A young couple has just returned from church perplexed. Their pastor has preached a stirring message on the intimate relationship between Christ and the believer based on Song of Songs 8:9–10: “May the wine go straight to my lover, flowing gently over lips and teeth. I belong to my lover and his desire is for me” (NIV). Their confusion arises because, before this sermon, they thought this passage described their relationship as husband and wife. Whose interpretation is correct?
A young college student has grown up believing that the Bible contains accurate history. Today, however, his professor lectured on the Micaiah story in 1 Kings 22, pointing out repetitions and internal inconsistencies, and arguing that two or more original sources have been put together rather shoddily. These sources, according to his professor, probably did not even come from the time of Ahab. After all, Ahab’s name is not mentioned in the story.
The distressed student goes back to his room, opens his Bible and, sure enough, there are apparent inconsistencies. Jehoshaphat asks Ahab to inquire of the Lord. Ahab sends for 400 prophets of the Lord, and when they are done, Jehoshaphat asks Ahab to inquire of the Lord again. What’s going on? Furthermore, as the professor said, Ahab’s name never occurs in the text, only an unnamed “king of Israel.” Perhaps the story was originally connected with another king.
These questions are often best answered by applying the attitudes, insights, and methods of secular literary studies to the Bible. This literary approach is the hottest new method in biblical studies. Actually, the literary approach is not really new. But it involves a “paradigm shift” in interpretation, replacing traditional critical methods that excavate the text for its sources—a move toward a literary analysis and away from a historical analysis.
Now, how could this current trend in interpretation answer the confused couple’s questions about the Song of Songs? The correct interpretation of the Song depends on identifying its genre accurately. What kind of writing is it? Is it an allegory of the relationship between Christ and the believer or a poem extolling the love between a husband and wife? In this case, the couple is probably correct. The Song reads most naturally as a love poem, an allegorical reading in this case is arbitrary, and archeology has supplied us with similar love poems from Mesopotamia and Egypt. Of course, since human marriage reflects the relationship between God and the believer (Eph. 5:22ff.), the Song of Songs is not unrelated to divine love. The primary reference, though, is to human love.
A literary approach also answers many of the questions raised by our young student’s professor. Neither one has understood correctly the workings of Hebrew narrative. Repetitions are not necessarily the result of combined sources, but are a characteristic of Hebrew storytelling. Repetitions build suspense. Jehoshaphat requests that Ahab seek the will of the Lord concerning the battle, and the king of Israel brings 400 prophets of the Lord. Somehow, Jehoshaphat realizes that these are not real prophets of the Lord. Thus he makes a second request.
Literary scholars have also identified the significance of naming in a biblical story. That Ahab is always called the “king of Israel” in 1 Kings 22 highlights the fact that it is the king, the one who was to be closest to God in Israel, who does these horrible things.
On the surface, many aspects of the literary approach appeal to evangelical scholars. Traditional criticism, as practiced by nonevangelical scholars, is destructive because it divides the text up into a number of sources and denies its historicity. The literary approach treats texts as wholes and suspends discussion of the historical truth of a passage. As a result, many evangelical scholars have adopted the literary approach to Bible interpretation.
A literary approach to interpretation is, however, not an unmixed blessing. We must be wary of its dangers.
The first difficulty with the literary approach is that even the field of secular literary studies is not unified. Each different school of thought believes the others are misleading. Some literary theorists believe the meaning of a work of literature is located in its author’s intent (E. D. Hirsch, Geoffrey Strickland), others in the text itself (the new critics and structuralists), others in the reader’s understanding of the text (reader response, some Marxist and feminist critics). The newest theory argues that a text has no determinate meaning (deconstruction).
Most biblical scholars (not to mention lay people) do not have time to work through the highly technical debates as well as to master their own discipline. The result is that biblical scholars follow one particular school of thought or one particularly prominent thinker—usually the most current or avant-garde theory.
Related to this difficulty is the more serious danger that secular literary theory is guided by secular philosophical ideas, ideas that are sometimes hostile to Christianity. The current trend in literary criticism is deconstruction—a recent French import. One of the main premises of deconstruction is that, since there is no transcendent signifier (God, in traditional theological language), literary communication is doomed to self-contradiction. Though this seems antireligious, a few biblical scholars have begun to experiment with a deconstructive approach to the biblical text.
An even bigger danger of the literary approach is its tendency to move away from the concept of the author in interpretation. Traditional evangelical scholarship has always taken the human author seriously. The purpose of a historical-grammatical exegesis of a passage seeks to discern what meaning the author intended to communicate to his readers. Secular literary criticism has rejected the importance of the author’s intention in interpretation since at least World War II, and some biblical scholars have been quick to follow suit.
Instead, we are told to study the text itself and not worry about the author. After all, we are asked, how can we know what was in the mind of the author? In any case, the author may misinterpret his own writing! Another recent trend (reader-response criticism) places importance on the reader’s own subjective interpretation.
The result, needless to say, is relativity in interpretation, for with these tools, who can judge which interpretation is correct and which is wrong?
The fourth threat that the literary approach has for our understanding of the Bible is its denial of the historical basis of revelation. It is not simply that biblical history is said to be in error or distorted. The implication is more radical: that literature does not make any reference to history or ordinary reality. Instead, say these critics, they create their own reality just as in The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien created a whole new world with no connection to our own.
Some biblical scholars have accepted this for the Bible as well. We have story not history in Genesis or the Gospels. As one scholar puts it: “… narrative is a form of representation. Abraham in Genesis is not a real person any more than the painting of an apple is a real fruit.”
These are, without doubt, serious dangers. They are, however, only potential pitfalls, not necessary ones.
The best antidote to the diversity of the schools of thought and the secular philosophical premises is to be eclectic, adapting the useful findings of literary criticism that are in harmony with the Christian world view. While secular critics often operate with beliefs hostile to Christianity, due to common grace, they frequently are the best resource for describing how biblical narrative and poetry actually work. These insights may be abstracted from their negative philosophical beliefs and adapted to a biblical literary theory.
While the tendency to ignore the author in secular literary theory is disturbing, literary theorists have reminded us of the importance of the text and the reader in interpretation. After all, it is impossible to talk about the author’s intention apart from the text. Thus, we readers go to the text to discover his or her message for us.
The modern literary approach has also helped us see that the reader plays a role in interpretation. I am not advocating the view of some reader-response theorists that the reader actually creates the meaning of the text. But it is true that a given reader’s background and interests will lead him or her to listen to certain parts of the Bible’s message more than other parts (and to listen more than other people do). A good example is provided by Third World evangelical scholars who direct our attention to economic and political implications of certain Scripture texts. This “contextualization” is a type of reader-response hermeneutic. We all bring our own questions determined by our culture and needs to the Bible.
In brief, the Bible, like literature in general, involves the interaction of the writer with the reader through the text. A proper biblical literary theory will take into account all three.
The most serious potential pitfall of a literary approach is the opinion that, if the Bible is literature, it cannot be historical. But this is a false dichotomy. The Bible is literary and it is historical. Perhaps the simplest response to those who want to do away with the Bible’s reference to the real world is Northrup Frye’s appraisal that the Bible “… is as literary as it can well be without actually being literature.” Frye affirms the possibility of a literary approach to the Bible, while denying that that analysis is the whole story.
But why bother with a literary approach? Why not just reject it totally to be safe from these potential pitfalls?
A simple rejection would be foolish. The literary approach has amply proven itself by providing many insights into biblical texts. And we can certainly say along with C. S. Lewis that “since [the Bible] is after all literature, [it] cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are.”
Here is the most obvious of the many benefits of the literary approach: It can assist us to come to an understanding of the conventions of biblical storytelling. Each time period and each culture tells stories and writes poetry in different ways. As twentieth-century interpreters, we must avoid reading the Bible as if it were written yesterday and must ask what means God used to communicate his message.
Tremper Longman III is associate professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary. His forthcoming book, Literary Approaches to the Study of the Bible (Zondervan), explores the relationship between historical truth and literary artifice.
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