Monday, May 01, 2006

Scripture as Literature

This semester and last semester have been somewhat foundation-shaking for me in what I hope is a positive way. Let me share some of the things going in my head about the relationship of Scripture to such things as history, literature, inspiration and authority.

These past two semesters have included two Hebrew classes, one on narrative and one on poetry. Both of those classes have been fertile ground for the cultivation of my thinking on the relationship of the OT, especially to historical events. The question as it stands in my mind right now is something like this: What is more important: the historicity of the recorded event or the recording of the historical event? Now I phrase that question very carefully. Neither option denies historicity per se. However, I am interested in discovering whether it is necessary to hold that certain events happened as described or whether it is more important to simply understand what the biblical author is trying to communicate by conveying the event in the way that he does.

For example, in the story of Jonah, it is doubtful that Jonah's prayer was exactly as recorded for us in chapter 2. Jonah 2 records a beautifully worded prayer of Hebrew poetry. It's great! But is that a literary device or an actual historical account?

The two phrases that have been key in my thinking have been "historicized fiction" and "fictionalized history." What I am proposing is that it may be appropriate and helpful to view some of the OT as "fictionalized history." That is, while maintaining the historicity of the events, I may see the recording of those events as a feat of literature, not historiography. I do not view the OT material as "historicized fiction," that is, a story about events that never took place.

The implications for inspiration and authority are very significant. If we speak of the text of Scripture as being "inspired" or "God-breathed" based on 2 Timothy 3:16 we speak rightly. And according to 2 Peter 1:21, the recording of prophetic material at least bears the authoritative mark of the Holy Spirit's guidance. For some reason, however, I have tended to equate "inspiration" with "historicity." Is that necessary or even right?



Anonymous Josh McCarnan said...

Jonah very well could have prayed in Hebrew poetry. I think that they were more oriented towards speaking and praying both reverently and beautifully in that day and age. I don’t think though that we must say that if Jonah didn’t pray a poem, but later it was recorded as a poem that therefore the record is inadmissible as being qualified as historic and/or inspired.

I realize though that saying the above leaves some openings for those who would seek to discount Scripture’s historicity and inspiration.

My imagination goes to an Indian chief telling the story of a great warrior; he describes the events using picturesque words of beauty and wonder. If he said that a blue bird flew by the warriors head and it was actually a red bird, is he a liar? Or is he accurately communicating the information that matters and the minor details are rather fluid in his memory?

The issue is really the oral communication/transmission of history. When the accounts were written down, God inspired the writers to communicate what they did and therefore it is inspired and historically accurate. Did the inspired writer make Jonah’s prayer poetic after contemplating what Jonah meant when he prayed or did Jonah actually pray it in poetical form? (It would seem that there was a greater space of time between the events and its recording in the OT than in the NT.)

So the event happened, time elapsed, God inspired a man to write it down, he wrote it down historically accurate (being superintended by the Holy Spirit), at times, he used his writing skills to communicate poetically, enigmatically, joyfully, mournfully, wisely, and humorously all under the umbrella of God’s inspiration.

8:43 AM  
Blogger Will said...

Josh, thank you for your very thoughtful comments. My thinking and your imagination seem to be very compatible. Your Indian chief story resonates very well with where I’m headed with these thoughts on historicity, literature, inspiration and authority.

So I have two questions now. First, are we safe to say, then, that it is the literary message—that is, the message conveyed by the author—that we should seek to focus on rather than the details? For instance, if the author of Judges records the story of Samson’s slaying of 1,000 men with the jawbone of a donkey, does it matter if I ignore the number 1,000 or even the instrument (a donkey’s jawbone) and just focus on the message that the author is trying to convey? Now just for clarity’s sake, I don’t mind believing that Samson really did use the jawbone of a donkey to kill more or less 1,000 Phililstines. I just want to use this story to illustrate the point. The author of Judges has a much larger point to communicate than the number of men Samson killed or how he killed them.

My second question concerns how we use the term inspiration. I contend that we don’t use the term well, or that we at least don’t share a common understanding when we use the term. When you say, “When the accounts were written down, God inspired the writers to communicate what they did and therefore it is inspired and historically accurate,” you call the writers inspired as well as the writings. 2 Timothy 3:16 describes the writings as “God-breathed,” not the writers. It may not really matter, especially if we can view this thing we call “inspiration” as the process by which God communicated Scripture to mankind. Nevertheless, I don’t see a lot of consistency in how we use the term, and that may hinder the discussion.

Having said all that, I want to propose, in line with your Indian chief illustration, that we can hold tenaciously to the absolute authority of Scripture without having to defend some of the details of Hebrew narrative text. These narratives, after all, are stories.

9:53 AM  

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