A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible

By Leland Ryken and Tremper Longman III, eds.
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (1993). 528 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
5.2 (Fall 1994) : 232-234

During the past twenty-five years, the literary approach to biblical interpretation has become a major focus of discussion in biblical studies. Two well-known evangelical authors in this field, Leland Ryken of Wheaton College and Tremper Longman III of Westminster Theological Seminary, have joined together to edit this volume. Their purpose for this work is to have it become a reference book for anyone wishing to pursue a literary study of a biblical book or genre (11-12). To achieve this purpose, they solicited essays from both literary and biblical scholars with each essay critiqued by readers from each discipline. The focus of discussion is on the issues of genre, unity and style in the biblical books, not on the historicity, authorship, or background material. A true literary interpretation of the Bible is the goal.

The book has four parts. The first consists of five essays that lay the foundation for a literary approach to biblical interpretation. Two sections that provide literary commentary on individual parts of the Old and New Testaments follow next. A beginning essay in each section describes the literary features of each testament as a whole before discussing individual biblical books. The volume's final part consists of four essays that survey the literary impact of the Bible on past and contemporary literature and preaching. Parts two and three are the major sections of the volume, consuming 375 pages of the total work. This volume has a number of strengths. First, the introductory essay by the editors is a balanced discussion of the literary approach to the Bible. They recognize that "the Bible is a mixed book that contains three dominant types of material and therefore invites multiple approaches" (16) The literary method is only one of them and deserves attention along with the theological and historical approaches. The authors reject the assumption of others that since the Bible is literary, it cannot be historical. Second, Longman has written two very good essays on the literary characteristics of biblical narrative prose and biblical poetry. Third, some of the discussions on the biblical books are very strong. John Sailhamer on Genesis, V. Philips Long on Samuel, Richard L. Pratt, Jr., on Chronicles, Douglas Green on Ezra- Nehemiah, Longman on Psalms, G. Lloyd Carr on Song of Songs, and Richard Patterson on Old Testament Prophecy are especially noteworthy. Sadly, the rest of the treatments do not measure up to these high standards. Fourth, the concluding essay by Sidney Greidanus on "The Value of a Literary Approach for Preaching" is an excellent practical analysis. Greidanus calls for a balanced approach that allows the biblical genre to determine the form of the sermon. He eschews the modern tendency to make all preaching narrative preaching.

A number of weaknesses are also noteworthy. First is the reiteration that literary texts of the Bible do not contain propositions. The editors write, "Literary texts are irreducible to propositional statements and single meanings. . . . A propositional statement of theme can never be a substitute or even the appointed goal of experiencing a literary text" (17) This opinion ignores the fact that propositional statements are a part of biblical narrative and biblical poetry. For example, Gen 45:5-7 and 50:20 are the Bible's own interpretive statements of the meaning of the Joseph narratives. Second, the volume has inconsistencies in its literary approach. Longman sees Job as a drama (90), but Jerry Gladson labels it a unique composition (232). Further, Ryken calls Jonah satire (346), but Branson L. Woodward, Jr., sees it as tragedy (351). A difference of genre leads to a difference in interpretation. The book should give more attention to points like these. Third, although the literary approach supposedly does not deal with issues of authorship, that does not keep Ryken from denying Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes (273-74). Also, William G. Doty only accepts seven letters as of genuinely Pauline authorship (447). The literary approach has violated its own boundaries with these conclusions.

This volume is a good introduction to the growing field of literary study of the Bible. However, it is not the complete guide nor the last word on the subject.