Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Does the Bible Need a Disclaimer?

Perhaps a little something like this?
The following ultra-litigation-conscious, politically correct disclaimer comes from the first page of a current reprint of G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man on my bookshelf:

“This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race have changed before allowing them to read this classic work.”

I had to laugh out loud at the naivete of anyone worried about modern children reading Chesterton. The publishers are, regrettably, quite safe from legal repercussions on that front.

Whatever ‘racist’ views are allegedly present in Chesterton’s writing, I think it’s a bit presumptuous to assume he would’ve held different values today. He might have chosen a few words more carefully for the sake of the perpetually aggrieved. Then again, having read a little Chesterton, he might not.

It got me thinking that some folks would very much like to put the same sort of disclaimer on the Bible.

But the word of God is not like any other “classic”. It reflects EXACTLY the same values it would if it were written today.

When the Roman soldiers crucified the Lord they divided his clothes between them, all except the tunic, which was a woven one-piece garment. To divide it meant tearing it, making it useless to anyone. So they cast lots for it instead.

The word of God is kind of like that tunic. It’s ‘all of a piece’ as they used to say.

‘All of a Piece’

That’s certainly how the Lord himself spoke about it. He said “Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”

The Bible is not a buffet from which we are free to pick and choose the bits we like and dismiss the ones not currently in vogue.

Unsurprisingly, the psalmist, carried along by the Holy Spirit as he wrote, agrees with the One who is himself referred to as The Word. He says:
“Therefore I esteem right ALL your precepts concerning EVERYTHING.”
The words “all your precepts concerning everything” encompass much the same territory, don’t they, which is to say … all of it, without exception. None of God’s instructions are less “right” than others. All are worthy, regardless of the area of life they address. And the word “precepts” is equally all-encompassing, taking in the things God said in the past, the present and the future, from Genesis to Revelation. If he said it, it matters.

Moses said something similar to Israel: “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.”

Jude talks about “THE faith” [singular] “once for all handed down to the saints” as if there is no other that may be considered. It is a unified whole, a single package delivered “once for all”. No other faith is necessary and none is to be expected.

And John says to those who might consider it their prerogative to add to or subtract from either the “book of this prophecy” or the “prophecy of this book” that “God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city”. This is about as drastic a curse as may be contemplated. But the statement shows that same broad concern for “all your precepts” and “the smallest letter or stroke”.

How Does That Impact Me?

Now it may be argued that not many of us are in the position of translating the word of God, or even authoritatively teaching in public forums. The opportunities for us to bring down on ourselves the curses of the book of Revelation are, one would think, few and far between. But the word of God is a unity and, like that one-piece tunic of the Lord’s, the extent to which we tear it is the extent to which we make it useless to ourselves and damage it for others.

When you ignore the ‘difficult bits’ — and I’m sure you can think of the sorts of things currently considered hard to understand or out of step with popular culture — the very best-case scenario is that you make the word of God less useful. And at worst you may find yourself in a very perilous spot.

Those difficult bits differ from person to person, culture to culture, and era to era. Perhaps the whole concept of the inspiration of scripture is one of those ‘difficult bits’ for you. Or maybe Paul’s New Testament teaching about homosexuality grates on your ears and you are tempted to do a bit of re-wording or re-interpreting. Be careful you don’t explain it right out of the Bible. It’s not a slip of the tongue or the pen; it’s there for a reason.

Maybe it’s the role of women in the home (that whole ‘submission’ concept is pretty hard to stomach in these liberated days), or the role of women in the church: I mean, “silent”? Really? Or maybe it’s something relatively ‘small’, like the headcovering thing; who knows what that’s all about?

Before you write that stuff off as merely cultural, stop and think first, please. I assure you there are significant truths that we make entirely opaque to both ourselves and those who follow our example whenever we play the role of editors and start slicing and dicing the word of God at the whim of society’s pressure or current patterns of trendy thought.

I’m only picking a few things at random that are current issues. But the word of God has always been under attack on one front or another.

An Insulting Description That’s Right On the Nose

Peter spoke about ‘difficult’ things written by the apostle Paul, but his statement would apply equally to anything in the word of God that we find difficult and are tempted to excise or re-interpret. He said of these things that the “untaught and unstable” distort them, “as they do also the rest of the scriptures, to their own destruction”.

The apostle called those who play games with the meaning of the word of God untaught, unstable and unprincipled. Personal experience has demonstrated that this is, while apparently unkind, a very apt description:

“Untaught” implies we haven’t looked far enough yet. When you find something you don’t like, instead of excising it or dismissing it, keep reading and look harder. The rest of scripture has something to say about that verse you don’t like, and very likely it will confirm its truth over and over again. That’s how the word of God is.

“Unstable” implies the use of faulty logic incapable of standing up to a good, solid, reasoned response. The Lord himself was to unbelievers a “stone of stumbling” and a “rock of offence”. He made them unstable. He knocked them off their pins. They had no good answer for him. But the one who trusts in him will “not be disappointed”. The things that are ‘difficult to understand’, accepted by faith, often become our very foundations.

“Unprincipled” people abandon their convictions at the first sign of trouble or disapproval from the world, fashion, society and those who set trends. Principled people don’t. If the word of God says something, hang onto it. Trends, cultures and opinions and even the pressures they generate on our faith will come and go. But the word of God “stands forever”. It is “forever settled in heaven”. That’s worth hanging on to.

I’ve yet to find much evidence of it, but The Everlasting Man may well be a “product of its time”.

The Everlasting Word is not.

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