He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3.6)
Coming off Easter always finds me feeling uneasy about the disharmony of the Gospels. While they tell the same story, their facts don’t match up. Women who accompany Mary Magdalene to the tomb in one version are replaced by others in another and completely missing in another. Matthew and Mark report one angel greets Mary; Luke and John give us two. And so on. One suspects the event’s magnitude would demand uniform telling, simply for credibility’s sake. Yet we end up with four conflicting accounts of Christianity’s defining moment, which means some of what we read is wrong—inaccurate at the very least, but also possibly exaggerated, even fabricated out of whole cloth.
If the “Easter variations” were the sole example of biblical incongruence, we might dismiss them as four writers adapting the narrative for specific purposes, as is the case. But glaring contradictions and inaccuracies abound in Scripture, starting with Genesis, which doesn’t even complete its first Creation account before launching a rewrite. Then there’s the issue of authorship and revisions. Roughly half of Paul’s epistles are penned by surviving followers, some of whom make no effort to conceal references to developments that occurred after his execution. The Books of Moses, the first five Old Testament volumes, are subjected to numerous revisions that filter the original content (recorded pseudonymously after Moses’s death) through the knowledge and needs of each new editor. None of this would be unsettling but for this: The Bible is God’s Word. And how we account for its anomalies indubitably affects its vitality and relevance in our lives.
Take It or Leave It
Oddly enough, textual lapses posed no problem for ancient readers. Manual transcription of the written word inherently allowed for inaccuracies and editorial interference. Not until mechanical print made exact replication possible was the premise of Biblical infallibility remotely possible. Even then, translating original texts presumed a margin of error due to linguistic gaps, poor penmanship, and common misspellings. The push to view the Bible as “the infallible Word of God” is surprisingly recent, launched in the mid-1970’s by a cluster of influential evangelicals. The notion took hold in conservative circles, which embraced the entire Bible, word for word, as their bedrock of belief. Yet doing so created a huge contradiction infallibility's proponents have yet to resolve. If every word in the Bible is factually indisputable, why is faith necessary?
Taking Scripture at face value eliminates doubts that spring from its inaccuracies and contradictions, which ends up less ideal than it sounds. Infallibility's “take it or leave it” proposition shuts down the conversation before it begins. But the Bible is God’s prime communication channel to humankind. It’s given to open discourse between us, to draw us into dialogue with Him, and to prompt leaps of faith in spite of its logical challenges. It’s meant to fly in the face of empirically proven facts and human understanding. Accepting what we read without question is not the same as believing what God says. Indeed, they’re exact opposites. The former relies entirely on what we see, while the latter relies exclusively on faith in what we’re told. In 2 Corinthians 5.7, Paul says, “We live by faith, not by sight.” And in Romans 10.17, he succinctly describes the Word’s function in faith formation: “Faith comes by hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” The Bible is given to engender faith, not to validate it. If we think it proves anything, we miss everything it’s supposed to do, namely to teach us how to live without proof.
One can only imagine Paul’s reaction to this fledgling doctrine of infallibility, but his admonitions about Scripture firmly indicate it would fall between dismay and horror. Aside from his prevailing message of God’s unequivocal grace through faith in Christ, his recurrent theme is freedom from textual servitude. As we’ve already seen, however, his vehemence against enslavement to the Law doesn’t discount the value of Scripture. Indeed, he insists it’s a vital component in helping every believer achieve maturity. He counsels in 2 Timothy 2.15: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” “Correct handling” in Paul’s view entails abandoning literal interpretation of Scripture so it can speak directly to our hearts and spirits. Literalism spawns legalism, the thing Paul abhors most of all because it enforces rather than inspires. It puts us back where we were before Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection—playing by the rules instead of living by faith. In short, literalism (and its nasty cousin, legalism) negates the cross.
“He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life,” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3.6. His word for “Spirit” is pneumos. Breath. It’s the same word John uses when the Risen Christ first appears to the disciples: “He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20.22) Both of these images overtly echo Genesis 2.7: “The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Paul tells us Christ’s sacrifice forever freed God’s Word from the page, replacing “the letter” (grammatos, literal text that can be broken down into prescribed meaning and usage) with pneumos, the breath of life. Our competence as ministers of God’s boundless grace and acceptance depends on faith to believe this.
When we open the Bible, we look through its contradictions (versus around them) to see God’s Spirit in every word, between every line. Facts take a back seat to faith. The Spirit Jesus breathes into us and the one Paul finds in the Word are one and the same. It mysteriously brings the reality of God’s truth to life, on the page and in us. It inspires us to take leaps of faith despite all doubt and contrary evidence. The “infallible Word”—grammatos—can’t accomplish this. It’s permanently set, inert and unresponsive to changing times and needs. In contrast, the inspired Word—pneumos—is eternally relevant and vital. It breathes. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
(Inspired by a comment posted by Jeff on the Straight-Friendly Facebook page.)
The Bible’s truth and relevance aren't visible on the printed page. They breathe through the words and between the lines, brought to life by the Spirit.