Effing with the Ineffable – Biblical Inerrancy and the Limitation of Language
An artist sits in her studio, inspired by some deep-seated emotion that arises from a reflection on her current circumstance. She works and creates, lovingly instilling in her masterpiece the emotion and the passion that have so consumed her. An office worker visits an art gallery at the end of a long day. Perusing the works from local and international artists, he finds himself drawn to a particular piece. It captivates him, and he finds himself experiencing a haunting inner turmoil. He doesn’t like this emotion that has wrapped itself around him, and yet the image is too compelling for him to extricate himself with any haste. What is going on here?
The artist, for all the depth of her perception and emotion, can never hope to accurately display her experience on canvas or through clay. How could she possibly convey, precisely and totally to another, exactly what it was that inspired her? How could she make the fullness of her experience felt by another, exactly as she comprehended it? She simply cannot. What she can do is create something which points to some degree towards that which she has experienced. But much like a map points to some area of landmass and its features, it is but a very poor representation of the real thing. So it is with art. A viewer then, can observe the artwork and feel all manner of emotions and have his very own experience of what the piece draws out in him, but likewise, he can never accurately convey his experience to any degree that would allow a friend to share that experience in its exactitude and totality. Nor will his own experience be anything like that which compelled the artist to create in the first place. All the artist and the viewer can hope to do, in conveying their experience, is to point others towards having an experience of their own, whatever that may be. The limitation of language This is also true of language. Particularly in terms of describing the Divine, and our encounters with it, language has no hope of conveying the depths of All That Is and our experiences with it. Even the most perfect theology falls drastically short of truly describing who God is and the fullness of Christ’s relationship with humanity. The Bible is sometimes referred to as “the living word”. No one could ever hope to convey the fullness of God within any number of pages of even the most majestic text. And yet those very words draw us into experience; a living experience that is very different for everyone and one that is constantly evolving as we grow in our identity as God’s children. My own experience with scripture has evolved in the last five years, just as it did in the five years before that, and the five before that, and so on, as new revelations are imparted while my life unfolds. We should still, and always, be taken on a journey with God through every reading of our holy texts. No preacher worth their salt would dare to insinuate that “once is enough” when it comes to reading the Bible. If our reading of scripture becomes stagnant, then so goes our relationship with God. The trap of inerrancy This is why it is so dangerous to look at scripture and say, “The Bible clearly says!” Firstly, we miss what is actually happening, as far as the experience we are having as we personally engage with scripture. Secondly, we not only presume that we can accurately convey our own experience to others, we demand that they too must experience scripture in exactly the same way that we do, in this exact moment of our own evolving discovery. To do this is to deny our own journey of discovery with God, and theirs. The language we use and the pictures we may paint with it, can never come close to an experience with the Divine, with Christ. It has too many limitations. I can not tell you who God is; God is ineffable, indescribable. No one can fully describe the glory of God, not even the authors of scripture under divine inspiration from the almighty hand of God. All I, and they, and anyone can hope to do, is to point others towards an experience of their own with Christ. Word vs language This is why Christians rightly point to Jesus as the true Word of God, and should use him to interpret the rest of scripture, and indeed everything around us. But, we must do so remembering that even our accounts of him in the gospels fall victim to the same limitations of language.
Our stories about Jesus may point us towards an experience with the true Word of God, but they will never come close to actually being that relational experience for us. Instead we must allow the words of scripture to guide us towards the reality deep within all of us, of the Christ who has made his home there. Allowing this awareness of Christ, birthed within us, to then interpret how we read scripture, and not the other way around.
Realising our limitations, and those of our forebears, to adequately convey our knowledge of the One Who Knows Us All through words, should give us pause. Approaching this reality with a level of humility, we can see why God gave us Jesus. All the words in the world cannot make us whole. Only relationship.
It is through God’s great act of compassion that he reveals himself to us and asks us to do the same. Even small acts of kindness and of grace speak more fully of God and are a greater indication of one’s standing with God than any heated debate over theology. All the Bibles, Qur’ans and Baghavad Gitas in the world fail terribly in comparison to one who stoops down in the dirt. And maybe, just maybe, through humble acts of compassion, we will begin to know that which we were trying to express.
Russell Croft has a heart for community and reaching out to the marginalised and forgotten. He is getting to know the God of infinite goodness and is living a joy-filled life with his wife Belinda and three children in South-East Queensland, Australia.
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