Reading the Bible like classical literature…kind of

Justin Taylor posted a summary of Leland Ryken’s “Eight Easy Ways to Misread the Classics.” According to Ryken, each of the following is a fallacy that we often commit when reading the classics.

  1. Be sure the read the classics for their ideas.
  2. Assume without question that the classics tell the truth.
  3. Look upon the classics as “improving literature.”
  4. Regard the classics as beyond criticism.
  5. Assume that moral considerations are irrelevant to the classics.
  6. Be sure that you do not see anything in the classics that the author and original audience did not see it in it.
  7. Assume that all that matters is what a work says to you.
  8. View the classics as relics in the museum of the past.

These are all great points to consider when reading the classics. I know when I first started reading classical literature on my own, the first point was really all I had in mind. I didn’t read the classics because I enjoyed them as works of art. Instead, I mined them for ideas. Of course, their ideas are worth engaging, but reducing a classic work of art to its cognitive dimension is tragic. So, by the way, is forcing teenagers to read the classics because “it’s good for you” (fallacy #3).

As I was reading the list, though, I began to reflect on whether these same fallacies applied to the Bible. At first glance, the last four seem to hold true when discussing the Bible.  Moral considerations (#5) are never irrelevant to a holy God who judges sin and a loving God who wants the best for his people. And, we should say that the Bible is the kind of “classic” that has the ability to transcend the particular concerns of its author and to speak in new contexts and in new ways (#6). We don’t want to lose sight of the authorial context, but we can and should be open to the possibility that texts (particularly when brought into canonical relationship with other texts) might be able to speak in new and unexpected ways. And, the last two seem pretty straightforward. What the Bible says to me is important, but always secondary to what God is saying in the text. And, obviously, we can’t view the Bible as just a relic of the past.

But, what about the first four? While I agreed with each of these when I was thinking about classical literature, I realized that each needs to be nuanced in important ways when discussing Scripture.

  1. Although I would never reduce the Bible to its “ideas,” we should read the Bible to understand what it is saying about God, us, and our world.
  2. We absolutely should assume that the Bible tells the truth. There’s plenty of room for us to discuss what it means to say that the Bible is “true” and what level of confidence any of us can have that we have actually understood its truth. But none of that changes the fact that we should read the Bible as true.
  3. I’ll fudge a little here because I think it would be horrible to see the Bible as “improving literature.” The Bible does not primarily provide a message about how we can living better loves. Nonetheless, the Bible is God’s transformative message to humanity that radically shapes and continually reshapes his people.
  4. This one needs to be nuanced depending on what you mean by “criticism.” On the one hand, of course we want to engage the text critically, bringing to bear all of our intellectual resources as we wrestle with the text to understand its meaning. On the other hand, if “criticism” means (even implicitly) an attempt to avoid the Bible’s authority, placing oneself in judgment over the text, and refusing to be humbled before God’s word, then we’ve got a problem.

So, I think we read the Bible differently from other classical works, and I’m okay with that. Indeed, I think it’s essential for reading the Bible the way that it asks to be read – the way God asks us to read it.

What do you think? Would you nuance these eight fallacies differently than I have when it comes to reading Scripture? I’d be particularly interested to hear what you have to say about #2 and #4. But, feel free to comment on any/all of them.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on July 19, 2010, in Biblical Theology, Hermeneutics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I agree with you on number four. On the second issue, I think it is important to understand how the Bible has been transmitted over the millennia. If one makes the blanket statement or assumption that the Bible as we know it is 100% true, then that does not leave any wiggle room if there are discoveries made, archaeological, or otherwise. I believe that the various scriptures were at one point 100% true, but now contains minor errors due to transmission methods.

    I don’t bring this up with most people though, “the Bible isn’t true?!” I believe the concepts represent the absolute truth, but we should not think that every single word is absolutely true. If this were the case, then every translation would be identical, and there would be no need for updates to the Greek/Hebrew texts.

  2. Great post Marc,

    I agree with you on #4. I am open to all means and methods of criticizing the text as long as we remain under the text, so to speak. I like your nuance of #3. I think it is important to remember the purpose of the biblical literature. It is not a self help book but it is meant to tell a story but not merely for entertainment purposes it is telling a transformative narrative that it asks its readers to take on as their own and so transform their own lives. So I like thinking about the Bible as ‘transformative literature.’

    As to #2, I agree with you that we absolutely want to affirm that the Bible is truth, but I also agree with Nathan that when we say that sometimes it communicates more than we mean, especially in evangelical circles. I think the Bible conveys divine truth, but the means God uses to communicate that truth are human (and therefore finite) words. I think this is an area where the typical evangelical doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy is just unhelpful, not that you can’t make a good case for it, but that it’s unhelpful, addressing the issues of another day rather than the issues we are addressing here. (I realize I could get myself into trouble by saying that but that’s what it seems to me).

  3. Nathan, I wonder if the problem here lies in a tendency to think that “truth” resides in particular words. We all know, though, that words only convey meaning in broader contexts. So, the question of truth wouldn’t have to do with the accuracy of individual words, but with the overall meaning of a text/narrative.

  4. I think it’s interesting that we feel the need to be so careful with a term like “truth” when talking about the Bible. I know that’s because of the history of debate on the topic. But, it still seems odd that I can without hesitation affirm that Les Miserables is true and not worry about being misunderstood, but when I’m talking about God’s word I feel the need to offer all kinds of explanations. That more than anything suggests to me that we’ve been going at this discussion the wrong way for a long time.

  5. I agree with you, but I have had some interesting conversations with people who don’t get this concept.

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