What’s with the cover of What Is Biblical Theology?
You might find the image vaguely familiar, though it was new to me when Crossway suggested this cover. Turns out it’s a relatively well known piece by the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte entitled “Son of Man.” I was really impressed when, showing the proposed cover to Mark Coppenger, he immediately recognized it, named the painter, and referred to several other works by Magritte. You can get a rundown of pop-culture references to this painting on the Wikipedia page.
Magritte did a number of paintings of men dressed this way, black suits, bowler hats, and apparently this one was intended as a self portrait.
I’m no art critic, but on the basis of what Magritte himself said about the painting, the imagery used, and its title, I hazard the following thoughts.
The painting is entitled “Son of Man,” which obviously evokes the Bible. Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man, and the Scriptures constantly refer to people as ”son of man,” ”sons of men,” or “children of men.” Magritte was probably aware that the first man’s name, “Adam,” is simply the Hebrew word for “man.” This adds the connotation of “son of Adam” to the phrase “son of man.”
It’s probably no coincidence that a painting entitled “Son of Man” features an apple in front of a man’s face. The Bible does not specify that the one verboten was an apple tree, but those who comment on or symbolize the forbidden fruit pervasively depict it as an apple.
About this painting entitled “Son of Man,” featuring an apple in front of a man’s face, Magritte said, “we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us.”
The painting shows the way that forbidden fruit becomes an object of curiosity and desire. For the man depicted in the image, the forbidden fruit stands between him and the world. That prominent fruit is so close to him–or he has drawn so close to it–that it will dominate his perception, influencing all he sees. For us, looking at the picture, the apple obscures our ability to see the man’s face. Instead of seeing the features of his face, we see the forbidden fruit on which he is so focused.
For the “Son of Man” in the painting, the world is perceived only in relationship to the forbidden fruit. This captures something profound about our experience as human beings, and that something is what makes this image so appropriate for the cover of What Is Biblical Theology?
Our desires affect our perception. In our fallen condition, we are so distracted by forbidden experiences–knowledge of good and (especially) evil–symbolized here by the apple, that we cease to behold the glory of the world around us, even if we are standing before something so magnificent as the sea.
Glory, beauty, life brims all around us, and we are like the man in the painting so close to the apple he can see little else. Evidently he doesn’t care to see anything else. Nor can he be seen, and one aspect of our tragedy is that often when others look at us, rather than seeing our faces, they mainly see our sin.
Consider the two images together:
In Magritte’s painting, the son of man’s perception is controlled by his fascination with forbidden fruit. In the cover image, the son of man’s perception is controlled by the Bible. The Bible has become for this man like a frontlet between his eyes (Deut 6:8), his fascination is not with what is forbidden but with the words of life, and his perception is dominated not by desire for evil but defined by the teachings of Scripture.
What is biblical theology? I define biblical theology as the attempt to understand and embrace the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors. We want to understand how they interpreted the Bible and life, and we want to follow in the footsteps of these followers of Christ whom God inspired to write the Scriptures.
We want to read Scripture the way the biblical authors read it. We want to see the world as they saw it. We want the Scriptures to control our perception of the world. When people look at us, we want them to see the Bible being lived out in what we do and how we see.
The gospel is the power of God for salvation, and that power extends to the ability to see the world in a new way.
Do you want to look at the Scriptures and the world the way the biblical authors did?
I invite you to consider this attempt to answer the question What Is Biblical Theology?