Conservative evangelicals admirably repudiate emergent leaders who argue that both content and form must be contextualized; evangelicals insist that since God’s Word is inspired and inerrant, God’s truth transcends culture and must be preserved intact. But since even most conservative evangelicals consider culture as entirely neutral in itself and beauty as in the eye of the beholder, they believe that the form in which Christians communicate truth is fully fluid.
This simplistic dichotomy fails to understand the nature of truth, however; aesthetic form and propositional content are not as separable as many insist. In its most basic definition, something is true if it corresponds with reality. The truth of which the church is the pillar and support (1 Tim 3:15) has been revealed through the written Word of God. Everything contained within God’s Word corresponds rightly with reality, and it is the church’s responsibility to pass that truth on to future generations (Acts 20:27). Therefore, the truth the church is tasked to communicate can be no less than doctrinal.
Yet the truth given through Scripture—what churches are charged with proclaiming—is more than brute theological facts compiled in abstract statements. This truth is no less than facts in statements to be sure, but it is more. Modernism has led Christianity to equate truth with factuality alone, but an essential part of truth exists beyond mere factual correspondence. The authority and sufficiency of Scripture demand this. The Bible does not come to God’s people as a collection of propositional statements or a systematic theology. Instead, God’s revelation of truth comes in various literary forms, most of which are not merely didactic or propositional.
These forms provide a way of communicating God’s truth that would be impossible with systematic statements of fact alone. These aesthetic forms are essential to the truth itself since God’s inspired Word is exactly the best way that truth could be presented.
To reduce God’s truth, then, only to doctrinal statements divorced from aesthetic form does great injustice to the way God himself has chosen to reveal truth to us. Rather, in the process of divine inspiration, God chose to reveal his truth using particular aesthetic forms. Most evangelicals, however, view the Bible—and by extension truth—as merely propositional. To most, whatever aesthetic aspects are present in Scripture are incidental at best and for many a distraction. Truth is simply something to believe and perhaps get excited about.
To be clear, this argument does not deny the propositional nature of truth. Truth can—and indeed often must—be summarized in propositional statements. The argument at present is that truth is more than mere propositions. Nor is this argument for two kinds of truth, one propositional and the other not; the argument here is that truth is always both propositional and aesthetic.
Thus what churches are charged with communicating is not only a collection of propositions that correspond to God’s reality but also aesthetic ways of expressing these ideas that likewise correspond to God’s reality. Churches are committed to proclaiming not just intellectual facts but “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Faith is more than facts; faith is right facts combined with the affection of trust; faith is right facts felt rightly.
If truth is more than factual correspondence—if it has an aesthetic aspect to it—then both the apprehension and the presentation of truth involve more than just intellect; they involve the aesthetic part of man, in particular, his imagination. Today the term “imagination” is used to mean something more similar to “fiction.” Yet the imagination is much more than the dreamer’s fantasy or the lover’s wish. Human imagination is the way in which we interpret facts and is thus the way in which we make sense of truth.
If God’s reality is more than just facts and therefore truth is more than mere factual accuracy, imagination is what allows people to perceive the part of truth that is beyond intellectual knowledge alone. As I mentioned above, truth is correspondence to reality, but there are different kinds of correspondence, not all of which are propositional. Sometimes non-propositional correspondence does a better job of helping navigate reality than does propositional correspondence. For example, an aerial photograph of Washington, D.C. is like propositional correspondence; it is an exact representation of the way things are. A map of D.C., on the other hand, is like metaphorical correspondence; it corresponds to reality, but in a way that highlights and emphasizes certain aspects of that reality over others.
Perception and interpretation of truth depend upon imagination of that truth. Because of this , form and content are not so easily separable. In the words of media ecologist Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message.”1
This is why the Bible uses tools of the imagination to communicate truth. It contains literary forms that utilize various aesthetic devices, not just to decorate truth or make it more interesting, but in order to rightly shape our imagination of truth.
The point here is that if churches communicate propositional statements of truth alone in the form of systematic theology and doctrinal confession, and yet they have not preserved a biblically informed imagination of those facts, they have not succeeded in communicating the truth. So, for example, the “Young Messiah” is not a faithful communication of Handel’s masterpiece, a Precious Moments depiction of Noah and the Ark is not an accurate communication of the biblical account, and Curtis Allen’s rap version of the Heidelberg catechism is not a true representation of that historic confession.
Commitment to the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture implies that God inspired the Bible’s ideas, words, and aesthetic forms, and this demands a commitment to expressing not just the ideas of truth expressed in the Bible but also the way those ideas are imagined through Scripture’s various aesthetic forms.
Do you agree that the aesthetic forms of Scripture set boundaries for other aesthetic presentations of God’s truth? What might some of those boundaries be?
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.