A couple of friends asked for clarification and explanation of a claim I make in By the Waters of Babylon, in which I argue that the aesthetic forms of Scripture should regulate our worship forms today. I am attempting to answer that request in a series of posts.
The basis for my argument of extending biblical authority to the aesthetic forms of Scripture is the doctrine of verbal-plenary inspiration. The Holy Spirit of God inspired every word in the original autographs of Scripture. This implies that while the word choices, grammar, syntax, poetic language, and literary forms were products of the human author’s writing style, culture, and experiences, we must also affirm that these aspects of the form of Scripture are exactly how God desired his truth to be communicated.
Those who hold to verbal-plenary inspiration rightly insist that what words biblical authors chose are important, as are how those words were put together into sentences and paragraphs. We rightly emphasize that how we interpret the meaning of biblical passages is directly dependent upon our understanding of the historical/grammatical context. We must understand the language, historical circumstances, and cultural conventions of the original author and audience to correctly interpret a given passage of Scripture.
Verbal-plenary inspiration, therefore, requires that we understand the nature of truth as expressed in Scripture as more than correct doctrinal statements condensed from God’s Word. Rather, truth includes particular sentiments, affections, moods, and imaginations that God communicates through the aesthetic forms he inspired.
Any good text or seminary course on biblical interpretation gives some attention to the fact that the Bible comes to us in various literary forms.1 However, while exegetes give lip service to the aesthetic aspects of Scripture, at best they acknowledge the literary forms as a means to aid them in drawing out what they believe to be the more important “propositional content” of the text. They view the form as something they have to “get through” in order to “get to” the revelatory content and then “restate symbols and metaphors in terms of univocal statements.”2 With this view, understanding what the literary form communicated to the original audience is important for interpretation, but not much more. The aesthetic forms don’t influence the way Scripture is read or preached—every sermon is structured as if the text were epistolary. It is unfortunate that most pastors today have little if any appreciation for poetry or music or knowledge of how art works, and few if any seminary courses or resources are made available to educate pastors in these skills.
Allow me to offer a couple illustrations of this. A respected seminary professor once told a friend of mine that he really didn’t have any place in his thinking for appreciating poetry or music, and this was a professor with expertise in the interpretation of the Psalms! I have been told by at least four or five pastors that they would never sing “In the Bleak Midwinter,” because, you know, Jesus wasn’t really born in the winter, and there wasn’t really snow on the ground, having no clue of what Ms. Rosetti was saying poetically. These are just some examples of how ill-equipped current pastors and scholars are in matters of aesthetics, and so it is no surprise that claiming the aesthetic forms of Scripture should regulate contemporary art forms in worship seems outrageous.
What this betrays is a modernistic understanding of the nature of truth and human knowing and in effect denies the authority of what God inspired. As Kevin Vanhoozer notes, I think, correctly, “Evangelicals have been quick to decry the influence of modernism on liberal theology but not to see the beam of modern epistemology in their own eye.”3 Leland Ryken similarly observes, “It is one thing to recognize that parts of the Bible are literature. It is quite another actually to approach those texts in a literary manner.”4 This perspective fails to recognize that “everything that is communicated in a piece of writing is communicated through the forms in which it is embodied.”5
It is critically important to recognize that truth in Scripture is more than merely scientific fact statements. Christianity cannot be boiled down into a set of doctrinal propositions. The Bible contains many statements of theological fact, much of its content can be summarized in theological propositions, and doctrinal affirmations remain important for defining various aspects of biblical orthodoxy.
Nevertheless, God cannot be known fully through mere statements of theological fact. God is known through his Word, and his Word is more than a collection of fact statements. It is inspired literature that employs aesthetic devices of the imagination to communicate God to us in ways that would not be possible with only fact statements. Since God is a spirit and does not have a body like man, since he is infinite, eternal, and totally other than us, God chose to use particular aesthetic forms to communicate truth about himself that would not have been possible otherwise. These aesthetic forms are essential to the truth itself since God’s inspired Word is exactly the best way that truth could be presented.
Each of the core principles of the traditional historical-grammatical approach to biblical interpretation are important, but they must be extended beyond grammar and history to aesthetics as well. Context is king, but part of the context includes the aesthetic form of the original text. Interpretation of Scripture requires understanding authorial intent, but part of what the author intended is aesthetic. The text can never mean what it never meant, but it also can’t mean less than what it meant.
Next week, I’ll explore how translating Scripture using this understanding of inspiration and authority parallels biblical authority over contemporary worship forms as well.
- “To interpret properly the ‘then and there’ of the biblical texts, one must not only know some general rules that apply to all the words of the Bible, but one needs to learn the special rules that apply to each of these literary forms (genres). And the way God communicates his Word to us in the ‘here and now’ will often differ from one form to another” (Gordon D Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Second Edition [Zondervan Publishing Company, 1993], 18). [↩]
- Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 87. [↩]
- Ibid., 26. [↩]
- Leland Ryken, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1993), 20. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]