Literary Theological Imagination

Posted by

The function of the literary imagination is to incarnate meaning in concrete images, characters, events, and settings rather than abstract or propositional arguments. To use the formula of Dorothy Sayers, the imagination images forth its subject, and in turn it is a commonplace that what literature preeminently "images forth" is human experience.

Literature and theology are complementary ways of putting us in possession of Christian doctrine.  Neither is complete in itself. In this post, I propose to use the doctrine of justification as a test case of what I like to call the theological imagination--not the theological intellect but the theological imagination.

On the surface, justification might seem to be so thoroughly abstract that it resists being imaged forth. But it turns out that the theological imagination has done splendidly with the doctrine of justification.

Biblical Images of Justification

The first writers to image forth a given Christian doctrine are always the authors of the Bible.  I will start my survey of selected literary portrayals of justification with the fictional vision of a high priest in a tight spot, as narrated in Zechariah 3:1-5.  The story begins in medias res, as we are ushered in our imaginations into a process that is already underway.  The first thing we notice when the curtain is pulled back is an adversarial situation involving three agents, with an implied small group of courtroom onlookers.  The angel of the Lord stands as a judge who is on the side of the accused.  On the other side of the accused, who is belatedly identified as Joshua the high priest, stands Satan as accuser.

Thus we have a courtroom scene, with an accused, a prosecutor, and a combined defender and judge.  As the action unfolds, the images of justification start to multiply.  The angel of the Lord identifies Joshua as "a brand plucked from the fire."  Thus the imagery of rescue is part of the picture of justification.  The guilty status of Joshua is imaged forth in "filthy garments."  The command by the angel of the Lord to clothe the high priest with "pure vestments" and "a clean turban" can plausibly be interpreted as imagery of justification, since the change of garments is sufficient to banish the accuser from the scene.  In other words, the changed status of Joshua is imaged forth as a change in clothing.

This famous story presents justification not as an idea but as a drama and by means of images.  It is a product of the theological imagination (and we should note the word image is always present in the word imagination).  Furthermore, the story of the rescued high priest belongs to the genre of visionary writing and is thus a product of the fictional imagination.

My second biblical example also falls into the category of fictional narrative.  Jesus presents justification concretely in the famous parable of the Pharisee and tax collector:   "But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other" (Luke 18:13-14, ESV).)  "Went home justified:"  in a moment I will explore a famous literary example of a sinner who did not go home justified.  The ingredients in Jesus' parable are a sinner, God as judge, and divine mercy as the vehicle for the sinner's being justified.  This is nothing less than the biblical paradigm for justification.

I tell my students that the theology of the Bible is more precise in the expository parts than the literary parts, but that the compensating factor in the literary parts is the way in which literary images appeal to our imaginations and feelings and reach us at a subconscious level.  John Milton claimed that literary writing is "more simple, sensuous, and passionate" than expository writing.  Surely this is evident when we compare the vision of the justified high priest or the parable of the justified tax collector with the theological exposition that makes up the Epistle to the Romans.

As I turn to two extra-biblical examples of images of justification, I can imagine someone's asking, What can literary authors tell us about justification?   Isn't the Bible our definitive source on theology, and aren't literary authors a bit naïve as expositors of theology?  My answer is that literary authors can be useful in a manner akin to a good sermon or theological essay on justification.  In our circles we have an unjustifiable tendency to be dismissive of the theological acumen of literary authors.

Paradise Lost, Book 3

John Milton's grand design in Paradise Lost was to Christianize the motifs of classical epic.  One of those motifs was the council of the gods, in which gods and goddesses assemble to decide what will happen on earth, and then the human action follows according to this divine script.   Milton adapted this epic convention in the so-called dialogue in heaven at the beginning of Book 3 of Paradise Lost.  This dialogue is an intra-Trinitarian conversation between Father and Son to determine what will happen to the human race after Adam and Eve have succumbed to Satan's temptation in the garden.

The scene unfolds as a back-and-forth dialogue between Father and Son that assumes the nature of a weighing of the demands of justice and mercy in bringing about the salvation of the human race.  The dialogue reaches its climax when the Father says regarding Adam,

He with his whole posterity must die,
Die he or justice must; unless for him
Some other able, and as willing, pay
The rigid satisfaction, death for death.
Say heavenly powers, where shall we find such love,
Which of ye will be mortal to redeem
Man's mortal crime, and just the unjust to save,
Dwells in all heaven charity so dear?

The hinge between that challenge and the Son's offer to die for the human race is the epic narrator's comment, 

"And now without redemption all mankind / Must have been lost, . . . / had not the Son of God . . . / His dearest mediation thus renewed."  When I teach this passage in class, I quote Thomas Chalmers:  "What could I do if God ... did not justify the ungodly?"

What is Milton's angle on justification in his dialogue in Heaven?  The focus falls on the Son's substitutionary atonement as the event that enables God the Father to declare sinners just.  "Die he or justice must:"  in Christ, the sinner does die, and thereby the demands of justice are met. For readers who know Milton's dialogue in Heaven, it is a treasured literary image of justification.

The Scarlet Letter

I need to challenge a fallacy regarding Nathaniel Hawthorne.  That fallacy is that because Hawthorne was not part of the institutional Christianity of his day, and because he satirized the Puritans in his fiction, he was not a Christian writer.  In saying that I think Hawthorne is a Christian writer, I am not commenting on his state of soul.  I am commenting on his intellectual allegiance in his fiction.

Hawthorne's notebooks are filled with references to God, leading literary critic Joseph Schwartz to say that Hawthorne was "innately religious" and "more than any other writer of his time ... a God-centered writer".   Hawthorne's acquaintance with the Bible and reliance on it in his fiction was so thorough that his editor and publisher claimed that when he questioned Hawthorne about his use of a word, Hawthorne would almost always refer him to the Bible as his authority (James T. Fields).  Hawthorne's theology, claimed Austin Warren, was a "nameless and indisputatious" Calvinism or Puritanism, "arrived at by experience and insight."

The customary designation for the confession scene at the end of The Scarlet Letter is that it is a story of salvation, but I became intrigued by what would emerge if the confession scene were viewed through the more specific lens of justification.  It turns out that the terminology that Hawthorne used in composing the scene fits the criteria of justification very well.

The protagonist in the agon is surely the guiltiest sinner in the annals of American literature.  Arthur Dimmesdale is guilty on multiple counts.  He is the adulterous partner of Hester Prynne and father of the illegitimate daughter Pearl.  He is guilty of cowardice and a cover-up when he refuses to publicly acknowledge and confess the aforesaid sin.  He becomes the complete hypocrite as his congregation adulates him while he knows himself to be guilty of the sins I have named.  Dimmesdale has abandoned his daughter and her mother through seven terrible years of social ostracism for Hester and Pearl.  So we start this drama of justification with the premise of a guilty sinner.

The story, moreover, is the story of a guilty conscience and of consciousness of sin.  In fact, the great interior action that occupies the middle part of the story is consciousness of sin.  Everyone agrees that Roger Chillingworth, Hester Prynne's husband who becomes the housemate and confidante of Dimmesdale, is a satanic figure who fans the flames of Dimmesdale's guilty conscience.  In doing so, he serves the function of an accuser, and accusation against the guilty sinner is central to justification.  In the confession scene, Chillingworth is repeatedly called "old," that is, as old as Satan, and Dimmesdale also calls him his "tempter."

A dominant image of justification is the courtroom, and we find it here in the confession scene.  Just before Dimmesdale confesses his sins, the narrator tells us that "the clergyman . . . stood out from all the earth to put in his plea of guilty at the bar of Eternal Justice."  At a climactic point of the confession, Dimmesdale says, "Stand any here that question God's judgment on a sinner?  Behold!  Behold a dreadful witness of it!"

Justification is an escape from condemnation, and Chillingworth highlights this aspect of what is happening when he says to Dimmesdale, "Thou hast escaped me!" "Thou hast escaped me!"  In effect, Dimmesdale escapes the clutches of Satan.

And what is the agency of this escape from condemnation?  According to the parliament of heaven framework, God's mercy is the solution to the problem of the sinner's guilt.  That emphasis comes through in the confession scene in The Scarlet Letter. Dimmesdale says to Hester, "For thee and Pearl, be it as God shall order,...and God is merciful."  At the very beginning of the scene, Dimmesdale extends his hands and says, "Hester Prynne,...in the name of Him, so terrible and so merciful, who gives me grace at this last moment, to do what--for my own heavy sin and miserable agony--I withheld myself from doing seven years ago, come hither now, and twine thy strength about me!"

And in his very last speech, Dimmesdale says in reply to Hester's question whether the couple will "spend our immortal life together," "God knows, and he is merciful!  He hath proved his mercy most of all, in my afflictions.  By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast!  By giving me this dark and terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red-heat!  By bringing me hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people!  Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost forever.  Praised be his name!  His will be done!  Farewell!"

The confession scene in The Scarlet Letter can be read as the confession of a justified sinner. Literary critic Darrel Abel writes that "the account of Dimmesdale's regeneration faithfully follows orthodox Puritan conceptions....The first event in a sinner's regeneration is 'justification.'  [Then quoting a Puritan source:] 'A change must be wrought in his status before any can be made in his nature'."  At the beginning of the confession scene, Dimmesdale says to Hester, "In the name of Him...so merciful, who gives me grace, at this last moment, to do what...I withheld myself from doing....Let [thy will] be guided by the will which God hath granted me." "Gives me grace." "The will which God hath granted me."

Why We Need the Theological Imagination

The Bible is the definitive word on justification, but it is not the only word.  If we benefit from sermons and theological articles on justification, we can benefit from literary portrayals of it.  Theological exposition enables us to know the truth about justification intellectually.  We experience that same truth when the doctrine of justification is embodied and incarnated in fictional images of justification.  After all, the biblical images of the reclothed high priest and the tax collector who goes home justified are literary and fictional images of justification, belonging to the same genre as the stories of Milton, and Hawthorne that I have surveyed.

Within the Bible itself justification is presented in the complementary modes of theological exposition and literary images.  I tell my students that it is possible to set up a profitable two-way street between the Bible and literature, with the Bible enabling me to see a lot in literature that I would otherwise miss, and literature enabling me to see and feel biblical truth better.

Ordinarily when we speak of "the Bible as literature" we mean the literary nature of the Bible itself.  My venture in this post provides another angle on the concept of "the Bible as literature."  I have explored what the biblical teaching on justification looks like when it is transmuted into works of imaginative literature--the Bible as literature, that is, as imaginative literature composed by extrabiblical authors.


Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) is Professor of English emeritus at Wheaton College. He has authored or edited several books, including The Word of God in English, The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, and The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society and served as literary stylist for The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.


*This post is an adaptation of an article first published at Reformation21 in February of 2011.

Posted August 23, 2018 @ 5:50 AM by Leland Ryken

Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Inc. © 2005-2018   |   alliance@alliancenet.org   |   800.956.2644   |   Frequently Asked Questions   |   Login