As this essay appears, I am just returning from a week at Snow Wolf Lodge near Pagosa Springs, Colorado, teaching about the place of literature and literary study in the Christian world view and the Christian life for Summit Ministries’ “Summit Semester” program. Literature? In most treatments of the Christian world view the subject of literature never even comes up. In most systematic theology books you won’t find it in the table of contents or even the index. If I am successful in this essay, you will realize that this omission is a serious problem.
Christians believe that the only way we can know God is that He has revealed Himself. He has done so in nature, for “the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). He has done so in history, by calling into existence the nation of Israel, redeeming it from slavery in Egypt in the Exodus, and preserving it as a nation until it produced the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, and since. Supremely He has done so by sending His Son, Jesus, into the world. The miraculous birth, sinless life, authoritative teaching, atoning death, and glorious resurrection of Christ show us who God is more profoundly and more clearly than anything else does—indeed, more clearly than anything else could.
There yet remains a problem. Nature is fallen. As such it still shows us God’s power and His intelligence, but it no longer reflects His majesty perfectly. History by itself contains no rubrics to point out the core redemptive history of Israel as being special or significant. Christ is no longer with us in the flesh. Therefore, nature, history, and Christ need to be presented to us in a way that reports, points to, and interprets their revelatory significance reliably and authoritatively. The provision for this need is a book, the Bible. It is the lens that brings the rest of revelation into focus, the Rosetta Stone that interprets it for us and renders it intelligible. Our access to revelation therefore depends on our ability to read in such a way that we can receive the ancient message, let it speak to us for what it is, and humbly and obediently hear in the Text the Voice of the Spirit who inspired it.
So faithful reading is required if we are profitably to receive God’s revelation and know Him. “How do we do that?” becomes a critical question. Part of the answer is to realize that the Bible is made out of literature. It is not (mostly) systematic theology. It has some (Romans, Ephesians), but it is mostly history, poetry, prophecy, parable. The theological message is fleshed out most basically on the skeleton of a historical Story—the story of our creation, fall, redemption, and restoration through Christ. So if you don’t know how poetry works, if you don’t know how stories work, you will be handicapped in receiving God’s revelation of Himself. You will be handicapped in knowing Him, enjoying His salvation, and following His will for your life.
In other words, Theology is the Queen of the Sciences, and Philology is her Handmaid. I said Philology, not Philosophy. Philosophy is a Handmaid too, but Philology is the Head of the Handmaid staff. Note the difference in spelling. Philology is the love (phileo) of words (logoi), the loving study of language and literature: of literature from the standpoint of its language, of language as it is used in literature. Any version of the Christian world view that leaves literature out of account, then, leaves its disciples hamstrung in trying to understand anything else it wants to teach them. I spent a week on this with my Summit students, and we were just getting started.
I’ve written a whole book on this topic: Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed. (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012). To order it, go to http://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.