Editorial: The Word of God and the City of Man

The Bible has done its proper work when it produces a certain kind of person.

Appears in Fall 2012 Issue: The Word of God and the City of Man
November 1 st 2012

Christians who use the Bible in public look for various kinds of help in their cultural pursuits. For Christian activists, Scripture functions as a standard of moral and political evaluation. On the other hand, Christians look to the Bible for guiding principles in their cultural pursuits. In his pamphlet Art and the Bible, for instance, Francis Schaeffer scoured Scripture for passages to justify and direct Christian artistic endeavour.

I agree that Scripture provides standards of judgment and guidelines for Christian life and thought. As the great Dutch-American theologian Cornelius Van Til said, Scripture speaks authoritatively about everything that it speaks about, and it speaks about everything.

Yet these public uses of Scripture suffer from significant limitations. When used as a tool of political assessment and evaluation, Scripture is a yardstick to measure what's already out there in the world, rather than a potent political force in its own right. Christians who mine the Bible for positive moral, political, or aesthetic principles frequently have an intellectualistic and moralistic view of human experience. Much of the abundant, often edifying, literature on Christian worldview reduces Scripture to a system of ideas or a set of moral rules that we consciously embrace and apply to the world around us.

But the Bible is not a compendium of doctrines, ideas, or rules. Scripture teaches, but teaches through stories, poetry, exhortation, visions, letters. It addresses the whole man—our minds, but also our passions, imaginations, loves, and desires. Christians who attempt to apply the Bible to political life, for example, often focus so completely on discovering ethical standards that they ignore the significance of Scripture's rhetoric. Rhetoric italicizes what is said. When using the Bible politically, we not only ask, "What does God say is good and right?" We must also ask, "What does God italicize?"

Scripture's most lasting effects on civilization are creative rather than evaluative. Imagery from Scripture suffuses Shakespeare's plays, and the Bible's taut syntax and minimalist narrative techniques find expression in novelists from Jane Austen to P.D. James to Marilynne Robinson. Dostoevsky's excited prose is infused with the New Testament that he all but memorized during years of political exile in Siberia. Not doctrine but apocalyptic vision inspires the gilded paintings of Makoto Fujimura. Liturgy was the seedbed of the Western musical tradition. Every time the Bach Collegium Japan performs a Bach Cantata, the Bible refreshes global culture.

Few, if any, of the writers, artists, and musicians of the Christian past or present consciously set out to follow biblical principles. Austen did not discover from an inductive Bible study that God wanted her to write novels a certain way. She grew up in the home of an Anglican pastor, where she heard Scripture read, performed daily prayers, participated in the weekly liturgy from the Bible-saturated Book of Common Prayer. Her writing is "biblical" because Bible pumped in her veins. She couldn't have written in any other way.

The same could be said for the great orators of American history. No President put the Bible to more profound political use than Abraham Lincoln, but that was more because he absorbed the Bible in front of the fireplace as a boy in Illinois than because he wanted to develop a "biblical politics." Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream was an American one, but it carried particular power because its biblical cadences struck the deepest chords in the American soul. Lincoln's and King's political rhetoric was biblical because their political and rhetorical imaginations were formed by Scripture.

These examples get to the heart of how the Word of God works in the city of man. Scripture is a God-breathed text given to teach, reprove, correct, and train in righteousness. Through Scripture, God equips the believers for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16). Paul makes the same point more directly and dramatically in 2 Corinthians. He needs no letters of recommendation because "You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men. . . . You are a letter of Christ" (2 Corinthians 3:2-3). Though experience and the word of God, Christians mature so that they can smell and taste good and evil (Hebrews 5:12). The Bible has done its proper work when it produces a certain kind of person.

Scripture's target is not primarily ideas or worldviews. Scripture aims to shape people. And people moulded by the Word of God not only bring that Word to the city of man. In union with the eternal Word, they are the Word of God in the city of man.

Topics: Cities Vocation
 

Peter J. Leithart is President of the Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, and an adjunct senior fellow of theology at New St Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho. An ordained minister, he serves as Teacher at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Birmingham. He is the author of Traces of the Trinity (Brazos, 2015), Delivered from the Elements of the World (IVP, 2016), and The End of Protestantism (Baker, 2016).

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