Yesterday I wrote a bit about how this world is inundated with words and what with cyber wizardry and all, words are multiplying like busy little rabbits all around us. I nodded towards the issue I’m interested in pursuing further, that is, how one is to go about interacting with this storm of words. On the one hand, it feels a bit like adding a few squirts from your water pistol during a hurricane. What’s the use? Why bother? On the other hand, people can get really worked up when you mock their idols, when you aren’t nice and polite about the trendy fad they’re into, when you aren’t respectful of their icons, religious or otherwise. And that’s when you find that somehow words are potent, powerful, and can be used by God like long-range cruise missiles and make a really big bang in the world.
But now I’d like to talk about the development of the canon Scripture and not change the subject at all. Really. The development of the canon of Scripture is actually highly instructive for us in this regard. Let’s begin by setting aside highly mechanical understandings of the way inspiration and canonization worked. We do not believe that the Holy Spirit possessed certain individuals like demons possessed the naked guy in the tombs in the gospels. We don’t believe that the Scripture writers became holy zombies, mindless machines drooling and scribbling furiously until the Spirit left their bodies and they woke up dazed and confused and lost on the side of a mountain in nothing but their superhero skivvies. We don’t think that. No, we believe that Scripture was written by the Spirit through the normal course of human life. True, there were lots of supernatural moments, miracles, visions, and dreams – and yes, some of the prophets could be mistaken for the naked guy in the tombs, but on the whole, these were normal human beings who took bathroom breaks and occasionally misspelled words and probably spilled their coffee on their scrolls from time to time. The doctrine of inspiration doesn’t mean the authors were perfect or robotic; it means that the Spirit so superintended what was written that every word is the perfect revelation of the Eternal God.
Now add to this the fact that the canon – the complete Bible – was a long process that the Spirit also oversaw. There were probably first just the book of Genesis, then the five books of Moses and then Joshua and Judges, maybe Job came along somewhere in there and then all the historical books and the poetry and finally the prophets. There’s been lots of liberal slicing and dicing of every book of the Bible over the last couple hundred years, postulating cajillions of authors and editors and redactors and super-redacters and an alphabet soup of so-called sources, making origami of the Scriptures. But at the end of the day, it makes best sense to assume that most of the books were written by the guy whose name it bears. But this doesn’t mean they couldn’t have had assistants, secretaries, scribes, or disciples that helped in the writing, compiling, editing and so on. The Spirit is very versatile. He is not frustrated by editors even if sometimes we are.
But let’s add one more piece to this: There were likely many writings, fragments, sermons, blog posts, and tweets from the prophets and teachers and leaders of God’s people that we know of and perhaps even some from others we don’t know of. And they may have been good and profitable writings and prophecies and sermons, but if they didn’t end up in Scripture they aren’t Scripture, no matter how helpful they may have been at the time and even if we discovered an authentic letter from Jeremiah himself tomorrow. But the particular words, the particular books that we have now canonized in our Bibles did not glow in the dark. There was not a magical way of telling which books got canonized and which books didn’t. Certainly God validated the ministries of true prophets when their prophecies came true, and this went a long way in confirming which writings needed to be preserved. But there was a natural albeit providential process in compiling the writings of Scripture. When did Hosea’s prophecy get included? How about Ezekiel who spent most of his time excoriating the Jews back in Judah while sitting in Babylon with the rest of the exiles? How do we know the book of Hebrews is really Scripture if we’re not sure who wrote it?
And this leads me to the point of this post: theologians like to speak of horizons of meaning in a given text. One horizon would be the original intended audience, another horizon would be a broader redemptive-historical context, another horizon would be various interpretations in the New Testament following Jesus, and on through Church history down to the present and what a given text means for us today. Some would draw a rigid distinction between interpretation and application, however, hopefully you see my meaning. But I want to talk about horizons of bang. Horizons of bang goes back to my cruise missile analogy in the first paragraph. It’s talking about how Jesus is the Living Word that enlivens the Words of the Bible by His Spirit and makes them explode at various points in history, in people’s hearts, in families, in churches, in nations.
Now let me try to put this all together. Part of how the canon was completed was precisely by this bang factor. Maybe a scribe in Judah picked up Jonah’s story and handed it to another scribe – the Old Testament equivalent of tagging your buddy in a post – and said, ‘man, you gotta check this out.’ It went bang. The Spirit made it clear that this message was not just for pagan Assyrians. This message was for bitter and arrogant Israelites — perhaps especially for them. This message had multiple horizons of bang. And that Ezekiel guy cooking his food over human feces, laying siege to a model city of Jerusalem, going around sighing loudly, laying on his left side and then his right side – and he did it all hundreds of miles away from the actual city. Seriously. He was preaching at people who were already in exile. Did any of those people get tired of the charades? WE ALREADY LEFT THE CITY, MAN. But there was an immediate meaning, an immediate horizon of bang for those in exile. And they knew it and kept his prophecy and preserved the record of his ministry and passed it down and shared it on Facebook with their friends back in Judah. Paul kept copies of all his letters as was commonly practiced in first century letter writing and as a safeguard against the imposters going around claiming to have apostolic authority. His personal copies probably formed the first edition of the Pauline letters and were preserved and copied by Timothy and Titus and others like them. In other words, as important as the recipients of those original letters were, the first readers of the canon of Scripture were not the original recipients on purpose, by design.
In other words, the writings of Moses and all the prophets and the apostles of the New Testament were compiled not with precise, stipulated audiences in view. Those who object to polemical writing because of the indiscriminate nature of the audience need to recognize that they have the same problem with Scripture as a whole. By its very design, Scripture was compiled with multiple, indiscriminate audiences in view. While the Bible has particularity and was written and compiled in particular contexts and those should be weighed and considered carefully in interpretation, the entire thing is a general epistle from the Holy Spirit. It was compiled intentionally for its many horizons of bang. We must speak and write the truth; we must love God and love our neighbor. We must be possessed of the fruits of the Spirit in abundance, but this is not a perfectionistic standard that leaves everybody mute and sentenced to terminal writer’s block because we’re not worthy to write, we’re not worthy to speak. On the contrary, the development of the canon assures us that many words will be forgotten, many words will fade and sink in the sea of human history, but others will be remembered, others will be powerful and some by the power of the Spirit of Jesus will be used to make this world light up with glory and go bang.