The poetical character of revelation

Let us take six examples of writers who have brought out the poetical, figurative and symbolic character of the Bible: Augustine, Aquinas, Burke, Coleridge, Newman and Blake.

1 Few theologians have reflected more deeply than St Augustine on the imaginative complexion of Holy Scripture. For him, as Carol Harrison has shown, scripture is one of the primary ways in which God addresses humanity in concrete form—others being creation, incarnation and the Church—through the tangible signs of images, parables, allegory, poetry and ascending levels of meaning. The nature of the Bible demands and suggests an approach that is more characteristic of the artist than of the philosopher. The embodied forms of divine revelation, Harrison suggests, become sacramental and require of us 'an intuitive, imaginative, symbolic, image-making apprehension of God's Word, expressed in a manner which is more characteristic of a poet than of a philosopher' (Harrison, 1992, pp.82, 95). She quotes Marrou's summary of Augustine's thought on this aspect:

If Holy Scripture is not just the history of sinful humanity and the economy of salvation.if it is also this forest of symbols that through the appearances of figures suggests to us these same truths of the faith, one must have the courage to conclude that God is also a poet himself. To manifest himself to us he chose a means of expression which is also poetic...

2 St Thomas Aquinas asks near the beginning of the Summa Theologiae whether it is appropriate for Holy Scripture to employ metaphorical or symbolic language. His reply

Holy Scripture fittingly delivers divine and spiritual realities under bodily guises. For God provides for all things according to the kind of things they are. Now we are of the kind to reach the world of intelligence through the world of sense, since all our knowledge takes its rise from sensation. Congenially, then, holy Scripture delivers spiritual things to us beneath metaphors taken from bodily things.

But it is not only human nature that invites revelation to employ figurative language: it is also the nature of God. Aquinas sounds rather like his supposed antithesis Karl Barth when he suggests in Quaestiones quodlibetales that God can make words mean whatever he chooses:

Any truth can be manifested in two ways: by things or by words. Words signify things and one thing can signify another. The Creator of things, however, can not only signify anything by words but can also make one thing signify another.

Therefore, as well as the plain or 'literal' sense of scripture, there are spiritual truths that can be derived by allegorical or figurative interpretation. But owing to the ambiguities of symbolism (for example, the lion in the Bible can stand for God or the devil), 'no compelling argument can be derived from the spiritual sense'.

3 The first major work of the young Edmund Burke was A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful in 1756. His discussion of the nature of the sublime touches on the figurative character of biblical language. Burke's approach had already been anticipated by Robert Lowth's Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1787). The imagination, argues Burke, detects resemblances between disparate things and generates fresh images. In so doing, 'we unite, we create, we enlarge our stock' and this gives peculiar pleasure to the mind (Burke, 1834, p.26). Images that evoke the sense of the sublime are of a particular kind:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terrour [sic], is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.

Burke acknowledges that 'the Scripture alone can supply ideas answerable to the majesty of this subject. In the Scripture, wherever God is represented as appearing or speaking, everything terrible in nature is called up to heighten the awe and solemnity of the divine presence' (ibid., p.42; see also Prickett, 1986, pp.105ff.).

4 Coleridge knew this passage in Burke—though he did not have a very high opinion of Burke's essay on the Sublime and the Beautiful (Coleridge, 1884, p.63). For the Romantics, as Abrams (1971) has pointed out, biblical imagery and natural phenomena were eclipsed on the scale of the sublime by the wonders of the human psyche; they could not compete with such fear and awe

As fall upon us often when we look

Into our Minds, into the Mind of Man.

('Prospectus' to 'The Excursion'; Wordsworth, 1920, p.755)

Nevertheless, in his lectures on Shakespeare, Coleridge remarked that he was impressed by the fact that the language of the Bible was universally regarded as being of 'a high poetic character', particularly from 'the stately march of the words'. In setting out to discover the cause of this general experience, he found that in the passages (presumably in the English translation, the Authorised Version—though that is celebrated for retaining the rhythms of the original Hebrew and the idioms of the Greek) that were particularly affecting, there was metre and often poetry. The language of the Bible was the product of strong emotion held in check by metrical form (Coleridge, 1960, vol. 2, pp.52f.; cf. Coleridge, 1965, p.173).

5 Newman echoes Burke and Coleridge (for, as John Coulson has reminded us, there was a 'common tradition' here; see Coulson, 1970) when he argues (in 1829, before the launch of the Tractarian Movement) that the Christian revelation is 'poetical' in nature:

While its disclosures have an originality in them to engage the intellect, they have a beauty to satisfy the moral nature. It [revelation] presents us with those forms of excellence in which a poetical mind delights, and with which all grace and harmony are associated. It brings us into a new world—a world of overpowering interest, of the sublimest views, and of the tenderest and purest feelings . With Christians, a poetical view of things is a duty.

Newman reflected later that one of the essential notes of the poetical was its ability to move the affections through the imagination. For Newman—raised on the Romantic poets, devourer of the novels of Sir Walter Scott, Platonist in his ontology, imaginative indweller of the early Church—the Christian revelation, in scripture and the teaching of the Church, appeals primarily to the imagination and its language is the language of poetry.

6 William Blake belongs, chronologically, before Coleridge and Newman. Blake derives from an earlier age (he was born in 1757, Coleridge in 1772, Newman in 1801), that of the late eighteenth century and the violent, instinctive reaction against the clinical rationalism of the early Enlightenment—a reaction that took the form of a fascination with the occult and esoteric and bizarre experiments with mesmerism, electricity and phrenology. But I place him last in our list of witnesses to the imaginative nature of divine revelation, partly because he is not an orthodox Christian theologian and partly because his is the most powerful and extreme voice of them all.

Influenced by Swedenborg and other spiritualistic visionaries, Blake held communion with the spiritual world. Imagination was the strongest clue to the nature of the divine, the great primal Imagination that lay behind, not unformed, unshaped nature, but works of artistic genius and the world of spirits and visions that came to the assistance of artists and poets. In his antipathy to nature in the raw, Blake reveals himself as of a different spirit to the true Romantics like Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Coleridge. It seems that, unlike Wordsworth, say, Blake did not enter imaginatively into nature, indwelling it and sensing the diffused presence of the divine, but absorbed it into the intensity of his artistic vision. Blake's utterances are exceptionally oracular and cannot be interpreted more than tentatively, but that is what he seems to mean. 'Nature & Fancy [imagination] are Two Things & can Never be joined; neither ought anyone to attempt it, for it is Idolatry & destroys the Soul' (Ackroyd, 1995, p.226).

Every body does not see alike. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way... But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself ... To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination.

Imaginative vision was the criterion of truth for Blake, not only in art but in theology. Imagination is our complicity with God and the company of heaven. Through imagination God communicates with humanity—primarily in the Bible which was Blake's single most fruitful source of inspiration. When as a boy he 'wander[ed] thro each charter'd street/Near where the charter'd Thames does flow' of eighteenth-century London, Blake actually saw a city filled with spangled angels and bearded Old Testament prophets: he saw, as Ackroyd says, a biblical city (Ackroyd, 1995, p.34). Blake was deeply imbued with the images and cadences of the Bible, even from his mother's knee, and testified to the sort of book it is. 'The Whole Bible is fill'd with Imagination and Visions' (ibid., p.27). Since the Christological divine humanity—'The Eternal Body of Man'—is 'The IMAGINATION [sic]\ and Christ is 'the True Vine of Eternity The Human Imagination' (ibid., p.297), it follows that 'Jesus & his Apostles and Disciples were all Artists' (ibid., p.351) who-had visionary perception of divine truth and communicated it in imaginative modes: prophecy, parable, cryptic utterance and similitudes of various kinds. 'I know of no other Christianity and of no other Gospel', Blake wrote, 'than the liberty both of body & mind to exercise the Divine Arts of the Imagination' (ibid., p.148).

Indwelling revelation

I am engaged in arguing that the Christian faith—in all its departments: revelation through the Bible, theology and doctrine, faith and belief, worship and liturgy—is inextricably wedded to figurative language and cannot be abstracted from it.

Christianity's understanding of the nature of truth is that of Keats—'the truth of imagination'. A moment's reflection will show, I believe, that this is inevitable. It follows from the nature of Christian revelation (for resources for the study of divine revelation, see Avis, (ed.), 1997).

In scripture, divine revelation is mediated through the vicissitudes experienced by a people, a nation. It is through imaginative empathy and the discernment that comes from indwelling that the revelation is mediated at several removes to us. The Incarnation is the central paradigm of the biblical revelation: it represents the presence of God uniquely indwelling a human person who was in himself totally transparent to the divine truth and love. Jesus Christ is a symbolic Person. He has been called the metaphor of God. We respond to him in the same way that we respond to the truth of imagination in poetry, drama, novel, pictorial art or music—by a moral, spiritual and aesthetic indwelling and commitment—though in his case infinitely heightened as his claim over us is the claim of God to whom we owe everything, even our very being. Our indwelling of the Person Jesus Christ is unlimited in its possibilities and our commitment is in principle absolute. And the way that this indwelling is enhanced and this commitment is expressed and strengthened is sacramental. It is precisely through the living and effectual metaphors and symbols of the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the eucharist that we are caught up into the revelation and salvation of God that is incarnated in our mortal flesh. These sacramental actions are accompanied and interpreted by a symbolic narrative or myth—such as the prayer of thanksgiving at the eucharist that rehearses the wonderful works of God in salvation history from creation to the consummation of all things and culminates in the words of institution.


As J.C.L.Gibson has well said, in his recent survey of the Old Testament's language and imagery, what the Bible gives us is not doctrinal propositions, but 'an imaginative vision of God' and God's dealings with human beings. He adds: 'It is the stories and poetry of Scripture and especially perhaps its figurative language which create that vision' (Gibson, 1998, p.13). Gibson's point was already understood, as we have seen, by Augustine and Newman, Blake and Coleridge. Augustine's and Blake's insights, that God is a 'poet' and that Jesus and the Apostles were essentially 'artists', are profoundly suggestive. It means that the Bible is full of figurative discourse—of metaphor, symbol and myth—not merely because early cultures would naturally have expressed themselves in that way, as Vico, followed by Herder and Rousseau, realised in the eighteenth century when they discovered with the force of revelation that the first philosophers were poets (Vico, 1961, pp.21, 71, paras 34, 86), but primarily because that is how the profoundest living truths are best communicated. Thus Jesus did not teach in parables simply because he was a first-century rabbi preaching to first-century peasants and fishermen, but because his gospel was addressed to the whole person in its depth and integrity—to the heart as well as to the head, to children to whom the kingdom of heaven belonged as well as to the intelligentsia of scribes and Pharisees, to the alienated and outcast as well as to the aristocracy of the Sadducees. It was meant to evoke a response from the whole person as it was quickened by the Holy Spirit into repentance and faith and awoke to a new world of grace. The one request that Jesus could not accede to was: 'If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly' (John 10.24).

Revelation is not the downloading of information or the elaboration of a metaphysic: it is the disclosure from person to person of existential insight. In it the heart of God speaks to the human heart: Cor ad cor loquitur (Newman's motto). Such wisdom is most effectively imparted in forms that are vivid, concrete, narrative, oblique, intriguing and personal. The parables and pithy sayings of Jesus were not meant to be understood at a glance, so to speak; indeed we may say that they were intended not to be understood at first glance at all. Their first purpose was to announce eschatological judgement and to summon to repentance, their second was to convey an offer of unconditional salvation.

To you has been given the secret [or mystery, for the disciples did not understand even so] of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that [Greek: hina, introducing a final (or purposive) clause: 'in order that'] 'they may look and look and not perceive, and may listen and listen and not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven'.

Probably some of his hearers only understood the parables and sayings ten, twenty, thirty years later, when experience and circumstances had prepared them for the moment that lan Ramsey so well evoked in his writings on religious language: light dawned, the penny dropped, the scales fell from their eyes, things fell into place—and the truth that Jesus had spoken, like a delayed-action depth-charge, was detonated. In Iris Murdoch's novel Bruno's Dream, the dying Bruno is troubled by his persistent unfaithfulness to his wife and a particular memory that he refused to go to her when she called to him from her deathbed. He was afraid that she was going to reproach him once again. Only at the end of his life, many years later, does it dawn on him that she had summoned him in order to forgive him. Whole stretches of years have to be reinterpreted retrospectively—just as when a word-processor progressively reformats a large tract of text (see Murdoch, 1970).

If these reflections faithfully bring out the character of divine revelation, it appears to follow that we have to respond to it not primarily cognitively, by intellectual analysis, but aesthetically, by indwelling its beauty—just as we would respond to a work of art or beauty: reading poetry aloud, listening to music, enjoying a painting, relaxing in a garden, relishing a good meal, taking delight in the face of a beloved. The aesthetic response is not our whole response, but it is an important—and neglected—part of it. We have always known that Jesus was a poet as well as a prophet, but we have tended to overlook the profound theological significance of the Johannine saying, 'He who has seen me has seen the Father.'

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