I grew up in a home that prioritized reading. My father was a first-generation college student, and he majored in business to support his family. He allocated a portion of his monthly wages to the Book of the Month club through Easton Press. He and my mom would dine on bologna boats (mashed potatoes and cheese on fried bologna) so that he could afford to receive a great book in the mail each month.
Those leather-bound copies with gilded pages made a strong impression on me as a kid. From those beautiful editions I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Walden, Jane Eyre, and because of their beauty, I knew they were a different sort of reading from my R. L. Stine paperback novels.
Similarly, Christians recognize the Bible as a different sort of book from all other books. While God may inspire an artist, or the Holy Spirit draw a reader toward a divine revelation through art, the Bible is more than a mere literary experience.
Recognizing the Bible as literature opens us up to a fuller appreciation of the holy book than if we treat it like an instruction manual or to-do list. It is a bibliography of genres, including poetry, song, lament, prophecy, history, narrative, parables, letters, dreams, and so forth. We should practice reading to enjoy the fullness of that literary experience.
However, as a book divinely authored by God, the Bible also stands apart from all literature penned by human authors. God inspired human writers to pen the words, but God also authorized those pages. No matter what other beauty, truth, and goodness may be found elsewhere, other works of literature lack the authority that Scripture has over Christians.
In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he assures the young disciple, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Our Judeo-Christian Scriptures provide an assurance of their authority—literally, their author is God—as well as their usefulness for forming readers into righteous servants. This authority relieves readers of the burden of sifting through what is fallible and what is divine.
Over years of reading, we may begin to trust certain authors and regard them as teachers, but there remains a difference between their genius and the authority of the apostles. I trust Fyodor Dostoevsky, Eugene Peterson, and Fleming Rutledge. By God’s grace, any person, any book or artwork, or any element of God’s creation may speak to someone’s heart. But no matter how much truth or beauty these writers engender, they do not possess the apostolic authority granted to the writers of Scripture.
In 1847, Søren Kierkegaard outlined the difference between an apostle and a genius: “Genius is what it is of itself, i.e., through that which it is in itself; an Apostle is what he is by his divine authority.”
He reminds readers that Paul’s letters belong to a different category of assessment. “When someone with authority says to a person, go! and when someone who has not the authority says, go! the expression (go!) and its content are identical; aesthetically it is, if you like, equally well said, but the authority makes the difference.”
Whether or not you the reader approve of an apostle’s style matters less in view of eternity than whether you heed the message and submit your life to its authority.
Other literature may act as a gloss on divine Scripture, responding to the authoritative book with exposition, praise, poetry, narrative creations, and so forth, but none of them carry the weight of the inspired Word. When reading works by geniuses, to use Kierkegaard’s label, the reader must evaluate those works as true, good, or beautiful. Unlike the fealty we show to Paul, we owe no obedience to Rembrandt, García Márquez, or Tchaikovsky.
While comparing a genius to a bird, Kierkegaard writes, “It is modest of the nightingale not to require any one to listen to it; but it is also proud of the nightingale not to care whether anyone listens to it or not.”
Like the nightingale, the genius has an “immanent telos,” Kierkegaard says, meaning that the end of the work lies within this plane of existence. The genius’s book or artwork may extend through time, but ultimately it isn’t eternally mandated. An artist or writer might highlight glimpses of eternity, but those reflections of divine reality are not sanctioned in the genius. Instead of the obedience owed to the apostles, geniuses request only our attention.
As we engage the Bible, then, we should read it not for our own gain but as a spiritual practice—always open to how the Lord is planting seeds in our heart, teaching us more about him, and showing us ways of living more like Christ in the world.