Part 1 (of 4 parts):
"Words of Delight": The Bible as
Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois
Evangelicals are witnessing a paradigm shift in how biblical
scholars study and discuss the Bible. This shift involves not only a
growing awareness that much of the Bible is literature but also a
tendency to use the methods of literary criticism when analyzing the
Bible. Evangelicals should participate in this movement, which
holds immense promise but which to date has been dominated by
nonevangelicals. What is required is not only a receptivity to a lit-
erary approach but also an awareness of what constitutes a genuinely
Interest in a Literary Approach to the Bible
New winds are blowing in biblical studies. The most immediate
evidence is the titles of new books. Though titles like the following
are still a minority, they are increasingly common: Matthew as
Story;1 Irony in the Fourth Gospel;2 Narrative Art and Poetry in the
NH: Van Gorcum, 1981,1986).
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).
4 Bibliotheca Sacra / January-March 1990
following table of contents from a recent commentary on the Gospel of
John: Narrator and Point of View; Narrative Time; Plot; Charac-
ters; Implicit Commentary; The Implied Reader.
Even more telling, perhaps, is the way in which literary terms
are now smuggled into titles where they seem to have been dragged
in gratuitously: Call to Discipleship: A Literary Study of Mark's
Feminist studies of the Bible typically advertise themselves as a
literary approach. Some other commentaries whose titles promise a
literary approach in fact turn out to follow the familiar contours of
conventional Bible commentaries. Titles such as those mentioned
above point to a scholarly fad that will be a dominant influence on
biblical scholarship for the foreseeable future. In liberal scholar-
ship it is already replacing the long-standing obsession with tracing
supposed stages of composition in a biblical text.
The movement toward literary approaches to the Bible began
two decades ago in high school and college English departments. In
1975 a survey by the National Council of Teachers of English dis-
closed that courses in the Bible as literature ranked in the top 1.0 of
180 commonly offered high school English courses. In the past
decade scholarly articles on the Bible have appeared in the stan-
dard literary journals. The most influential literary critic of this
century, Northrop Frye, gave impetus to the movement by saying
that "the Bible forms the lowest stratum in the teaching of litera-
ture. It should be taught so early and so thoroughly that it sinks
straight to the bottom of the mind, where everything that comes
along later can settle on it.... The Bible ... should be the basis of
While Frye's vision was never fully realized, the Bible is now
part of the literary canon that college teachers of literature teach in
their courses and about which they write in their scholarly journals.
The most dramatic evidence of this was the appearance of the book
pretentiously titled The Literary Guide to the Bible. Despite its
weak content, this book was reviewed in all the leading sources, was
selected by a book club, and made its way into ordinary bookstores.
As so often in life, symbolic truth proved more important than the
reality behind it.
5 Augustine Stock, Call to Discipleship: A Literary Study of Mark's Gospel
(Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1982).
(Rome: Editrice Pontificio Instituto Biblico, 1987).
Press, 1964), pp. 110-11.
interest among liberal biblical scholars at a time when several
decades of cutting and pasting the biblical text had left scholars
feeling that the possibilities of that approach had been exhausted.
The infusion of a literary approach into this larger world of biblical
scholarship has been overwhelmingly positive. It has led scholars
to focus on the biblical text instead of escaping from it as quickly as
possible. Scholars have shown a new willingness to accept the bibli-
cal text as they now find it instead of undertaking textual excava-
tions into the supposed layers of composition. And they have at last
been content to treat texts as unified wholes instead of cutting them
into a patchwork of fragments.
But what about evangelical biblical scholars? I first became in-
terested in the literary analysis of the Bible two decades ago. When
I taught my first course on the subject and subsequently wrote my first
book on it, virtually all the help from published sources came from
liberal biblical scholars. It was a rarity to find an evangelical who
said anything about the literary dimension of the Bible. Today
there is a large body of literary commentary on the Bible, but little
of it comes from evangelical scholars.
Yet the promise of this approach is immense. Evangelical bibli-
cal scholarship is standing at an important crossroads. It can con-
tinue to produce the type of theologically and apologetically ori-
ented biblical material that it has produced for the past century, or
it can enter an open door to new and different emphases in handling
the Bible. The burden of this article is to encourage evangelical
teachers and preachers of the Bible to believe that a literary ap-
proach is something that deserves their participation.
Obstacles Discouraging a Literary Approach to the Bible
Obstacles exist, however, that may prevent such participation
by evangelicals. Contentment with the status quo is one of these ob-
stacles. After all, to adopt a literary approach to the Bible is to en-
counter the unfamiliar. Abandoning the familiar for the unknown in-
volves risk and requires the humility (and sometimes even the hu-
miliation) of adopting the position of a beginner. But of course the
person who stays with the familiar misses the exhilaration that
comes from discovering how to do something better than he or she has
done it before. Furthermore the literary approach to the Bible is
more familiar than the uninitiated might think. Good biblical ex-
positors and preachers intuitively practice an incipient literary crit-
icism on the biblical text. But their efforts in that direction could be
strengthened by being more conscious and systematic, and by being
better informed by the methods and theory of literary criticism.
Bible, other obstacles appear formidable. One is the sheer confusion
of techniques that fall under the rubric of "literary criticism." Un-
fortunately that discipline is in disarray; in fact it is an embarrass-
ment to one who is part of that discipline. The prevailing fashions
in literary criticism are ideologically based. Unfortunately those
ideologies are generally uncongenial to evangelical Christians.
They include philosophic nihilism or skepticism, Marxism, and mil-
itant feminism. Iconoclasm toward traditional interpretations of
literary texts dominates published scholarship, with the methods
of deconstruction serving as the handy demolition tool for those who
disdain the truth and beauty that readers have found in literature
through the ages.
The chaotic state of current literary criticism should not prevent
biblical expositors from approaching the Bible as literature. For one
thing biblical scholars at large are as guilty as literary critics are of
practices that are uncongenial to an evangelical viewpoint. In the
standard journals on biblical scholarship there is the same range of
belief and unbelief, the same preponderance of hostility to an evan-
gelical view of the Bible, and the same incidence of specialized vo-
cabulary and esoteric methods encountered in literary journals. In
both cases reliable guides are needed to help weed out the aberra-
tions, but it is unwarranted to refuse to enter the field simply because
there is much that is uncongenial. Some of the destructive current
trends in literary criticism began with biblical scholars and
philosophers, not with literary scholars.
A third obstacle that prevents evangelicals from warming to the
literary approach to the Bible is common misconceptions of what con-
stitutes literature. Foremost among these is that literature is neces-
sarily fictional. It seemed for a time that the equation of literature
and fiction had dropped out of circulation, but it has been resurrected
by leading literary critics. They are at pains to signal that they re-
gard the narratives of the Bible as at least partly fictional and unre-
liable as factual history. Yet these discussions are not really liter-
ary in nature. They are actually a Johnny-come-lately version of the
debate over historicity that has long raged among biblical scholars.
The question of fictionality in the Bible belongs to historical schol-
arship, not literary criticism. The very literary critics who make
pronouncements about the fictionality of biblical narrative would not
think of conducting similar arguments when they discuss extrabibli-
cal literature. If one were to reject a literary approach because some
literary critics question the historicity of the Bible, he on the same
logic would have to reject a historical approach, since liberal bibli-
cal scholars also question the accuracy of the Bible's history.
The fear that a literary approach to the Bible requires an ac-
"Words of Delight": The Bible as Literature 7
ceptance of the fictionality of biblical narrative is based on a mis-
conception about literature. Fictionality, though common in litera-
ture, is not an essential ingredient of literature. The properties that
make a text literary are unaffected by the historicity or fictionality
of the material. A literary approach depends on a writer's selectiv-
ity and molding of the material, regardless of whether the details
actually happened or are made up.
Nor does the presence of artifice and convention in a biblical text
imply fictionality. By way of analogy, consider the conventions sur-
rounding the live television sports report. In this television genre
the reporter is filmed with a sports arena in the background. During
the course of the report the reporter either interviews an athlete or
is momentarily replaced by a film clip of sports action. At the end of
the report, the reporter stares into the camera and utters a catchy,
impressive-sounding one-liner. The artifice of such conventions is
obvious. Yet they do not undermine the factuality of the report it-
self. There is an unwarranted assumption in some quarters that the
presence of literary conventions and artifice in the Bible signals that
the content is fictional rather than factual.
A final obstacle to the literary approach to the Bible is a fear
that such an approach means only a literary approach, devoid of
the special religious belief and authority that Christians associate
with the Bible. C. S. Lewis fueled this skepticism. The Bible, he
said in an oft-quoted statement, "is not merely a sacred book but a
book so remorselessly and continuously sacred that it does not invite,
it excludes or repels, the merely aesthetic approach."8 Elsewhere he
observed that "those who talk of reading the Bible 'as literature'
sometimes mean, I think, reading it without attending to the main
thing it is about."9 Yet the context in which Lewis made these com-
ments shows that his objections concerned an abuse of the literary
approach, not the approach itself. In fact Lewis followed one of the
quoted passages with the following defense of a literary approach:
"There is a ... sense in which the Bible, since it is after all litera-
ture, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different
parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are."10
To sum up, it would be tragic if evangelical scholars and preach-
ers allowed themselves to be deterred from a literary approach to
the Bible because of objections that turn out to be fallacies. One can
8 C. S. Lewis, The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version (Philadelphia:
Fortress Press, 1967), p. 33.
1958), pp. 2-3.
specialized critical approaches. To view the Bible as literature
does not require one to regard it as fictional or to compromise one's
view of its special religious authority.
literature? If literary criticism presented a united voice, it would be
easy to answer that question. But as already indicated, literary crit-
icism itself is today in a state of transition and disarray. With so
many scholars clamoring to climb aboard the Bible-as-literature
bandwagon, and with so many books and articles claiming to be a lit-
erary approach to the Bible, we obviously need criteria by which to
assess the claims.
People who wish to undertake a literary study of the Bible can
safely disregard much that is currently going on in the world of spe-
cialized literary criticism. They need to consider traditional liter-
ary criticism. A literary scholar asserted that "what biblical schol-
ars need to hear most from literary critics is that old-fashioned crit-
ical concepts of plot, character, setting, point of view and diction may
be more useful than more glamorous and sophisticated theories."11
What most characterizes traditional literary criticism? The
answer is that genre does, provided it is understood that literature
itself is a genre. That is, works that are classified as literature
have identifiable traits that set them off from other kinds of writ-
ing, just as specific genres like narrative and poetry have identifying
traits. Evangelicals should be skeptical of any approach that
claims to be literary if it fails to define what makes a text literary.
The literary properties of a text extend to both content and technique.
At the level of content, the differentia of literature is its presen-
tation of human experience, as distinct from the conveying of infor-
mation, facts, or propositions. Literature is incarnational. It enacts
rather than states. Instead of giving abstract propositions about
virtue or vice, for example, literature presents stories of good or evil
characters in action. Literature gives the example instead of the
precept, or combines the example with the precept. The knowledge
that literature imparts consists of living through an experience or (in
the case of poetry) picturing a series of images. The language of lit-
erature is prevailingly concrete rather than abstract. The fifth com-
mandment states propositionally, "You shall not murder." The story
11 John W. Sider, "Nurturing Our Nurse: Literary Scholars and Biblical Exegesis,"
Christianity and Literature 32 (1982): 19-20.
"Words of Delight": The Bible as Literature 9
of Cain and Abel incarnates that same truth, without, it might be
noted, using the abstraction "murder" or a command that people
should refrain from it.
Several important corollaries follow from the incarnational na-
ture of literature. Because the aim of a literary text is to recreate an
experience rather than develop a logical argument in essay fashion,
the first item on the agenda for the reader or expositor is to relive
the text as vividly and concretely as possible. A literary text seeks
to encompass its reader in a whole world of the imagination, not to
point beyond itself as quickly and transparently as possible to a body
Furthermore the fact that a literary text embodies an experience
means that the whole story or the whole poem is the meaning.
There is something irreducible about a literary text. The generaliza-
tions made about it are never an adequate substitute for the meanings
that the work itself communicates. Certainly a set of propositions
cannot be said to convey the full meaning of a literary text. Nor must
a reader express the content of a story or poem in the form of a propo-
sition before he or she can be said to have grasped its meaning. If
readers recognize the neighborly behavior of the good Samaritan,
for example, they have grasped the experiential truth of Jesus'
also has implications for how Bible students view the truth that the
Bible communicates. For most people, truth is synonymous with
ideas that are true rather than false. But the truthfulness that lit-
erature imparts is a whole further type of truth, namely, truthful-
ness to reality or to human experience. The story of the Fall in Gene-
sis 3, for example, is a truthful portrayal of such human experiences
as temptation, guilt, rationalization of sin, fear of discovery, shame,
alienation, and irremediable loss.
The ability to see truthfulness to reality in the Bible is rendered
easy because of a further trait of literature-the fact that it embod-
ies universal human experience. History tells what happened,
while literature tells what happens-what is true for all people at
all times. This premise underlies a good sermon or Bible study,
which assumes the continuing relevance of the experiences portrayed
in the story or poem.
The Bible is more than a work of literature, but it is not less. It
combines three impulses in a way that partly accounts for its unique-
ness. These three impulses are theological, historical, and literary.
Usually one of these dominates a given passage, but not necessarily
to the exclusion of others. Thus claiming that Genesis 3 tells how the
fall into sin happens does not question that it also tells how the orig-
inal fall happened. Yet a touchstone that allows readers to gauge
10 Bibliotheca Sacra / January-March 1990
whether a text is literary is the degree to which they can see univer-
sal human experience in it.
The content of literature is human experience, presented as con-
cretely as possible. How much of the Bible is literary by this crite-
rion of concrete embodiment of human experience rather than ab-
stract argument? Realizing the mixed nature of biblical writing, 80
percent is not an exaggeration. The implications of this for preach-
ing and teaching the Bible are immense. It should affect our selec-
tivity of passages for teaching and preaching. There is no good rea-
son why preachers should gravitate so naturally and consistently to
the abstract, expository (informational) parts of the Bible, chiefly
In response to a presentation I recently gave on reading the
Psalms, a pastor in the audience claimed that to practice what I had
suggested would be to unlearn what he had been urged to do in semi-
nary. The homiletics teacher had in effect told his students not to
preach from the Psalms because they are deficient in propositional
content. Instead the students were encouraged to preach from pas-
sages that had "meat," that is, the Epistles. The preponderance of
literary writing in the Bible shows that God trusted literature as a
medium for conveying truth, and it should serve as a curb against ex-
cessive reliance on abstractly theological passages in Bible teaching
Of course it is possible to choose literary passages for exposition
and yet fail to treat them in a literary manner. The commonest form
of this failure is to reduce literary texts to abstract propositions. In-
stead of reliving a story, the prevailing tendency among preachers is
to develop three generalizations and dip into the biblical story to il-
lustrate them. The images in the Psalms are reduced to a series of
propositions. The result is that preachers and teachers and their lis-
teners have slipped into thinking of the Bible as a theological out-
line with proof texts attached. Knowing that literature is a concrete
embodiment of human experience can help people interact with the
Bible in terms of the kind of writing it really is.
If literature is definable partly by its experiential content, it is
also characterized by its technique and forms. The most common way
of defining literature is by its genres (literary types). Through the
centuries, people have agreed that certain genres (such as story, po-
etry, and drama) are literary in nature. Other genres, such as histor-
ical chronicles, theological treatises, and genealogies, are exposi-
tory in nature. Still others fall into one category or the other, de-
pending on how the writer handles them. Letters, sermons, and ora-
tions, for example, can move in the direction of literature if they
display the ordinary elements of literature.
Every literary genre has its distinctive features and conventions.
"Words of Delight": The Bible as Literature 11
These should affect how a person reads and interprets a biblical text.
Readers and interpreters need to come to a given text with the right
expectations. If they do, they will see more than they would other-
wise see, and they will avoid misreadings. Literary genre is nothing
less than a "norm or expectation to guide the reader in his encounter
with the text."12 An awareness of genre can program one's reading of
a passage, giving it a familiar shape and arranging the details into
an identifiable pattern.
A literary approach to the Bible will require biblical scholars
and expositors to enlarge their list of genres and let their knowledge
of how each genre works control what they do with biblical passages
more thoroughly than they usually do. This will not require a so-
phisticated set of critical tools. In fact mastering the tools of liter-
ary analysis that are taught in a typical high school or college lit-
erature course is the best starting point, as my own books on the sub-
ject are designed to suggest.13
As stated earlier, it is possible to be misled into thinking that a
literary approach means adopting one of the specialized critical
"schools" currently in vogue. There is something far more basic (and
far more productive of insights into biblical texts) that undergirds a
literary approach, regardless of the specific critical school to which
a critic belongs. The deep structure of literary criticism includes an
awareness of how stories and poems work, how metaphor and other
figurative language communicates, and an appreciation for the
artistry of an utterance. It would be lamentable if in adopting eso-
teric critical approaches, the essence of a literary approach were
missed. Such an approach will be eclectic in the sense of using what-
ever tools of analysis yield the most insight into the Bible, what-
ever "school" of criticism they belong to.
Regardless of the genre in which a given work is written, litera-
ture is identifiable by its special resources of language. Reliance on
these can occur in texts that we would not consider to be primarily
literary, and wherever they appear they require literary analysis.
A discourse becomes literary, for example, when a writer exploits
such resources of language as metaphor, simile, allusion, pun, para-
dox, and irony. These are the very essence of poetry, but in the Bible
they appear everywhere, not just in the poetry. This is why, inci-
12 Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,
1975), p. 136.
van Publishing House, 1984) and three books published by Baker Book House: Words
not just in the predominantly literary parts.
A literary approach to the Bible is preoccupied with literary
form. In any written discourse, meaning is communicated through
form. The concept of form should be construed very broadly in this
context. It includes anything that touches on how a writer has ex-
pressed the content of an utterance. Everything that gets communi-
cated does so through form, beginning with language itself.
While this is true for all forms of writing, it is especially cru-
cial for literature. Literature has its own forms and techniques, and
these tend to be more complex and subtle and indirect than those of
ordinary discourse. Stories, for example, communicate their meaning
through character, setting, and action. To understand a story, a read-
er must first interact with the form, that is, the characters, settings,
and events. Poetry conveys its meanings through figurative language
and concrete images. It is therefore impossible to determine what a
poem says without first encountering the form (metaphor, simile, im-
The literary critic's preoccupation with the how of biblical
writing is not frivolous. It is evidence of an artistic delight in verbal
beauty and craftsmanship, but it is also part of an attempt to under-
stand what the Bible says. In a literary text it is impossible to sepa-
rate what is said from how it is said, content from form.
The aesthetic dimension of a literary approach to the Bible is
also important. Literary criticism is capable of showing that the
Bible is an interesting rather than a dull book, and a book that is
beautiful as well as truthful. There is as much artistry and crafts-
manship in the Bible as in any other anthology of literature, as re-
cent literary approaches have abundantly shown.
To sum up, a literary approach to the Bible begins and ends with
an awareness of what makes a text literary. An adequate grasp of
this will tend to generate its own methods of analysis. Obviously a
text is best approached in terms of the kind of writing it really is. A
literary approach will yield its best results only if the text being
analyzed is literary. In recent years some scholars have applied
high-powered literary methods to biblical texts that are not pri-
marily literary in nature. The results have been decidedly meager,
despite all the appearance of a literary approach. Therefore
whether a piece of analysis is literary is determined partly by what
biblical text the writer has chosen to discuss.
positors? First, it provides an improved methodology for interacting
church had done a good job of communicating the theological content
of the Bible but had failed to make the literal level of the Bible
come alive in people's imaginations. A similar situation exists to-
day. The main evidence is the scarcity of expository sermons in
evangelical pulpits. Topical preaching dominates. Many preachers
preach sermons on single verses or even single phrases. The biblical
passage read before the sermon becomes almost superfluous as the
sermon unfolds. A set of propositions fleshed out with real-life
anecdotes or biblical parallels replaces any reliving of the specific
biblical text. Believing that the Bible is uniquely powerful to com-
municate God's truth, expositors should find ways to allow the Bible
itself to form the basis for their sermons and Bible studies.
A literary approach also offers an avenue to include the whole
span of the Bible in one's repertoire of preaching and teaching.
Someone confided that until he mastered a literary approach he
would often read from the Book of Psalms to people he visited in the
hospital but would avoid using any of the psalms as the basis for a
Bible study because he did not know what to do with them. Someone
else said that in seminary he was discouraged from preaching from
narrative parts of the Bible because (so the argument ran) they did
not contain enough propositions. Because expositors do not know how
to come to grips with a biblical passage they readily resort to the
perennial substitutes-allegorizing, moralizing, background infor-
mation, and the bicycle trip through parallel passages. In all these
cases, a literary approach provides an ideal antidote.
Greater emphasis on literary methods of interpretation would
certainly help equip laypeople to handle the biblical text them-
selves. One of the most glaring failures of the church lies exactly in
this area of teaching people to interpret the Bible for themselves.
Basically the clergy has been handed the task of interpreting the
Bible. Biblical scholarship itself has become so complex and spe-
cialized that ministers despair of teaching what they learned about
biblical interpretation in seminary to their parishioners. Greater
emphasis on literary methods of interpretation can be a step in the
By opening the doors to the entire Bible, a literary approach
also insures that preachers and teachers will appeal to the whole
range of human temperament in a typical audience, as well as in
themselves. Seminary-trained people are far more oriented toward
abstract theological thinking than is the cross-section of humanity.
Another way of saying this is that ordinary people are less inter-
ested in abstract theology than most preachers are. To treat literary
passages in the Bible in keeping with their concrete, experiential
nature is a good way to counteract an excessively abstract approach
14 Bibliotheca Sacra / January-March 1990
to the Bible. The Bible is more than a book of ideas, and it should be
presented as such.
A literary approach can also help preserve the unity of biblical
passages. A pioneer in the literary study of the Bible correctly ob-
served that "no principle of literary study is more important than
that of grasping clearly a literary work as a single whole."14 By con-
trast, methods of biblical scholarship have been prevailingly
atomistic. Liberal scholarship has undertaken textual "excavation"
in an attempt to determine the various strata in the alleged devel-
opment of a text from its original form to its final written form. Con-
servative scholarship has been equally atomistic in its verse-by-
verse approach to biblical passages, as well as by its methods of
proof texting. Yet one of the findings of educational research is that
people can grasp details effectively only when those details are
placed in a unifying framework. The ability to see unifying patterns
in biblical passages is one of the greatest gifts a literary approach
A literary approach can also shed new light on the entrenched
methods and interpretations of biblical scholarship. Interdisci-
plinary dialogue between biblical and literary scholars is desirable.
But few articles in journals of biblical scholarship refer t`o relevant
treatments of the same topic by literary scholars. Is this a form of
protecting one's turf, or are biblical scholars simply unaware of lit-
erary scholarship on the Bible? In either case, interaction between
the two disciplines would be beneficial to both biblical and literary
As a literary scholar, I have learned an immense amount from
biblical scholars. Biblical scholarship has provided the basic com-
mentary on biblical passages from which I can construct literary ex-
plications, and biblical scholarship has permanently altered my
But the dialogue needs to flow the other way as well. In addi-
tion to helping biblical scholars in their basic approach to biblical
texts, literary critics can help them rethink some of their entrenched
positions. For example is everything in the Bible to be interpreted
literally? If so, how does this relate to the obvious fact that the
Bible includes innumerable figures of speech?
A final benefit that a literary approach can offer is increased
enjoyment of the Bible. It can give content and meaning to the lip ser-
vice paid to the beauty of the Bible. Among the writers of the Bible,
the writer of Ecclesiastes presented his theory of writing most com-
14 Richard G. Moulton, The Modern Reader's Bible (New York: Macmillan Co.,
1895), p. 1719.
"with great care" and "sought to find words of delight" (12:9-10,
RSV). The Bible is a literary masterpiece. A famous skeptic of
Christianity in this century called the King James Bible
"unquestionably the most beautiful book in the world."15 It should be
more than this, but not less, for Christians. Aesthetic considerations
were important for the writers of the Bible. They should also be im-
portant today to readers and expositors.
Conservative biblical scholarship stands at something of a
crossroads. In the larger world of biblical scholarship, literary
methods are more prominent with every passing year. The methods
of traditional literary criticism, based on a clear understanding of
what makes a text literary, can significantly enrich the insights of
evangelical scholars and preachers.
Griffith Thomas Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary, November 7-10, 1989.