of Scripture.

Is “literary criticism” a valid approach to Scripture?

A literary approach to Bible reading is often called “literary criticism,” which can be divided into the narrower fields of “narrative criticism,” “poetic criticism,” and “rhetorical criticism.” For many Bible-believing Christians the word “criticism” raises suspicion. It suggests, first of all, a negative approach to God’s revelation; who are we, and who are scholars, to criticize the Bible? Second, the word “criticism” is often associated with the liberal theologians whose agendas for the last 200 years have been to deconstruct the traditional Christian faith.

Undeniably, there have been many Bible scholars whose view of Scripture was seriously deficient or downright unbelieving. The methods they developed—such as “historical criticism” or “redaction criticism”—are often at odds with the Reformed conviction that Scripture is divinely inspired, reliable, sufficient, authoritative, and true. These critical approaches indeed criticize the Christian faith, not just in details, but at its very core belief that God acted in history according to the Scriptures and that Christ came and died and rose again in agreement with the Scriptures.

The greatest problem with “critical” approaches to the Bible is that they cannot be neutral. Any scientific investigation begins with a set of presuppositions and criteria. The reason why the “historical criticism” of liberal theology rejected the Bible as untrue lies in the assumptions they made: for instance, that if the Bible describes the kind of event we normally do not encounter (miracles), it must be false. Traditional Christians reject historical criticism and its conclusions precisely because they are based on a fundamental posture of unbelief.

But the word “criticism” does not necessarily imply a negative or unbelieving approach. Rather, it is “the art of evaluating or analyzing works of art or literature” or “the scientific investigation of literary documents in regard to such matters as origin, text, composition, and history.”[6] The only essentially negative aspect in a “critical” study of the Bible is that we do not take for granted what other people think it means. In principle, Protestants should applaud this principle!

The obvious question now is whether “literary criticism” avoids the pitfalls of earlier critical scholarship. One way to determine this is by considering its principles. Mark Allen Powell lists the following differences between literary and historical criticism: [7]

  1. Literary criticism focuses on the finished form of the text.
  2. Literary criticism emphasizes the unity of the text as a whole.
  3. Literary criticism views the text as an end in itself.
  4. Literary criticism is based on communication models of speech-act theory. (Basically, this means that the text is viewed in the context of an author who sends a message to the reader, in a deliberate attempt to inform him and/or accomplish other effects.)

These principles are very different from those of the historical-critical approach, which treated Scripture as a fragmentary record of garbled historical data, and tried to discover historical facts almost in spite of the text. Literary criticism honors the unity of the text, without trying to guess at its history, and tries to ascertain the communicative intention of the author. This is compatible with the Reformed view of Scripture.

While this literary approach to Scripture is not hostile to traditional Christian faith, it does not require it, either. Some scholars who engage in this discipline have a rather weak view of Scripture and its authority. This does not render their conclusions useless; but they will always be incomplete. No “critical” scientific method can do justice to the supernatural essence and effects of Scripture: that God is its author, that it offers Jesus Christ, that it is the instrument of the Holy Spirit. Just as with all other theological and scientific research, we must understand it in the broader context of the God who reveals himself.

In our next article we will explore in more detail the relationship between a literary reading and a historical understanding of Scripture.


[1] Quoted in Moisés Silva, Has the Church Misread the Bible? (1987).

[2] K. Stendahl quoted in Tremper Longman III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation (1987), Introduction.

[3] Two outstanding examples are Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative; and Jan Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative. By way of disclaimer, I do not fully endorse their view of Scripture.

[4] Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington: 1987), p. 2.

[5] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (Glasgow: 1961), p. 10.

[6] Merriam-Webster dictionary of criticism, meanings 2 and 3.

[7] Mark Allen Powell, What is Narrative Criticism (Minneapolis: 1990), pp. 7f.

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