Taboo on Tools? part 2

Taboo on Tools? (Part 2)

GENUINE LOVE cannot exist with out communication. Since love must communicate and since God is love, He must communicate also. . .

-book editor at the Southern Publishing Association at the time this article was written

GENUINE LOVE cannot exist with out communication. Since love must communicate and since God is love, He must communicate also.

So far you have read only two sentences, yet behind them lie two subtle presuppositions. First, we have presupposed a God, yet we have not seen Him with our eyes, heard Him with our ears, or felt Him with our fingers as the disciples did with Jesus (see 1 John 1:1).

We have no way to detect God unless He chooses to make Himself detectable to us. Just as your transistor radio is not constructed to detect X-rays, so our senses have not been constructed to detect spiritual things. For instance, people ordinarily cannot see angels. Since "God is a spirit," we know He is only because He has chosen to reveal Himself to us.

Second, we have presupposed that we can understand God if and when He does seek to communicate with us. But does the human mind possess the capability of understanding and knowing God? "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa. 55:8, 9). "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!" (Rom. 11:33).

Has our second presupposition foundered, then? No. "Let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me" (Jer. 9:24).

We can't and we can. It is a paradox. The truth is that we can never completely fathom God. Ornithologists have discovered the difficulty in knowing everything about just one species of bird. How much more impossible it is for us to know everything about God. Any information He may choose to reveal about Himself is partial. In other words, God has set about to make known to us that which we can never fully comprehend. It is as though the great genius Einstein were trying to explain the intricacies of his special and general theories of relativity to a Stone Age savage.

Actually the situation is even worse, for at least Einstein and headhunters are both Homo sapiens. God, however, is a far higher form of life than human beings, which makes communication even more difficult. It is more like the endeavors of certain scientists to learn the "language" of porpoises so that they can talk intelligently to them. The one ray of hope in divine communication is that God made us in His image, and although sin has nearly obliterated that likeness, we can to a limited degree understand and know God.

God Is Communicator and Communication

When we talk about communication we imply three things: a communicator, a communication, and a communicant. In this particular discussion, the communicator is God. As our loving Creator, He has taken the initiative to break through the communication barrier existing between heaven and earth.

But God is not only the communicator, He is also the communication. God is both the subject and object of revelation, and I would like to suggest that His communication is two-pronged. He communicates both Himself and His will through His actions and words. His actions form a nonverbal communication. Systematic theologians call it "general revelation." His words, of course, are a verbal revelation, and systematists refer to it as "special revelation." God not only acts silently in the universe and in history, He occasionally speaks while He acts. Special revelation embraces Urim and Thummim, theophanies, dreams, visions, and other methods.

The process of verbalizing His communication, however, automatically distorts it, for every human language has distinct limitations. "The Bible must be given in the language of men. Everything that is human is imperfect." --Selected Messages, book 1, p. 20.

First, God had to choose a language the communicant would understand. Next, God had to choose thought forms familiar to the communicant. It would be folly for God to speak to Moses or to Isaiah in terms of cars, airplanes, electricity. God had to take His infinite message, which our eyes have never seen, nor our ears heard, nor our imaginations imagined, and frame it within terms understandable to our lower and simpler level of existence.

Perhaps we can begin to understand the problem confronting God by imagining what a difficult task we would face if we had to describe ice or an elevator to a native living in an isolated and steamy equatorial jungle. We would have to say "Ice is like . . ." or "An elevator is like . . ." The jungle inhabitant's concept of ice or an elevator would remain very limited, at best, and it would be largely analogical. So our knowledge of God and of His will is scanty, and God's message to us is largely analogical.

For example, "God is love." But what does that mean? We "love" ice cream. We "love" dogs. We "love" our neighbors. We "love" our steady date. We "love" our spouse. We "love" our children. We "love" our parents. We "love" our church.

We must narrow the word love to a specific concept. What kind of love is God like? Of course, God gave that communication in Greek, which com pounds the problem for someone who knows only English. But suppose we all know Greek. We have zeroed in a bit closer, but obviously "God is agape" is largely an analogical message. God is like a particular kind of love.

The Communicant

Finally, we turn to the communicant. At this point in our discussion, he is the Bible writer, whom we shall call a prophet for brevity's sake. God the Communicator had a communication, which He packaged in such a way that it was partially intelligible to the prophet. However, what the communicant actually perceived depended on such things as his experience, his education, his environment, his personality, and his innate intelligence. (See The Great Controversy, p. 6; Selected Messages, book 1, p. 22.)

For example, we have been educated to think of the whole cosmos in many steps planet, solar system, star, star cluster, galaxy, quasar, group of galaxies, the universe. However, as a result of their education, Bible writers envisioned four levels to the cosmos sky, earth, sea, and nether world. Thus when God wanted to speak to Moses or Isaiah or John about the entire universe, He had to speak in terms of sky, earth, sea, and nether world. Had God used such terms as quasar or galaxy, the prophets would have scratched their heads in bewilderment if scratching one's head betokened bewilderment in their culture.

The Bible as Communication

But actually, our discussion hasn't reached God's written word yet. The entire process of communication had to happen again. This time the prophet became the communicator with a communication.

As communicator, the prophet had to choose the language and the particular words he would use. (See The Great Controversy, pp. 5-8; Selected Messages, book 1, p. 21.) He then, in turn, had to package his communication in a meaningful way. Sometimes the prophet acted out his communication. Often he spoke it. Sometimes he or an assistant wrote it down. Perhaps sometimes his students or followers recorded his words for posterity. As a communicator, the Bible writer had to choose the particular form or literary genre that best suited his particular communication and life situation. Some wrote in poetry. Others compiled stories familiar to the community. But always this kind of selection was under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

Reading Scripture Today

Today, you and I are the communicants or the recipients of the prophetic communications the Bible. Unfortunately, we must penetrate four barriers that neither the Bible writers nor their contemporary communicants had to face.

First, we have the barrier of language. Few of us know Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. None of us know them as well as did the Bible writers and their compatriots. Most of us have to rely on someone else to translate the Scriptures for us, and we are unqualified to challenge their translation.

The second barrier we must penetrate is time. The truism remains legitimate "Time changes things." We must ever remember that we live nineteen centuries this side of the New Testament and almost three and a half millennia this side of Moses. Languages, for example, change. Isaiah's Hebrew was not identical with Moses'. Also information accumulated very gradually for centuries, but during the past few decades it has been burgeoning at a dizzying pace.

The third barrier is culture. Let's face it, we do not think like the people of Bible times. Our daily customs differ drastically from theirs. Paul in his letter to the Corinthian Christians condemns long hair on men. The cultural setting, however, must tell us what he meant by long hair. To most of us, hair to the collar and covering the ears is long. But to a group of tonsured monks, even a close-cropped haircut would mean long hair. And in a culture where women have waist-length hair, shoulder-length hair would be short.

The fourth barrier involves the perspective we bring to Scripture. Just as the Bible writers perceived God's communication from their individual perspectives, so we perceive their communication in Scripture in keeping with our individual perspectives, which vary with our experience, education, environment, personality, and intelligence.

The process by which God communicated with the Bible writers is revelation. The guidance that the Spirit gave them as they made God's communication to them their communication to us, we call inspiration. The help that the Holy Spirit gives us as we try to understand that communication in Scripture today is known as illumination.

God in love has chosen to communicate with us. In doing so He has faced problems that would have stymied any one less intelligent or stopped anyone less loving. But the genius of our God is that He willingly limited Himself so that we can understand something no matter how partial---about Him.

We have not been pipe-dreaming here as we have considered the distortions inherent in the communication process. Ellen White has clearly pointed them out in the introduction to The Great Controversy and in Selected Messages, book 1. As a recipient of the Spirit's gift of prophecy, she knew only too well the human side of divine communication.

Obviously, the Adventist who takes Ellen White seriously dwells in a camp by himself. As a result of his under standing of Ellen White's statements about revelation and inspiration and of the actual operation of revelation and inspiration in her life, he can clearly see both the humanity and the divinity of Scripture. Therefore, the tools of modern scholarship are not taboo for the Adventist scholar. He carefully utilizes them, realizing, of course, their inherent limitations and constantly maintaining a double focus with the eye of flesh on the human aspects of Scripture and with the eye of faith on its divine aspects.


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-book editor at the Southern Publishing Association at the time this article was written

October 1975

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