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.