For ease of browsing, here are links to all the posts on the series Non-Biblical Literature and the Bible:
- Introduction Part I (The Bible)
- Introduction Part II (Objections and Suggestions)
- The Apocrypha
- The Pseudepigrapha
- Other Second Temple Literature (Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus and Philo, Mishna, Targums)
- Apostolic Fathers
- Church Fathers
- Gnostic Texts
- Ancient Near Eastern Literature
- World Literature Part I, Part II
Appendix: Annotated Bibliography
(by: Doug Van Dorn)
Structure and Common Grace
While the Bible is unlike anything else that has ever been written because of its authorship, inerrancy, and infallibility, the fact that it was written in a specific context both culturally and historically cannot be ignored. The very structure of the Bible itself can be understood in the framework of classical literary genres, thus displaying God’s common grace. This is our second thought for thinking about world literature.
While not necessarily able to identify them, most people are probably familiar with Greek epics, lyrics, tragedies, and comedies. The Bible is structured as an epic, made up of both tragedy and comedy. In very general terms, a tragedy can be understood as a story that begins high and ends low (e.g. Shakespeare’s Macbeth), while a comedy begins low and ends high (e.g. Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice), most often with a wedding. Comedies also usually pick up in the middle of a story. An epic is typically broader in scope than both tragedy and comedy, and includes a journey (e.g. Homer’s Odyssey).
Perhaps you’re able to piece together where this is headed. The Old Testament is structured in the form of a tragedy. It begins high (creation) and ends low (rampant idolatry amongst the Israelites). The New Testament is structured in the form of a comedy. It begins low, in the middle of the story (450 years of silence from God), and ends high with a wedding (The great wedding of Christ and His people in the new heavens and new earth). Together, the Old and the New Testament are structured as an epic, as the Lord takes us through the journey that unfolds from creation, through his covenantal arrangements, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the establishment of the Church, and the fulfillment of all things in the new heavens and new earth. Any literature that follows these patterns serve in their very genres as copies of God’s Great Story.
There’s also much insight to be gained from a reading of individual classic works when compared to the Bible. Is it possible that God used the influence of men like Plato in his writing—as a pagan philosopher—to prepare the Hellenized world for the coming of the Christ and the announcement of the gospel? Consider the following dialogue and how it relates to Scripture:
“Then is that city best governed which is most like a single human being? For example, when one of us wounds a finger, presumably the entire community—that community tying the body together with the soul in a single arrangement under the ruler within it—is aware of the fact, and all of it is in pain as a whole along with the afflicted part; and it is in this sense we say that this human being has a pain in his finger. And does the same argument hold for any other part of a human being, both when it is afflicted by pain and when eased by pleasure?“
“Yes, it does,” he said. “And, as to what you ask, the city with the best regime is most like such a human being.“
“I suppose, then, that when one of its citizens suffers anything at all, either good or bad, such a city will most of all say that the affected part is its own, and all will share in the joy or the pain.”
Sound familiar? This is from Plato’s Republic, written nearly 400 years prior to the New Testament. But, how about 1 Corinthians 12:14-26?
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
Is it possible that the Apostle Paul used the language and ideas of Plato that were familiar to the people of his culture to describe the church? Could it be that Paul’s letter to the Romans was not only a theological treatise of positive Christian doctrine, but also a response to Plato’s Republic and the commonly accepted ideas about justice and redemption, based upon Greek philosophy?
A journey through the classics will expand a Christian’s horizons to help us have an even greater understanding of the context in which the Bible was written and the foundations of our faith were forged. By the common grace of God, He even used pagan philosophers to support His ends of introducing the greatest story ever told—the true myth of a great Savior who has come to rescue his people.
Stance (Attitude) and the Image of God
Another use can be reevaluating our stance and attitude towards unbelievers. Sometimes, I fear that too many Reformed Christians have as their root anthropological principle the fall and sin rather than the imago dei (image of God) in all humanity which is both logically and historically prior to sin. While helping us keep a good perspective on evil, doing this can also have certain detrimental, almost Fundamentalist ramifications which can cause us to retreat into our own castles rather than live in the world Jesus refused to take us out of. This is anything but a Reformed stance towards the world, at least historically speaking. Also, if sin and not the image is the most basic principle, then I have nothing to learn from an unbeliever except evil, and once I’m saved, the problem is only magnified. This in turn can cause me to take a personal stance towards them both in how I treat and in how I think about them as people and their contributions to society. By reading secular literature, I can more directly involve myself in the common humanity and echoes of truth that I share with them.
This gives me enough ability to read just about any ancient religious text–be it a Buddhist tract on ethics or law (demonstrating that we all have the law written on our hearts), or a Hindu text (that reflects the biblical worldview of the supernatural in a perverted way), or a piece of philosophical utopianism like the Communist Manifesto or Critique of Pure Reason—both to learn and to evaluate biblically the good and the bad. Our Faith is not diminished by challenges to it, but only increases in wonder in the face of them.
The wonder is really threefold. First, image bearers are still able to see truth—although they suppress it in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18ff). The image is not destroyed. They know the law and use reason and cannot help but talk about and use both in an almost infinite variety of ways. Second, the Gospel was revealed to a specific group of people in time giving those people the only news that can actually save it from itself. Only Scripture reveals the Good News that saves. Third, this Gospel is news that is to be proclaimed to all humanity, because Jesus came to be the Savior of the world. In reading their works, we can easily see points of contact and the many needs in which salvation is so important for us all. This in turn can help us in our attitudes towards others, knowing that we and they are alike in sin, in the image, and in our need for salvation.
Reading their writings and understanding their thought can then be used to soften our hearts against them as well as being used as points of contact in much the same way that Don Richardson used the story of the Peace Child as a point of contact to bring the gospel to an otherwise radically blinded group of pagans in Western New Guinea. We do not need to be afraid of other religions or philosophies or outlooks on life. Nor does reading and learning about them need to lead us into skepticism and unbelief. Frankly, those are stances that people bring to the literature, rather than conclude after starting with some kind of neutral stance. Using pagan literature to justify unbelief rather than seeing that the unbelief was there prior is just a way to mask the real problem.
A final application of reading classical world literature is the cultivation of our own souls. Gene Veith, speaking about Classical Education writes, “The word ‘liberal’ [as in Liberal Arts] derives from the Latin libera, meaning freedom. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, a liberal education was necessary for a man to be free. Slaves would receive vocational training, but free citizens required an education that enlarged the mind and cultivated the soul. Classical education aimed at the apprehension of the true, the good, and the beautiful. The ancients believed that cultivation of virtue, knowledge of the world and of human nature, active citizenship, and practical action required an education with this purpose.”
Sure, Classical Education was created by Greeks, but these people also believed in the cultivation of moral virtues. As with our own Founding Fathers, they cultivated these virtues not by indoctrinating –isms into people’s minds through public education, but by giving citizens the objective tools to think for themselves. The –isms that are dominating our education today are, in our opinion, creating more vices than virtues. We as a society and as the Church are increasingly held in captivity to philosophies that we don’t even know how to communicate, let alone combat. So we need to begin with our minds, learning to think critically (not being critical, but evaluating the good, the bad, and the ugly).
As one example, especially in light of the irony from the ancient world, education today has become almost wholly pragmatic (i.e. you go to school to get a job), meaning that they Greeks would have viewed us as people who willingly put themselves under slavery. If this is so, then we need to be willing to read the great Pragmatists such as Dewey and James as well as their critiques so that we can get out from under that slavery and into the freedom that the Liberal Arts can bring us (I speak in a human, not a spiritually way, as slavery to the devil only stops when a person believes the gospel).
After the mind, it is our very souls that need cultivation as well. Once our stance towards unbelievers is oriented properly (i.e. image bearers who possess truth, but who suppress it in unrighteousness), then we will find ourselves able to learn about truth (“all truth is God’s truth”) that we ourselves may not be thinking about. Thus, we can read the classics and come to see the beauty that is a Robert Frost poem, the brilliance that is Mark Twain’s critique of slavery in Huckleberry Finn, the truth that resides in Dante’s vision of the Roman Church, or the humor that is portrayed in Wuthering Heights (I can’t believe I just said that last one). In doing this, we find ourselves better people, freer citizens, more open and honest and willing to deal in the world, without having to be “of” it.
I hope you have enjoyed this series, and look in the coming week or so for a lengthy bibliography that we are working on that we hope will help you in your journey into the world of non-biblical literature as you now have the tools to think about it biblically.
(by: Doug Van Dorn, Nick Kennicott)
 Gene Edward Veith, Jr. and Andrew Kern, Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America (Washington D.C.: Capital Research Center, 2001), 11.
This post will be a two-parter and the last in our series on non-biblical literature and the Bible (other than a bibliography we are developing to supplement the material). In it, we want to look at how a Christian can read and think about literature that is found all over the world, in both ancient and more recent times. We will tackle this from several different perspectives, though this doesn’t come close to exhausting the possibilities.
Similarities and Apologetics
Indulge me for a moment and check this out. I think you will find it fascinating:
THIS IS THE ACCOUNT of when all is still silent and placid. All is silent and calm. Hushed and empty is the womb of the sky.
THESE, then, are the first words, the first speech. There is not yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, or forest. All alone the sky exists. The face of the earth has not yet appeared. Alone lies the expanse of the sea, along with the womb of the sky. There is not yet anything gathered together. All is at rest. Nothing stirs. All is languid, at rest in the sky. There is not yet anything standing erect. Only the expanse of the water, only the tranquil sea lies alone. There is not yet anything that might exist. All lies placid and silent in the darkness, in the night.
All alone are the Framer and the Shaper, Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent, They Who Have Borne Children and They Who Have Begotten Sons. Luminous they are in the water, wrapped in quetzal feathers and cotinga feathers. Thus they are called Quetzal Serpent. In their essence, they are great sages, great possessors of knowledge. Thus surely there is the sky. There is also Heart of Sky, which is said to be the name of the god.
THEN came his word. Heart of Sky arrived here with Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent in the darkness, in the night. He spoke with Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent. They talked together then. They thought and they pondered. They reached an accord, bringing together their words and their thoughts. Then they gave birth, heartening one another. Beneath the light, they gave birth to humanity. Then they arranged for the germination and creation of the trees and the bushes, the germination of all life and creation, in the darkness and in the night, by Heart of Sky, who is called Huracan.
First is Thunderbolt Huracan, second is Youngest Thunderbolt, and third is Sudden Thunderbolt. These three together are Heart of Sky. Then they came together with Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent. Together they conceived light and life: “How shall it be sown? When shall there be a dawn for anyone? Who shall be provider? Who shall be a sustainer?”
“Then be it so. You are conceived. May the water be taken away, emptied out, so that the plate of the earth may be created—may it be gathered and become level. Then may it be sown; then
may dawn the sky and the earth. There can be no worship, no reverence given by what we have framed and what we have shaped, until humanity has been created, until people have been made,” they said.
Then the earth was created by them. Merely their word brought about the creation of it. In order to create the earth, they said, “Earth,” and immediately it was created. Just like a cloud, like a midst, was the creation and formation of it.
Then they called forth the mountains from the water. Straightaway the great mountains came to be. It was merely their spirit essence, their miraculous power, that brought about the conception of the mountains and the valleys. Straightaway were created cypress groves and pine forests to cover the face of the earth.
Thus Quetzal Serpent rejoiced: “It is good that you have come, Heart of Sky—you, Huracan, and you as well, Youngest Thunderbolt and Sudden Thunderbolt. That which we have framed and shaped shall turn out well,” they said.
From here, the story explains how animals were created after the land. The animals were given homes and were treated well by the gods. So the gods expected something in return. They expected worship, but the animals were only able to squawk and chatter and roar, because they were animals. And “this was not good.” After destroying these animals, the gods created men out of mud, “But this was not good” either. For, the mud-men came undone and crumbled. This “mistake” caused the gods to topple the mud-men. Next, they tried making men out of wood, but they forgot to make them with souls and minds, and thus they could not worship either, so the gods beat and disfigured them and destroyed them in a great flood. The final attempt (so far) was to make men out of sacred corn. As of today, the gods have not yet destroyed them.
The similarities (and differences) between this story and the one told in Genesis are stunning, especially considering that it comes from a place that is over 7,000 miles, two continents, and an ocean away from Jerusalem. This is from the Popol Vuh codex, one of only a few Mayan (yes, I said Mayan) writings to escape burning at the torches of the Roman Church.
From the Popol Vuh to perhaps the opposite end of the historical spectrum in something like the apocalyptic battle of Ragnarök–the end of all things in the Norse sagas called the Eddas (poetic and prose)–people otherwise completely unassociated with the world of the Bible (except remotely through Noah) have remarkably parallel stories that tell of origins and endings of the world. This is something altogether different from what we saw in the post on ANE literature, which the biblical authors sometimes incorporated into their own polemics.
While some use these similarities to discount the Scripture, this is anything but a necessary conclusion. Curiously, it was these similarities combined with the fact that the Bible purports to tell the demonstrable history of a God-man rising from the dead that was the final nail in C. S. Lewis’ atheistic coffin. He says we should expect the similarities, while also expecting to see the fullness or finality come to pass in reality, which is exactly what Scripture tells us. In this way, read and understood in the context of Scripture illuminating the truth, This type of literature can actually be used as a kind of apologetic to help people understand the truth, much like Paul does when quoting Greek poets to the Athenians. You have heard of the unknown God. Now, let me tell you about him…
In Part 2 of this post, Nick will add some thoughts as together we give a few more ideas on reading world literature and wrap up the series.
(by: Doug Van Dorn)
 Allen J. Christenson, Popol Vuh: Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya People (Mesoweb Publications, 2003), 58-62. Available online: http://www.mesoweb.com/publications/Christenson/PopolVuh.pdf
 See the important and fascinating essay by C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” republished by Samizdat University Press, 2014. http://www.samizdat.qc.ca/arts/lit/Theology=Poetry_CSL.pdf, last accessed 3-23-2015.
 Thanks to Kathy in my church for sending me this timely link. Daniel Foucachon, “Plundering the Egyptians,” Classical Conversations: Classical Christian Community, https://www.classicalconversations.com/article/plundering-eqyptians, last accessed 2-24-2015.
We at The Decablog love infographics, the Doctrine of Christ, and the beautiful way that the 1689 Baptist Confession expresses that doctrine in chapter 8, paragraph 2. The result? Our first ever Decablog produced infographic! Enjoy.