The Bible’s Complexity

September 1, 2015 — 8 Comments

locustsWhy is it people say the Bible has many writers, but only one Author? The answer to that question is simpler than it seems.

Many different people, over a span of centuries, wrote the various books we find in the Scriptures. At the same time, each of these diverse individuals was inspired by the same Person—the Holy Spirit. Thus it is said by orthodox Christians that the Scriptures are the “Word of God.”*

The word “scripture” itself simply means a written work, although it is almost always applied to books regarded as sacred.

For Christians, Scripture/s can be singular or plural since the Bible possesses both aspects, being inspired by a single Author, yet compiled by numerous individual scribes.

The current issue of World magazine offers a satisfying interview** with David Skeel, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Skeel was raised with minimal exposure to Christianity, and while majoring in English, he found his ignorance of biblical allusions to be a serious handicap.

To rectify that problem, he decided to read the Bible over the summer after his sophomore year. Riding on a cross country trip with some classmates, he says “by the time I’d gotten a few chapters into Genesis I was persuaded it was true. I had never read anything so beautiful, so psychologically real.”

I was especially intrigued by the following insight offered by Skeel.

Christianity impressed you because it’s complicated?

Absolutely. The psychological complexity of Christianity was really powerful for me, as was the complexity of the language of the Bible. Truth can’t be conveyed in a single genre, so the Bible’s mix of genres, language and images is part of the evidence of its veracity.***

I don’t recall ever thinking of it that way, but he is right. God’s revelation of his mercy and grace is far too vast to be “conveyed in a single genre.”

Back to Oxford

Skeel doesn’t mention C.S. Lewis in his interview, and I have no idea whether Lewis’ work has influenced his life.

Despite that, his response to the question above reinforced for me one of the reasons Lewis has proven to be such a powerful blessing in my own pilgrimage.

Lewis intuitively recognized that same truth. God’s message is too boundless to be restrained to a single means of proclaiming it. And because of that, he used every genre at his command to celebrate it.

Essays, debates, poetry, fantasies and history were all fair game.

Which brings me to a corollary to Skeel’s observation. Not only is Truth too immeasurable to be limited to a single genre . . . by God’s design, humanity’s diversity is too abundant to allow for a single manner of communication to speak with the same power.

Some are moved by God’s poetry in a singing brook. Others by his majesty in the face of a snow-capped summit.

Some are drawn to his embrace through stories of human struggle and redemption. Others by logical arguments that appeal to their confidence in reason.

This is precisely why different individuals favor different books in the Scriptures, just as they prefer various writings over others within the Lewis “canon.”

Fortunately, Skeel’s literary interest in the Bible led him to pick it up without any life-changing expectations. That makes him one of the rare exceptions to Lewis’ observation with which we will close.

It may be asked whether now, when only a minority of Englishmen regard the Bible as a sacred book, we may anticipate an increase of its literary influence. I think we might if it continued to be widely read. But this is not very likely.

Our age has, indeed, coined the expression “the Bible as literature.” It is very generally implied that those who have rejected its theological pretensions nevertheless continue to enjoy it as a treasure house of English prose. It may be so.

There may be people who, not having been forced upon familiarity with it by believing parents, have yet been drawn to it by its literary charms and remained as constant readers. But I never happen to meet them.

Perhaps it is because I live in the provinces. But I cannot help suspecting, if I may make an Irish bull [an incongruous statement], that those who read the Bible as literature do not read the Bible. (“The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version”).

_____

* Although the Bible is commonly referred to as the “Word of God,” it is more properly referred to as the written Word of God. The actual Word is none other than Jesus Christ himself, through whom all things were spoken into existence. This is clear when you compare the following passages from the Scriptures. If you have any questions about this, feel free to write to me here at Mere Inkling.

Creation as described in the book of Genesis, chapter 1.

Echo of creation in the Gospel according to John, chapter 1.

** You can read the interview here.

*** In his response, Skeel wisely answers the actual question by substituting the word “complex” for “complicated.” The latter implies unnecessary complexity and a problem. The former, complexity, simply states the facts. It is impossible to adequately describe an infinite God with finite words.

The illustration on this page is from the Walters Art Museum and portrays the plague of locusts visited upon the Egyptians.

8 responses to The Bible’s Complexity

  1. 

    The Bible stands up well as literature, quite apart from any claims of divine authorship. The books of poetry are powerful writing, even across a chasm of time and translation.

    There is a stark contrast between the quality of writing found in the Bible when compared to extra-Biblical texts. The so-called “lost books” are mostly flat and tasteless. The lower quality writing in books like Tobit and Judith immediately identifies them as derivative works. Their lack of historical context also jars and jangles on the ear, like poorly tuned instruments. First and Second Maccabees are interesting reading, but they do not sound much like the Biblical books of history.

    There are lines in Paul’s writing that break from his turgid, technical arguments and soar above the rest of the text. Hebrews, with its unknown authorship, still rings true amidst the Biblical canon – with some of the strongest writing in the New Testament. Even James has some good lines.

    The only real clunker book in the Bible is Jude – and it is mercifully short. Poor Jude. One has the feeling that his best writing was lost behind a radiator, or the dog ate it.

    • 

      Great thoughts, although I’m going to stick up for brother Jude. He includes these precious words:

      “Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.”
      Reminding us that Jesus, the Word of God,
      was present and working the Father’s will
      from before the “beginning…”

      And…

      “And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day…”
      Pointing out that Lucifer and his followers
      have never experienced a true moment of
      “victory,” and possess no power over the
      saints today…

  2. 

    going to read the interview, now. But… I can’t be sure what book it’s in, but I think it’s God in the Dock… Lewis actually does talk about complexity in scripture, saying that the truth is too vast and complex to be explained by one single image. Instead, we are given multiple images overlapping and correcting themselves. If I remember rightly, he is specifically talking about images of Heaven. Then there is also his statement, in Mere Christianity, that if the Bible was not “odd” or “unexpected,” in the same way that reality is, he would have had a harder time believing it. :)

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. The Bible’s Complexity | A disciple's study - September 1, 2015

    […] https://mereinkling.net/2015/09/01/the-bibles-complexity/ […]

  2. Bible reading led English major to conversion | Churchmouse Campanologist - September 8, 2015

    […] Hat tip to my reader Robert Stroud of Mere Inkling for the following story about David Skeel. […]

  3. Understanding the Bible « Mere Inkling - May 16, 2017

    […] recognizing the genre of what we are reading. This is a concept quite familiar to most readers of Mere Inkling. But what is unfamiliar to many, who have not had opportunity to study biblical exegesis, are the […]

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