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The beauty of truth

400px-Illuminated.bible.arpPilate’s question to Jesus in John 18:30—“What is truth?”—is no less relevant today than it was then. In its most basic definition, something is true if it corresponds with reality.[1] 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. As Kevin Vanhoozer observes, “The Bible is more than divine data.”[2] Instead, God’s revelation of truth comes in various literary forms, most of which are not merely didactic or propositional. James S. Spiegel helpfully summarizes the various literary genres that God chose to communicate his truth:

. . . the books of the Bible are, in the main, works of literary art. From Genesis to Revelation we find epic narratives (tragic and comic), proverbs, poems, hymns, oratory, and apocalyptic literature whose artistic tools include allegory, metaphor, symbolism, satire, and irony. Comparatively little of the biblical material is strictly didactic, and where this is the case, such as in the book of Romans, the logical rigor itself is elegant (an aesthetic quality). Finally, Jesus’ own preferred method of instruction, the parable, is an aesthetic device. And even when not using parables, his language tends to be heavily laden with metaphors and symbolism, a fact that exasperated the disciples.[3]

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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. Clyde S. Kilby observes, “The Bible comes to us in an artistic form which is often sublime, rather than as a document of practical, expository prose, strict in outline like a textbook.”[4] He asserts that these aesthetic forms are not merely decorative but part of the essential presentation of the Bible’s truth:

We do not have truth and beauty, or truth decorated with beauty, or truth illustrated by the beautiful phrase, or truth in a “beautiful setting.” Truth and beauty are in the Scriptures, as indeed they must always be, an inseparable unity.[5]

To reduce God’s truth, then, only to doctrinal statements divorced from form does great injustice to the way God himself has chosen to reveal truth to us. Vanhoozer articulates this well:

There are other types of precision or clarity than the scientific. It has been said, for example, that poetry is “the best words put in the best order.” Similarly, because we are dealing with the Bible as God’s word, we have good reason to believe that the biblical words are the right words in the right order. . . .

To interpret the Bible truly, then, we must do more than string together individual propositions like beads on a string. This takes us only as far as fortune cookie theology, to a practice of breaking open Scripture in order to find the message contained within. What gets lost in propositionalist interpretation are the circumstances of the statement, its poetic and affective elements, and even, then, a dimension of its truth. We do less than justice to Scripture if we preach and teach only its propositional content. Information alone is insufficient for spiritual formation. We need to get beyond “cheap inerrancy,” beyond ascribing accolades to the Bible to understanding what the Bible is actually saying, beyond professing biblical truth to practicing it.[6]

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This is not to say that God was somehow constrained by human cultural forms in his communication of truth. Yarnell addresses this:

. . . the Word itself is not bound by languages but utilizes human languages for it purpose. Indeed, the Word stands in judgment of language even as it enters that language to transcend the limits of a particular culture and introduce the God who is above all culture.[7]

Rather, in the process of divine inspiration, God chose to reveal his truth using particular aesthetic forms. Most missional advocates, however, view the Bible—and by extension truth—as merely propositional.[8] 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. Again, Vanhoozer explains:

Without some propositional core, the church would lose its raison d’être, leaving only programs and pot-lucks. At the same time, to reduce the truth of Scripture to a set of propositions is unnecessarily reductionist. What the Bible as a whole is literally about is theodrama—the words and deeds of God on the stage of world history that climax in Jesus Christ.[9]

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 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.

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Note: this is an excerpt from By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture by Scott Aniol (Kregel, 2015).

[1] This is called the correspondence theory of truth in contrast to other theories like the pragmatic or coherence theories. For a helpful summary and analysis of the various theories, see Chad V. Meister, “Truth, Evangelicalism, and the Bible,” Christian Apologetics 5, no. 1 (2006): 107–22.

[2] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 5.

[3] James S. Spiegel, “Aesthetics and Worship,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 2, no. 4 (1998): 44.

[4] Clyde S. Kilby, Christianity and Aesthetics (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1961), 19.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Lost in Interpretation? Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48, no. 1 (2005): 96, 100.

[7] Yarnell, “Global Choices,” 21.

[8] For a helpful comparison between the typical evangelical view of the Bible and truth and one that sees the imagination as essential to truth, see Peter W. Macky, “The Role of Metaphor in Christian Thought and Experience as Understood by Gordon Clark and C. S. Lewis,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 24, no. 3 (1981): 238–50.

[9] Vanhoozer, “Lost in Interpretation?,” 100–101.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, 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 three children.

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