If, as I argued in the last post, 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 we use the term “imagination” to mean something more similar to “fiction.” Yet the imagination is much more than the child’s fantasy or the author’s plot. Our imagination is the way in which we interpret facts and is thus the way in which we make sense of truth. Scottish poet and pastor George MacDonald explains:
To inquire into what God has made is the main function of the imagination. It is aroused by facts, is nourished by facts, seeks for higher and yet higher laws in those facts; but refuses to regard science as the sole interpreter of nature, or the laws of science as the only region of discovery.1
If God’s reality is more than just facts and therefore truth is more than mere factual accuracy, imagination is what allows us to perceive the part of truth that is beyond intellectual knowledge alone. As we have seen, 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 us navigate reality than does propositional correspondence. Here is an illustration. 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. Now which would you rather have if you were trying to navigate D.C.?
Our perception and interpretation of truth depends upon our imagination of that truth. Leland Ryken helpfully explains how imagination affects how we view truth and what we do with truth:
It is a fallacy to think that one’s worldview consists only of ideas. It is a world picture as well as a set of ideas. It includes images that may govern behavior even more than ideas do. At the level of ideas, for example, a person may know the goal of life is not to amass physical possessions. But if his mind is filled with images of fancy cars and expensive clothes and big houses, his behavior will likely follow a materialistic path. A person might say that God created the world, but if his mind is filled with images of evolutionary processes, he will start to think like an evolutionist. Someone may know that he should eat moderately, but his appetites override that knowledge when his mind is filled with images of luscious food. The imagination is a leading ingredient in the way people view reality. They live under its sway, whether they realize it or not.2
Imagination in the Bible
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. As Vanhoozer says, “Indeed, the panoply of genres in the Bible is nothing less than the imagination in full literary display.”3 This reality reveals the essential importance of the imagination in the presentation of truth:
The point is not simply that the Bible allows for the imagination as a form of communication. It is rather that the biblical writers and Jesus found it impossible to communicate the truth of God without using the resources of the imagination. The Bible does more than sanction the arts. It shows how indispensable they are.4
Perhaps a good illustration of this is with narratives, which comprise a majority of the Bible’s content. Many view narratives in Scripture as merely summaries of historical facts, but Vanhoozer explains how narratives do much more:
Narratives allow storytellers to create a unified whole from a succession of events. To be sure, there are modern despisers of narrative as there are despisers of metaphor; some see narrative as merely the rhetorical icing on historical discourse. The propositionalist temptation is to regard narrative simply as the pretty packaging of historical content to be torn off and discarded. But the point of narrative is not merely to assert “this happened, and then this happened.” Narratives make another kind of claim altogether: “look at the world like this.” Narratives do more than chronicle; they configure. Configuration is the act of grouping people and events together in a meaningful whole and is, as such, an act of the narrative imagination, a power of synoptic vision. Narratives explain why a certain event happened by emplotment, not by adducing causal laws but by situating it in an intelligible story. Narrative is the form that a distinctly historical understanding takes: certain things concerning human temporality and teleology can only be said in the form of narrative. Like metaphors, narratives are irreducible to propositionalist paraphrase. Following a story requires a different cognitive skill than does following an argument, but it is no less cognitive for that.5
My point is this: if we preserve propositional statements of doctrine alone in the form of systematic theology and doctrinal confession, and yet we have not preserved a biblically informed imagination of those facts, we have not succeeded in preserving the truth. Commitment to the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture implies that God inspired the Bible’s ideas, words, and forms, and this demands a commitment to preserving not just the ideas of truth expressed in the Bible but also the way those ideas are imagined through Scripture’s various aesthetic forms.
- George MacDonald, The Imagination, and Other Essays (Boston: D. Lothrop, 1883), 2. [↩]
- Leland Ryken, “The Bible as Literature Part 4: “With Many Such Parables”: The Imagination as a Means of Grace,” Bibliotheca Sacra 147, no. 587 (1990): 393. [↩]
- Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, 278. [↩]
- Ryken: 392-393. [↩]
- 12Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, 282. [↩]