History or Literature or Scripture?
the reasons for the widespread ignorance and neglect of the
Bible is the failure to study it sufficiently from the
viewpoint of faith. All too often it is assumed that a
serious examination of the Scriptures can only treat them as
historical documents. In a great deal of modern
investigation the Bible is regarded as a collection of
materials for research into ancient history and culture.
Scholars claim to approach it without any presuppositions of
If they have any personal religious beliefs about it, they
put them in cold storage whenever they indulge in
scholarship. The books of the Old and New Testaments, they
maintain, are to be treated in the same way as any other
documents used for research into the history, religion and
culture of the ancient world. Viewed in this light, Old
Testament scholarship is part of the study of the ancient
Near East, and New Testament scholarship is part of the
study of Graeco-Roman civilization.
Some modern critics put their emphasis on the Bible as
literature. They vary in their interests in this field of
investigation. Some of them concentrate on an inquiry into
the authorship and sources of the biblical books, and the
purposes and situations for which they were written.
Others concentrate on an analysis of the form and structure
of the books and the passages contained in them. Yet others
combine both these aspects of literary criticism. But
whichever kind of inquiry they undertake, they claim to be
objective and to examine the Bible without any assumptions
of religious belief.
The study of the Bible as historical material and as
literature is a worthy enterprise, not to be despised, but
it is not purely historical and literary concerns which have
led people to become students of the biblical writings. A
large number, at any rate of those who undertake the study
of their own free choice, are attracted to the Bible because
they regard it as Scripture.
They read it not because of a detached interest in Scripture
as a particular kind of literature, but because they regard
the Old and New Testaments as sacred writings which are
vehicles of a unique divine revelation. Ironically, the
concern which has led many people to become students of the
Bible is not uppermost in the minds of some of its teachers.
A large proportion of the students regard it primarily as
Many of the teachers treat it primarily as literature or
historical source-material. It Is indeed legitimate for a
teacher to point out that there are more dimensions to the
study of a subject than the pupils imagine; but it is
legitimate also to consider if the reasons for a student's
interest in the subject are valid ones.
Sometimes the impression is given that the study of the
Bible in the light of faith is an inferior activity to
academic research. When this impression is given, the kind
of inquiry, which is needed for the Bible to be used as
Scripture, is often stifled.
It is as Scripture, however, that most people regard the
Bible when they are attracted to the study of it. Many are
the theories about its inspiration and authority, but
whatever theory is adopted, the Bible is prominent in the
Church because it is assumed to have a unique function in
relation to the Christian faith.
Within the Church it is the text for preaching and teaching,
because it is believed to provide access to divine truth,
and, above all, to Jesus Christ himself. It is a collection
of documents of faith, and deserves to be read from the
viewpoint of faith.
It is not sufficient for it to be treated as a collection of
historical source-material or an anthology of works of
literature. It needs to be studied as Scripture.
There have always been scholars, who have given recognition
to this aspect of biblical study. The great commentators of
the past had no hesitation in approaching the books of the
Bible in this way, but in recent years, this approach has
been often neglected.
Fortunately, interest in it continues, and recognition is
being given to the need to understand the Bible as
Scripture. When the Bible is regarded in this light,
attention begins to be paid to the interpretations given by
writers in past generations.
Instead of concentrating mainly on what modern scholars have
said about it, the interpreter examines the impact which it
has made on people, both Jewish and Christian, who have
accepted it as their Scripture.
Even this kind of investigation could become merely
historical, and confine itself to an examination of other
people's reaction to the books of the Bible. People who read
the Bible from the viewpoint of faith are people who can
say, 'This is my Scripture'.
They do not sit on the fence theologically, holding
themselves aloof from any commitment of faith. They are
ready to descend into the arena, where men and women live by
belief in the divine revelation to which the Bible bears
witness. There is a time for sitting on the fence.
There is also a time for coming down into the arena; a time
for reading Scripture in the light of faith; a time for
letting it function in daily life."
Wainwright, "Beyond Biblical Criticism" (Atlanta, GA:
John Knox Press 1982) pp. 2-5