Cluttering the Timeless Text
Many apologetics answers rely on returning the Bible to its original contexts. I once received the following response from a Skeptic to one such answer I gave”:
Is common language for that civilization? shouldn’t be your god’s word universal and consider that his creations (us) will be reading that for the eternity?
My answer sums up the matter:
No, there’s no reason God’s Word has to be “universal” like that (which isn’t even logically possible; if you think not, produce such a document now). That is an unreasonable demand invented in modern times by members of a culture that thinks too highly of itself.
However, it also deserves some expansion. There are actually three arguments that can be pushed back at this sort of objection. One is, as I said above, that such a product is logically (to say nothing of logistically) impossible. The second is that God seeks disciples, not people who want things handed to them on a platter. So there’s no reason why readers shouldn’t be expected to do a little serious study.
But the third reason is probably the most important one, and it relates to a common problem: That of e.g., Sunday School lessons that strain and stretch texts like Lamentations 3:2 to try to make them “relevant” to today.
The modern Western reader is obsessed with “relevance”. It never occurs to such readers that something from God wasn’t, well, meant for us who reside at the bellybutton of the world. In our eyes, it is much as this Christian commenter said to me when I made yet another contextualizing point (not with he same sort of dismissive intentions as the Skeptic):
In the same way, Peter, whilst answering a local, contemporaneous issue for his initial readership, passes on to us a scripture that is universal and timeless. If the text were only intended to address a local contemporaneous issue, why would it be cluttering up our Bibles 2000 yrs later?
The dichotomy here speaks for itself: It must be relevant to us now, or else it is just “cluttering up” the Bible. While this particular viewer was not intending to be insulting or arrogant, that is indeed what this comes off as — a statement of our own self-importance.
Here is the reality: The Bible does contain many timeless, universal truths. I daresay if you extracted them and put them in one book, it would be a book no larger than the epistle of James (once you eliminated all the repetition, or material that is thematically similar). Is the rest just “clutter”? No — what it actually is, can be expressed by analogy.
When you go to a pack and ship store to send something small and breakable, they don’t just dump it in a box — they cover it with styrofoam peanuts, secure it with packing tape, and stamp FRAGILE all over it (so that, in some cases, the delivery people can throw it over a fence when they get to where it belongs…but that’s another issue). The “clutter” of the Bible is just like that — a genre “package” designed to deliver the universal and timeless kernels safely to others.
Without this packaging, what would be left for Israel in 1400 BC? Not much — a short text that would require a great deal of interpretation to show how it was relevant to them in their own lifetimes. In other words, the application, as well as the exhortation, which is what much of that “clutter” is. Yet it is that very “clutter” that would persuade them of the necessity to preserve and pass on the whole, including those timeless, universal kernels.
In all of this, I have little sympathy for the modern reader who complains that it can be a lot of work to figure out what is universal and what is local or temporal application. Well, no, it’s not. I wrote an e-book titled the Direct Application New Testament, where I extract those universals and explain their modern application. How hard was that? It wasn’t. It’s nothing that could not have been done by any Christian (or atheist) willing to give up watching Big Bang Theory for a few weeks.
It’s time for many of us to get past the attitude that says that either all of the Bible is relevant to us today, or none of it is.