In this fourth part of our conversation with Kathleen Nielson—a discussion about her new book, Bible Study: Following the Ways of the Word—we discuss the fact that the Bible is a literary work, and that there are, therefore, implications for how we read and study Scripture.
You make the point that the Bible is a literary work. What does this mean, and what are some of the implications for how we should read it?
First of all, the fact that the Bible is literary does not imply that it is not true! Repeatedly the Bible itself confirms the claim of that wise man Agur: “Every word of God proves true” (Proverbs 30:5). But Scripture’s truth comes to us both in propositional statements and in other ways as well—literary ways. To call the Bible “literary” means, most generally, that the Bible’s words come to us in a unified, artfully-shaped form intended to communicate meaning not just through propositional statements.
Of course, propositional statement of truth constitutes a crucial and foundational part of Scripture’s revelation. In fact, the Bible celebrates the propositional articulation of truth—as in 1 Corinthian 15’s summation of the gospel, in plain, unadorned clauses: “… that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” Who has not read those statements and gloried in the plain truth of the gospel—and the power of words to articulate that truth so piercingly and directly?
But the Bible is not a collection of propositions. Those very statements from 1 Corinthians 15 are themselves a beautifully crafted and balanced progression of phrases embedded in the climactic portion of an epistle carefully composed to propel the early church into unified advancement of the gospel. Every one of the Bible’s 66 books is an intentionally unified whole, shaped by authors who, led by the Holy Spirit, did what the writer of Ecclesiastes describes: weighed and studied and arranged … with great care … seeking to find words of delight and uprightly writing words of truth (Ecclesiastes 12:9-10). Different parts of the Bible evidence various levels and types of literary shaping; wisdom literature’s proverbs offer perhaps the most compact literary language of the Scriptures. But none of the Bible’s books emerges without the careful shaping of form and expression, which in general distinguishes literary words from non-literary words. The whole Bible is in this largest sense a literary work.
The book on Bible study develops all this more thoroughly, but let’s just suggest two implications here for our reading of the Bible as a literary work. First, we should read paying attention to genre, or the kind of biblical literature we’re reading—whether it be, for example, gospel narrative or epistle or apocalyptic or Old Testament narrative or poetry of various kinds. The glorious diversity of genres within the unified canon of the Scriptures evidences the prodigal creative hand of the divine Author. To take note of this as we study is one way of acknowledging him, thanking him, and knowing him better. In a Bible study, there are certain questions we should ask about any and every genre (such as context, main theme, etc.), but there are also unique questions that light up each genre and help us receive its meaning.
Hebrew poetry, for example, asks to be noticed as poetry. The genre is important. Too many of us have studied or received teaching on a psalm without any notice of the fact that we’re reading poetry. It is rewarding in many ways to see how the units of thought (two, sometimes more) balance against each other and work together to create the meaning, in what we usually see as parallel lines in our translations. In Psalm 1:2, how much we learn about delighting in the law of the Lord when we put that delight together with the consistent meditation in the parallel line. In Psalm 119:114, how much we learn about making God our hiding place and shield, as the parallel line tells us how: by hoping in God’s Word. Noticing the form is not an extra activity dealing with decorative poetic issues; noticing the form opens up the meaning of the text.
In the large genre of poetry, not only form but also imagery communicates meaning. One of the best ways to get at the meaning of Psalm 1 is to contrast the solid, fertile tree that fills and fattens verse 3, with the chaff that blows by in the two quick lines of verse 4. What fruitful pictures, in so many ways—and how vividly they communicate the point of the psalm which celebrates the godly one who loves and obeys God’s Word, in contrast to the ungodly ones who don’t. The single godly man stands out, as distinct as that solid tree. The picture makes us long to be that one—or perhaps long for that one. Such imagery is not limited to the Bible’s poetry but overflows into all the genres; pictures of rootedness and fruitfulness, for example, abound in the gospels. Some of the most fruitful moments I have experienced in Bible study groups have come when we’ve stopped to see … feel … “get into” the imagery of a particular poem or passage.
The first implication of the Bible’s literary nature, then, is that we should read noticing distinct genres and literary elements. The second implication, already evident, is that we should read responding with more than just our intellects. God means to touch all of ourselves with his Word; his Word is that big. Taking in the Bible as literature does not mean turning from our intellects to our emotions; it means understanding God’s truth not just logically but also imaginatively, personally, concretely, emotionally—through our “affections.” When we read Psalm 77, for example, we do not come away simply with the logical proposition that focusing on God will bring us out of the depths of despair. Reading Psalm 77, we experience with the psalmist the crying out to God, the stretching out of our hands, the waiting and struggling to find Him, the turning from “I” to “you” that marks the needed change of focus, and the final celebration of God’s redemptive work among His people. When we read a narrative (to be discussed in the next question), we feel the contours of concrete human experience in God’s ongoing story.
How merciful of God to speak in a way that penetrates us so deeply and fully. The Bible’s literary aspects don’t just make for good study; they are a crucial part of the process of receiving God’s inspired revelation of himself to us. Thoughtfully receiving the words lets us more fully know and love the Word made flesh, Christ the Redeemer at the heart of this revelation.
For further discussion of this topic, follow this link to a workshop given by Nielson at the Gospel Coalition 2011 conference.
In the next part of our conversation, we talk about the Bible being one story, and how it advances a single, overarching narrative.
To learn more about Bible Study, please visit here.
To read the earlier portions of our interview with Kathleen Nielson, please see: