Words of Delight


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The Bible as Literature

Part 1 (of 4 parts):

"Words of Delight": The Bible as


Leland Ryken

Professor of English

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

literary approach.
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

Books of Samuel;3 The Literary Guide to the Bible.4 Or consider the
1 J. D. Kingsbury, Matthew as Story (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988).

2 Paul D. Duke, Irony in the Fourth Gospel (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985).

3 J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel, 2 vols. (Dover,

NH: Van Gorcum, 1981,1986).

4 Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, eds., The Literary Guide to the Bible

(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

Gospel;5 The Christocentric Literary Structure of the Fourth Gospel. 6

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

literary training."7

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).

6 George Mlakuzhyil, The Christocentric Literary Structure of the Fourth Gospel

(Rome: Editrice Pontificio Instituto Biblico, 1987).

7 Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University

Press, 1964), pp. 110-11.

"Words of Delight": The Bible as Literature 5

The interest in the Bible by literary scholars sparked a similar

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.

6 Bibliotheca Sacra / January-March 1990

To those who have inquired into literary approaches to the

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.

9 C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich,

1958), pp. 2-3.

10 Ibid., p. 3.
8 Bibliotheca Sacra / January-March 1990
take a literary approach without getting sidetracked by exotic and

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.

Characteristics of a Literary Approach to the Bible

What does it mean to read and study and preach the Bible as

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

of information.

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'


The literary impulse to incarnate human experience or reality

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

the Epistles.

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

and preaching.

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.

13 These books include How to Read the Bible as Literature (Grand Rapids: Zonder-

van Publishing House, 1984) and three books published by Baker Book House: Words

of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible (1987); Words of Life: A Literary In-

troduction to the New Testament (1987); and Effective Bible Teaching (with Jim Wil-

hoit; 1988).

12 Bibliotheca Sacra / January-March 1990

dentally, a literary approach is necessary throughout the Bible and

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-

age, etc.).

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.

Benefits of a Literary Approach to the Bible
What advantages does a literary approach offer to biblical ex-

positors? First, it provides an improved methodology for interacting

"Words of Delight": The Bible as Literature 13
with a biblical text. In the 13th century Roger Bacon argued that the

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

right direction.

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

literary theory..

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.

"Words of Delight": The Bible as Literature 15
pletely. In addition to writing the truth, he arranged his content

"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.

Editor's Note
This is the first in a series of four articles delivered by the author as the W. H.

Griffith Thomas Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary, November 7-10, 1989.

15 H. L. Mencken, Treatise on the Gods (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), p. 286.


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