Literary Approaches to the Bible

Title of Work:

Literary Approaches to the Bible (Lexham Methods Series 4)

Author of Work:

Douglas Mangum and Douglas Estes, eds.


Pastor Julius Buelow

Page Number:


Format Availability:

Hardcover, Logos



Contemporary approaches to hermeneutics often seem to complicate what should be simple. If hermeneutics is the study of how we read, understand, and apply the biblical text, shouldn’t the basic framework we’ve inherited be enough? Why read more about how to approach the Bible? 

Literary Approaches to the Bible is a difficult read, but it provided me many benefits. The further exploration of approaches I already use deepened my knowledge and skill in those areas. Encountering new approaches forced me to know why I do not approach the text that way. Seeing the confusing results of some approaches helped me to appreciate what a treasure I have inherited in the hermeneutical approach passed down to me by my teachers. Finally, reading about hermeneutics helped me practice what hermeneutics is, that is, the art of listening. 

As the introductory essay explains, a literary approach is “reading the Bible with an eye for any method that could fit into any literary theory (new or ancient, conventional or radical)” (4). I appreciated the note that, in some ways, the literary approach can feel freeing from the need to agonize over “historical reconstructions” and “historical quandaries” (18–19). It allows interpreters to let go of the need to reconstruct the author (unless you find him in the text) or worry about the ideal reader (we don’t want the audience to affect the meaning) or recreate the idol restaurants of Corinth (the menu isn’t in the text). Simply read the text, the actual words on the page, like you would read any other literary work, and see what you find there. Co-editor Doug Estes humbly presents literary approaches as another tool. “It is just one philosophical approach. It is useful in the era in which we live. One day, it will be eclipsed by another approach” (3). 

After the introductory essay, the book explores seven of these theories: canonical criticism, OT rhetorical and narrative criticism, inner-biblical interpretation and intertextuality, narrative criticism of the NT, rhetorical criticism of the NT, structural criticism, and poststructural criticism. 

Each essay follows the same pattern. First the approach and its goal are defined. Then the development and applications of the method are explained. Then possible limitations are discussed, followed by a short overview of the influence the approach has had. Finally, a list of resources for further study is given. 

Despite the simple outline of each essay, it is not always easy to pinpoint and summarize the main points of each section. This is not the fault of the authors; each essay was well written. Each approach, however, has numerous scholars who offer their own definitions and terminology. This lack of agreement continues in the sections on development, application, and influence. These sections read like literature reviews at the start of a thesis, offering summaries of the teaching and major works of various scholars in the field. This would be a very useful overview for someone interested in a particular approach, but for a novice looking for a bullet-point answer it could be difficult to follow. 

For example, I could not find one simple definition and goal of canonical criticism. According to the approach of James Sanders, its goal is to identify the interchange between “stabilization” and “adaptability” of a certain text (39). According to the approach of John Sailhamer, it is to find the theology behind the text at the time of the formation of the canon (42). According to the approach of Brevard Childs, it is to discover how “the reception of the authoritative tradition by its hearers gave shape to the same writings through a historical and theological process of selecting, collecting, and ordering” (40). 

Approach, then, is a fitting word. The definition and goal of canonical criticism might not be easily defined, but when you see the book of Ruth at its place in the OT canon, this type of approach to the text might ask: Why is the book of Ruth placed right after the virtuous woman of Proverbs? What are the connections “at the level of theme, book, and ultimately, theological coherence” (51)? What does Ruth’s “chapter” add to God’s textual self-revelation? How does it appeal to the already written Torah (53)? Anyone who has talked about the differences in emphases and initial audience of Kings and Chronicles has unwittingly participated in a type of canonical criticism. 

I should note that not all approaches have a definition and goal that is hard to nail down. (Occasional graphs and figures with key points were especially helpful.) The chapter on rhetorical criticism, for example, begins: 

In general terms, rhetorical criticism or narrative criticism is an approach to biblical texts that uses a close reading strategy to read the text as a whole. The goal of the approach is to understand the author’s communicative goals and to realize how texts persuade readers by interpreting biblical passages according to general principles of literary convention. (65–66) 

Maybe it is not a coincidence that this was one of my favorite chapters. 

The section near the end of each chapter about the limitations of each approach is probably the most useful summary of each approach itself. For example, structural criticism assumes that “underneath every text is a conceptual universe/system/structure” that results in the surface text (219). In other words, a story like Cinderella is a type of fairy tale universe/system with certain recognizable main points and developments, and yet it has been reproduced in over a thousand different forms (225). The later critique of structuralism also helped me understand what structuralism is: “The search for common structures can lead to the collapse of all differences for the sake of unity, which is especially dangerous for the analysis of sacred texts as it may blur each pericope’s unique voice. Instead of a polyphonic choir, one ends up with a monotone” (249–50). 

In addition to the admitted limitations, conservative Lutherans will have to sift through plenty of ideas we would not agree with, such as overzealous ideas about “the editors/development” of the text and an openness to subjective interpretations. Those ideas provide an opportunity for careful listening and for defending our approach. Each chapter also provided insights I may use in the future that could line up with orthodox hermeneutics. I appreciated how 

  • canonical criticism can lead me to think about what each book uniquely contributes to the message of salvation, and how it plays off the other books; 
  • narrative criticism can help me look at the big picture (scriptural context) of the text, preventing out-of-context interpretations and showing the high points that the Holy Spirit wanted to emphasize (e.g., “You are the man!” is the rhetorical high point of Nathan’s confrontation with David, not “It drank from his cup”); 
  • inner-biblical interpretation and intertextuality can help me deepen my knowledge of how Scripture interprets Scripture, providing useful lists of ways to determine allusions, quotes, and echoes within Scripture; 
  • rhetorical criticism provides rich insights for preaching logically and persuasively and can increase appreciation for the way the Holy Spirit communicated through the inspired authors; 
  • structural criticism could be used to appreciate the universal Creator and how creation and communication express his will, to contrast the universal messages of the Bible to those of sinful humanity, and to find common themes that connect all humanity across time; and 
  • poststructural criticism can help us humble ourselves to realize the power of our presuppositions and inspire us to be true Wauwatosa theologians, examining our insights and presuppositions to make sure they flow from the text, not the other way around. 

In short, I agree with the editor’s comment at the start of the book that literary approaches are a tool. Literary Approaches to the Bible can help you add positive aspects of these tools to your hermeneutical toolbox.