Though it was published in 1982, Northrop Frye’s The Great Code remains profound, timely, and complex. Anybody interested in the heritage of western literature, the history of knowledge and language, or theology will profit from much of what Frye lays out here, because what he is concerned with “is not the question whether God is dead or obsolete, but with the question of what resources of language may be dead or obsolete.”
Frye gained international acclaim in 1947 with Fearful Symmetry, but his reputation rests mostly on his Anatomy of Criticism (1957), where he formulates an overarching view of literary criticism and conventions. As Frye writes in his introduction to The Great Code, “In a sense all my critical work…has revolved around the Bible,” and so he apologizes for any repetition that previous readers of his work might encounter.
The view that the Bible, despite having been written by many writers over more than a thousand years, is a unified structure animates all of Frye’s arguments in The Great Code. The two most powerful of these arguments are, first, the Bible’s overarching shape and, second, the recurrence of the same images and metaphors throughout the Bible.
As for this unified shape, Frye argues that the Bible reveals a U-shaped structure (the standard structure of comedy), that is not only explicit in the overall narrative – Creation to Fall to Glory – but also in the many smaller narratives that make up the whole – Abraham’s call to Israel’s exile in Egypt to the Exodus into the Promised Land. Frye, with penetrating vision, attributes our modern tendency to find a purpose in the course of history to this biblical structure: “Our modern confidence in historical process, our belief that despite apparent confusion, even chaos, in human events, nevertheless those events are going somewhere and indicating something, is probably a legacy of Biblical typology: at least I can think of no other source for its tradition.”
If Frye is not exhaustive in his analysis of the Bible’s imagery, then he is nevertheless immensely helpful in showing that the Bible is unified in its simplest imagery: bread and wine, tree and water, body and blood, city and garden, flame and wind, shepherd and lamb, life and death, waste and splendor, earth and sky, etc. Frye subtly suggests that these images find their ultimate metaphorical reality in Christ, and that these metaphors are the meaning of the Bible.
Such a view, unorthodox as it would seem, is Frye’s attempt to defend the Bible from contemporary scholarship – if not as a divinely authoritative book, at least as a literarily authoritative one. Frye is well aware of the problems surrounding biblical authority and external “vindication.” He writes, for example, “[I]f a historical record of Jesus’ trial before Pilate were to turn up that corresponded in any detail to the Gospel account, many people would hail that as definitive vindication of the truth of the Gospel story, without noticing that they had shifted their criterion of truth from the Gospels to something else.” Frye, on the contrary, insists that the actual meaning of the Bible lies within the Bible is revealed through its recurring metaphors and unified narrative structure.
Frye’s book has problems. It seriously engages with, and apparently accepts, the sort of contemporary biblical scholarship that assumes traditional Christianity has had it wrong for nearly two thousand years when it comes to questions of authorship and translation. Still, the book is valuable for the way it defends key truths about the Bible from the standpoint of modern biblical scholarship.
A thorough re-reading of the Bible, through a narrative and metaphorical lens, may prove a fruitful “vindication of the truth of the Gospel story,” though one that would keep the vindication within the Bible itself. Insofar as this method, incomplete as it is, supports important truths about the Bible, it has something important to teach us.