The Bible as Literature and Expository Preaching

I am persuaded that without knowledge of literature pure theology cannot at all endure, just as heretofore, when letters [the old name for literature] have declined and lain prostrate, theology, too, has wretchedly fallen and lain prostrate; nay, I see that there has never been a great revelation of the Word of God unless He has first prepared the way by the rise and prosperity of languages and letters, as though they were John the Baptists. . . .  Certainly it is my desire that there shall be as many poets and rhetoricians as possible, because I see that by these studies, as by no other means, people are wonderfully fitted for the grasping of sacred truth and for handling it skillfully and happily.—Martin Luther

“What does literature have to do with expository preaching?” That is what a preacher asked with incredulity when I told him that I was coauthoring a book on expository preaching.  In my mind, it remains a question that should never have been asked.  I have also pondered why the question arose.

What the question signals is an inadequate understanding of literature and literary analysis.  As an extension of that, when I encounter resistance to the idea of the Bible as literature, the objections almost always turn out to be based on incorrect views of what it means that a piece of writing is literature.  The procedures of what literary scholars call “explication of the text” (explication de texte) and the methodology of an expository sermon are nearly identical.  The only difference is that a sermon adds certain elements to a literary explication of a text.  As Kent Hughes expressed it to me informally, all biblical exposition is literary analysis.

The burden of the present essay is to assert that although good expository preachers intuitively practice an incipient literary criticism, they could enhance their expository sermons significantly if they would add even a modicum of self-conscious literary analysis to their methodology.  By expository preaching I mean preaching whose central feature is that the preacher chooses a text that is neither too short nor too long to be completely analyzed in a single sermon.  Two further features of such preaching are that it (a) keeps its focus on the announced text instead of escaping from it to other material, and (b) interacts with the chosen text in terms of the kind of writing that it is instead of immediately extracting a series of theological propositions from it.

With the foregoing as a point of departure, I will devote the remainder of my discussion to the following four subjects.  First, if we are to approach to the Bible as literature, we need to understand what it means that the Bible is literature.  Secondly, we need to go beyond mere acknowledgement that the Bible is literary to an understanding and practice of what it means to approach the Bible as literature.  Thirdly, we need to take an honest look at ways in which preachers have generally neglected an important tool of biblical exposition by their indifference to literary analysis of the Bible.  Finally, I will outline the advantages that can come through a commitment to correct this current neglect.

The Bible as Literature

Three primary modes of writing converge in the Bible—theological, historical, and literary.  Overwhelmingly, theology and history are embodied in literary forms.  A crucial hermeneutical principle thus needs to be established right at the outset:  meaning is communicated through form, starting with the very words of a text but reaching beyond that to considerations of literary genre and style.  We cannot properly speak about the theological or moral content of a story or poem (for example) without first interacting with the story or poem.

Literary form exists prior to content in the sense that no content exists apart from the form in which it is embodied.  As a result, the first responsibility of a reader or interpreter is to assimilate the form of a discourse.  Without the literary form, the content does not even exist.

The concept of literary form needs to be construed very broadly here.  Anything having to do with how a biblical author has expressed his message constitutes literary form.  Further, we can profitably ponder the implications of the statement of fiction writer Flannery O’Connor that storytellers speak “with character and action, not about character and action.” What this means is that biblical writers do not simply tell us about Abraham’s life, the daily routine of a shepherd (Psalm 23), and the indulgent lifestyle of the wealthy of Amos’ time (Amos 6:4-6), but by means of these things about God, people, and life.

Mystery and Manners, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York:  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1957), 76.

The Idea of “the Bible as Literature”

The idea of the Bible as literature began with the Bible itself. The writers of the Bible refer with technical precision to a whole range of literary genres in which they write—proverb, saying, chronicle, complaint [lament psalm], oracle, apocalypse, parable, song, epistle, and many another.

Furthermore, some of the forms that we find in the Bible correspond to the literary forms current in the authors’ surrounding cultures.  For example, the Ten Commandments are cast into the form of suzerainty treaties that ancient Near Eastern kings imposed on their subjects, and the New Testament epistles, despite unique features, show many affinities to Greek and Roman letters of the same era.

Mainly, though, we can look to the Bible itself to see the extent to which it is a literary book.  Virtually every page of the Bible is replete with literary technique, and to possess the individual texts of the Bible fully, we need to read the Bible as literature, just as we need to read it theologically and (in the narrative parts) historically.

With these preliminary principles in place, I will delineate three features that make up the overarching genre that we know as literature.  To keep my discussion manageable, I will illustrate all of my generalizations from the story of Cain (Genesis 4:1-16).

The Voice of Human Experience

Literature is identifiable first of all by its subject matter.  The subject of literature is human experience, rendered concretely.  We can profitably contrast literary writing to expository (informational) writing on this point.  The staple of expository discourse is the propositional statement, often tending toward abstraction or generality.  The sixth commandment is an example of expository discourse:  “you shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).

Literature, by contrast, is incarnational in the sense that it embodies ideas and meaning in the form of characters, settings, actions, and images.  It aims to get a reader to share an experience, not primarily to grasp ideas.  The truth that literature imparts is thus partly truthfulness to human experience, not simply ideas that are true.  The sixth commandment gives us the precept; the story of Cain gives us the example, without using the abstraction “murder,” we should note, and without the injunction that are to refrain from murder.

There is a certain irreducible quality to a literary text in the sense that a propositional summary of it—an idea that we extract from the particulars—never adequately represents the meaning of the text.  Flannery O’Connor expressed this in terms that virtually all literary critics would accept:  “the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.”

Because literature is truthful to human experience, it is universal.  History and the news tell us what happened, whereas literature tells us what happens—what is true for all people in all places and times.  Of course a text can do both of these, and the Bible does so, but to the extent to which it is literary, a text is filled with recognizable human experience.

The story of Cain, despite the ostensible remoteness of the text from the modern world, contains an abundance of recognizable human experience.  Part of what is up-to-date is the literary categories that we find in the story:  murder story; detective story; crime and punishment.  Because the focus of the story is family living, many of the recognizable experiences are domestic in nature:  domestic violence; the problem child and the model child; the parents who are disillusioned by the failure of their early hopes for their children; the domineering older sibling; the victimized younger sibling; sibling rivalry.  Moral and spiritual experience is also represented:  giving in to temptation; envy; harboring a grudge; lack of self-control; moral indifference (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”); murder; guilt.  An additional cluster consists of attitudes toward authority:  defiance; lying toward a (divine) parent; anger at having gotten caught; being forced to submit to the judgment administered by an authority figure.  There are also experiences that fall loosely under the rubric of social and psychological experience:  self-pity; the hardened criminal without regret; the outcast; the futile attempt to cover up a crime.

We need to hear the voice of authentic human experience from the pulpit, and an incorrect stereotype is that expository preaching does not give it, whereas topical preaching does, especially when couched in the confessional mode.  For the expository preacher, the avenue toward giving voice to authentic human experience lies in the literary nature of the Bible.  To gain relevance, all a preacher needs to do is explicate the human experiences that are embedded in the literary parts of the Bible.

Mystery and Manners, 73.

Literary Genres

The most customary way to define literature is by the external genres (types or kinds of writing) in which its content is expressed.  The two main genres in the Bible are narrative and poetry.  Numerous categories cluster under each of these.  Narrative subtypes, for example, include hero story, gospel, epic, tragedy, comedy (a U-shaped plot with a happy ending), and parable.  Specific poetic genres keep multiplying as well:  lyric, lament psalm, praise psalm, love poem, nature poem, epithalamion (wedding poem), and many others.

But those are only the tip of the iceberg.  In addition to narrative and poetry, we find prophecy, visionary writing, apocalypse, pastoral, encomium, oratory, drama (the book of Job), satire, and epistle.  Then if we add more specific forms like travel story, dramatic monologue, doom song, and Christ hymn, the number of literary genres in the Bible readily exceeds one hundred.  C. S. Lewis has said famously that “there is a . . . sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are.”

The importance of genre to biblical interpretation is that genres have their own methods of procedure and rules of interpretation.  An awareness of genre should program our encounter with a text, alerting us to what we can expect to find.  Additionally, considerations of genre should govern the terms in which we interact with a text, so that with narrative, for example, we know that we are on the right track if pay attention to plot, setting, and character.

There is too much to say about these things in the story of Cain to attempt a full explication.  In every verse of the story, setting plays an important role, and this emerges if we use the formula “                        scene” or “scene of                                     .”  Thus the story begins with a sex scene and a birth scene.  It is followed by a work scene, a scene or worship, a counseling scene, a judgment scene, a scene of wandering, and so forth.  According to verse 7, most profoundly the stage on which the action occurs is the soul of Cain.

The plot of this story of crime and punishment focuses on the character of the criminal Cain.  The sequence is as follows:  the criminal’s family, vocational, and religious background (vv. 1-4a); the motive for the crime (vv. 4b-5); the criminal’s counseling history (vv. 6-7); the circumstances of the crime (v. 8); arrest, interrogation, and sentencing (vv. 9-12); appeal and modification of the sentence (vv. 13-15); serving the sentence (v. 16).  Well-made plots are a seamless progression, and this story illustrates it.

When we turn to characterization, the cast of primary characters is two—God and Cain.  Abel is the exemplary human character, but he is an accessory character who occasions the main action but does not actively participate in it.  The protagonist of the story—the “first struggler” (literal meaning of protagonist) with whom we go through the action—is Cain, and the key to his characterization is that the story is an ever-expanding exposure of his bad actions and attitudes.  The authority figure in the story is God, and the chief attributes that we can trace are his benevolence toward Cain and his judgment of the sinner.

A biblical scholar who caught the vision for a literary approach to the Bible has written regarding Bible stories, “A story is a story is a story.  It cannot be boiled down to a meaning,” that is, adequately treated at the level of theological abstraction.[ii]   A person listening to an expository sermon on the story of Cain should be aware from start to finish that the text being explicated is a narrative, not a theological treatise.  The text exists to be relived in its fullness, not dipped into as a source of proof texts for moral and theological generalizations.

C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York:  Macmillan, 1958), 3.

John Drury, Luke (New York:  Macmillan, 1973), 217.

Literary Resources of Language

Literature also uses distinctive resources of language that set it apart from ordinary expository discourse.  The most obvious example is poetry, inasmuch as poets speak a language all their own, consisting of images and figures of speech.  The most important of the special resources of language that push a text into the category of literature include the following:  imagery, metaphor, simile, symbol, allusion, irony, wordplay, hyperbole, apostrophe (direct address to someone or something absent as though present), personification, paradox, and pun.

Some of these linguistic resources are present in the story of Cain.  In an evocative metaphor (or personification), sin is pictured as a predatory monster ready to pounce on Cain (v. 7).  Cain’s rhetorical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (v. 9) rises to the level of aphorism, as does Cain’s statement, “My punishment is greater than I can bear” (v. 13).  The blood of Abel is personified, as is the ground (vv. 10-11).  Rhetorical formulas include the curse (v. 11) and the number formula “sevenfold” (v. 15).  The story ends of with irony and wordplay, inasmuch as the land in which Cain “settled” is Nod, which means “wandering” (v. 16).  More generally, the story exploits the resources of suspense, as we are repeatedly led to wonder whether Cain will respond appropriately to the opportunities that God puts before him to conquer his bent toward making wrong choices.

The expository preacher, like the literary critic, approaches a biblical text on the premise that whatever was important enough for the writer to include in a text is important to the expositor as well.  If rhetoric, style, and special resources of language leap out at us from virtually every page of the Bible, we need to take note of them and do something with them when expounding the Bible.

Approaching the Bible as Literature

Many Bible expositors would assent to all that I have said about the literary nature of the Bible, only to ignore it when they stand in the pulpit.  Mere assent to the idea that the Bible is a literary anthology has not produced a literary approach to the Bible.  The payoff should have been straightforward:  by definition, a literary approach to the Bible is one that does justice to the literary aspects of the Bible as I have outlined them.  The following is a brief checklist.

First, literary analysis brings out the universal human experiences embodied in a passage.  Literature is the human race’s testimony to its own experience.  It does not consist primarily of ideas but instead the accurate portrayal of human experience as lived in the world.  The test of whether an expository preacher has dealt adequately with a text at this level is simple:  if listeners have been led to see their own experiences in the text and its exposition, the expositor has interacted with the subject matter in keeping with its literary nature.

Secondly, a literary analysis of a text identifies the genre and interacts with the text in terms appropriate to that genre. This means that (for example) with a story an expositor talks about plot conflict moving to resolution, story patterns like ordeal or the temptation motif, characterization, and the role of setting in the action.  Such interaction does justice to the specificity of a text.  It does not reduce every passage to a set of theological propositions, and it avoids making every exposition seem as though the Bible consists of all one type of writing.

Thirdly, interaction with a biblical text has been appropriately literary if the expositor has identified and commented on such linguistic and rhetorical features of the text as patterning, figurative language, and the style in which a biblical author has couched his content.  If those aspects of a text were unimportant to an author, he would not have incorporated them into his writing.  But inasmuch as the biblical writers did incorporate these features, they are worthy of attention.

Of course preachers need to be relieved of anxieties about the idea of the Bible as literature before they can be expected to endorse literary analysis as part of their expository preaching.  Let me allay possible anxieties by asserting the following:

  • As noted above, the idea of the Bible as literature is implicit in the Bible itself and can be inferred from some of the generic names that biblical writers apply to their writings. The idea of the Bible as literature is not a concoction of modernity.
  • Such towering figures from the past as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin did not doubt that the Bible has literary features. To speak of the Bible as literature is to put oneself in good and respectable company.
  • To speak of the Bible as literature need not imply theological liberalism. Among the ranks of those who conduct literary criticism of the Bible, one can find exactly the same range of evangelical orthodoxy and theological liberalism that one finds in biblical scholarship at large.  The literary study of the Bible can and should begin where any other kind of biblical study begins—by accepting as true everything that biblical writers say about the Bible.
  • While fictionality is a common characteristic of literature, it is not a necessary feature of it. The literary nature of a text depends on the writer’s selectivity and molding of material, and the presence of artistry and stylistic excellence, regardless of whether the content is factual history/biography or made up.
  • A literary approach to the Bible need not imply only a literary approach, any more than a historical approach implies only a concern with history or a theological approach only an interest in theology.
  • In regard to the theological approach, we need to remind ourselves that such an approach is no guarantee of accuracy or truthfulness. Scholars taking a theological approach to the Bible have strayed as far from the truth as some literary and historical scholars have strayed.  To theologize is not inherently “safe,” as many Christians incorrectly assume.  The privileging of theology over other ways of handling the Bible has provided a false and dangerous sense of security.

To view the Bible as literature does not by itself impair one’s belief in the inspiration of biblical writers by the Holy Spirit.  Our beginning premise must be that everything that we find in the Bible came by inspiration and was safeguarded by the Holy Spirit.  If, then, we find an abundance of literary forms in the Bible, we should conclude that God inspired those literary forms, reminding ourselves at the same time that there is no content apart from the forms in which it is embodied.

Contemporary Expository Preaching and the Bible as Literature

If we measure contemporary expository preaching by the hermeneutical principles that I have outlined (all of them variations on the main principle of doing justice to the literary characteristics that the Bible actually displays), I would say with regret that the record is one of widespread neglect.  It is largely a history of missed opportunities, though not in an absolute sense, of course.

With close attentiveness and a lot of filling in of gaps, a listener with literary sensitivities can often pick up snatches of character analysis and exploration of the dynamics of plot in biblical stories.  By supplying some missing terminology, a listener can see that the meanings of images and figurative language have been unpacked in biblical poetry (though attendees at evangelical church services are unlikely to hear sermons preached on the poetic parts of the Bible, which is itself a symptom of inattention to the literary nature of the Bible).  But why should it require a person with literary sophistication to pick up the latent clues that a preacher is expounding a literary text in keeping with the kind of text that it is?  Attentiveness to the literary dimension of the Bible should be foregrounded in expository sermons.

If we ask how much has been lost by the inattentiveness of many expository preachers to the literary features of the Bible, I believe that the loss has been immense.  We are in a situation similar to that of the church in Roger Bacon’s day (13th century):  Bacon claimed that the church had done a good job of communicating the theological content of the Bible but had failed to make the literal level of the biblical text come alive in people’s imaginations.

In an online course on the Bible as literature that I teach for the general public, a recent posting by an enrollee asked this question:  “Why do most preachers choose to remain silent about engaging with the Bible as literature?”  The answers are multiple.

Most preachers have never been committed to the idea that the Bible is literature. Many of them know at a subsurface level that the Bible is literary, but it has never gained the sovereignty of their minds, and in fact it has not excited enough interest to prompt them to explore what promise a literary approach to the Bible might afford in their preaching.

Furthermore, preachers are the product of their seminary or graduate school education.  They handle the Bible as their education taught them.  With few exceptions, the teaching they received was deficient in regard to the literary dimension of the Bible. For the most part, seminaries pay lip service to the idea of the Bible as literature.  Students may be introduced to literary approaches to the Bible as part of a menu of approaches, but the goal is simply to ensure that students have been exposed to these approaches.  It was never the intention of professors that students would actually apply these approaches in a systematic and regular way when they entered the ministry.  Lacking models for applying literary methods of analysis to the Bible, preachers have naturally not regarded such analysis as having practical importance to them.

Finally, preachers (again prompted by their education) have assumed that traditional ways of handling the Bible by seminary professors and graduates are all that are necessary.  After all, biblical scholars and preachers are the ones to whom lay people have entrusted the task of interpreting the Bible.  What need does the guild have to seek input beyond itself?

But the whole premise here is faulty.  In any sphere of life, it makes sense to seek the help of experts when undertaking a project.  If I intend to build a deck on the back of my house, I am well advised to purchase a book on the subject and perhaps hire the services of a deck builder.  If I need to give a theological talk to a Sunday school class, it behooves me to look closely at how theologians deal with their material, and perhaps to interact with a pastor on whether I am expressing the material as a theologian would.

If we ask who is most expert in literary analysis of a work of literature, my answer is that the people who know most about literary analysis are English teachers who teach literature day-in and day-out in high school and college classrooms. Preachers have not sought the help of people who know the most about literary analysis.  Literary scholars are rarely given a seat at the table of hermeneutical and homiletic theory and practice.

What Literary Analysis Can Add to Expository Preaching

What, then, can literary analysis add to expository preaching?  I would hope that my answers will make the prospect of incorporating a literary approach into expository preaching appealing to expository preachers.  As I outline the advantages, it will be apparent that by literary criticism I mean traditional literary criticism, not the bewildering and highly technical critical approaches that have dominated upper-level literary scholarship for the past four decades.  I do not envision anything more technical than the methods of analysis that are instilled in any good high school or college literature course.

First, then, a literary approach to a biblical text provides the best possible antidote to a nearly universal tendency of seminary graduates to translate biblical texts into a series of abstract theological propositions.  Theologically educated preachers do not see this tendency as a problem because they love theological discourse.  Nonetheless, the immediate move toward theological abstraction is a problem if the goals are those of expository preaching.

The aim of expository preaching is to unfold a biblical passage—to relive the passage—from beginning to end and in keeping with the kind of writing that it is.  Only a tiny percentage of the Bible is couched as theological exposition.  There is, indeed, a place for spinning out a series of moral and theological propositions in an expository sermon, but that place is after the text has been experienced as a piece of writing and never as a substitute for reliving the text in terms of the kind of writing that it is.  A literary approach to a biblical text can serve as a warden to block a common practice of viewing virtually every passage in the Bible primarily as a collection of theological or moral ideas.  Many people who value the Bible most highly as a spiritual authority experience the Bible in large part as a repository of proof texts for theological ideas—quite contrary to the actual form in which the Bible comes to us, namely, a literary anthology.

The positive counterpart to this negative function of preventing immediate theological and moral reductionism is that application of the tools of literary analysis to literary texts opens the door to improved precision in identifying what is in a biblical text.  For example, if stories are comprised of plot, setting, and characters, interaction with those three elements will yield a better grasp of a biblical story than when a preachers does not speak of the elements of narrative.

Again, if poets speak a language of images and figures of speech, a sermon that refuses to name these literary features and unpack the meanings of the figurative language will in some measure be cutting against the grain.  If a satiric passage by definition has one or more objects of attack and a stated or implied norm by which the criticism is conducted, not speaking of these things is a missed opportunity in the quest to make listeners see the passage as it really is in itself.  The hermeneutical principle of which I speak is not peripheral but central to expository preaching, namely, doing justice to the specificity of a text.

Literary criticism also offers a methodology for interacting with the Bible that can be taught and passed on to congregants.  Hermeneutical methods that dominate in seminary and graduate education are so sophisticated that preachers legitimately despair of passing them on to their parishioners.  The result is that most preachers do not even think in terms of educating their listeners into the methods of biblical analysis as they preach their sermons.  When preachers stand in the pulpit on Sunday mornings, their whole bent is directed to sharing the product of their work in the study during the week.  The process of analyzing the Bible is not even on preachers’ radar screens as something to mention from the pulpit.

This adds up to a missed opportunity of gigantic proportions. One of the byproducts of expository preaching ought to be a congregation adept at handling the Bible inductively.  A mere two or three minutes of interspersed tips for interpreting the Bible in every expository sermon would yield spectacular results.  After a year, church members would know that plots are based on one or more conflicts that move toward resolution by the end of the story, and that stories need to be divided into a sequence of episodes or scenes, and that the word metaphor is based on two Greek words meaning “to carry over,” with the result that we need to carry over the meanings of a metaphor from level A (the statement itself) to level B (the actual subject of the passage).

A literary approach to biblical interpretation also offers a foolproof way to keep expository preaching rooted in common human experience and therefore relevant to everyday life.  This is true because an axiom of literary criticism is that the subject of literature is human experience portrayed concretely.  I recall an occasion when after I had completed conducting a workshop on teaching the Bible one of my students in the workshop (a preacher) told me that the most important new idea that he would carry away from the workshop was that the Bible embodies human experience.  He confided to me that it had never occurred to him that the Bible is a book of human experience.

Many (perhaps most) expository preachers are so captivated by theological abstraction and (even more) by the interlocking story of salvation history that pervades the Bible that the orientation of their sermons is to whisk us away from the everyday world to a world of theological abstraction.  When we stare at a biblical text, we should most immediately see aspects of human experience that the author has placed before us, and only at a later stage should we see theological ideas.  We should not set these up as rivals, since a complete treatment of a biblical text should include both.  But a literary approach can help ensure that we first see the human experiences that have been embodied in a text.

When expository preachers adopt the methods of literary criticism, they at once enlarge the arsenal of terms and analytic tools at their disposal.  Most of these terms and tools would, moreover, represent a fresh approach for both preacher and congregation.  Stagnation can enter even the best expository preaching.  Literary criticism is not a gimmick for innovation; it is a centuries-old way of dealing with literary texts dating all the way back to Aristotle’s Poetics.  The language of plot and characterization and metaphor and irony is in the active vocabulary of anyone who had a bona fide literature course in high school or college, and in any case terms like these cannot be said to be totally unfamiliar to, or beyond the reach of, the ordinary person.

A particular strength of literary criticism is its emphasis on literary wholes and on the unity of texts.  A pioneer in the modern Bible-as-literature movement correctly stated that “no principle of literary study is more important than that of grasping clearly a literary work as a single whole.”  The primary reason that the dean of an international correspondence graduate school asked me to write a hermeneutics course on the Bible as literature (required of all students enrolled at the school) is that in his thinking my literary approach to the Bible does the best job of showing the unity of Bible passages.

A final gift that the literary approach can bequeath to expository preachers is that it opens the door to preaching from the whole span of the Bible.  A preacher once shared that although he would often read psalms to people in the hospital he would avoid preaching from them because he did “not know what to do with them.” Mastering the literary genres of the Bible shows anyone “what to do” with Bible passages.

We can profitably pause for a moment longer on this matter of preachers’ selection of Bible passages for their sermons.  In some evangelical circles, preachers find it hard to conceive of preaching from anything other than the epistles.  As we all know, the epistles are ostensibly the most idea-laden section of the Bible.  There is no good reason why evangelical preachers should gravitate so overwhelmingly to the epistles for their sermons—and why they should refuse to interact with them as letters when they do. God gave us the entire Bible with the intention that we would use it—in our sermons as well as elsewhere.  Accepting a literary approach to the Bible is a way out of a longstanding evangelical fixation with the epistles.

Richard G. Moulton, The Modern Reader’s Bible (New York, 1895), 1719.

The foregoing essay was composed for a festschrift entitled Preach the Word:  Essays on Expository Preaching in Honor of R. Kent Hughes, ed. Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson (Wheaton:  Crossway, 2007).

Why a Literary Approach Should Not be Considered Optional

The incorporation of a literary approach is not simply desirable, as I have argued above, but it is essential.  I can make that claim in confidence because once we embrace the hermeneutical principles that undergird expository preaching, literary analysis is automatically included in the repertoire.

The most important of these hermeneutical principles is a commitment to close reading of a biblical text.  The moment we embrace close reading, several concomitants at once become operative, as follows:

  • Close reading implies that an expositor does justice to the specificity of a text. It should go without saying, then, that if the text is literary in nature, an expositor cannot deal with the particulars of a text without identifying and interpreting the literary details.
  • Pointing in the same direction, it is an established hermeneutical principle that a piece of writing needs to be analyzed in terms appropriate to the genre in which it is written. After all that has been written about the Bible as literature, there is no excuse for preachers not to acknowledge the literary nature of the Bible.  Therefore, if passages need to be analyzed in keeping with their genre, it is self-evident that a literary passage requires literary analysis.
  • The goal of expository preaching is to relive a text as fully as possible, and ordinarily to do so in a sequential manner from the beginning of the passage to the end. Literary scholars call this explication of a text.  Expository preaching on a literary text adds theological analysis and application to ordinary literary explication, but in other ways literary explication and exposition of a text are not just similar—they are identical.
  • Finally, evangelical hermeneutics has championed the idea of authorial intention. The only tenable conclusion is that everything that biblical writers put into their writing is intended for a purpose.  If they wrote in literary genres rather than expository ones, and if stylistic and rhetorical techniques spring forth from virtually every page of the Bible, it stands to reason that biblical writers intended that expositors do something with the literary dimension of their writing.

No matter how strong the case is in regard to literary analysis of a text as part of expository preaching, however, little progress can be expected until two fallacies are acknowledged and repudiated.  The first fallacy is that biblical scholars and preachers are the only ones who have something to bring to the table in regard to biblical exposition.  While preachers would not consciously assent to such a viewpoint, their practice shows it to be largely true.  How often are literary critics or their books on interpretation and the Bible given a place in our churches and workshops?  The unstated assumption is that all necessary hermeneutical methodology lies with the guild of seminary professors and their graduates.

The second fallacy is that the literary aspects of the Bible are “only” the form in which the content of the Bible is expressed. The prevalent viewpoint in evangelical circles is that the literary dimension of the Bible, if it is acknowledged at all, is regarded as an optional activity to be pursued if we have time or interest to engage in it after we have assimilated the message or content of a biblical passage.

But this practice violates a very obvious principle of communication, namely, that content is communicated through form.  There can be no message without the form in which it is embodied, starting with language itself but including many additional aspects of form (broadly defined to include everything having to do with how an author expresses content).  We cannot extract meaning from a literary text in the Bible without first interacting with aspects of literary form.

In short, forms like story, poetry, proverb, and vision (to name just a few) are the forms through which biblical content is mediated.  If the writing of the Bible is the product of divine inspiration—if it represents what the Holy Spirit prompted the authors to write as they were carried along (2 Peter 1:21)—then the only possible conclusion is that the literary forms of the Bible have been inspired by God and need to be granted an importance congruent with that inspiration.

In the epigraph that I placed at the head of this essay, Martin Luther makes extravagant claims for the ability of “English major types” (my colloquial epithet) to handle the Bible skillfully.  Luther’s statement is doubtless at an extreme end of the continuum.  But for as long as any of us can remember, professors and graduates of seminaries have been at the opposite extreme on the continuum.  They have given scarcely a thought to the possibility that English major types can bring something valuable to the enterprise of expository preaching.  The resources for correcting this omission are ready at hand.  All that is required is a willingness to take the step.

Notes

1 Mystery and Manners, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York:  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1957), 76.

2 Mystery and Manners, 73.

3 C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York:  Macmillan, 1958), 3.

4 John Drury, Luke (New York:  Macmillan, 1973), 217.

5 Richard G. Moulton, The Modern Reader’s Bible (New York, 1895), 1719.

The foregoing essay was composed for a festschrift entitled Preach the Word:  Essays on Expository Preaching in Honor of R. Kent Hughes, ed. Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson (Wheaton:  Crossway, 2007).

Leland Ryken

Leland wants to see people growing and reading the Bible as literature. He has been a college teacher of literature for over half a century, authored some sixty books, and now continues to bless the Church through his resources made freely available on this site.

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