Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Biblical Progymnasmata I - Fable

I'm beginning a new series of posts on the Progymnasmata. The Progymnasmata are "preliminary exercises," which the ancient Greeks developed as teaching tools for students preparing to become orators. These exercises were a series of incremental stages beginning with the most basic and easy to understand elements (i.e. fable) and progressing up to longer, and more complex elements (i.e. introduction of a law). The Progymnasmata were a part of Greek and Roman education, as well as classical education in the Christian empires up through the 19th century in some places. The content that comprise the elements were drawn from classical literature, but the model is really an application of universal forms of linguistic expression, so almost any literature can be found with one or more of the elements. Biblical literature has all of them, and since I'm a proponent of exercises that actually teach something useful and true, I think the progymnasmata ought to be updated with Biblical examples. So I'll be following the Progymnasmata of Aphthonius the Sophist, using Biblical examples with explanation and possible applications as well. Let's make like Israel and Augustine and plunder the Egyptians!

On fables, Aphthonius states, "Fable originated with poets but has come to be used also by orators for the sake of the moral. Fable is a fictive statement, imaging truth. It is called Sybaritic and Cicilian and Cyprian, varying its names with its inventors, but calling it Aesopic has largely prevailed because Aesop composed fables best of all. Some fables are rational, some ethical, some mixed; rational when a human being is imagined as doing something, ethical when representing the character of irrational animals, mixed when made up of both, irrational and rational. When the moral for which the fable has been assigned is stated first, you will call it a promythion, when added at the end an epimythion."

Example 1: Mark 4:30-32

And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like g a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”


Mark 4:30-32 is a promythion, for the "moral" or application of the fable is declared from the beginning: "With what can we compare the kingdom of God." We have an ethical fable, for though the Kingdom of God is comprised of people, it is really an abstract (i.e. spiritual) idea, here represented through the organic metaphor of the mustard seed. The kingdom of God begins small, with only a few disciples, but shall eventually grow into a Kingdom of vast proportions, as the tiny mustard seed becomes the much larger tree. Not only shall the Kingdom grow large, it shall be a boon to all who come under its sway, which is explained in the phrase, "that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." Thus the Kingdom begins small and has small impact in the world, but it grows large and has great impact in the world. Here is the ethical teaching of the fable.

Example 2: Ezekiel 17:22-24

Thus says the Lord God: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.”


Ezekiel 17:22-24 is also a promythion, for the entire chapter up to these verses contains a double-sided parable previously stated and applied as a two-fold prophecy. The above verses are one side of the parable/prophecy. It is also an ethical fable, again describing the Kingdom of God and using an organic metaphor. In fact, we see Mark 4 as a direct allusion to Ezekiel 17, for it uses the same language of birds dwelling under the branches of the tree. The application is also similar: the twig that is small and insignificant shall become a tree that is large and has great impact in the world, for many will come to rest under its power and sway. An additional teaching is added: that all the "trees" of the field shall recognize God as Lord of all, faithful to His Word in bringing down the "high tree" and raising up the "low tree," dry up the "green tree," and make the "dry tree" flourish. Here the "high tree," the "green tree," and the "trees of the field" are all the other kingdoms, or rather all those under the "kingdom of this world" or the "Kingdom of Satan." God will crush His enemies and restore His Kingdom and its people to ascendency and right worship. The other additional teaching is the seal of assurance: "I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it." This teaches us that whatever inadequacies we see in the people of God, God Himself accomplishes in them all that He wills to do.


We have seen two Biblical examples of the progymnasmata category of "fable," which is a fictional image of the truth; a teaching tool to represent a genuine aspect of reality. In these examples, the reality being taught is that the Kingdom of God, though starting out insignificant, shall ultimately become triumphant in the world and become a boon to all who come under its influence. This truth is grounded in the character and promise of God, which cannot be broken, delayed, or otherwise thwarted; and which provides the assurance and impetus for God's people to be about His work despite all circumstances and appearances positive or negative in our limited estimations.


The use of these "fables" can occur in a sermon whenever the text brings to bear any discussion of the Kingdom of God. They serve as a reminder to God's people that He is faithful to His Word, and that His Word tells us that His Kingdom shall prevail over His enemies, and become a blessing for all the earth. It is also a reminder to God's enemies that no measure of present victory shall be enough to vanquish the Lord of Hosts, who is patient to bring in all who are His, and who will by no means relinquish His justice for those who are unrepentant. Another use of these particular fables is to teach the people of God humility. It is not their piety, nor their righteous efforts that shall accomplish the fulfillment of God's Kingdom. Rather, it is God's own power, His chosen means, His chosen time, and His Wisdom that shall make it so. There is great comfort to be had in knowing that the power to do all the will of God rests with God Himself, and it is great encouragement to seek obedience to God's expressed commands, for it is elsewhere taught that through our obedience (which God Himself provides to us by His Spirit in Christ Jesus, our Teacher) God shall bring about His Kingdom's reign. Beyond the sermon, in the home, the fables are a reminder to the child to put his confidence in the Lord God and His Word; and it reminds the parents that they are dependent upon God for all that He requires of them, and it teaches them both patience to see that what must begin insignificantly may become triumphant by degrees--the teaching of the organic metaphors here supported by another (this time rational) fable of the gardener or vinedresser.


We can see the great opportunity that the "fable" provides for young children as well as young Christians who can easily grasp the meaning of the fable and may enjoy its presentation in simple narrative form. We need not rely upon Aesop to entertain and instruct our own, for God has given us, through the Greeks, a model well-suited to the treasures God has hidden in His revelation to us. Up next: Narrative.

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