Enjoying the Bible, Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures

Matthew Mullins is a professor of English and history of ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and this book reflects his literary background and expertise. He believes that many do not read the Bible because they approach it as an instruction manual and soon get bored. This hermeneutic of information should be replaced, or at least supplemented, by a hermeneutic of love (pp. 5, 8, 9, 181). The book is designed to promote and develop the pleasure of understanding the Scriptures (p. ix). “It seeks to change the way we think about the Bible itself as a text… [and] attempts to teach us how to read the Bible as a work of literary art” (pp. xi-xii). “The goal is to revolutionize your theory of understanding the Bible so that you can experience its full range of significance and learn to love it more” (p. 10).

Mullins emphasis is that the Bible is not only a message but also an experience (p. 29). We do not abandon the Bible as a source of truth, but we expand our approach in order that we love the Scriptures (p. 30). The author’s point is that the Bible is not only an instructional manual, it is also a work of literature, which instructs our hearts as well as captures our imagination and emotions so that we ponder Scripture (pp. 31-32, 39, 41, 47). Mullins believes that it is not what we think that defines us, but what we love (p. 77) and, if that is true, we need to allow the Bible to speak to our hearts, not simply our heads (he uses “heart” throughout to speak of our emotions, which is not how the Bible uses heart; heart in Scripture speaks of our inner being, including intellect and emotions). 

As a literary professor (not a Bible scholar), it is not surprising that Mullins turns to literature, in particular poetry, to develop a paradigm for his hermeneutic of love. He offers, and discusses several secular poems to demonstrate that poems are designed to evoke emotions more than give instruction. Poets are content with ambiguity, unresolved tension, and raising questions and, since large portions of the Bible are literature, even poetry, its readers should approach portions of the Bible much like they do poetry (pp. 65, 71-73, 77ff, 178). Mullins knows he is on shaky ground and dangerously close to promoting a postmodern hermeneutic, so he insists numerous times that the Bible cannot be reduced to subjective interpretations (cf. p. 145). But this is a difficult tension to maintain and slipping into subjectivism would be easy. Still, Mullins makes some excellent points as he encourages his readers to slow down (p. 84), enjoy, and love the Bible. Toward that end, he offers applicational exercises at the end of each chapter and several more in the conclusion, to help the reader develop such methods.

Besides cautioning to not slip into some form of postmodern hermeneutics, this reviewer was concerned with turning to Aristotle who taught that character is formed by repeated actions (pp. 182-184). This is behaviorism, not transformation through the renewing of our minds and hearts as taught in Scripture (e.g. Romans 12:1-2). And sadly, at the end of the book, Mullins turns to Richard Foster (popularizer of Protestant mysticism) as a guide for spiritual disciplines (pp. 182-183). Foster’s influence can be seen in some of the practical exercises as well.

by Matthew Mullins (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021), 203 pp & xvii, paper $18.51

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel

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