How to Read the Bible as Literature

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 11/20/2007 by Mark Tubbs.

Recommended. A jam-packed and comprehensive introduction to reading the Bible more effectively.

Dr. Leland Ryken has become literature professor to the Evangelical masses. His books have become the initial court of appeal for any reader interested in the intersection between the Bible and literature. His fingerprints can also be traced to both the substance and style of the English Standard Version Bible published by Good News/Crossway Books, whose corporate headquarters sit kitty corner to Ryken’s office at Wheaton College. His name has become a virtual trademark in North American evangelicalism, and his legacy will long outlive him. His son, the equally prolific Dr. Philip Graham Ryken of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, carries on his work under the Ryken brand.

In the twenty-plus years since Ryken’s book was first released an insurrection has taken place in biblical interpretation, particularly in the early years of the twenty-first century. Today, talk of narratives, storyline, and discourse raises red flags in many people’s minds due to a certain section of Evangelicalism which exalts these elements over traditional grammatical-historical hermeneutics. But in 1985 these events were still on the horizon. Ryken’s aim when he wrote the book was to add his voice to the rehabilitation of a literary approach which would complement the accepted grammatical-historical method, not displace it. He insists the approach should not be either/or, but both/and. Consequently, this is a not a manual on hermeneutics. We do not find within its pages an extensive history of scriptural interpretation. Rather, we find a storehouse of descriptions and examples of biblical ‘literariness.’

Casting the net wide at first, Ryken discusses the overall literary identity of the Bible and its implications for interpretation. Genre matters. Form is just as important as content. Theological propositions amputated from their literary context are unjustly denuded of their biblical richness. He then launches into a discussion of every major genre, including narrative, poetry, proverb, gospel, parable, epistle, satire, and apocalypse. In every section he presents literary terms relevant to the genre, followed by selected exemplars. Gifted teacher that he is, Ryken contents himself (and possibly frustrates his readers) with providing only enough application to whet the reader’s appetite for further study. He rounds out with an exploration of how all the genres weave together into a tapestry of literary unity.

How to Read the Bible as Literature contains few flaws – depending on whether one considers relative sophistication and technical terminology as flaws. Ryken dispenses scores of rules for reading and interpreting biblical stories, which at times can seem like overkill. Just when the list of rules feels overwhelming, he tenders the following: “may I say that these principles are not a list that anyone needs to memorize…We tend to apply most of these rules intuitively, simply as close readers of the biblical text.” Unfortunately, this will be faint mercy for many readers. But the book is not user-unfriendly. Some helpful physical features of the book include extra wide margins for notes, helpful chapter-end summaries, and further reading lists (provided you can track down books that were current in the 1970s).

Despite its pragmatic title and its sensationalized subtitle, this book is no series of mere ‘pointers’, and as such is not for the faint of heart. Delving into it in order to relieve it of all its insights will take some time. Set aside at least a few weeks – if not months – to adequately digest this work. The Bible is a big book, as David Powlison once said, and for many, Ryken will have made it all that much bigger.