Scholar Defends Bible
as “Literary Classic”
Leland Ryken makes case for reader involvement with Scripture. (Posted Mar. 19, 2012)
BY MARK. A. KELLNER
, news editor
n a society in which composing 140-character “tweets” can be a daunting task for many, the idea of a literary approach to reading the Bible, let alone the 401-year-old King James Version (KJV), with its Elizabethan language and Shakespearean styling, may tempt someone to “give up the ghost”—until they learn, perhaps, that that very phrase comes from the 1611-published Scripture.
Our world’s complex engagement with, and disengagement from, the world of the most-printed, most-sold Bible in the English language was the subject of a pair of lectures from Wheaton College professor Leland Ryken, a 44-year veteran of the Wheaton, Illinois, evangelical school. (Ryken’s son, Philip Graham Ryken, a 1988 graduate, is Wheaton’s eighth, and current, president.)
Leland Ryken spoke at the thirty-first annual G. Arthur Keough Lectures—a series held to honor a much-loved former religion professor at Washington Adventist University (WAU) in Takoma Park, Maryland.
BIBLE EMPHASIS: Leland Ryken, an English professor at Wheaton College and literary stylist for the English Standard Version of the Bible, addressing the thirty-first G. Arthur Keough Lecture series at Washington Adventist University, Takoma Park, Maryland. [PHOTO: M. Kellner/Adventist Review]
In arguing for consideration of the Bible as a literary classic—while neither diminishing nor dismissing its role as the revealed Word of God—Ryken took up an argument from Yale University’s George Lindbeck: Ryken said, “The English-speaking world has become biblically illiterate, and I note with alarm Lindbeck’s claim that ‘when I first arrived at Yale, even those who came from nonreligious backgrounds knew the Bible better than most of those now who come from churchgoing families.’ ”
Ryken took pains to assure his audience that “a literary approach to the Bible does not require a person to accept a liberal attitude toward the accuracy and authority of the Bible.” Instead, he said, “the Bible itself” is the source of the notion that it is a literary work and not a mere “data dump” of dogma.
Ryken said, “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. Most of what we conclude about the Bible as literature is something that we deduce from the actual text, but we should pause to note there is one writer within the Bible who states flat out what his theory of writing was.”
That writer was the author of
Ecclesiastes, simply named “the Preacher,” who said in Ecclesiastes 12:9, 10: “Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth” (ESV).* Finding “words of delight” and “arranging many proverbs with great care” are the work of a literary stylist, Ryken contended.
But viewing the Bible as a literary work does not mean its accounts are fictional, or that it should be approached solely as literature, Ryken said.
“It would be tragic if we allowed ourselves to be deterred from a literary approach to the Bible because of objections that turn out to be fallacies,” Ryken said. “To view the Bible as literature does not require one to regard it as fictional or to compromise one’s view of its special religious authority.”
On Sabbath afternoon, March 31, 2012, Ryken addressed the subject of the KJV Bible, which he addressed in his 2011 book, The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translation
(Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway).
“The greatness of the King James Bible would not exist if something even greater did not exist before it, namely, the words that God superintended human authors of the Bible to write,” he said. “What we call the Word of God is greater than the King James Version of that Word.”
Among the many positives of the KJV, Ryken said, was its translation philosophy.
In the King James Version, he said, “every word in the original text finds an equivalent word or phrase in English. The translation gives us neither more nor less than what the biblical authors wrote, except where English language usage requires it. Until the middle of the twentieth century, all major English Bible translations were based on the premise that the goal of translation is [to] take a reader as close as possible to what the biblical writers actually wrote.”
Ryken added, “Verbal equivalence is the right translation philosophy in my view because surely the goal of translation is to be taken as close to what the original text says as possible.”
He also praised the KJV’s preservation of “figurative language,” something, he said, modern translators dodge.
“Modern dynamic equivalent translators show their nervousness about figurative language in two ways—by omitting the figures of speech and replacing them with abstract concepts, or adding commentary to what the original authors wrote,” Ryken said.
He added, “A Bible that is made to sound like the daily newspaper is given the attention and credence that we give to the newspaper, which is considerably less than what the Word of God requires.”
A distinguished group of scholars and thinkers offered short responses to each of Ryken’s lectures, including David Trim, director of the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research at the General Conference; Alayne Thorpe, dean of Distance Education at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan; Kathleen Henderson Staudt, who teaches at both Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria; and Ingrid Satelmajer, a lecturer in the English honors program at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland, who also contributed a chapter on the King James Bible to an upcoming volume from church-owned Pacific Press in Nampa, Idaho.
Zack Plantak, Religion Department chair at WAU, said, “This year’s Keough Lectureship was immensely stimulating, thought-provoking, and thoroughly engaging. Dr. Ryken gave us his lifelong passion and understanding of Bible as a literary text that needs to be seriously considered as a literary classic not only in the importance of Western literature, but also, for those who study Bible as God’s Word, as a text that needs to be read with understanding of the genre and with the tools and hermeneutical principles of interpretation that are usually applied to other significant
* Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.