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Truth and the Moral Imagination

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series

"Preserving the Truth in our Worship"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

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

Imagining Truth

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.

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Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies 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 Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. George MacDonald, The Imagination, and Other Essays (Boston: D. Lothrop, 1883), 2. []
  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. []
  3. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, 278. []
  4. Ryken: 392-393. []
  5. 12Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, 282. []

5 Responses to Truth and the Moral Imagination

  1. There is a definite sense in which the imagination of a man is highly significant in the realm of piety and true religion, for it is in this respect that Tozer stated that "the essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him." These thoughts and perceptions are of significant import to the believer. This I do not question. What I question is the implications of your statement that "[plenary inspiration] 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."

    The proposition of inspiration including the ideas, words, and forms points to the teaching that the biblical writers were not simply given ideas to write down in a fallible manner (the liberal view), but they were somehow given the right words to record. Your extension to forms, I would assume would be a reference to genre or nuances (e.g. aorist tense versus an imperfect tense) of the inspired document. This is most certainly true. God inspired the ideas in the minds of the writers that led to what was written down. Now, can those ideas of the biblical writer be ascertained by a proper understanding of Scripture? Certainly! However, the manner in which one imagines the idea of the writer is not contingent on aesthetics, but on the words. The idea is conveyed in words which construct genres (forms?) which can be perceived as aesthetic. How or whether one perceives "by grace are you saved by faith" as aesthetic is not the crux of the issue, but is the idea of the writer (human and divine) being communicated through the vehicle of language to the reader's imagination (mind) and then translated into action (faith). My goal is not to preserve the reader's perception of the Word of God, but that of the writer. This is done by preserving the meaning of the WORDS of Scripture. I would caution that the above comments come, albeit unintentionally, close to neo-orthodoxy (my perception of Scripture = inspiration).

    In conclusion, I would accept the concept that truth must be imagined rightly, but only in the sense that imagining means to understand biblical ideas through the words it uses to communicate and not through some mystical, emotional, or aesthetic experience with my perception of Scripture.

  2. As I said in another comment, all literature shapes its propositional content in aesthetic ways; and the way in which Scripture presents its truth is just as inspired as the truth itself.

    So, for example, there is a reason God inspired Paul to write: "by grace are you saved by [sic] faith" and not, "dude, just believe, man, and you'll get saved; trust him, man, he's gracious!" Same basic ideas, but they shape the imagination of those ideas in very different ways.

  3. In reality, God inspired Paul to write: "te gar chariti este sesosmenoi dia pisteos"

    What you are discussing is the legitimacy of functional versus formal translation of Scripture. Although I have studied the matter extensively, I would grant that these matters are beyond the pedigree of either of us. What little authority I have on the matter would give me the confidence to say that there may be far more legitimacy (yes even necessity) of translations that capture senses broader than the literal word-for-word translation. In fact, some verses or terms necessitate functional translations as they are unable to be translated with coherence in their actual literal forms.

  4. I think we're actually in agreement on this point. I would agree that a word-for-word translation would be poor; rather, a good translation translates not only what is said, but how it is said.

    So I'm not saying that a translation will render the exact same literary form, but it will render the text using a similar literary form to the original. So in a good translation, Paul will sound different than Peter or David.

    But as you say, you've probably studied this more than I.

  5. I did not intend any disrespect whatsoever. I'm simply stating that the matter is likely beyond EITHER of us (as I assume that neither of us holds a terminal degree in Ancient Languages or the like. That is usually the academic forum for said discussions and I will not pretend to have much greater insight on the legitimate manners of translating or paraphrasing from the original to English.

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