October 28, 2020

Riffs 06:30:07: Mark Shea on Measuring Doctrine by Poetry

logo1.gifIt’s irritating that a really helpful piece of thinking is on a podcast, but it’s a short one: The June 29th Catholic Exchange Podcast with Mark Shea. It’s entitled “Measuring Doctrine by Poetry.” Protestants be warned: ignore the Marian devotional context and Shea’s general snarkiness towards evangelicalism. Truly Reformed and theology geeks: take proper offense at Shea’s in-your-face parody of how that tribe might read a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (Truly hilarious.)

Shea’s point is that poetic language read as precise doctrinal language would be found blasphemous, but that poetic language read as poetic language is a form of human language, and it does what it does quite well as long as you don’t punish the author with an irrelevant standard.

Is all theological language poetry? Of course not. Is some theological language- Biblical and elsewhere- frequently poetic? Yes. Not completely poetic, but having more in common with poetry than with technical description.

It’s interesting how many theological tribes- from creationists to advocates of the real presence to Tim Lahaye- build their fort on the requirement that the Bible is literal. When you begin to say that Genesis 1 is poetic language, “This is my body” is, at least, partially metaphorical or that the Apocalypse is symbolism from front to back, you’ll hear a predictable chorus that you’ve betrayed the plain meaning of scripture.

My personal favorites are the ranting gangs accusing anyone who isn’t a creationist of turning the entire Bible into a worthless allegory. The early church fathers- who loved allegorical interpretation- would find that an odd accusation. Of course, I’m doing no such thing, but dag nab it, there are kinds of language that communicate perfectly well without being literal.

Next will be the accusation that allowing literary genre into the land of interpretation is just a door into postmodern relativism, leaving no possibility of knowing what the scriptures say. I’ll agree that recognizing various kinds of language in the Bible and theology will increase the need for careful reading, humility and a heart open to the Holy Spirit, but that is how we should approach scripture and theology always. Turning poetic language into the language of an engine repair manual isn’t an answer.

Shea makes an excellent point that some poetic language builds in a set of understood rules for universal, hyperbolic and extreme statements. His parody of the wrong way to read Browning’s poetry about her husband reminds us that it’s no compliment to scripture to make it play by a single set of rules that we assign so that we can handle the Bible the way that suits us.

Check out the podcast and consider Shea’s point as applied to many of our theological discussions.


  1. Scripture interpretation (different genres) is my field of study in school. Yes Genesis is poetry. Yes apocalyptic imagery is not literal. And prophecy is usually cosmically viewed impressions of an actual event.
    But, that doesn’t mean they aren’t literal. They are figuratively painted to be literally heeded. No one who knows hermeneutics would argue that Genesis is poetry, the problem is when we say that poetry can’t convey actual truth. To say Genesis “is poetry, not science” is true. But to say that the author’s intent was to convey an impression of events is false. Genesis is directly a pollemical poem at the surrounding deities of the Canaanites, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, etc. All of their creation accounts were turned on their head by Genesis. The Egyptians for example, believed the sun was first….look at Genesis…God says “let there be light”, not the sun “Amon Ra”. The sun isn’t created until much later, kind of as an after thought. The Spirit of God direct the waters to part, not as in the Baylonian myths of the chaotic sea. Genesis is arranged as a theological poem that counters all the surrounding nations creation accounts…it was meant to be taken literally in the sense (Egypt, your god i.e. the sun is our God’s lackey in our creation account). When we do damage to Genesis, we do damage to its intent as a pollemic.

  2. The word “literal” can’t be used in literature to simply equal true. I can write a poem where every word is false by science but the entire poem is true. Forcing the word “literal” into places like Genesis 1-3 is just a bad choice. Say real. Say historical. Say actual. But literal means the stars really fell from the sky, and when you teach ESL students as I do, that’s a needless distinction.

  3. Nicholas Anton says

    I am a literalist when it comes to Biblical interpretation, including the first five chapters of Genesis. To believe otherwise would leave us floundering as part of an infinite nihilist equation. Yes, Genesis does teach creation and not evolution, as well as the historicity of Adam and Eve. The whole redemption story throughout Scripture is based on that thesis.

    Nevertheless, I also believe that poetry and figures of speech are used throughout Scripture. I would not even object to calling Genesis a poem (it fits within the broad definition of the term) as long as we recognize it, as the Old Testament prophets, Jesus and His Apostles did, as literal and historical.

    The allegorical method as introduced by Philo (20 B.C.-50 A.D.) and brought to its climax by Bernard of Clairvaux was however not in general use by the Old and New Testament writers. Why should we then imposer it on Scripture?

    I however tend to shy away from a simplistic overuse of stereotypical concepts and static dictionary based meanings of terms. While a word may have identical meaning whenever used, it need not, and frequently does not. That is why no two people will say the same thing with identical words. That is why every author has a style of his/her own. An understanding of context, both literary and historical, and language is critical to our understanding of any literary work, including Scripture. Even so, a clear understanding of what has been said or implied in Scripture is quite possible.

  4. Bob Sacamento says

    Is all theological language poetry? Of course not. Is some theological language- Biblical and elsewhere- frequently poetic? Yes. Not completely poetic, but having more in common with poetry than with technical description.

    Thanks again, Michael. This one piece of information, that I came to understand much later in life than I should have, is the one change in myself that forced me to re-think whether I was evangelical or not. (All the other changes came inside the evangelical movement itself.)

  5. While I largely agree with your comments, allow me to quibble over “This is my body”. I think the context of the scriptural passages about the eucharist indicate a literal meaning- particularly John 6, where the disciples essentially ask if Jesus is speaking metaphorically.

  6. Geeze.

    The main problem here is that modern people have forgotton the point of poetry is mainly to convey truth that is too broad for mere logic (poetry can be intensely logical but it is plainly more than that, it’s *personal*).

    The Bible’s meaning is “plain”, but acquiring that meaning in the first place is not just ABC-123.

    How many people really take seriously the dicta that the Old is in the New etc, or that you have to take each single word in the context of the whole???