Tuesday, October 13, 2020

A Gap Anticipated

“All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

The Bible repeatedly claims to be God-breathed, both in its component parts and in its entirety. Statements to the effect that God has spoken are made several hundred times in the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel alone, and they are sprinkled liberally through the rest of the scripture. Other writers and speakers in the Bible made similar assertions to that which Paul makes here: that the whole thing (Law, Prophets, Psalms, Letters, Gospels) is God speaking, right down its glyphs and diacritics in the original languages.

Stop and think about that a moment.

Reduced Options

While it is true that claiming something does not necessarily make it so, a claim — and even more so, a claim insistently repeated — definitely reduces our options with respect to how we think about the Bible. As my father once put it, if these things are not so, then the Bible cannot possibly be called a “good book”. It is a very evil book indeed, full of falsehood and contrived deceptions written by men who lacked the spiritual authority to which the scriptures lay claim. If the Bible is not God speaking, then we are best to steer well clear of it. Any other view is simply incoherent.

Theologians who do not believe in the divine authorship of the Bible right down to the core of their being are better off pursuing some other area of human knowledge and leaving the exploration and teaching of the scriptures to those who are willing to approach them logically and consistently. Such men and women may be in error, certainly, but at least they are not intentional deceivers.

So then, for our purposes here, and for the sake of not wasting our own time, let us accept without reservation that God “breathed out” the Bible. This being the case, Paul says one reason he did so was to enable his servants to serve him effectively. There exists the possibility that the “man of God” may be brought to spiritual maturity and made “complete” through his study of that word. What he tells others will be profitable to them, and the way he applies it to his own life will make him more content, more coherent and more in harmony with reality. He needs nothing else, God having provided everything he requires.

Barriers to Understanding

At the same time, we recognize that barriers exist which make understanding the Bible more difficult for us. In a 1987 Baker Book House compilation entitled Hermeneutics, Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm writes about the need for rules to help us understand the meaning of ancient texts like the Bible, and lays out some of the potential pitfalls for the would-be interpreter of scripture:
“A gap exists between the interpreter and the materials to be interpreted and rules must be set up to bridge this gap. In that the interpreter is separated from his materials in time there is a historical gap; in that his culture is different from that of his text there is a cultural gap; in that the text is usually in a different language there is the linguistic gap; in that the document originates in another country there is the geological gap and the biological gap (the flora and fauna). In that usually a totally different attitude towards life and the universe exists in the text it can be said that there is a philosophical gap.”
Ramm is not wrong here, and he is not being pointlessly discouraging. These gaps are not impossible to cross, but we will have much greater difficulty with them if we fail to observe that they exist than if we take them into account and make allowance for them in our approach to the word of God.

How to Think About the Gaps

Several observations may be made about gaps:
  1. The Bible was not written at one time or from one place, but the word of God came by a variety of methods at many times and in various places. This variety has the effect of narrowing some cultural, linguistic and philosophical “gaps”, while enlarging others. It means that people from any particular time or culture coming to the scripture will find some writers and books more accessible and intelligible than others. We should expect this feature of scripture and not be put off by it.
  2. It is impossible that the God of the Bible was unaware of these gaps Ramm describes; moreover, if every gap was fully anticipated, then none was deliberately made larger than necessary. God could have sent his prophets to Bronze Age Sumer, or to China’s Shang dynasty, or to Tsarist Russia. He did not. We can only conclude that the times and places he did reveal himself were carefully selected to maximize the spreading of his word and to optimize its understanding.
  3. The effectiveness of what God did is undeniable: by the first century, the writings of Moses had been readily available all throughout the pagan world for generations. And without that first century intersection of traditional Hebrew religious thought with Greek philosophical and intellectual discipline and logic and the uniquely favorable geopolitical situation in which the early church took root and spread like wildfire, it is hard to imagine where we would be today.
  4. While there may be people of certain cultures, times and philosophies who are harder to reach than others because the gap between them and the text is more expansive, there are none which cannot be reached.
  5. As useful as Bible study aids may be, it is really the scripture itself which is profitable, not the various methods by which we may seek to overcome Ramm’s “gaps”. While we are wise to make every effort to narrow the gaps for others where possible, I have watched young Christians exercise their spiritual intuition with the help of the Holy Spirit and simply leap a gap I was sure required my assistance by instinctively comparing scripture with scripture. That is both humbling and reassuring to watch.

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