Literature’s Illumination Of Theology by Josh Herring

Josh Herring

Theology offers the Christian believer not just a faith which demands belief, but one which makes sense intellectually. As such, theology is a necessarily intricate discipline; probing the revealed thoughts of God is no light, simple task. Christian theology done right, whether it is biblical, systematic, or historical, brings the minds of the current generation into conversation with those of past believers about the eternal things of God; it equips us to live lives pleasing to God in this world. And yet, it is boring to read.

Few disciplines approach theology for combining significance with wooden prose; in part because of the weightiness of the theologian’s claims, he must take care to write precisely. Eternal souls, after all, hang in the balance when one discusses topics of ultimate significance. But what if theology could do everything it must do (strengthen the believer, intellectually support the faith,draw principles and doctrines from the text of Scripture, rearticulate the faith for the living generation) and not be dry as dust? If this goal could be met, two things would happen. First, more people would read theological texts. Secondly, more people would enjoy reading theological texts.

Writing well belongs properly to literature. What the 18th century called belles lettres, the craft of beautiful writing, takes timeless ideas (from whatever source the author chooses to draw them) and crafts them together into a narrative; some of the most persuasive theologians of the Christian tradition have combined the rigor of theology with literary skill to produce timeless classics which proclaim the glory of God’s salvation through the ages; because the writing is so well done, the spiritual message is conveyed from generation to generation.

Two examples will serve to illustrate this claim, one medieval and one modern. Thomas Aquinas was an earth shatteringly important theologian; his Summa Theologica serves to this day as the high mark of medieval theology. In Aquinas’ quest to marry Aristotelian philosophy with medieval Catholicism, he produced a system of thought which continues to inspire philosophical and theological work. Reading the Summa, however, is an easy way to combat insomnia. Aquinas combines the highest intellectual capacity with logical form, producing a significant yet unbearably dull piece of theological philosophy. The form of his writing reads like the notes from a debate judge:

“There are three objections to my point (lists them). Here is a quote. Here is my point. Here are my replies to the three objections. Next.”

Aquinas is rich, yet we would deceive ourselves if we thought the masses could read him and find spiritual benefit from him. G. K. Chesterton tells this story about a parishioner who tried to read Aquinas:

“A lady I know picked up a book of selections from St. Thomas with a commentary; and began hopefully to read a section with the innocent heading, “The Simplicity of God.” She then laid down the book with a sigh and said, “Well, if that’s His simplicity, I wonder what His complexity is like.”

Aquinas’ significance is difficult to overstate, but in terms of practical spiritual benefit for most people, Dante would provide more spiritual nourishment. Dante took Aquinas’ theology (a hierarchy of goods and sins, a system of punishment, a vision of divine love which moves the cosmos, and a synthesis of knowledge between the Greco-Roman world and the Christian) and turned it into the first Christian epic poem. As the reader travels with Dante and Virgil through the winding road to Dis and the Adversary frozen at the Inferno’s core, we accidentally learn an enormous amount of medieval theology. By studying the balance of sins and justice Dante used, we cannot help but begin to ask questions of practical application: if Francesca and Paolo spent eternity like that for their lust, is there any of the restless wandering of lust within me? Rather than beginning with the intellect, Dante seizes our hearts and imagination and fuses them together with his poetic vision; in so doing, he also instructs our minds. Pastorally, I would not give Aquinas to just any church member; Dante I would hand out freely. Because of his literary skill, Dante guides us into the deep waters of Thomistic theology and sustains us through it.

In the modern era, I know of no greater literary theologian than C.S. Lewis. A literature professor by inclination and training, Lewis combined all the craft of a medievalist with his deep, theological studies. Consider the theological principles Lewis brings up in The Chronicles of Narnia. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe addresses multiple understandings of substitutionary atonement (as Aslan sacrifices himself for Edmund); it illustrates the curse being undone (as Aslan breathes life into stone creatures); it shows the balance of justice and mercy necessary in the divine economy (in Aslan’s explanation of the Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time). Prince Caspian shows God concerned with joy and the flourishing of his creatures; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader contains a profound image of redemption (Eustace Scrubb’s change from dragon to human and his inability to change himself). The Horse and His Boy waxes missional, reminding us that God loves all men (even Calormen). The Silver Chair contains a version of the Anselm’s Ontological Argument, as well as showing the human predilection for ignoring God’s commands. The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle reinforce each other, framing the fictional world of Narnia as one of divine beginning and ending; both are riddled with the implications of creation and redemption, displaying the hope offered by Revelation; The Last Battle concludes with a vision of heaven where all that is good in creation is brought into Aslan’s Country and made perfect, dwelling with him forever. Children who read these books, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, are being instructed in essential theological categories preparing the ground for God’s work in the gospel.

Theology is a vital, ongoing need for the Christian church. Christians are served by men who study the deep things of God and maintain the tradition of theological engagement; theology as it currently exists, however, is oriented predominantly to the academy. As such, theology only reaches those who are intellectually inclined to it. God has not reserved theology only for the intellectually elite; when paired with the craft of literature, theology becomes both accessible and enjoyable. John Bunyan and John Milton both discovered this truth. As Puritans, both were deeply read theologically and intellectually inclined. Both used their giftings to serve the church at large. For Milton, this culminated in Paradise Lost, an epic poem through which the call of God’s grace resounds to this day. For Bunyan, his pastoral work caused him to formulate his theology in the form of allegory. Pilgrim’s Progress remains one of the hallmark pieces of Protestant theology; its accessibility makes it one of the beloved texts of Christians for the past four centuries.

Jesus turned to the disciples and said, “Pray to the Lord of the Harvest that He might send workers.” Perhaps we might paraphrase that prayer, and ask God to continue raising up literary theologians who use their giftings to “sing the song again in our time” in a beautiful, accessible way.

 


Josh Herring is a Humanities Instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University’s Great Books program. He has written for Moral Apologetics, The Imaginative Conservative, Think Christian, and The Federalist; he loves studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.