The Bible Is Literature, Not A Spiritual Book (Part 3)

Approaching The Bible As Literature

“To view the Bible as literature does not by itself impair one’s belief in the inspiration of biblical writers by the Holy Spirit. Our beginning premise must be that everything that we find in the Bible came by inspiration and was safeguarded by the Holy Spirit. If, then, we find an abundance of literary forms in the Bible, we should conclude that God inspired those literary forms, reminding ourselves at the same time that there is no content apart from the forms in which it is embodied” (1).

To approach the Bible as literature does not mean that you will interpret it by using man-made “philosophies” or “theologies.” This is a severe misinterpretation of what it means that the Bible is Literature. The Bible is an anthology (a book or other collection of selected writings by various authors, usually in the same literary form, of the same period,or on the same subject) and yet it is remarkable and imperative to acknowledge its cohesiveness and harmony with every single page you turn. From the Old Testament to the New Testament, the Bible never contradicts itself, which adds to the reliability of the Bible, having been written by over forty authors from over three completely different continents over a period of more than 1,600 years. Despite this long stretch of time, contributions of people of completely different cultures, and other factors, the Bible still remains the most cohesive, coherent, and harmonious work of literature in all history. Should anyone realize how important it is to approach the Bible in a literary way knowing that all these different authors had different views on the world and life that were steered by their upbringing? Knowledge in times of old was different, as was education. People in the past were instructed the importance of education. More specifically, literature, philosophy, theology, and reasoning were the hobbies and interests of the children of old. 

Moses, for example, educated in Egypt. Exodus 2:10 says that Jochebed, Moses’ mother, brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter when he grew up and “he became her son. She named him Moses, “Because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water” (Exodus 2:10, ESV). Moses was instructed in the Egyptian religion, 
military education, literature, and philosophy. It is of no wonder that God used this training of
Moses later on when he wrote the Pentateuch. The precision with which Moses wrote God’s revelation of His law, the chronological account of the Exodus and the conquest of the Promised Land, etc., all of this education was used and given by God to accomplish His Sovereign will in Moses life. 21st century Christians must retake this approach to the Bible because of its importance and its crucial role in interpreting the Bible.

Some of you reading this entry may believe that I am introducing a modern “philosophical” man-made thought. As Ryken rightly states, “The idea of the Bible as literature is not a concotion of modernity” (1) A concoction is an invention or a combination of things. Literary-driven exegesis is by no means a modern invention, it is supported by the Bible itself because it isimplicit in the Bible itself. 

Why is it important to approach the Bible as literature? Ryken outlines the following reasons:

Literary analysis brings out the universal human experiences embodied in a passage. “Literature is the human race’s testimony to its own experience” (1). In other words, the characters in the Bible were also humans and went through most things that humans in the twenty-first century endure. However, I believe this is the most widely used form of preaching today. Pastors tend to expound the Bible in a way that makes the flock reflect and discover their own experiences in the text and its exposition. This is good but it can lead to lack of context-driven interpretation of the Bible and also a lack of literary-driven exegesis of Scripture. However, it is good to employ this point of literary exegesis in relation to the other points I will shortly address.

A literary analysis of a text identifies the genre and interacts with the text in terms appropriate to that genre. In other words, by engaging in dissecting a narrative for example (talking about plot conflict, climax, resolution, motif, characterization, etc.) the preacher or teacher will have successfully avoided theological propositions (expositor bias) and it also avoids reading the Bible as if it was written in one form only.

Interaction with a biblical text has been appropriately literary if the expositor has identified and commented on such linguistic and rhetorical features of the text as patterning, figurative language, and the style in which a biblical author has couched his content. Let me try to explain this with an example. Revelation chapter 20 is believed by many to be the proof of a literal thousand-year-reign just because it says thousand years. I will not go into a discussion on eschatology here but, it is important to understand that the book of Revelation is filled with symbolism (chapters before and after chapter 20). Please understand that I am not saying that all the book of Revelation is merely symbolism and not real or factual, the point I am trying to make is that by reading the words “thousand years” exclusively, we arrive to the theological propositions or abstractions that Ryken warns will be the result of a merely spiritual approach to Scripture. It is imperative to understand who John was writing Revelation to, what time he wrote it, under what circumstances, and what literary form he used in order to know what approach to take when reading Revelation.

I realize this post is hard to understand and read, but if you really want to approach, understand, and interpret the Bible correctly, you must do so through the eyes of the person who wrote it. By employing these three principles outlined above, you (whether you are a pastor, teacher, or just studying the Bible by yourself) will be sure that you are doing so correctly and in the way God intends His Word to be interpreted. 

Some of you at this point might think that I am advocating a literary-driven exegesis of Scripture alone. This is not true and not the point of these entries. My beginning premise was that “the Bible is Literature, not a Spiritual Book,” and I still believe so. However, there must be a balance in your approach to the Bible. Let me try to explain this by using a quote from Ryken, “a literary approach to the Bible need not imply only a literary approach, any more than a historical approach implies only a concern with history or a theological approach only an interest in theology” (1).

Another point that must be addressed is my critic toward a theological approach to the Bible. This sort of approach does not guarantee accuracy or truthfulness to the Bible because it is the person’s own interpretation of the Bible based on his understanding of it, whether literary or not. The point is that you must not rely on the interpretation of pastors, friends, or even your own church. Find the truth of the Bible on your own. No, I am not telling you to rebel against your church or to not trust anyone or to alienate yourself from brethren. Feed from your pastor’s teaching, your brethren, but do not consider it as the ultimate and true interpretation of the Bible. This can be hard because sometimes you will end up going against what everyone believes and yet, if it is Biblical, that is all the authority and support you will ever need. Notice that I am not against theology per se; for theology is the most noble of all studies, the study of God. However, I am against theological assertions made by man. Right theology is driven by right interpretation.

One final point I want to address. By literary analysis I do not mean a technical and sophisticated literary approach to the Bible. Once again, allow me to quote from Ryken in order to respond to an imminent objection to this approach to the Bible, “by literary criticism I mean traditional literary criticism, not the bewildering and highly technical critical approaches that have dominated upper-level literary scholarship for the past four decades. I do not envision anything more technical than the methods of analysis that are instilled in any good high school or college literary course” (1). And if you do go deeper than that, it is also good, but the main reason I wrote these entries was for you to be equipped with the most reliable and accurate approach to the Bible so that you can rightly divide the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15, ESV).

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.

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