Is Scripture Literature?
Viewing the Bible as literature is an essential and natural way of engaging the text. But there are also ways in which this practice can get lost.
The word of God is literary, but is it merely literary? There is much to gain when Christians embrace the idea that our Scripture is, broadly speaking, literature. In doing so, we gain disciplinary insights into a field of study and practice as old as the first written languages. However, there is a well-earned hesitancy to declare that the Bible is literature because popular use of the term literature often serves as a synonym for fiction. However, fiction is just one totem on the literary pole. But even the question, “Is the Bible fiction?” is an important one because it forces us to identify the genre, the purpose, and the context of these books. Exploring these questions is not only apologetic but prompts a deep-dive into Scripture that helps us gladly read and hear it.
Some important literary questions we can ask Biblical texts include: who is the author, when and where was the text written, who is the intended audience, and is the genre or style important? Unsurprisingly, these questions have always been important to the church. In fact, the adoption of books into the cannon hinged on many of these questions. This becomes even more important when we remember that some books claiming to be Christian Scripture have been rejected outright for authorship that is non-apostolic, too distant in time from the events that they record, or whose content blatantly contradicts that of other more reliable testimony. In this way, Scripture’s particular religious claims make these types of literary investigation more important, not less.
Another area of literary exploration is Biblical exegesis. Exegesis is the process of reading, analyzing, and interpreting a text. Any person who has heard a sermon, read a commentary, or attended a Bible study on a particular book of the Bible or even series of verses has wittnesed exegesis at work. While this discipline starts off with many of the basic literary questions outlined above, it also requires more specific questions about context and purpose to avoid proof-texting. Theological proof-texting is when an individual defends a particular idea or dogma by isolating a small section of text that says what they need it to say to prove their point.
Scripture’s particular religious claims make these types of literary investigation more important, not less.
Treating the books of the Bible as a group of cohesive and inter-related literary works makes the formation of doctrine and theological teaching accountable to a whole book or tradition of texts rather than one person’s interpretation of a few lines or verses. Take, for instance, a simple example like the resurrection of the dead. If we find a verse that seems to confirm this doctrine like Romans 6:4: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life,” we can then ask questions like, “Are there any other verses in the book of Romans to support this claim? Does “walk in newness of life” mean be raised from the dead? Does the Apostle Paul make this claim in any of the other epistles? Do any other books of the Bible contain sections talking about resurrection? Are there any sections of the Bible that deny the resurrection from the dead?” Not only does further exploration of the texts work to bolster the claim of resurrection, but helps to shape a vibrant and purposeful understanding of what resurrection is and means.
Viewing the Bible as literature is an essential and natural way of engaging the text. But there are also ways in which this practice can get lost. This primarily occurs when the theological meaning and assertions of Christian Scripture are manipulated and confined to say that there is a particular or specialized meaning which only matters for religious adherents, but a general universal meaning accessible to those who do not share the Christian faith. That is to say, theological assertions become a hyper-contextualized form of literature that hold special meaning not because they are true, but only because a certain group of people believe in them.
When Christian theology is reduced to a hyper-contextualized form of literature, the first thing to go is the gospel. While the law always finds a home as the moral of the story, the forgiveness of sins won by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is relegated to the realm of myth where its importance is determined personally by each individual reader. This literary reduction is willing to admit that the Christian Scripture has universal value so long as that universal value is a set of morals that individuals can apply toward their lives. The problem with the gospel is that it breaks past the personal literary value of stories.
The gospel is too forceful; it demands too much in that it asserts itself not as one alternative amongst a world of moral tales but as the exclusive story of human salvation. Likewise, the gospel is not possessed by mere literary analysis but is a declaration put into the ears of those who hear it. It not only describes itself or its reader but also claims that the word itself holds power to actually forgive sins and deliver eternal life. So the Gospel is not just the literary story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but is “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). That is, the words of Scripture do not insist that they are simply a collection of descriptions about God and men, but actually, a word from God to men.
The gospel is not possessed by mere literary analysis but is a declaration put into the ears of those who hear it.
Whether one believes it is true or not, the theological claim that God delivers eternal life, salvation, and the forgiveness of sin in the word of the gospel is not just a literary claim. If true, this is a claim that changes and reshapes the entire world, not because it taught us a valuable lesson, but because it delivers us from death to life. As Christians, we must approach written Scripture in literary terms. Yet we must also go beyond the literary stories and their morals and actually proclaim God’s word to others. We read literature to understand, but we need theology to believe. This key difference is the telos of proclamation. aIn other words, theology is not just an exercise in creatively sharing wisdom because its end is the creation of faith by the proclamation of the word. To move from the literary to the theological is not easy. It takes the conviction that what you are speaking from God and for God is true. Yet we know that Christ has been raised from the dead and shown himself to be God “not hidden in a corner” but visible to the whole world. With that confidence, we are not left to our own stories, morals, and imaginations, but instead with Christ’s own word to proclaim.