When the Supreme Court of the United States struck down Bible reading and prayers in the public schools of the land, it did not disapprove of teaching courses in the public schools in which the Bible was studied as literature. The argument apparently was that to study the Bible as literature only does not mean that a particular religion is being taught in the public schools—something upon which the Supreme Court specifically frowned. The Bible could then be studied as literature just as any writing, ancient or modern, could be studied for its literary value. If, incidentally, the thoughts of the particular writer entered into the teaching, this would not necessarily be bad because the thoughts of the writers of the Scriptures would be considered roughly on a par with the poetry of the Greek poet Homer, the essays of Seneca, the novels of Dickens, etc.
Many evangelicals, a large number of whom send their children to the public schools, see in this approach a kind of salvation from the threat of atheism which hung over the public schools when Bible reading and prayers were banned. Increasingly therefore, evangelicals have been putting forth organized efforts to get courses taught in the public schools which would teach the Bible from a literary viewpoint. Such an approach to Bible teaching would include a careful investigation of the literary forms which are used in the Bible—the poetry of the Psalms, the narrative form of the historical books, the epistolary forms of the epistles of Paul, Peter, John, etc. It would also concentrate on the various literary devices which are used in different kinds of literary forms such as figures of speech, parables, parallelisms, etc. And, so evangelicals hope, a study of this kind which can be legal in the public schools would lead to facing the Bible as the Word of God. One gets the impression that it is an attempt to introduce into the public schools in a surreptitious way that which the Supreme Court emphatically banned as illegal.
In the current discussion which is going on, there are some who support this position by saying that the only real approach to understanding the Bible is the literary approach. One cannot really penetrate to the true meaning of the Scriptures unless one first of all has a firm grasp of the literary aspects of Scripture. For example, Leland Ryken writes in a recent issue of Christianity Today:
Why is a literary approach to the Bible necessary, especially since we seem to have gotten along without it for so long? I have already said that it is needed as an aid to understanding what the Bible says. Any piece of writing must be read in terms of what it is. A reader of Scripture is opening the door to misunderstanding whenever he ignores the literary principles of various literary forms. When he fails to ask literary questions he will go astray, interpreting figurative expressions as if they were intended literally, looking for theological propositions in a lyric poem that contains mainly an outpouring of human emotion or in a story that is mainly a record of events, allegorizing the Song of Solomon because he does not know how to respond to love poetry, turning Jonah into a model prophet because he fails to understand how satire works, regarding Ecclesiastes as wholly pessimistic because he overlooks its dialectical pattern and its quest structure, and so forth. Belief in the authority of the Bible will not by itself be sufficient for understanding if the reader ignores the literary principles that underlie the Bible and determine much of its meaning.
In keeping with the above, the author even recommends that courses in Bible literature be introduced in private and church schools as an aid in understanding the meaning of Scripture.
What must we say about all this? It is not our intent to get involved in the question of the rightness or wrongness of the decision of the Supreme Court. Nor is it our intention to analyze how all this applies to the public schools. Our readers know of my disapproval of public schools and of this emphasis which this magazine has placed on Christian covenantal instruction throughout the fifty years of its existence. But we are interested in this particular approach to the Bible. Is it a legitimate approach? Is it possible and permissible to read the Bible as literature? Is it necessary to understand the literature of the Bible in order to get at its deeper theological meaning? Would it be advisable to add a course to the curriculum, of our Christian Schools which would be devoted exclusively to teaching the Bible as literature?
First of all, no one, I think, will deny that the Bible is a great and marvelous piece of literature. This is true not only of the Bible as it wag originally inspired in the Hebrew and Greek; it is also true of our incomparable King James Version. The poetry of the Bible is some of the most beautiful poetry which has ever been written. The soaring passages of some of the prophecies stand out in all literature as some of the greatest masterpieces which have ever been written. The narratives are so enthralling that they can keep little children of preschool age on the edge of their seats for long periods of time; and these same narrative passages never lose their attraction no matter how old a person may become. The Bible is great literature indeed.
Furthermore, we may also grant that some understanding of the type of literature which is used in different places in the Bible is necessary to understand its meaning. In Seminary we go into considerable detail on this matter of various literary forms and devices when we learn the principles of the interpretation of Scripture. It must be remembered, however, that this is not absolutely essential. God’s people, young and old alike, have the ability to understand the Word of God. They do not need a formal course in Hermeneutics to understand that Word. And without being able to identify various literary forms and devices, they have an instinctive sense of the meaning of poetry also in distinction from the epistles.
Nevertheless, this is not the whole story. Nor is the literary approach to Scripture the correct one. If one approaches Scripture from this point of view, even though his ultimate aim may be to come to an understanding of Scripture’s theological meaning, one will not be able to explain the Scriptures correctly. That is evident already in the quote we gave above. By means of this literary approach, the author of the article finds the essence of Scripture’s poetry to be “an outpouring of human emotion.” He rejects any symbolic meaning in the Song of Solomon and reduces it to a love poem. He denies the historicity of Jonah and makes the book a satire. This is the end of a literary approach because it is basically the same as what has become known as historical-literary criticism of Scripture.
Furthermore, this is not the correct approach to Scripture. The only way to approach Scripture is by means of humble faith in the Scriptures as the infallible record of God’s revelation. God has revealed Himself. And He has revealed Himself in Christ as Jehovah, the God Who saves His people for His own glory. The Scriptures are, in their entirety, the infallible record of that revelation. They are no less than that. And this is true of the whole of Scripture. Every book, every chapter of every book, every verse of every chapter, contains a part of that record of revelation. Everywhere God is speaking of Himself as the God Who saves His people.
But to receive this truth, to approach Scripture in this way, to penetrate into its meaning so as to see this record of revelation,—all this requires faith. Without faith it is impossible to understand the Scriptures in their true meaning and receive the Scriptures in their true character.
This is why any child of God can understand the Scriptures. The most fundamental requirement is faith. Without faith, no true understanding is possible. With faith, understanding is always possible. Then it makes no difference who is hearing or reading the Scriptures. A little child may hear the stories of Joseph and his brethren on his mother’s knee; but he will come to true understanding of that Word by the power of faith. A little girl may read stumblingly and haltingly the 23rd Psalm, but she will understand the Word of God in those precious words: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” An aged saint may only scarcely be able to read, much less explain the literary genres of Scripture; but he will testify that those same Scriptures have been his lamp and guide throughout all his life, strengthening him in weakness, correcting him in sin, bringing joy in sorrow, courage in the battle of faith, and hope and victory at the moment of death.
This is not to say that an understanding of the literary aspect of the Scriptures is not helpful. It is. But it is not essential. And the child of God who approaches Scripture in faith and who is captured by its sublime truths will also have a deep appreciation for the “literature” of Scripture though he may be hard pressed to discuss this literary aspect with a professor of literature in the college across the street. He will be moved deeply by its poetry, stirred by its lofty prophecies, absorbed by its close doctrinal argumentation, quickened by its stirring stories. But all this will be even deeper than the man who has only a literary appreciation for what is written; because the man of faith will hear through it all the voice of his God.
And so finally, it is not possible to read the Scriptures only as literature. The Scriptures are not that kind of book. The Bible will not permit itself to be read in this way. The Bible is unlike any other book. It is the very record of the voice of God. One who comes to Scripture must always face this reality. He cannot escape it. The Bible will not let him do this. If he comes in faith, he cannot and will not be satisfied with a mere literary viewpoint. He will hear His God. But no less is this true if a man comes in unbelief. He may want to come to make a literary study of Scripture; but he will be unable to maintain this position. He may determine to limit himself to Scripture’s literary aspects. But Scripture itself will not permit this to happen. He will be confronted with Scripture’s demands. And the result will be that he will harden himself against what Scripture says, his unbelief will grow, and he will, whether that was his intent or not, come to hate that Word of God more and more. In fact, in the subtility of the sinful heart, he will even use the literary approach to steel himself against what Scripture demands and to drive from his mind and heart the truth which Scripture reveals. That very Scripture will seal his condemnation.
May we study the Bible as literature? We may, but only when the literary aspect of Scripture is subordinate to its truth. And when we understand and receive its truth, we will have all the greater appreciation for its sublime literary character.