Respecting the literary aspects of the Bible is a way of observing the biblical authors’ intentions. For a very long time, the cornerstone of evangelical hermeneutics has been authorial intention—the need to interpret a passage in keeping with an author’s inferred intention. It is time that we put the literary approach to the Bible under that rubric. It stands to reason that if a biblical author entrusted his message to literary forms and techniques, he intended that we apply ordinary methods of literary analysis to the text.
- The idea of the Bible as literature did not begin in the modern era.
As I have plied my trade as a spokesman for the Bible as literature for half a century, I have adopted a strategy of first clearing the ground of misconceptions and then making the positive case for the importance of reading and interpreting the Bible in keeping with its literary nature. Because the phrase the Bible as literature came on the scene in the middle of the twentieth century, it is understandable that evangelicals might be suspicious of the idea. But such towering theological stalwarts from the past as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin did not doubt that the Bible has literary qualities.
- Viewing the Bible as literature is not necessarily a sign of theological liberalism.
Because liberal biblical scholars have been more inclined than conservative ones to practice literary approaches to the Bible, it is easy to associate those approaches with theological liberalism, but there is no necessary connection between them. I begin my course in the literature of the Bible by reading ten claims by biblical authors about the unique nature of the Bible—its inspiration, its infallibility, and so forth. Then I say that for me a literary study of the Bible begins where any other study of it begins—by affirming as true everything that the Bible claims about itself. I find no discord between what I believe theologically about the Bible and my literary study of it.
- To say that the Bible is literature need not imply that it is fictional rather than factual.
Most literature is fictional at some level, but fictionality is not a defining trait of literature. A piece of writing is literary whenever authors employ literary techniques, regardless of whether they record what really happened or made it up.
- When we find literary qualities in the Bible, we are not adding those traits to the Bible.
To people unfamiliar with the literary approach to the Bible, it may seem that literary scholars are adding something to the Bible, but this is a false impression. When we interact with the Bible using literary tools of analysis, we are not adding something but are discovering what is already in the text. We could not treat the story of Samson as a literary tragedy if it did not possess the qualities of that genre.