Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Fog of Inspiration

Right now lots of people are upset with the Supreme Court for interpreting a law by its intent and context rather than its words. After all, the law's authors are still alive. As one trained in the art of translation and interpretation of the Bible, all I can say is WOW! I would gladly give my right eye if I could ask Paul or Moses what they meant at certain obscure points, especially before I proclaim it as the will of God. There are poetry words so rare in Hebrew that no scholar alive today has the slightest guess as to their meaning. Translators literally plug in 'filler' in English at these points. This illustrates a fundamental principle true through every age and culture, translations are interpretations. There's no escaping it. This reality forces me to an uncomfortable question. Is a text, the Christian Bible, really our authority?

Follow me for a moment. The Bible is a library of books copied by disciples, translated by missionaries, and handed to me by a local minister. Transmission issues aside (although I think these are fun), I'm essentially trusting the hand that gives me the book. The truth and beauty in its pages are undeniable. But my trust in its authority comes from my esteem in its wielder. The people of God, past and present, Jewish, Greek and Christian are the context of the Bible itself. They are the litmus test for all interpretations' viability. And while these groups change and fade, our hope is that they pass a baton of tradition that is trustworthy and unchanged. Perhaps claiming a text as our rule for life and belief has really only served to short change person-to-person discipleship.

This is the point where many modern Christians tread on inspiration, recenter intent on community, and become academically liberal, where our opinions about God become as valid as any ancient prophet's musing from God. This distrust is hubris.

To believe God speaks, to believe that these words (wherever they are identified) have authority is a step of faith, even after seeing all the agreement and overlap of manuscripts. There is no one perfect tangible copy of the word of God written down. There is no sole manuscript I can point to that is copy-error free (if even that can be proved). Nor is there a single group whose interpretation and translation of the text has resisted all ambiguity and fallacy. Yet inspiration exists and is preserved. How? In what form? It lives within a body of manuscripts and communities with a high degree of confirmation. We essentially have a corpus, a collection of manuscripts and communities in which 100% of inspiration is contained and passed on like DNA to the next generation. There are mutations from time to time in pockets here and there. Some even go so far back we no longer are sure of the most faithful wording. Our logic and our ambition might prefer a simple black or white, right or wrong answer in every discrepancy. But it is the tension between the differences that keeps us dependent on each other, and humble.

The New Testament even anticipates this transition away from 'the letter' of the law. The Church endorsing four gospels about Jesus without feeling the need to reconcile the differences or selecting one as most trustworthy is a testament to finding inspiration between texts. Or take Jesus' and the Apostles' emphasis on the Spirit of the law vs the Letter of the law. Here the principle originally conceived in the law is considered an enduring spirit which may not be overruled by semantics. Even the location of the new law is evidence for moving away from legalism. The new law's letters are inscribed invisibly on hearts rather than on clay tablets and parchment. I would contend that first century Judaism was in a fundamental shift of authority. As its focus had shifted away from the temple to the law during the Babylonian exile, in the time of Jesus it was shifting from the law to the messiah, from words on a page to words made flesh.

We may lament that fewer and fewer people read or trust the Bible in our scientific age. In reality, they have lost trust in us, in we who hand them a particular book. Did we think that people would believe the Bible merely because the subtitle we gave it was "The Word of God". The youngest of internet users knows to suspect everything they read. If we want the Bible to be credible, we have to be credible and relevant in our culture. If we can't convince them to trust the church, there is no way they are going to trust our book. Instead of preaching, "this book is the word of God," in absolute terms, first we have to say:

"As much as God is with us, and as much as you can see it, feel it, and know that it is true, than you can trust what our heritage wrote of God, because we are are their students and a reflection of them. The portion of truth and healing and inspiration we have to give is a measure of how faithfully and accurately we have preserved and passed on those moments God has moved and spoken a clear message in their lives and words. The truth in this collection of books is more valuable to us than gold. It is the record of God meeting with people, with us, and those moments of history when the wall between our world's is thin is precious and we will not forget them, nor hide them. We may judge the interpretation of these words to be this or that, but these words will one day be our judge. Beyond these words, we can offer only educated advice, and fallible counsel."

Do I leave the ranks of Protestants and descend back into the bosom of Roman Catholicism, where truth is found both in church dogma and sacred texts as co-equal? There is a bit of a chicken and egg paradox here. Yesterday's tradition has become today's written scripture. And yesterday's written scripture quickly becomes incoherent without cultural help, some of which comes from tradition.

My position is that trust in church authority usually precedes trust in scripture in practice, in individual experience. This by no means that infallibility resides primarily or even co-equally with the church or its living tradition. And this is where I differ from Roman Catholicism. Essentially, church authority is transitional or missional, in that church credibility serves to plant people on a more secure foundation of established written scripture, which a person may eventually mine for themselves.

I agree with Catholics that not all written scripture is clear, and we do need means found outside the Bible to provide context. But, I agree with Protestants that enough scripture is clear enough to elicit anticipation in the authority of Jesus, cause conviction, and result in Godward repentance. While much tradition is true, handed down both from the Church and from Judaism, it is not infallible, even though it may be authoritative.

1 comment:

  1. You could definitely see your enthusiasm within the work you write. The world hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who aren't afraid to say how they believe. All the time go after your heart. outlook sign in