My argument in this series will be that conservative worship is essential to the preservation of truth for this reason: we will have preserved truth successfully only if it is truth rightly imagined, and our imagining truth rightly depends heavily on the forms of worship that we employ.
What is Truth?
We must first clarify what it is we aim to preserve. In its most basic definition, a statement is true if it corresponds with reality. The truth we wish to preserve—the truth of which the Church is the pillar and support (1 Tim 3:15)—has been revealed to us through the written Word of God. Everything contained within God’s Word corresponds rightly with reality, and it is our responsibility to pass that truth on to future generations (Acts 20:27). What we find there is truth about God, man, sin, salvation, the world, and so much more. Therefore, the truth we wish to preserve can be no less than doctrinal.
But what we have been given through Scripture, and what we are charged with preserving, is more than brute theological facts compiled in abstract statements. Truth is no less than facts in statements to be sure, but it is more. I am not arguing for another kind of truth, but a component of truth that exists beyond mere factual correspondence.
Truth in the Bible
Modernism has led us to equate truth with factuality alone. Truth is no less than factuality, but it is deeper than that. I am convinced of this primarily because I believe in the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. The Bible does not come to us as a collection of propositional statements or a systematic theology. As Kevin Vanhoozer observes, “The Bible is more than divine data.”1
Instead, God’s revelation of truth comes to us 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.2
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.”3 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.”4
To reduce God’s truth, then, only to doctrinal statements 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.5
Most evangelicals, however, view the Bible—and by extension truth—as merely propositional.6
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. But there is a reason the Bible calls God a “king” rather than simply asserting the doctrinal fact of his rulership. There is a reason the Bible calls God a shepherd, fortress, father, husband, and potter rather than simply stating the ideas underlying these metaphors. These images of God paint a picture that goes far beyond mere doctrinal accuracy.
The Aesthetic Component of Truth
Now to be clear, I am not arguing against the propositional nature of truth. This is the postmodern position, one of which I am as equally critical as I am of the modernist view. Truth can—and indeed often must—be summarized in propositional statements. What I am arguing is that truth is more than that. Again, Vanhoozer explains:
Without some propositional core, the church would lose its raison d’etre, 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.7
Nor am I arguing for two kinds of truth, one propositional and the other not; I am arguing that truth is always both propositional and aesthetic.
Thus what we are charged with preserving 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. We are committed to preserving 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.
- Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 5. [↩]
- James S. Spiegel, “Aesthetics and Worship,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 2, no. 4 (1998): 44. [↩]
- Clyde S. Kilby, Christianity and Aesthetics (Chicago: Inter-varsity Press, 1961), 19. [↩]
- Ibid., 21. [↩]
- Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Lost in Interpretation? Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48, no. 1 (2005): 96, 100. Vanhoozer’s opinion here is clearly rhetorical overstatement; neither he nor I would disparage the value of systematic theology. Yet the point is clear: systematic theology alone cannot fully encapsulate Christian truth. [↩]
- 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). [↩]
- Vanhoozer, “Lost in Interpretation? Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics,” 100-101. [↩]