Some years ago I worked for Radio Shack. One function of a salesman is to match the customer to just the right item or part. An elderly lady, clearly not too comfortable with technology, came in to buy a “telephone cord.” Now at the time, “telephone cord” could mean any of a number of things. One type of cord would connect the handset to the base unit. A few different types of cords could connect the telephone to the wall jack as well. It took a few minutes for me to get it clear that the cord she wanted connected the phone base unit to the wall jack. I was hoping both ends would be RJ-11 or 14 plugs, but just to make sure I said, “What does the other end look like? Let me show you the possibilities.”
“It doesn’t have any other end,” she replied.
Now I want you to know that I did figure out the correct “other end” for her cord, and she went home as a satisfied customer. But I think that many people tried communion with God, whether through personal prayer, meditation, or the scriptures, as a sort of one-ended cord.
I’m going to post a few entries about the Christian doctrines of the incarnation and salvation this Christmas, but first I wanted to examine this problem with our understanding of communication with God, as I see it.
I think we often see God’s action in relation to humanity as a one ended cord. On the one hand, many conservative Christians see the one and only critical element to be the sovereignty and power of God. In the Calvinist position, God chooses who will be saved and then saves them. We talk about human activity, but there is no point in the process at which Calvinism allows human activity to be significant. The cord has just one end! It may be people who are saved, but the people don’t really matter.
On the other hand, many liberal Christians put the focus so thoroughly on humanity that the only thing that matters is what a human being can do and become. God is again effectively outside of the loop. The cord has one end–it’s just the opposite end.
Now please don’t remind me that many Christians, Calvinists, conservatives, liberals, and others, are not at the extremes I’ve described. I know that. That’s why they are extremes. But I do know that the extremes exist, and I believe there are many who might not like the description who nonetheless behave as though the cord has only one end.
In terms of Biblical inspiration, the doctrine of inerrancy tends to the treat the cord as having only one end. Inerrancy is attributed to the autographs, but we have no autographs. Errors are OK in the text of the Bible, just so long as they were not introduced by the original writers. Anyone can make a mistake except for them. Why are errors more important if they are introduced when God speaks to a prophet, than they are if they are introduced by a copyist? I believe the reason is simply that inerrancy is designed more to protect the doctrine of God than it is to protect the integrity of God’s communication with humanity. God’s communication must be perfect.
But communication involves two persons. The cord has two ends. God cannot communicate perfectly if the message is not received perfectly. And if the message is only received perfectly by the original prophet (conveniently unavilable to check), but not by later readers, than how is that perfect communication? That, in my view, is the weakness in this doctrine. It does not deal with how we can know God’s will specifically, but rather deals only with God’s side of the equation. The only people assumed to know God’s will are the original recipients.
Likewise salvation can be seen entirely as divine action, as simply part of our definition of who God is, or it can be seen as a way in which God interacts in people to produce a new kind of fruit.
In my next entry I’m going to talk about the doctrine of the incarnation in terms of two ends for the cord. What did God accomplish through the incarnation?