Five myths about literary approaches to the Bible

Yesterday I wrote a post recommending some resources for gaining literary reading skills of the biblical texts. In doing some further reading, however, I learned that the benefit of literary approaches to the Bible is not affirmed by all. I’ve always taken for granted that literary study of scripture is a useful and necessary tool for proper interpretation.

Learning that the enterprise is viewed with suspicion by some has led me to write this current post. On the one hand, this post is intended to clarify that interest in literary studies is not a mark of a low view of scripture. On the other hand, it commends this approach to others who (like me) desire to best understand the meaning of individual passages in God’s inspired, infallible and inerrant word.

In the introduction to the Literary Study Bible (ESV), edited by Leland Ryken and Philip Ryken, five myths (what they call “fallacies”) about a literary approach to the Bible are described and countered. The following are summarized and cited from pgs. xii-xiv.

Myth 1: Viewing the Bible as literature betrays a liberal theological bias.

“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.”

Myth 2: The idea of the Bible as literature is a modern idea that is foreign to the Bible itself.

“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.”

“Mainly … 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.”

Myth 3: To speak of the Bible as literature is to claim that the Bible is fictional.

“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.”

“Nor does the presence of convention and artifice in the Bible necessarily imply fictionality. The modern television genre of 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.”

Myth 4: To approach the Bible as literature means approaching it only as literature.

“To analyze the Bible as literature need not entail abandoning the special authority that Christians ascribe to the Bible or the expectation that God will speak to us through it. Nor does it necessarily mean that the reader will not pay equal attention to other aspects of the Bible – its history, its language, its theology, its sociology, its psychology. A theological approach to the Bible by itself is incomplete. A literary approach seeks to compliment other approaches, not replace them…. [T]he literary forms of the Bible are the means through which the content is expressed, and this means that literary analysis has a particular priority as the only adequate starting point for other kinds of analysis.”

Myth 5: To say that the Bible is literature denies its divine inspiration.

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 he inspired ‘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.”

In sum, though it is true that some people employ literary studies of the Bible with an aim to undermining its normative theological content (or at least while assuming that its literary forms preclude it from being “the Word of God”), this is not a necessary correlation. After all, many people study Hebrew and Greek with an aim to undermining the Bible’s normative theological content and yet we would not for a moment claim that Christians should therefore refrain from the study of Hebrew and Greek!

No, literary analysis is an extension of language study – sort of like a “macro syntax” (if such a term exists). Literary analysis is that form of exegesis which seeks to understand how the various words and phrases in scripture – words and phrases which are related syntactically at the clause level – are related literarily at the larger “discourse” level. In this sense, anyone who wishes to understand more than just the relationship between the individual words in a single clause is a student of literary approaches to the Bible!

Rev. R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

8 thoughts on “Five myths about literary approaches to the Bible”

  1. Thanks for the update, Andrew.

    So what is your recommendation on the Literary Study Bible as a whole – how high would you rank it compared to other study bible resources out there?


    1. Oh, I’m not sure how highly I’d rate the Literary Study Bible as a whole. I don’t actually own a copy, I’ve been just borrowing one from my church’s lending library. I can’t vouch for the content of the notes throughout, but there are things I like and dislike.

      For example, I like the concept and the format – a paragraph or two of literary explanation prior to the chapter of the biblical text to serve as an orienting device for reading the ebb and flow of the passage. This is a neat thing.

      I don’t like some of the descriptions. For example, I’m preparing Gen 40 for my sermon on Sunday and felt like the introductory paragraph tried to tie in comparative literature, but did so in a fairly flat and less-than-enlightening way. (E.g., comparing the text with modern detective stories to show Joseph as one skilled to interpret dreams. Yes, he’s skillful; yes, he’s a dream interpreter; but what he’s doing is more the work of a prophet than a detective. It’s a strange comparison.) Also, the authors of the notes seem tied to the ideas of literary “archetypes” a bit too woodenly. (Gen 39 was key here.) I did a post a while back about the Egyptian “Story of Two Brothers” where I tried to illustrate the problems with doing this too much.

      When it comes to Study Bibles as a whole, I have a few and consult them from time to time. The ESV Study Bible and the Reformation Study Bible get pulled down somewhat frequently. The only one I consult regularly is the Jewish Study Bible. It’s a very interesting resource. Fairly liberal/critical in its perspective, so there is much to disagree with on my part. Still I tend to learn things about the passages I wouldn’t have found elsewhere.

      Thanks for stopping by!


      1. Ok, thanks for a detailed and helpful reply, Andrew.

        I also like the ESV study Bible (good study aids, text notes can be helpful but sometimes flat) and the Reformation ESV Study Bible. But like the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible for its notes and inclusion of catechisms and confessions (only NIV & op (: ). Notes done by folks @ 3rd Millenium, I believe.

        Thanks also for pointing to good resources for OT and literary studies.



        1. Yes – forgot to mention the Spirit of the Reformation study Bible, for exactly the reason you did. I like the way the confessional references occur throughout the study notes. Thanks!


  2. The Literary Study Bible ESV is my Bible of choice. I love the literary insights, which help me appreciate Scripture more, not less. Your post echoes some of what I spoke about to a women’s group this spring.


    1. I am hoping to spend a bit more time reading through its notes. I also like the fact that it is so “reader” oriented. The single column, notes only at the beginning of a unit (not interrupting it), etc., these kinds of things do make for a good reading experience! Depending on how it works for me, I might get one, although since I would probably be using it for reference rather than daily reading, I might go for the kindle version. Usually I abhor non-paper books, but there is something to say for the portability of e-books!

      Thanks for the comment, Glenda!


  3. Hi Andrew,
    That’s interesting. I suppose I can see how someone might buy the “literary = liberal” equation. However, my sense in the academy has been that literary approaches to scripture are one of the few areas of scholarship that orthodox Christians can engage in without constantly being attacked.

    Incidentally, have you seen David Dorsey’s “The Literary Structure of the Old Testament”? (For some reason, I seem to recall you or Shane mentioning it once.) It’s an intriguing book (though it seems to lean more in the direction of the rhetorical criticism of the Phyllis Trible variety than narrative criticism—this, of course, makes sense given its “structural” aims).


    1. Yes – I must say I was surprised. But to seeing as how Ryken and Ryken added a defense of literary views to the preface of the literary study Bible, they must have been in contact with people who thought their project was misguided.

      I have Dorsey on my wishlist. I think Shane has it. It looks interesting. From the previews, it looks like it is built a lot on chiastic structures and chiastic-like correspondance (i.e., a lot of A – B – C – B’ – A’ kinds of stuff). I’ve got some thoughts on chiasms and these sorts of parallels and tend to think that the ‘focal point’ of such a structure depends on whether one thinks it is a literary phenomenon or an oral phenomenon. But this is an aside … I only mention it because the previews I’ve read through seem pretty tied into this kind of structuring which does make me raise an eyebrow. (I’ve heard too many “chiasm” papers at ETS meetings so I’m a bit jaded here, I’m afraid!) Still, it does look like a useful volume. I do intend to get it as some point.

      When it comes to textual structure, I tend to like using the FOTL (Forms of the Old Testament Literature) commentaries. One need not accept their reconstruction of textual growth and setting to find an unequaled analysis of the syntactic and literary structure of the text. Even if I don’t read anything else in a given FOTL volume, I always read through the “structure” section!


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