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Monday, August 17, 2015

When Analogies Fail

We do the best we can when we try to explain the word of God to others. It’s not always an easy task, and frequently we are in over our heads.

Sometimes we come up with our own illustrations to try to clarify a scriptural concept for our audience; to put it in terms to which they may find it easier to relate. I have heard the occasional helpful analogy over the years. I have also heard plenty that had the potential to leave a listener with entirely the wrong impression.

For instance, even with the best of intentions, the apostle Paul and the other writers of holy writ are not aptly compared to word processing programs or keyboards.

Jack Wellman on the subject of inspiration:
“I am writing this on a word processing program using a keyboard and so you and I know that I am the author. The word processor, the keyboard and computer are allowing me to put the words into a readable form but I was the inspiration behind the article I have written here. Can anyone really say that it was not me who inspired this article but it was really the computer so we can’t believe that I actually wrote this? Can it be said that I wasn’t really writing my thoughts here and that it was really the computer’s thoughts and ideas? No, a computer has artificial intelligence but it cannot write what I am thinking or what I have studied in my life or that it has the knowledge that I have acquired, so to say that the men who penned the Scriptures are the ones who are the ultimate source of the Bible is to use the same reasoning that I am not the real author of this article but it’s actually Hewlett Packard (HP) that is real author.”
Wellman compares the men who penned scripture to computers, software and keyboards, and the Holy Spirit to the person behind the keys in the attempt to demonstrate who the real author of scripture is. He is on the right side of the debate, and to the extent that his illustration reminds us of the superintending governance of God in the creation of his word, it is moderately useful.

But as a means of describing exactly what we see when we open various books of the Bible, any regular reader will find it wholly inaccurate.

Me and My PC

If I write blog posts today from my Dell PC, tomorrow from a tablet and Friday from my brother’s Mac, nobody will be able to tell the difference despite the fact that the process is a very different one for me. At my PC, I can sit comfortably and type forty or fifty words per minute using all the fingers of both hands, easily deleting and moving text around as I please. With a tablet in hand, I hunt and peck one finger at a time, but I am familiar enough with the process to get what I need into a file. On the Mac, I may have to deal with a different keyboard and shortcuts with which I am less familiar since I don’t use them every day. But because I am a bit of a perfectionist, the end result will be the same regardless. No trace of the individual media through which I have produced my blog posts will remain. Whether I use Word, Open Office or even the Kingsoft notepad on my phone, the content and look of what I produce will be identical.

Variety, Variety, Variety

The writers of the Bible are not like this at all. Even a cursory reader of scripture cannot help but notice that the human authors of its various books possess vastly different writing styles, maturity, experiences, interests, vocabularies, training, personalities, obvious tics and even limitations, all of which come through in the words of scripture.

At the risk of resorting to an image that may be just as clumsy in its own way, the human authors are more like writing instruments than keyboards. They exhibit the individuality of a rough, sketchy pencil line alongside the swoop of a quill pen, the stroke of a brush with all its inevitable thicks and thins, the scrawl of a crayon, the scratch of a ballpoint and the caress of a fine marker.

The Man for the Message

But even this picture is inadequate, because we must also factor in content. You could write an epic poem with a crayon or scratch lofty language into sand with a tree branch if you had to. But God didn’t. It is evident that the Spirit of God always chose the right men for a particular job. In instances where we have information about the human author of a book of scripture, the content and themes of what he wrote seem remarkably consistent with what is revealed about him.

For instance, given his history, it is an open question as to whether Solomon was a regenerate man. I’m not entirely confident we’ll see him in glory. But he was immensely wise and experienced. It is unlikely that anyone else in human history could have written Ecclesiastes or the Song of Songs, and I have every confidence that the Holy Spirit was able to say precisely what he wished to say through Solomon despite his regular infelicities and his often debauched state. He was the perfect person to address the subject of the world as mankind naturally perceives it.

Again, the power of Daniel 4 is that it commences with the address, “King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in the earth”. The fact that it is a personal testimony to the righteousness, justice and power of the King of heaven composed by one of the most powerful men who ever lived says almost as much as the story itself.

Further, can we even picture the New Testament epistles without the rabbinical scholarship of the apostle Paul? I can’t. We are told he was a “chosen vessel”. One of the ways in which he carried the name of the Lord Jesus before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel was on parchment. His training in the Old Testament factored mightily into his role in spreading the gospel.

You’ve Got Personality …

The temperament and background of the individual writers is very much evident throughout the Bible. James is bombastic. He pulls no punches. Jeremiah is well known as the “weeping prophet”. Paul is methodical, working his way through an intellectual argument from A to Z, but passionate and deeply human when dealing with real live Christians and their individual needs. Matthew’s gospel is unmistakably Jewish. David’s psalms are full of his personal experiences and the ups and downs of a life lived with an ongoing desire for fellowship with God amidst all the temptations of power and privilege. Doctor Luke is a man of detail while John the apostle is consumed with things heavenly.

If the Holy Spirit worked each of these men mechanically to produce the word of God over the centuries, we would expect to be able to identify a unique voice in scripture that we could attribute to him. Instead we hear men: godly men, men who agree where we might not expect them to agree, but men all the same.

Tics and Quirks

As to individual tics or ways of expressing things that are all but unique to a particular writer, Mark uses the Greek eutheos (usually translated “immediately” or “straight away”) forty times in his gospel. Some make much of this, calling his the “Gospel of Immediacy” and saying things like, “There was no tardiness about Christ’s service, but ‘straight away’ He was ever about His ‘Father’s business’ ”. While this is certainly not impossible, Mark uses the expression so frequently that it seems likelier to me that eutheos was simply an adverb he tended to use a lot, much as we all have our pet expressions. Did the Holy Spirit use this tendency to make his point? It would seem so. While it is certainly not inconceivable that the Holy Spirit put words a writer didn’t frequently use (or didn’t even know) into his mouth or restrained him from using language normal to him, given the differences of vocabulary and style evident in the various human writers of scripture, I see no evidence he opted to do so. It seems to me that he “carried along” the human authors, not that he “drove them along”.

Not Just Keyboards

The word of God does not speak of its human authors as if they were simply a mechanical delivery system for the Holy Spirit. For every “the Spirit expressly says”, we get a “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord?”

Jack Wellman is entirely correct that the Bible is the Spirit of God speaking. We must never for a moment imagine that scripture records merely the words of men. I trust every word of this book with my life. But David says, “The Spirit of the Lord speaks by me; his word is on my tongue”. When God spoke, he spoke “by me”. He always did it through real men, with all of the messiness, complexity and human reality entailed in that. David’s tongue was an integral part of the process of inspiration. We should not forget that either.

Thankfully, when analogies fail us, we always have the words of God himself to fall back on.

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