The Bible as Literature
Ryken rightly observes that “meaning is communicated through form, starting with the very words of a text but reaching beyond that to considerations of literary genre and style” (1) There are three primary forms of writing in the Bible: theological, historical, and literary. There is no way you can approach a biblical narrative, or Psalm without first engaging in the story or literary form. In other words, you can’t interpret any book of the Bible (whether it is a letter, a Psalm, a Proverb, or any other kind) without first understanding what kind of book you are reading (i.e. the story of Cain and Abel is a narrative). This can be summarized with Ryken’s statement that “no content exists apart from the form in which it is embodied” (1). This therefore supports the cohesiveness and perfect relationship between these three primary modes of writing in Scripture: theology, history, and literary form.
So, first thing to do is to “assimilate the form of a discourse” (1) because “without the literary form, the content does not even exist” (1). In other words, when you open your Bible, and you open to, for example, Genesis 1, understand and realize that you are reading a narrative, and to interpret it you must approach it as such, for if you don’t, your interpretation will vary enormously from the right interpretation of the text, which is found in the proper literary analysis of a passage or book of the Bible.
Why is this important to know and do? Because the Bible is constituted by a myriad of literary genres. These are some of the genres found in the Bible: proverb, saying, chronicle, complaint (lament psalm), oracle, apocalypse, parable, song, epistle, narrative (hero story, gospel, epic, tragedy, comedy, and parable), poetry (lyric, lament psalm, praise psalm, love poem, nature poem, epithalamion [wedding poem]), prophecy, visionary writing, apocalypse, pastoral, encomium (a formal expression of high praise), oratory, drama (the book of Job), satire, epistle, travel story, dramatic monologue, doom song, and Christ hymn, among many others.
According to Ryken, “the number of literary genres in the Bible readily exceeds one hundred” (1). This is a huge amount of literary genres! Still, some of you might say “I don’t see why I should approach each book depending on its literary form,” well, let me answer that question by quoting Ryken once again, “the importance of genre to biblical interpretation is that genres have their own methods of procedure and rules of interpretation. An awareness of genre should program our encounter with a text, alerting us to what we can expect to find. Additionally, considerations of genre should govern the terms in which we interact with a text, so that with narrative, for example, we know that we are on the right track if we pay attention to plot, setting, and character” (1). In other words, you cannot approach a narrative the way you would a poem, and you cannot infer the same conclusions you would from a poem than you would from a Pauline letter. Each one has its method of interpretation (notice I said method not an actual interpretation).
C.S. Lewis in his book Reflections on the Psalms, adequately states that “there is a…sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are” (2). If you do not pay attention to literature, like Luther said, theology will continue to be neglected and despised by the modern church.
Next: Part 3 (Approaching the Bible as Literature)
1- Ryken, Leland. “The Bible as Literature and Expository Preaching.” Preach The Word Essays on Expository Preaching: In Honor of R.Kent Hughes. Ed Leland Ryken and Todd A. Wilson. Illinois: Crossway Books, 2007. 38-53.
2- C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Macmillan, 1958), 3.