Reading Scripture, a Personal Journey

Dr. Bill Creasy

When I began my Ph.D. studies at UCLA in 1977, I focused on late medieval English literature, particularly the 1450-1550 period.  It is a fascinating era that introduced profound changes, not only in art and literature, but also in Western civilization as a whole. 

The decade of the 1450s saw the introduction of the movable-type printing press by Johannes Guttenberg, fundamentally changing the way society disseminates information. Prior to this time, written works were hand-copied by scribes, a lengthy, tedious and expensive process; after the 1450s, written works could be printed in hundreds of copies in a matter of days for relatively little cost.  By the 1590s, William Caxton introduced printing into England, and his successors, such as Wynkyn de Worde and Richard Pynson, produced a flood of works in his wake.

The Bible was among the most popular books issued by the early printers.  As demand increased and sales grew, calls for new translations of the Bible into common English emerged, generating William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament into English (1525-26) and his translation of the Pentateuch (1530) and Jonah (1531). A quick succession of translations followed Tyndale—Miles Coverdale’s (1535), John Rogers’ (1537), Thomas Cranmer’s “Great Bible” (1539), the Geneva Bible (1560), and the Bishop’s Bible (1568)—ultimately culminating in the King James Bible of 1611, the translation that remained “the gold standard” until the 1950s.

The ready availability of Bible translations in English was one of the driving forces behind the Reformation, of course, but the translations also had a profound effect on the development of English prose style.  If you read a Bible translation in English prior to 1450 (such as John Wycliffe’s), it sounds like Chaucer; if you read one written after 1550 (such as the Geneva Bible), it sounds like Shakespeare; the same holds true for non-biblical literature (compare Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Artur, published by William Caxton in 1485 with Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Boke Named the Gouernour in 1531).  Something huge happens to English prose style during that brief but very fruitful one hundred years, and the Bible stands at the very center of it.

Such was the focus of my Ph.D. studies.

During that time I began reading everything I could get my hands on about the Bible, and I encountered Northrop Frye’s, The Great Code (1981).  Frye, a professor of literature at the University of Toronto, was one of the era’s greatest literary critics, who burst on the scene with the publication of his first book, Fearful Symmetry (1947), a brilliant study of William Blake’s prophetic poetry, and whose lasting international reputation was cemented with Anatomy of Criticism (1957), one of the most important works of literary criticism written in the twentieth century.  In The Great Code, Frye argues that although many different people wrote the Bible over a period of more than 1,500 years, and although it passed through the hands of many editors and redactors, the Bible—as we have experienced it in the Christian canon across 2,000 years of Western civilization—is a unified literary work.  It has a beginning, a middle and an end; it employs a consistent set of metaphors, similies and other literary devices; and it draws upon a consistent set of symbols, such as light, dark, water, fire, oil, and so on.

To me, Frye’s statement was an epiphany.  Prior to reading The Great Code, I had viewed the Bible as simply an anthology of Jewish and Christian literature, rather loosely stitched together, a collection of independent myths, histories, poetry, exordia, epistles and letters, useful for “doing” theology or for rooting out and applying principles for living.  That’s basically what I had been taught while growing up and what I had experienced in the Christian community as an adult.

With this new literary paradigm for reading Scripture, my head spun with the possibilities.  I quickly discovered Robert Alter’s, The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) and The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985) as well as Meir Sternberg’s, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (1985).  I devoured them, and they deepened my understanding of Scripture and this new approach to reading it.  At the same time, the Society of Biblical Literature, had began a daring scholarly publication, Semeia: an Experimental Journal for Biblical Criticism (1974-2002) that focused on new and emergent approaches to biblical scholarship, a journal that welcomed a literary approach to Scripture. 

In 1985 I found myself on the cutting edge of biblical scholarship.  It was a very exciting time.

When I began teaching “The English Bible as Literature” at UCLA as a full-time faculty member, I designed the course to reflect this literary approach to Scripture, and when I formed Logos Bible Study and took the course into the broader community, it enabled me to bridge denominational divides and introduce Scripture in a new way to our Logos students, a way that transcends denominational differences, that brings the biblical characters to life, that adds color, tone and texture to the narrative, and that creates an unforgettable story.

There are many approaches to reading the Bible, and they all offer important insights into the text.  The historical-critical method focuses on the historical and cultural backgrounds of the text; the form-critical method focuses on how a story came to be pieced together, drawing on oral and written traditions; the textual method focuses on how an individual text came to be written down and physically transmitted through time; and the theological method focuses on the deeper meaning of Scripture, within the context of a developing theology.  And there are many more, each offering its own important insights into Scripture.

I have been teaching Scripture for a long time now, and I’ve learned that regardless of the approach, Scripture studies are best viewed as complimentary, not competitive.  I encourage you to explore many different approaches to Scripture and to listen to many different teachers from other perspectives.  There are very fine teachers out there who take a fundamentally different approach to Scripture than I do, and they are well worth listening to. 

Reading Scripture from a literary perspective is only one way of approaching the text, but it is my way, and I think it has yielded superb results in creating “educated readers of Scripture” and in bringing people into an intimate, personal relationship with Christ and drawing them deeper into an authentic life of faith.  It has been a terrific journey for me and for tens of thousands of Logos students over the past thirty years.

And what more can you ask from a Scripture study than that?