Tuesday, February 22, 2011

“Calvinism and Literature” by Leland Ryken (Ch. 5)

This review, written by Ben Faber, is one of our series of reviews of chapters of David W. Hall & Marvin Padgett, Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview (P&R, 2010). We welcome your engagement and responses.

“Calvinism and Literature” is written by Leland Ryken, Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College. Ryken is justly appreciated for his work on John Milton and on the Bible as literature, and for his involvement with the English Standard Version. Ryken’s contribution to the ESV led to the publication of his The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation (Crossway, 2002), which argues that “only an essentially literal translation of the Bible can achieve sufficiently high standards of literary criteria and fidelity to the original text” (10). Aesthetic criteria and faithfulness to Scripture are at the heart of Ryken’s earlier book, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts (Shaw, 1989), which first presents the Reformed doctrinal framework that is summarized in this chapter.

Ryken begins by noting that the absence of a “Calvinistic school” of literary theory is not attributable to the lack of suggestive material in Calvin’s theology. The resources in Calvin’s theology need to be converted, not only into a world view, but into workable concepts for literary theory and critical practice. Ryken then proceeds to construct a Reformed approach to literature from Calvin’s theology: the knowledge of God and of ourselves is the basis of Calvin’s view of culture, from which Ryken extrapolates an aesthetic theory that is applicable to literature.

The doctrines that Ryken identifies as crucial to a Calvinist approach to literature are the cultural mandate; the nature of vocation; the image of God; the common experience of God’s grace; the beauty of God and his creation; the symbolic representation of truth; and the divine standard of evaluation. These doctrines are relevant to literature only by inference and deduction. For instance, God commands humans to be culturally active; the making and receiving of literature is cultural activity; therefore, participation in literature is a cultural imperative. The doctrine of vocation is another example of such logic: God dignifies human work as “calling”; creative writing is work; therefore, the vocation of literature is approved by God. Ryken cites Calvin’s commentary on Exodus 31, regarding Bezalel’s work on the temple, as biblical evidence of art as vocation. This is typical of Ryken’s method throughout the chapter: he describes Calvin’s doctrines in terms of principles for cultural engagement and then relates these to literature. In so doing, Ryken is in line with other Calvinistic writers on culture, such as Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, Calvin Seerveld, Henry Van Til, and Andy Crouch, as well as Henry Zylstra and Clarence Walhout on literature.

If the reader is looking for a concise apology for art in Calvin’s theology, this chapter hits the nail on the head. However, if one is looking for insight from Calvin on issues in literary theory more specifically, or for a biblical response to contemporary practices, then this is not the place. First, Ryken can only gesture toward Calvin’s doctrines of the incarnation and the sacraments in dealing with the “incarnational” or “sacramental” dimension of literary representation; more needs to be worked out from Calvin (and Augustine) to be fully descriptive of a Reformed approach to literature. Second, Ryken is writing a justification of literature for the Christian community, rather than a polemic against secular theories of interpretation. This chapter, then, should be read as laying the foundation for a more comprehensive exploration of Calvin’s theology as it relates to language and literature, framed in the context of contemporary literature, theory and criticism. That is a project far more ambitious and specialized than a short chapter in a volume commemorating Calvin’s contribution to the arts and learning can achieve.

Ben Faber holds a D.Phil. in English literature from Oxford University. He is assistant professor of English at Redeemer University College, and is a member of Cornerstone Canadian Reformed Church in Hamilton, Ontario.

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