Category Archives: Theology Lite

Discussion of mostly Reformed Theology and related topics from a lay point of view

Reading the Bible as Literature – Part 2/2

Evaluation

I read the author’s intent as including several overarching goals, some stated and some implied.  The first stated goal is to show that the Bible is a form of literature. This is proven by the full spectrum of literary forms that are used consistently across most Scriptural genres, in both the Old and New Testaments. This also demonstrates that the extensive use of literary forms by scriptural writers was deliberate. This is effective in making Dr. Ryken’s case.

Second, having established that the Bible can be studied profitably as literature, the book seeks to analyze each Scriptural genre individually, briefly cataloging the literary devices used and a set of precepts for read the text with these in mind. Though a more complete academic treatment of each genre in possible, the book provides sufficient explanation, guidelines and examples to make each technique clear.

The area of the reading and application guidelines is where I would suggest that the book has a minor shortcoming. The guidelines or rules provided for each literary device, as applied to each genre, are scattered throughout the associated chapters. This is appropriate for initially explaining the techniques, but it is quite unwieldy in providing a set of tools for use in later application. The book would be greatly enhanced by the inclusions of either a.) an end of chapter listing of the genre guidelines developed in that chapter, or b.) an appendix listing the each genre and associated guidelines in summary.  The inclusion of an appendix would be best. The guidelines themselves, however, are for the most part clear and relevant.

The third goal is implicit more than stated. Throughout the book, Dr. Ryken refers to the importance of experiencing the stories and other forms of the text, rather the viewing them as colds fasts to be intellectually supported. He states repeatedly that to ignore the experiential aspect is to miss much of the communication and the intent of the writers.

I would agree very strongly with this. I consider to be more significant that the guidelines provided for literary analysis. I have long held the conviction that though exposition requires a strong commitment to factual analysis, the text has much more to communicate though it’s literary form. From my experience this has been actively discouraged in the church in modern times, yet Dr. Ryken’s book shows that it was clearly the intent of the biblical writers that it be read this way. I was very heartened to see this and I consider it to be the most significant contribute of the book.

Conclusion

This book makes a successful case that the Bible, both as a whole and in individual portions, should be viewed as literature. As such, literary analysis should be an equal tool set beside traditional hermeneutic techniques. The book provides a concise synopsis of appropriate literary forms and associated techniques for analysis for the major biblical genres. The most significant proposal for bible study is that the stories and other genres be experienced as much as analyzed. A convincing case is made that the biblical writers included literary techniques in order to convey an experiential meaning that is beyond that which the plain doctrinal and proof text meaning are capable of imparting.

The text of the bible is demonstrated through structure and example to contain a richness of expression that is only fully received when view from a total engaged perspective. This perspective includes all the experiential, emotion and intellectual inputs supplied by the text, and these are partially communicated almost exclusively through literary form.

Bottom Line

This book added a new hermeneutical and confirming dimension for me. It gave voice to my conviction of the importance of affective content in interpretation (something largely and proactively ignored in the Reformed community), and how that content is communicated.

Literary analysis has an important place in the interpretive process. I am not convinced that, as VP Long would propose in The Art of Biblical History, it must come before historical-grammactical and canononical analysis. However, I do feel it has an equal place with historical-grammatical techniques.

An excellent book.

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Between Heaven and Earth…

Scripture states that the real struggling that is occurring as life plays out is one of Spiritual Warfare. The events of this world occur in the context of this battle playing out. The secular world writes this off as foolishness, as we would expect, since our Lord has said “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him” 1 Corinthians 2:14 (NASB). We expect this from the world. But what about the body of believers on this matter?

It should be different. Again, from Scripture “But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, THAT HE WILL INSTRUCT HIM? But we have the mind of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 2:15-16 (NASB). So the those in the Body are to appraise things spiritually and thereby stand with the Lord.

When it comes to major, obviously evil events, Christians in general (even nominal adherents) will usual make reference to evil in the world. Even then, however, it usually never goes beyond a casual reference in most instances. They do not see the “Prince of the Power of the air” Ephesians 2:2 (NASB) as the active agent in the world.

What about day to day life? The scripture passage at the beginning of this post does not differential between large events and small, nor one circumstance or another. It simply states that the struggle on earth is one of spiritual warfare more than just circumstance.

Looking back to the world in biblical times, this particular reality was seen quite a bit more clearly. Although there were complications due to the their lack of understanding of some nature phenomena, their conceptual acceptance and grasp of the individual participation in and the effects of spiritual warfare in daily life were clearer.

This is not to say that the Christian community has not swung to the other side of the pendulum at times (for example, the dark events of the Puritan era, despite their brilliance in other theological areas). However, even there, the core concept of warfare involving principalities beyond the natural actualizing in daily life was more accurate to them than that which we see today within the Christian community.

It is as if the Christian community tries to trumpet the reality of the Kingdom, while at the same time applying postmodern philosophy to the event of daily life, assuming that these world views are compatible or complimentary. They simply do not combine. They do not intersect.

So how do we see this within life in the world?

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Reading the Bible as Literature – Part 1/2

How to Read the Bible as Literature
Leland Ryken Ph.D.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Zondervan, 208p
ISBN 978-0-310-39021-3

Introduction

How to Read the Bible as Literature by Dr. Leland Ryken is a call to all those engaged in Bible study to included literary analysis in their interpretive methodology and to allow a more complete personal engagement with the Biblical text. Dr. Ryken proposes that the traditional, exclusively intellectual approach to interpreting the Bible does a disservice to the literary nature of the text. This disservice results in a loss of interpretive content. Through the examination of literary devices in the various genres of Scripture he demonstrates the literary nature of the bible. He further develops appropriate sets of guidelines for the literary analysis of each genre, illustrating that this method yields a more complete exposition. He implies that tradition interpretive method alone relegates the emotional and affective content of the Scriptures to an inferior position within Scriptural analysis. This fails to allow the text to engage the reader fully, and as a result, a substantial amount of the intended communication is lost. He contends that complete engagement of the reader was the original biblical intent, a fact supported by the deliberate use of literary forms throughout the Scriptures. His solution is the use of literary analysis in hermeneutics. I agree with his position, though with some misgiving concerning application.

His techniques are able to add a significant wider perspective to both devotional and theological bible study. This supports his contention that literary analysis should have a prominent place in Hermeneutical instruction.

Background Information and Context

The present text stems from Dr. Ryken’s observations over many years in the classroom, primarily at Wheaton College in Illinois. As an English Professor in the seminary environment, he observed that while the tradition, intellectually based approaches to Scriptural interpretation were well addressed, the literary perspective was either ignored or considered inappropriate. He came to see this as completely at odds with his view of the Scriptures as literary writings. Further, he observed that a great deal was being missed in exegesis and interpretation though the omission of literary content which the Biblical authors had included through literary genre and device. This book attempts to address these omissions by developing a literary approach to interpretation. This is accomplished by introducing applicable literary genres and demonstrating techniques for literary analysis of each genre.

Summary

Dr. Ryken summarizes his book as “a ‘grammar’ of literary forms and techniques” (p10). However, in providing this exposition of forms and techniques, the book also provides extensive justification for their use as parallel techniques on equal footing with the standard grammatico-historical method. He proposes that “there is a preoccupation among biblical writers with artistry, verbal craftsmanship, and aesthetic beauty” (p9) which speaks to the experiential and emotional side of the interpreter. This important communication from the biblical writers has been ignored or denied in classic hermeneutics.

The book proposes that the sheer weight of deliberate literary devices used by the biblical writers supports a view of the Scriptures as literature. The bible also illustrates a strong propensity for communicating through the story as a primary medium, as opposed to theological discourse and proofs. This alters both the way the bible should be read and the communication it provides. As a result “The story does not primarily require our minds to grasp an idea but instead gets us to respond with our imagination and emotions to a real-life experience. Literature, in short, is affective, not cool and detach.” (p15).

The affective nature of the Bible, conveyed primarily through story but also expanded in almost all bible genres, is developed as the discussion addresses each genre individually. Beginning with the primary genre of  story, successive chapters extend this theme into poetry, proverbs, the Gospels, Parables, the Epistles, Satire, and Apocalyptic books.

Each genre is addressed with a definition, exposition of appropriate literary devices and textual examples. The examples not only demonstrate the literary devices but add additional weight the evidence in support of the Bible as literature. A set of interpretive rules emerges for the literary analysis of each genre. These rules provide a framework for the reader to apply the techniques to other texts.

The Bible is shown to be a book for stories, some related by biblical characters and others written in the lives of those historical characters. These stories communicate precepts through the experiences of people. A set of guidelines or rules are developed for reading the story genre. Similarly, other genres such as poetry have sets of guidelines for using literary analysis for interpretation. For example: ”Interpret as figurative any statement that does not make sense at a literal level in the context in which it appears.”(p102).

Throughout the discussions of each literary genre, Dr. Ryken demonstrates the use of the literary forms to communicate to the reader experientially. The motif of experiential communications is shown to be consistent over all genres and therefore throughout the Bible. For example, in discussing simile and metaphor within poetry, he states that “There is an irreducible quality to metaphor and simile that we should respect, both as readers and expositors”(p92). This irreducible quality speaks to the experiential and emotional, which is a common thread throughout the book.

The book concludes with discussion of the literary unity of the Bible as a story which “which has a beginning-middle-end pattern, a unifying plot conflict between good and evil, a focus on people in the act of choosing, and a central protagonist who is God.”(p179). These techniques are shown to combine to form a unified theme and convey “archetypal plot motifs” (p191).

All of the forgoing literary genres and techniques combine into an “affective power”(p196) which engages the whole person of the reader. The expositor and interpreter are stronger encouraged to participate in this engagement.

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