Interview with Dr. Leland Ryken
by Tony Reinke
WHEATON, IL -- Recently I walked across the campus of Wheaton College and up the stairs of Blanchard Hall for a rare opportunity to sit down with a favorite contemporary author, Dr. Leland Ryken.
Ryken serves as the Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College. He has written many excellent books, but especially The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation (Crossway: 2002), which carefully critiques contemporary translation philosophies and builds a strong case for literal translations like the ESV. It's an excellent, pointed book that remains on a short list of my personal favorites. Ryken also served as Literary Stylist on the ESV translation committee (more on this later).
Ryken's son, Dr. Philip Graham Ryken, is a prolific author, pastor, and preacher. Together with his son, Dr. Ryken edited the new ESV Literary Study Bible.
The ESV LSB was the focus of our interview.
1. Thank you for your time, Dr. Ryken! Where did the idea for The Literary Study Bible originate? Has this been a long-awaited project?
Well, I have had a long time career in the Bible as literature. I've taught about it for forty years and have written about it for almost that long. So, although I don't think I just set out to do a literary study Bible, the idea for providing literary commentary on the Bible always seemed natural to me.
There are certainly ways in which this Literary Study Bible is the culmination of this long career that I have had. It is the whole Bible, literary commentary on it -- it's the thing I unconsciously aspired to do for a career. I didn't consciously say, "Well, I want to turn all that commentary into a literary study Bible," but one thing led to another and it seemed a natural thing to do.
2. Explain for us the essential features that distinguish a literary study Bible.
A literary study Bible alerts readers to the literary features of the Bible. So, that's big right there. Literary commentary on the Bible is useful to readers. It shows them what to look for, it's practical in nature, it's the kind of commentary that gets readers into the text. It doesn't give information that's background material, that's a substitute for the Bible. No, it gives tips for reading. It is excellent at giving a road map to the passage that a person is about to read. It's a practical reader's commentary. A literary study Bible uncovers an aspect of the Bible that conventional study Bibles don't cover, namely, the literary features in the text. There is certainly a need for it because there isn't a literary study Bible. So, that excites me right there.
3. There are a number of contemporary translations seeking to paraphrase the Bible and make it easier to read. You have confronted the dangers of this methodology in The Word of God in English. Is the LSB in any way a response to these contemporary translations in showing that a literal translation can be effectively used by general readers without a paraphrased text?
The Literary Study Bible is not really an attempt to answer the "easy-read Bibles." That really wasn't on my radar screen. I am committed to an essentially literal translation of the Bible. Well, an essentially literal translation preserves the literary features of the Bible. So, as far as I am concerned only a translation like the ESV would be a suitable text for a literary study Bible. So, if we begin with the premise that an essentially literal translation does preserve the literary qualities, then the venture becomes possible. We can do literary commentary on a Bible that has preserved the literary nature of the original text.
4. How will the LSB benefit the preacher, especially in expositional preparations?
I would hope that a preacher would have a look at our Bible to make sure that he does justice to the literary qualities to the text, that he does not overlook any of these literary qualities. I would see it as complementary to other kinds of commentary. I think that a literary study Bible will alert a preacher to the unity of the passage in a way that most commentary doesn't. It should alert the preacher to the artistic and stylistic qualities of the text in front of him. I would hope that our literary commentary would alert the preacher to the experiential aspect of the text. Literature is the human race's testimony to its own experience. It is truthful to reality. And a lot of preaching moves immediately to theological abstractions. I would hope that our literary commentary would set up resistance to that.
5. You write in the LSB, "The goal of literature is to prompt a reader to share or relive an experience. The truth that literature imparts is not simply ideas that are true but truthfulness to human experience." Explain further how the literature of Scripture invites us to experience Scripture.
Ah, the subject of literature as human experience -- that's my bedrock premise. Human experience concretely presented. So, the way to get at the experiential aspect of the Bible is to look for the recognizable human experience. A lot of preaching and commentary moves so quickly to theological abstraction.
I remember doing a workshop on the Bible as literature and at the end of it, one of the preachers who was in the workshop said the new idea he would carry away is that the Bible is a book of human experience. He had never thought of it as such. Well, that is a great loss. The Bible gives us the authentic voice of human experience.
A common stereotype is that topical preaching is relevant to people's experience but expository preaching isn't. Now, that's incorrect. The way to tap the experiential aspect of the Bible for expository preaching is to do justice to the literary and human experience that is right there in front of us.
6. Can you give us some specific, concrete examples of this?
You know for me the preeminent poem of the Bible has always been Psalm 23. Now it is true that Psalm 23 embodies a theme, namely, the sufficiency of God's providence. Yes, there is an idea embodied there. But Psalm 23 does not present that content as an idea. It gives us the shepherd's daily routine, his provision for sheep -- in other words, metaphors as a way of getting at it. There is no abstraction per se in that Psalm; it's an embodiment. Or I like to show the impulse of literature to be concrete and experiential with the story of Cain, actually, in Genesis 4. Nowhere do we read in that text, "you shall not murder." I mean, that's the precept that the commandment gives us. Everything is incarnated in the story, in event, in character -- that's the literary impulse to incarnate or embody.
7. What differentiates the LSB from other available study Bibles? And how will general readers benefit?
We make no attempt, generally, to summarize a passage. That's a paraphrase; it's on my forbidden list for my students. We have as our goal to provide analytic generalizations -- things to look for, pointers to the text. Itâ€™s not a substitute; it's a road map to the text. That was our goal.
Now let me comment about the format. We don't have footnotes, as the conventional study Bible has. We have head notes. We have a passage of commentary and then immediately following the passage in the Bible. It's right there visually to look at. The reader can move right from the overview that we've given, the analytic tips, right into the passage. So, it's a reader's Bible.
Over the long haul it will instruct the reader to read in keeping with the literary nature of the Bible. I think there would be a big side benefit there. Secondly, it will alert the reader to what is most helpful in the passage to follow. There is no consulting of footnotes, no distractions in that form. It's the road map, plus then the actual experience.
8. Quite obviously, the psalmists, prophets, and other authors of Scripture did not write using a literary guide to genres. Much of the literary discussion in the LSB draws from a host of modern literary terms to interpret the ancient literature of Scripture. How do you defend this approach?
Well, I have never been hesitant to apply modern literary terminology to what we find in the Bible. Grammatically we don't limit ourselves to ancient terminology. We use the best available terminology. When we talk about the history of the Bible, we use modern methods of historical analysis and commentary. So, if it fits it fits. And if the terms I use in teaching English Literature apply to the Bible, then I apply them. I have never been encumbered by anxiety about whether the original authors of the Bible use these terms. Now, they did use some of the terms. They used generic terms like epistle, lament, proverb, apocalypse -- there are plenty of technical generic terms right there in the pages of the Bible. So, we know that writers did write in the awareness of genres. Some of what they wrote resembles the genres of surrounding cultures -- like Egyptian love poetry in the Song of Solomon and so forth. But beyond that, I use the best available literary terminology including those for the literary genres, and these modern terms for genres fit the Bible amazingly. So I don't hesitate to use the terms.
9. In the past, Bibles have been effectively used in homeschooling education. Can the LSB be used as a textbook of sorts to learn literary genres, styles, and forms?
I think there is something prototypical about the Bible as literature. So, when I want to teach narrative or metaphor, the Bible gives me the best illustrations. So yes, studying the Bible as literature can easily be a literary introduction or introduction to literary study. And a literary study Bible would certainly be an introduction to literature -- very true. I would also stress that the kind of the commentary we give in this Bible is more practical really than what you would find in a conventional study Bible. So, in that way also it would be excellent for homeschooling.
10. Some readers, I'm sure, are unaware of your role in the translation of the English Standard Version itself. Explain this role for us.
When Lane Dennis asked me to serve on the translation committee of the ESV, I was very hesitant to do so because I do not know Greek and Hebrew. And I didn't think that my lifelong interest in the Bible as literature represented something worthwhile to bring to the table. I quickly turned out to be a very important member of the committee.
And I don't think that my chief contribution lay in what my official title indicated -- English Stylist. All the translators on the committee were good stylists.
I served the committee best in two roles. One, with my knowledge of the Bible as literature, and it turns out that has a lot of ramifications for how we understand and translate the text. And totally unbeknown, I served best as a general reader, and I asked the questions that the expert overlooks to ask or doesn't think important.
First of all, I want to say that the ESV is maybe unique in granting a full-fledged place on the committee to a literary scholar. And that turned out to be very far-reaching in its effect. So, I really respect Lane Dennis for having that foresight. And it ensured that the literary interests were always represented. I lost some votes -- I think that Ecclesiastes 1:2 should be translated "vapors of vapors." Iâ€™ve been walking around as though missing an arm or a leg ever since losing that vote. But nonetheless, my presence as someone who was adept at the literary dimension of the Bible was often a factor in how the translation proceeded.
11. Now the ESV LSB is complete and serves as a culmination of your translation efforts and literary commentary efforts. It must be quite fulfilling to see this Bible together and completed.
The English Standard Version was very gratifying to me as getting it right. The Literary Study Bible then allows me to ensure that literary commentary on this very literary Bible is present and the whole Bible is there. So, it is very gratifying to me that there is literary commentary now on the whole Bible. And I certainly have not in the past taught the whole Bible as literature, so there was a lot of learning that I did as I applied literary methods of analysis to parts of the Bible where I had never done that before.
(c) 2007 Tony S. Reinke