The Literary Study Bible (ESV)

Leland Ryken, Philip Graham Ryken, eds. Crossway, Wheaton, IL September 26, 2007
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Leland Ryken, a professor at Wheaton College, has long been regarded for his contributions in the area of literary criticism (e.g., Literature of the Bible [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974]). He has joined with his pastor son, Philip Graham Ryken, now president of Wheaton College, to provide a study Bible whose purpose is to guide the reader in the use of literary form as foundational to grasping meaning and guiding application.

Their view is that the literary approach is not just another method of Bible study or something to be added to one’s other approaches, but is the very foundation of any correct understanding of the text. Most study Bibles, they point out, are made apart from an understanding of the composition’s form and thus miss the very means by which the author chose to be understood.

Each Bible book is placed within its literary genre (e.g., poetry, narrative, epistolary) to show how that form helps one obtain the specific meaning. For instance the Psalms are introduced with information about Hebrew parallelism, lament and praise structures, and other poetic literary nuances. A helpful glossary is provided at the end of the volume so that readers can orient themselves to literary terms.

Each book is prefaced by its main themes, literary identity, and most importantly the place it holds in the unfolding story of the Bible. To aid the reader, a short discussion of structure is given at the beginning of chapters, sections, and stories. The editors frequently comment on application to help the reader with personal relevance.

This study Bible is also unique in what it does not include. Historical background, language insight, appropriate geographical information, and running commentary are left to others. Because this volume focuses on literary form as foundational, the editors feel other information is to be considered only after the literary form is noted.

In numerous cases, however, the theology that the editors bring to the text overshadows the literary meaning in spite of their stated goal. For instance in Ezekiel 40–48, the prima facie reading makes it a notoriously difficult passage for those who claim there is no future for Israel. Though the discussion acknowledges the literal nature of Ezekiel’s description of the future city of Jerusalem (“a detailed physical and architectural account of a new temple in Jerusalem,” p. 1300) and implies that Ezekiel’s expectations were for a literal city (“readers must take seriously what the author takes seriously,” ibid.), it then generalizes them to “oracles of future eschatological blessing on those who believe in God (called Israel in the text)” and says that “we need to remember that in the NT era God’s promises to Israel find their fulfillment in the church as the Israel of God” (p. 1242). After noting the literal expectation of the original author, the discussion calls for the use of “interpretive wisdom” and concludes, “Ezekiel has used symbolism throughout; it is a safe conclusion that the temple is a symbolic entity . . . a metaphor of Christians as God’s temple” (p. 1300).

Because of their view that the church replaces Israel, the editors must ignore or treat as symbolic the specifics of many passages to generalize the details. References to Zion, Israel, Jerusalem, the future earthly kingdom, and Christ’s ruling from Jerusalem are given broad, general meanings, such as good over evil. This renders the treatment of many sections unhelpful and even contradictory.

In dealing with narrative the editors’ method limits the literary unit to the individual story rather than seeing the book as a whole. For instance they see Genesis as “an anthology or collection of diverse works” (p. 1) and not a single unit with a progressive plot. This view tends to ignore the context. On the other hand, when stories are found to form parts of an intentional “dramatic plot,” they derive their interpretation from the specific, even limited, part they play in the unfolding plan.

Many good things are in this volume. But as a book that by its very title implies the use of literary foundations to help determine biblical theology, it falls short. While the volume is insightful in many places, anyone who approaches this study Bible should recognize that on occasion the editors’ theological preconceptions appear to be primary and the literary hermeneutic secondary.

—Charles P. Baylis

April 1, 2011
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2011 vol. 168 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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