Podcast: How to Become a Better Bible Reader (Phil Ryken)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

A Literary Approach to the Bible

In this episode of The Crossway Podcast, Phil Ryken, contributing editor to the ESV Literary Study Bible, discusses the literary qualities of Scripture. He makes the case for focusing not just on what the biblical writers said, but also on how they said it, which contributes to the meaning of the text. He also explains why this literary approach to the Bible has largely been neglected by evangelicals, what it really means to read the Bible literally, and how all of this relates to the plain meaning of the words of Scripture.

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Play | Spotify | RSS

Topics Addressed in This Interview

ESV Literary Study 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.

What and How the Bible Speaks to Us

01:32

Matt Tully
When it comes to reading and studying the Bible, I think we as conservative evangelical Christians tend to focus on what the Bible is saying to us, but we're perhaps not quite as familiar with focusing on how the Bible is saying those things. Why would you say, if you were to summarize it simply, that understanding the how is also important?

Phil Ryken
The first thing that comes to mind, I don't know if this is the most important thing, but I just think there's a lot more delight in reading God's word when we understand there are different kinds of literature in the Bible and that we need to approach them in very different ways. I think a lot of Christians, and maybe people in secular culture as well, think of the Bible in a totally separate category—it's its own kind of unique book that has no connection with other things that we read. But when you start realizing there are parables, stories, poetry and music, it gives just a much more rich appreciation and enjoyment of God's word. I also think it's really important for interpreting the Bible properly. If you want to get the content you also have to understand the form. Otherwise you're going to be missing the content.

Is Scripture Its Own Category?

02:47

Matt Tully
Going back to that first point you made, why is it that we tend to view Scripture in this completely other category? Obviously, it is in another category in some sense.

Phil Ryken
Actually, there's an aspect of that that's appropriate—recognizing this really is the word of God and that it's a divine gift to us. God speaks to us through his word in a way that he doesn't speak to us in any other form of writing. So it is a special book. It's a holy book. It's a unique book—there's no other book like it in that sense. But we also have to bear in mind that the people who wrote the Bible under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit were real people and they are reflecting the culture that they were in and cultures always have literary forms. So the Bible is unique in certain ways, but it's actually not unique in other ways. You're asking the question, Well, why do we sometimes view it as unique in ways that it's not helpful to viewed as unique? I think even the physical form of the Bible where you have little verse numbers, as a result you tend to read the Bible verse by verse by verse rather than as a literary whole or a page turner the way you might read another book.

Matt Tully
Those verses didn't exist in the original manuscripts.

Phil Ryken
Oftentimes the original didn't even have breaks between the letters in the words—it was all run together. So even the physical form of it was very different. I think that's another reason why we perhaps read the Bible differently.

Have We Neglected the Literary Aspects of the Bible?

04:26

Matt Tully
Do you think it's a fair critique of, let's just say Protestant evangelicalism generally, that we have neglected the literary qualities of Scripture?

Phil Ryken
It probably is, although I'm hopeful that we do better with that now because I think there are a lot more resources for understanding the Bible as literature. I also think that there are more pastors who have been trained to be a little more sensitive to the different kinds of literature in the Bible. I think that's been an area over the last half century where Bible scholars in general and evangelical scholars in particular have really grown in their understanding, and that eventually has an impact on people that are teaching the Bible and eventually has an impact also on people that are reading the Bible.

Interpretation through a Literary Lens

05:09

Matt Tully
You mentioned another one of the reasons that this is important is for interpretation of Scripture. Can you think of any examples where a sensitivity to the literary qualities of Scripture would have a positive impact on our ability to interpret it?

Phil Ryken
Here's one example: I think there's a longstanding debate or discussion as to whether the parables of Jesus have only one main point or whether they can actually be communicating a variety of different lessons. When you understand what a parable is—a parable is a particular kind of story; it does have a kingdom point to it, but like most stories it's not just a simple proposition. There's a complexity and richness to it. When you understand that that's how literature works, you're not going to be surprised when there are multiple meanings, and you're not going to be surprised if there's a primary meeting because a lot of times a parable specifically is a story told to make a point. So that's maybe a both-and, but you have a deeper understanding of it if you understand the kind of literature that it is. Another example is sometimes we ask ethical questions of stories in the Bible: Was it right for Rahab to lie to her fellow citizens of Jericho in order to protect the city? And that's an age-old ethical dilemma anyway. How do I answer that question because in a story you oftentimes don't have—maybe in a certain kind of story you would, but most of the Bible stories you don't necessarily have—Hey, this person was doing the right thing,—a little editorial comment. So what do you do in that situation? You read literature the way literature is written, and literature tells you a lot by the outcomes and what the results are. Nobody wants to have the kind of story where somebody is always telling you what the moral point is. You just want to enter into the world of the story and let the story carry its own meaning. But if you need to ask some of those hard questions of a text, you need to know how stories work and that helps you in the interpretation.

Literary Reading and the Idea of Story

07:32

Matt Tully
So how connected is a literary reading of Scripture to the idea of story?

Phil Ryken
I would say it's connected when the Bible is telling you a story, but it's not connected when the Bible is giving you a genealogy. It's not so connected if the Bible is writing you an epistle or reciting to you a poem. The Bible does all of these kinds of things, there's just a tremendous variety of kinds of literature in the Bible—which by the way, I think is part of the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and how the Bible is constructed because we become more whole as persons when we have life transforming encounters with the literature of the Bible in its variety. There is an aesthetic awakening and appreciation of beauty that can come through when we are reading Psalms that celebrate nature that's not going to come through to us in the same way in reading other kinds of literature in the Bible. So we are becoming more complete as persons when we are exposed more richly to the Bible in all of its variety.

An Invitation to Engage with Different Literary Genres

08:45

Matt Tully
That's such an interesting perspective because I think this is my own experience. Sometimes I have my favorite sections of Scripture and my favorite genres of Scripture that I tend to be drawn towards. Maybe for someone it's the Psalms, maybe for someone else it's Paul's epistles, or for someone else it's the Gospels. I can tend to even shy away from the other genres because it's more difficult, it kind of feels uncomfortable to me, it's a different way of engaging. But you're saying that's one of the benefits one of the beauties of Scripture is that it does force us to do that.

Phil Ryken
Yes. To give an analogy, it's a little bit like working out at the gym. There may be exercises you really like to do and ones that you don't really like to do so much. But some of the ones that you don't like to do so much are really important because you're developing muscles that need to be developed. I think Bible teachers, pastors, and preachers have a really key role here because when they have an enthusiasm for the Bible and all of its variety and can help you understand how different parts of the Bible are written you actually can enjoy something in a way that you didn't realize you'd be able to enjoy it. So that's not to say that some parts of the Bible aren't more difficult. The allotment of the land in the book of Joshua and all of the personal and place names, that takes a certain kind of patience to enter into. But until you give yourself over to a text, you're not going to really get the spiritual benefit that it has for you. When you talk about parts of the Bible that are difficult, another reason it's important for us to get beyond the few portions of the Bible that are more natural for us to read, or that we enjoy more, is because whatever we enjoy the most is only one small part of what the Bible as a whole has for us. Forty percent of the Bible, I think it is, is written in poetry. If you talk to a lot of people they would say, I don't really like poetry. It's literary. I don't like to read poetry. And I've got a couple rejoinders to that and one of them is, Actually, you do. You just consume it in a form you don't realize. Most popular music is poetic and most Christian music, whether it's the ancient traditional hymns of the church or whether it's more contemporary, is in the form of poetry. So actually, we all consume a huge amount of poetry. And that's the way the Psalms were written; they were written to be sung as well. So I think we do need to lean into some of the genres of the Bible, some of the literary forms that are less comfortable or familiar to us. God has something for us there as well.

Balancing Literary Nature and Historicity

11:24

Matt Tully
Now maybe to hit on some of the concerns that people have expressed about a literary approach to the Bible: some scholars—and we would probably consider many examples of this to be theologically liberal scholars—have also emphasized the literary nature of Scripture, but then they've used that to argue that doctrines like inerrancy or even divine inspiration are invalid. How do we balance viewing the Bible as a piece of human literature—that follows the conventions and rules of literature and has to be interpreted along those lines, is full of poetry and metaphors and archetypes—with questions of historicity? Are those two issues ever at odds with each other?

Phil Ryken
I totally think they do not have to be at odds, although I think you're making a good point. I think liberal scholarship, perhaps, has been in some cases very sensitive to the literary dimensions of Scripture. I think one issue that enters into that is sometimes when people hear “literary” they think “fictional.” “Literary” just means there's a style to it, there's an artistry to it, it has a literary form to it. It does not at all need to be contrary to a robust sense of biblical history. For me, it's like a lot of things in the Christian life and in theology—it's a both-and. If you try to force a dichotomy—it's got be this or it's got be that, it's like the two natures of Christ, or it's like human freedom and divine sovereignty—when you put pit them against one another where one gets to win and the other has to absolutely lose, you're not going to be a good theologian. I think we ought to approach all of the Scriptures in the same way and that is to recognize it's a very human book full of human failings, in terms of the characters that are presented, human in terms of the personalities of the authors that come through very strongly, and the experiences of the authors that come through very strongly all the way through the Bible. But at the same time, the Scripture itself says these men who were authors of Scripture were carried along by the Holy Spirit. There's an impetus and a divine agency so that this truly is not merely human words about God, but this is God's word to humanity. There is no reason in the world that we can't fully appreciate both of those aspects. I think if we take one at the expense of the other, we're not going to understand Scripture in all of its richness.

Literal vs. Literary Reading

14:03

Matt Tully
Maybe another similar issue that is related is that I think conservative evangelicals often pride themselves with a commitment to taking the Bible literally, reading the Bible literally. and sometimes I think a literal reading can seem to be in opposition with a literary reading. How do you see those two things?

Phil Ryken
We should read the Bible literally when the Bible itself wants it to be taken literally. So do I read the Bible literally? Yes, except when the Bible is speaking metaphorically, I read the Bible metaphorically. When the Bible is speaking in parables, I read it parabolically. when the Bible is speaking in Psalms, I read it musically. I think sometimes when people say, Hey, I want to take the Bible literally, what they literally mean is that they want to fully accept the divine authorship and the truthfulness of biblical history. So sometimes when people use that vocabulary, I don't necessarily feel like, Oh, I've got to straighten you out: No, don't read the Bible literally. No. What you're trying to communicate there is something valid and important, but can we have a conversation that broadens your understanding of how to approach the Bible? That includes reading the Bible metaphorically and parabolically and the other ways I was talking about a moment ago.

Discomfort with Literary Interpretation of Scripture

15:32

Matt Tully
What would it look like for you to try to convince somebody who—maybe even is listening right now—and is already starting to feel uncomfortable, or maybe they've actually experienced somebody using this kind of talk about the Bible as a way to get around the plain meaning of the text of Scripture?

Phil Ryken
Sometimes people do appeal to literary features of the Bible as a way of discounting biblical history. So I think the question you're asking initially, yes, that's a real thing that people do. In some conversations you might want to start with, Let me start this conversation by affirming what I believe to be true about the history of the Bible. I believe in the actual physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ because of the historical accounts of his resurrection that I read in the Gospels. So then people know, Okay, here's somebody that believes in biblical history as I do. I'm willing to hear more. Speaking somewhat humorously, if somebody is like, I'm going to read the Bible literally and I'm going to read it literally in every single place, I then might want to take you to Song of Solomon 4: “Behold, you are beautiful, my love. Behold, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil.” Okay. That's a simile. That's a metaphor. “Your eyes are doves.” Should I be taking that literally? And then if you keep going through the passage, it's going to get really weird the longer you go.

Matt Tully
“A neck like a tower”, or “Your neck is a tower”?

Phil Ryken
Yeah. Right. So then somebody is going to have to step back and say, Well, no. Obviously, I don't mean I take that literally. Then we can start having a conversation. I think there will come times in the Bible where we have to really wrestle with, What is the genre here? Is this historical? Is the Bible presenting itself as historical in this place? And sometimes you have to wrestle through some of those questions. I think coming at the Bible with an overall approach that when the Bible means to be taken literally, we take it literally; but then that's not the only way the Bible speaks to us, I think that's a good orientation to our study of the Bible.

Historical-Grammatical Approach to Interpretation

17:55

Matt Tully
That's helpful. One of the other dominant ways of approaching Scripture, taught in probably many evangelical churches, Bible Colleges, seminaries—maybe even here at Wheaton College—would be the historical-grammatical approach to interpretation. Do you think that has room within it to be sensitive to the literary qualities of Scripture?

Phil Ryken
Definitely. I absolutely think so. I'm not a Bible scholar, right? I'm a pastor trying to teach the Bible faithfully, so I can't give you the full history of how we've approached the Bible hermeneutically and in other ways, but I think a historical-grammatical approach desires to take the text of the Bible in very specific ways as seriously as possible. It is historical, so it has a historical context. It may also be communicating historical truth. We need to read it in that historical context and we need to pay attention to the words of the Bible, the grammar of the Bible—subjects and objects and how the language is working. There is a linguistic sophistication that is required to understand the Bible at the deepest level. Part of the problem, as it were, with that approach can be to look at the Bible so microscopically, we're looking at very particular parts of the Bible, and we're missing a broader context—I'm so focused on this little verse I'm not thinking about it in its wider context, or I'm so focused on this passage I'm not even noticing what Matthew is trying to do in his Gospel as a whole. Yes, I need to understand these words in their grammar and their history in this particular context, but I also need to put it in the bigger context of what the Gospel of Matthew is doing as a whole. And I think a literary approach looks at the Bible in all of its literary dimensions and words and sentences—that's part of a literary understanding of the Bible, but there are also literary wholes, bigger literary units. So maybe to give an analogy of that, I want to be able to get the big picture by looking at the Bible through my binoculars; but I also need to pull out the microscope sometimes to look at particular parts of the Bible, and that's not incompatible. That actually can be part of a complete, rich reading of the Bible.

Matt Tully
We need both. It's not an either-or. Is it possible to overemphasize the literary qualities of Scripture?

Phil Ryken
Yes, I think it is. It's like a lot of good things. Maybe you can overemphasize something or take it in an exclusive way or use it in the wrong way. So I think it would be possible, for example, to be so fascinated with what's happening in the Bible from a literary perspective that you never really get to the point of practical application. A literary approach to the Bible could actually be a way of distancing the Bible from your personal spiritual pilgrimage, when actually it ought to enhance that and it really ought to help you on your spiritual journey. So maybe that could be an overemphasis. I would never want to read the Bible as less than the literature that it is; but I think the Bible, because it is a word to us from God and does have exhortation and command in it, is different from other kinds of literature in that regard and that all has to be taken seriously as part of our heartfelt, life transforming response to the Bible.

Preaching with Sensitivity to the Literary Nature of the Bible

21:48

Matt Tully
You've served as president of Wheaton College for ten years now; but before that you were a pastor preaching regularly for many years, so you've referenced the importance of pastors understanding this. What does it look like to preach Scripture with a sensitivity to the literary qualities of the Bible?

Phil Ryken
That's a great question. It's something I'd like to write on sometime a little bit more. I've done some thinking about it, spoken on occasion on how to preach the Bible as literature. We may have some listeners who are familiar with my father's work. He has really been a pioneer in literary understanding of the Bible—

Matt Tully
Your father, Leland Ryken.

Phil Ryken
—yes, particularly for the evangelical community. There comes a point where you preach the Bible as literature. That is, you communicate to the people of God the message of the Bible in its literary forms and with a sensitivity to that. For me, I think a starting place for that is broad reading of a portion of the Bible that I am planning to preach. So just to give an example, I have an aspiration sometime—when the time is right and I'm in the right ministry context—of preaching all the way through the book of Isaiah. I've been saving a lot of materials for that over the years, and I find myself maybe a little more drawn to devotional reading in Isaiah, wanting to just get the big picture of Isaiah and just percolate. That's very different from a close reading of particular passages. Literary scholars—that's what they're great at doing is a close reading of a text. But one of the ways that you get the big picture and the broad sweep in the literary whole is by ongoing reading that's getting the big picture. So I think there's a place for that kind of reading of the Bible. Another thing that I like to do a lot in my teaching and preaching is draw some analogies or use some illustrations that may come from the world of literature. So I'm often asking myself, What in other literature does this kind of thing remind me of? What other poems have I read where something is praised? What are the conventions of that kind of literature? The point is not to bring something into the Bible that's not there, but actually to see what is there. It helps a lot. Just to give one example and this is more by way of contrast: in the book of Galatians, Paul early on in Galatians 1:6 says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” Paul takes a very antagonistic turn. He is not trying to win over an audience. He's trying to confront an audience. That, already, I think is pretty dramatic. He gives you the grace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ in verses 3 to 5, then he says, Hey, I'm astonished with what you're doing. You already sense that contrast just as a thoughtful, attentive reader. But when you actually know the conventions of rhetoric and of letter writing in the Greek world, you know that Paul is violating well-established conventions here. It's even more shocking than you first realized on a simple read, and it's actually your understanding of literature that has helped you see even more clearly what is actually there in the biblical text. And then you're asking yourself the question, Well, why is he that upset? I kind of sensed that he was upset. Now he's a lot more upset than I even realized. What's going on here? The form is helping you understand the content in a mutually reinforcing way.

Does Form Contributes to the Meaning?

25:43

Matt Tully
Would you go so far as to say the form itself contributes to the meaning?

Phil Ryken
Yes, absolutely that is the case. And we don't fully understand the meaning unless we understand the literary form and how it's meant to operate.


Popular Articles in This Series

Podcast: Help! I Hate My Job (Jim Hamilton)

Jim Hamilton discusses what to do when you hate your job, offering encouragement for those frustrated in their work and explaining the difference between a job and a vocation.

View All


Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at crossway.org/about.