Justification and the Literary Imagination

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.  After all, when we consult the article on justification in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery we are startled to be told, “See Romans, Letter to the.”  But it turns out that the theological imagination has done splendidly with the doctrine of justification.

 

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 essay 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.  After all, when we consult the article on justification in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery we are startled to be told, “See Romans, Letter to the.”  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 three 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.

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