How to Apply Literary Sensibility to Christian Doctrine

From Literature to Theology

If you pull a book of systematic theology off the shelf and thumb through it, you’ll quickly see it looks a lot different than the Bible. It tends to be more technical, more precise in its definitions. So how do we get from the Bible—which has all of these stories, poems, epistles, histories, genealogies, and visions—to a more systematic presentation of Christian doctrine?

There are propositions in the Bible—the truths about God that are stated as propositions—but we can also learn a lot of things about God and about the way of salvation by inference, by understanding the poetry of the Bible, and by understanding what’s happening in stories of the Bible.

ESV Literary Study Bible

Combining 1,200+ study notes related to the literary features of the Bible, the ESV Literary Study Bible helps readers understand God’s Word more fully, in all its richness and beauty.

Sensitivity to Literature

You really need to have a sensitivity to the different genres of literature in order to make the move from the literature of the Bible to the doctrines of systematic theology.

For example, in the Psalms the psalmist says, Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. Obviously, something’s said there about God as creator, but also God as sovereign because who do you bow down before? You bow down before the King.

We can learn a lot of things about God and about the way of salvation by inference and by understanding the poetry of the Bible.

A very different approach to that question is the story of Joseph and his brothers when he says, You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. That comes as the climax of a story and it’s also telling you something about how God overrules evil, how he works it for his own purposes.

And in Ephesians you have a description, and more of a theological explanation, of how God rules over all things for his own purposes, ultimately for his own glory. You’re actually getting a similar doctrinal truth derived in a couple different ways, but you’re also learning some things about worship and about how to look at the difficult circumstances of your own life along the way. Those are some of the literary sensibilities that we bring to our understanding of Christian doctrine.

Phil Ryken is a general editor of the ESV Literary Study Bible.

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