Friday, October 9, 2009

Tinkering with Truth

I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5.18)

Far from Seamless, Yet Seamless

The Bible is rare even among sacred texts in its collaborative nature. The 66 books of the Old and New Testaments resound with cacophony expressed in every imaginable literary form, from allegory (Song of Solomon) to memo (3 John). Unlike anthologies that use genre, theme, or period as their unifying factor, the Bible is a sprawling collection of amateur compositions written over thousands of years. Very few, if any, of its authors wrote “for the ages.” They targeted contemporary readers, and since they wrote before mass print was conceived, it’s inconceivable they expected their texts to be read, studied, and digested by more than a relative few.

The result is far from seamless. Purely from a historical perspective, it’s pocked by huge gaps of silence. There are also anonymous contributors writing in the guise of famous figures. (For example, it’s doubtful Paul wrote half the letters signed in his name.) Then there are the revisions, accidents of replication and overt alterations. A few books—like Genesis, with its back-to-back creation accounts—further warp the Bible’s fabric with internal conflicts created by two or more authors. If the Bible were merely the work of mortal writers, it would have been discarded long ago. While it’s filled with compelling passages, it’s a literary wreck. No basic structure exists. Its elastic view of time is maddening. Subplots and characters arrive with a bang only to drop off quickly and quietly. When read like any other book, it aches for a savvy editor to pull the loose ends together.

Yet the Bible is seamless. Despite glaring contradictions and omissions, it remains coherent and cohesive from cover to cover. One voice holds it together. We hear it in every book, on every page. It’s the voice of God, and whether by direct quote, inference, or interaction with humanity, we get His message loud and clear. How the Bible manages this defies analysis, because the character of God varies widely and His approach to similar situations is seldom the same. For instance, God lets Moses to get away with murder, but He punishes him for striking a rock instead speaking to it. Or how’s this? God gets so fed up with humanity He kills all but eight people in a flood; thousands of years later, He gives His life to save the entire world. Still, regardless of such shifts and reverses, His voice never changes. His message remains. We belong to Him, He loves us beyond measure, and He’ll go to any length to hold us to Him.


God’s voice makes Scripture holy. It alone is sacred and timeless. The words, syntax, and style that convey it are human inventions, opening them to speculative study and interpretation. Even theories of Scripture’s origins have no bearing on its holiness. If we accept it as literal transcription of God’s audible voice, view it as the product of divine inspiration, or regard much of it as sullied by human hands and superstitions, the voice is still there. The message still rings. God’s Word is forever holy.

That should lift the heavy weight of divisiveness that cripples us, freeing all believers to gather around the inexhaustible, common truth in Scripture. That should encourage us to respect each Christian’s privilege to dissect the text according to his/her conscience and need. No matter how we slice and dice it, God’s voice infallibly emerges. That should be enough to know Scripture is not to be handled carelessly, selfishly, or hatefully. It isn’t a legal brief, tug-rope, billy club, or license for anything that imperfectly echoes God’s voice and improperly portrays His message. We can differ about interpretations, theories, and translations until we give up or die. But our reverence for the Bible’s holiness should make a marked difference in how we differ. These and other reasons should impact the handling and discussion of Scripture. Yet they don’t.

More Precious Than Gold

In Psalm 19, David waxes poetic about God’s Word. “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul,” he says in verse 7, adding, “The statues of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.” He goes on for two more verses. God’s precepts are right; they give us joy. His commands are radiant; they help us see. Reverence for God is pure and lasting. His ordinances are sure and righteous. Finally, he sums up this section: “They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold.” (v10) Every time we reach for the Bible, read it, quote it, and discuss it, we hold God’s voice in our hands and His message passes our lips. Scripture is the most precious treasure you and I can ever own. We treat it with the greatest care, even though not everyone shares our convictions about this.

Shockwaves sounded far and wide with recent news of The Conservative Bible Project’s plans to substitute “family-friendly” and “trustworthy” content for “liberal wordiness” and “ambiguities” in current Bible translations. Of course, it disturbs and angers us when people sling the Bible at others, stretch it to “prove” opinions, or re-stitch it to their purposes. At the same time, God’s Word is too holy and precious to become the object of cheap arguments. Besides, religious debates come and go, while Scripture remains eternal. In Matthew 5.18, Jesus declares, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” Let those predisposed to misuse Scripture carry on—to the end of time, if they like. When they finish tinkering with truth, nothing they’ve done will change what God’s Word says and means. The voice will be there. The message will remain.

“Not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear.”

(Tomorrow: Crowd Without a Cause)

No comments: