Leland Ryken on “The King James Version and the Bible as Literature”

Leland Ryken opened the conference to a packed house. Ryken’s lecture, “The King James Version and the Bible as Literature” focused on two propositions: 1) The literary greatness of the KJV could not exist if not for the literary greatness of the Bible itself, and 2) The contemporary understanding of the Bible as literature could not exist if not for the KJV.

Ryken has devoted much of his writing and teaching to the subject of the Bible as literature. He has written a number of books on the subject, including The Literary Study Bible, How Read Bible as Literature, and most recently, The Legacy of the King James Version. Ryken will retire from full-time teaching after this academic year, and so the conference was designed to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the KJV as well as honor Ryken for his 43 years of service to Wheaton College. What follows is a selective summary of his lecture.

The Literary Approach to the Bible

Ryken began by discussing his life work championing a literary approach to the Bible and responded to four main criticisms most often offered by those who are uncomfortable with his literary approach. These criticisms are:

1) To speak of the Bible as literature seems like a theologically liberal idea
Ryken wasted no time cutting this argument off at the roots. He insisted that the literary approach to the Bible began with the Bible itself. He put forth three arguments: 1) The Bible identifies different genres within itself: proverb, song, apocalypse, oracle, etc., 2) The Bible is often structured according to literary motifs or conventions, such as the Ten Commandments, which emulates Hittite suzerain treaties, and 3) “The Preacher” of Ecc 12:9–10 carefully arranged proverbs and sought to find “words of delight,” which implies literary technique. He concluded by insisting that a literary study of the Bible begins with accepting as true all that the Bible teaches. Thus, theological liberalism should be excluded.

2) To say that the Bible is literature is to say that the Bible is fictional rather than factual
In response to this challenge Ryken noted that artifice and convention do not necessitate fictionality. Beauty and aesthetics are not antithetical to truth. In addition to that simple observation, he noted that real life contains many type-scenes and conventions. For example, news interviews with athletes differ only in vocabulary—they are depressingly similar in structure and content. Certainly no one would suggest the conventions of such interviews make them “fictional”.

3) To say that the Bible is literature is to say that it is only literature
Ryken challenged the assumption underlying this criticism by noting that when we say the Bible is historical we do not mean that it should be read only as a history book. He acknowledged throughout his lecture that some do treat the Bible as literature only, but he rejected any such idea. Only those who read the Bible as authoritative can rightly read the Bible as literature.

 4) To speak of the Bible as literature seems reduce the Bible to ordinary literature
While Ryken acknowledged the force of this challenge, he noted that to say the Bible is literature is descriptive of what the Bible is and is not meant to elevate or denigrate it. Rather, he said, “When we read the Bible as literature it elevates itself.” Furthermore, the Bible reveals its special message through ordinary means, such as human language and literary conventions.

Why is the KJV so great?

The question above occupied the second half of the lecture. Ryken first responded to a number of criticisms of the KJV and then noted positive features. His comments concerned the KJV as a translation in its original context; he was not necessarily arguing for its appropriateness today.

Many of the criticisms to which he responded can be summarized by saying, “the KJV is grandiose, lofty, and inaccessible,” particularly when compared with Tyndale’s translation. Ryken challenged that assumption by noting that 1) both Tyndale and the KJV have an equal amount of Latin, 2) the KJV often simplified Tyndale, and 3) the KJV is written in the register of other translations of its time. In other words, the reason why it seems so lofty to us is a product of time, not because it was actually written to be lofty.

Ryken does insist, though, that the KJV is “elegant,” “simple,” and “majestic,” but these features come primarily from the Bible itself, not the translators. Rather, Ryken argued that it was the translation method (which we should emulate) that allowed the KJV to retain the literary beauty of the Bible in its original languages. He noted that they 1) translated every word, 2) italicized words that they added, and 3) maintained word order as much as possible. Thus, the KJV did not introduce the parallelism or other literary features that some “modernizing” translations lack (for instance, he compared the simplicity and elegance of the KVJ’s rendering of 1 Sam 15:22 to the prolix and tedious rendering of The Message). Hebrew idioms often get translated literally into English (cf. Deep Exegesis, pp. 1–7, by Peter Leithart who makes similar arguments). The KJV translators did not view the poetry of the Bible as an “intolerable burden”—where modern translations often flatten biblical poetry or poetic prose, the KJV maintained it. Both the Bible and the KJV have an “aphoristic flare” and do not share the low view of proverbs endemic in our modern culture. And finally, the Bible and the KJV are both oral in nature. As Ryken pointed out, the original KJV was appointed “to be read in churches”.

Two exhortations arise from his lecture that warrant thought and discussion, though Ryken never explicitly articulated them.

1) The Bible must be read as authoritative literature
2) The translation method of the KJV is exemplary and should be emulated

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About Peter Green

I am a doctoral student at Wheaton College. My dissertation is on vineyard imagery in the Old Testament, particularly as it is used to convey the theme of Creation to New Creation. My interests are (in no particular order): biblical ethics, epistemology, apologetics, sacramentology, science and faith, biblical theology, OT theology, biblical political philosophy, and intertextuality. I consider myself to be in the historic Reformed tradition, and attend a PCA church. I graduated from Covenant Theological Seminary--the PCA's denominational seminary--and hope work for Reformed University Fellowship, which is the PCA's campus ministry, following my PhD studies.
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