The poet Dana Gioia recently argued that “Poetry is not merely important to Christianity. It is an essential, inextricable, and necessary aspect of religious faith and practice.” He proceeds to observe “the curious fact that one-third of the Bible is written in verse.” As the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar observed decades ago, however, curious though the proportion of verse to prose in the sacred scriptures may seem, it should not necessarily lead us to conclude that scripture must be understood as “a poetical book.” The “Bible’s external poetic form,” von Balthasar notes, may not lead to the discovery of the intrinsic and essential poetic dimension Gioia suggests, much less to one with meaningful “theological import.” For, von Balthasar writes, in the time and place of many of those books’ composition, “prose . . . such as that of the Greek historians . . . does not yet even exist.” Perhaps oral culture merely necessitated the use of verse; in most languages, prose develops only when the conditions for the widespread use of writing and printed documents emerge.

Von Balthasar was merely entertaining objections on his way to arguing that form is indeed primordial to scripture as it is to everything else—and there is no going behind it. We must contemplate the form of divine revelation and of the Bible just as we contemplate the form of a work of art, he concludes. Michael Edwards in The Bible and Poetry endorses an approach to scripture that is at least somewhat similar in spirit, in this enthusiastic, oddly constructed, and boldly eccentric (if not heterodox) essay. Two-thirds of the way through his excursus, Edwards, in discussing the revelation of Saint John, makes the following hesitant interjection: “all creatures are offering to God a sacrifice of praise and—may we add?—of poetry.” 

Do not let the rhetorical question fool you. Edwards’s insistence on reading poetry in the Bible as poetry and, for that matter, receiving the whole of scriptural revelation as a poetic sacrament (a term to which I shall return), is full-throated and dogmatic even as it calls into question what most Christians would understand by the term dogma.

A Case for Poetic Reception

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The volume is divided into two extended arguments. In the first four chapters, Edwards makes the case for a poetic reception of the Bible, in comparison with which he judges “systematic theology” to be an “error.” That case is rooted in his own conversion experience and his understanding of what the experience of reading the Bible and being a Christian ought to be, but makes positive advertence to such quasi-modernist figures as William James and Henri Bremond, while specifically casting John Henry Newman and Jean-Luc Marion as foils. In the remaining seven chapters, Edwards guides us through poetic moments in the scriptures, beginning with the Psalms, Isaiah 6, and the Song of Songs, and continuing with a discussion of poetry in the New Testament, with particular attention to Luke. Most of these chapters offer a fairly loose account of the poetic qualities of the scriptural language, but the final chapter, “The Eyelids of Dawn,” leads us from poetry to poetic theory.

I will address these two arguments in reverse order, because the exegetical reflections on the nature of scripture seem the most fruitful parts of Edwards’s argument, while the opening salvos need to be set in a context Edwards does not himself provide if their claims are to make for compelling reading—and even then, there are problems.

Edwards’s chief aim in the second, larger part of the volume is to introduce the reader to what Fredrich Schiller would have called the “ludic,” or playfully poetic, qualities—for they are many—of the Bible and to do so in a manner that will no longer allow us to set those qualities to the side as ornamental and inessential as we go in search of abstract truths in which to believe. One of his more provocative statements to that end runs as follows:

The poem, as a body of a special sort, represents the rough sketch of another body, the sign of the transformed body. And if the body of the poem is mysterious, it suggests that the body of the world, the effect of the word of God, is likewise so, and that it too opens to that which transcends it. The strange body of the poem corresponds to the strange body of the material, and more than material, world. In this perspective, all poetry is metaphysical.

The poem is a body, a whole whose organic parts constitute a true unity. Were we to reduce the whole to the parts, we would, as Wordsworth once protested, “murder to dissect.” But Edwards’s language goes beyond this. The body, the inviolable whole of the poem, also symbolizes the glorified body of resurrected humanity and also the body of the world. The poem opens onto salvation history and the order of the world, but even then, it is not done, for the poem also speaks of the spiritual body of God insofar as he reveals himself.

If this language sounds familiar, it should: John Crowe Ransom expressed something similar in that early classic of the New Criticism, The World’s Body (1938). There, Ransom saw the modern scientific civilization of the West as seeking to “murder to dissect” everything; it reduced all things to abstract, mathematical units and treated the whole living body of things like an indifferent heap, a corpse. For Ransom, the best poetry resisted this extractive rationalism by refusing to dissolve the whole or, better, by restoring that whole to us. Poetry, he wrote, “only wants to realize the world, to see it better . . . the world which is made of whole and indefeasible objects, and this is the world that poetry recovers for us.”

For Ransom, the bodily whole of the world was its texture of experience, its complexity that resists digestion into the useful units of science or business. What Ransom sought to recover was the fullness of reality, one that included the “irrelevant” or incomprehensible qualities of things otherwise ignored in an efficient but impoverished rational civilization. Edwards’s remarks go much further. The poem is a body that speaks of the natural world, yes, but also of the spiritual world that transcends it—that rich economy of “wholes composed of wholes,” as Jacques Maritain wrote in a related context. Ransom wants poetry to restore to us the fullness of embodied experience. Edwards claims it restores to us the presence of fullness—not just natural reality, but the reality of grace, revelation, and salvation. We will have to return to this claim in taking up his early chapters, but  I first want to highlight what it leads Edwards to do in the larger part of this volume.

Poetry and Faith

Edwards’s exploration of the Bible is piecemeal, partial, and given to magnificent assertions delivered as mere asides and never to be argued, but all this cannot really be judged a fault. He does his level best to show us that the “poetry of the Psalms is not mere clothing” and that the particular strength of the Psalms is the inseparability of the words of the poem from the faith that inspires them.

This organic unity is found across scripture: “our way of seeing is disrupted by this refusal of abstraction.” Isaiah 6, with its vision of the six-winged seraphim who comes, “having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar,” to perform the circumcision of the prophet’s “unclean lips,” is exemplary (it is the “primal scene”) of the whole of Scripture. The Bible is poetry in the sense of being purified speech, impossible to uninspired man and impregnable to the merely abstractive reason. We have to receive it without reduction, which means we, too, are called to read it with circumcised or purified eyes. We are called to receive it in awe and stand silent, lest we fall into the heresy of paraphrase.

But this raises a problem because much of Scripture is allegorical or otherwise figural in character. It cannot simply be read in itself as an autonomous form, but must be read into. Does this not violate its poetic integrity? This question explains Edwards’s turn to the Song of Songs. Read literally, it will appear as a poem of nuptial romance. But if we pay attention to some subtle features of the language, we discover that this literal nuptial poetry opens itself to the romance of God and his bride, the Church. This allegorical reading is not, then, a violation of the text but an entrance into “the depth of the dialogue.” 

So, also, as Edwards turns to the New Testament, he delights in three particular features that indicate a poetic reception is necessary. First, that the gospels are “biographies” rather than treatises. Second, that the prose of the New Testament, including the expository passages of the Epistles, frequently breaks into poetry, as in Paul’s hymn in Philippians 2. But, third, and most importantly, Edwards shows us (without quite articulating) that the typological reading of the Bible is binding on us. Hannah’s canticle in 1 Samuel is echoed, fulfilled, and transcended in the canticle of Mary (the Magnificat). We have to see the poetic texts rhyming with one another in order to understand their meaning.

From all this, I hope it is clear that Edwards creates a great problem for himself in his use of the word “poetry.” As he uses it, poetry means a number of things together, perhaps totally unified, but that may be distinguished. Poetry could be a) “ludic” speech, the world’s body, that refuses to let its meaning be separated from the form of its saying; b) lyric elevation, where our everyday language suddenly halts in its pursuit of argument in order to express praise (doxology) in a manner that seems raised above time; c) rhetorical figures of speech, which are a particular focus of Edwards’s attention, where the form of expression, the order and patterning of words, deepens feeling, meaning or both; and d) verse, where language itself is patterned not merely by grammar but by the ordering of sound and syllable. In his final chapter, Edwards introduces still another possible definition: poetry as e) an “uncertain intuition” that reveals “another dimension in language.” This last is the German romantic theory of language Charles Taylor explores in his two most recent books, The Language Animal and Cosmic Connections.

Not all of these definitions are like the others. Some of them would have to apply to all poetry as does the “ludic” quality, but some, such as the use of rhetoric, apply to poetry but also refined speech of any kind. All lyrics are poems, but not all poems are lyrics. Does poetry become revelatory because of the rhetoric, the meter, or the lyric intensity? If all three together, then how come not all three are always present? Almost none of the poetry that Edwards discusses is actually in verse (whether in its original language or in translation), that is, organized according to an audible pattern of measured speech.

A century ago, Henri Bremond noticed that the poetry of the English romantics seemed to express a mystical vision, a vision of cosmic wholeness and presence. Rather than investigate the matter by considering how steeped in the reading of Plato and neo-Platonism the romantic poets were (Shelley, for instance, translated the Symposium), such that they could hardly help but give expression to the world in a loosely Platonic vision, Bremond simply concluded that all true poetry expressed a quasi-mystical vision. Bremond’s book making this argument, Prayer and Poetry, is on the whole quite beautiful, but one has to concede von Balthasar’s judgment of it as “superficial.” A kindred dilettantism haunts Edwards’s book.

This dilettantism would be unobjectionable if the book consisted only of its rhapsodic final seven chapters where we are urged to recover what Santayana called the “innocence of the eye” that sees things whole. But in the first four, his treatment of the Bible as poetry will raise both questions and readers’ eyebrows. Beginning in the nineteenth century, some modern exegetes attempted to “reduce” the Scriptures to poetry, by which they intended morally edifying, figuratively communicating, fictions. Edwards would have us receive scripture as poetry, but not in order to reduce it to non-literal meanings we can contain or dismiss. He speaks of his own conversion to Christianity, which was not brought about by argument, but by the exemplary splendor of whole lives lived in the enthusiasm of faith, in the following of Christ. For Edwards, “atheism” does not mean the propositional denial of the existence of God, but to live “without God,” the refusal to live in his presence. It is not a creed, not a judgment, but a way of being.

All this strikes me as correct. It is what people mean when they say Christianity is primarily an “encounter” rather than a statement of belief in propositions. Faith is grace’s animating presence in the soul. Edwards wants to interpret this understanding of faith on poetic terms, by which he means the reception of the formal whole without selective reduction to parts. This also seems correct. But then he makes a fateful move. Because poetry is not reducible to any paraphrase, Edwards concludes that every act to enter into the poetry of the Christian faith that would generate “systematic theology” is, as we saw above, an “error.” He critiques Newman for bracketing his overwhelming experience of God in order to justify belief in God as reasonable. He critiques Marion for finding the presence of Christ in the Eucharist rather than in scripture. For Edwards, we do not need arguments, but the experience of presence found in the Bible’s poetic beauty; we do not need the developed sacramental theology of the Eucharist, because we have the presence of the words of scripture. In this, he approaches Martin Luther (at least in Philip Carey’s controversial interpretation of him): the Bible itself is a sacrament whose grace changes us, and nothing can be added to, or subtracted from, that power.

Faith is grace’s animating presence in the soul.


With such a sacramental vision of scripture, Edwards feels justified in dismissing Saint Thomas Aquinas and Descartes along with everyone else as so many errant system-builders, the monumental, unbridgeable differences among them notwithstanding. Edwards echoes Marion in stating that God reveals himself only insofar as he reveals himself, but then looks askance at everyone who wastes words trying to understand what it is we are seeing. Edwards is right that we must see the form whole and he is right that poetic form leads beyond itself to give intimations—more than intimations—of the supra-formal reality of God.

Where he errs is in thinking that this is the end of the story. Rather, it is the beginning of many volumes. In von Balthasar’s Glory of the Lord, the theologians begin just with the premise that there is no getting away from, or beyond, form. We must receive scripture whole, the Church whole, history whole, the same way we receive a work of art as an irreducible whole. This leads us not to fall silent after a few words, but to seek to see the form as best we may and to see the different attempts made in the history of the life of the Church to describe it without ever comprehending it. The Summae of Aquinas are one especially rich example of that, the philosophy of Descartes an embarrassing and insincere failure.

Edwards errs on this point because he misunderstands what it means for a theologian to make a commentary on scripture. For Edwards, commentary is always one step down the road toward the replacement of the body of scripture with unwarranted abstractions that depart from the spirit of the text. With the poet J. V. Cunningham, he laments: “The text was loss. // The gain is gloss.” But, as Rémi Brague has argued, the commentary tradition, in the classical and Christian worlds, suggests just the opposite. The original text is an inviolable poem indeed, but like the myths as Plato understood them, they contain boundless depths. We retain the original text and let it speak for itself; we stand before its form; and then we crowd the margins with our ever-partial attempts to explore and better understand what we can never supplant or exhaust. Edwards’s poetic account leaves him in a church of one; the commentary tradition is the poetic contemplation of the actual Church.

Image by Oleksandr and licensed via Adobe Stock.