Read It For the Sword Stroke
“The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it. Those who have read it know there are some good parts, but overall it is certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced. It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned. If the thing you heard was good about the Bible was the nasty bits, then I propose Agota Kristof's The Notebook, a marvelous tale of two brothers who have to get along when things get rough. The subtlety and cruelty of this story is like that famous sword stroke (from below the boat) that plunged upward through the bowels, the lungs, and the throat and into the brain of the rower.” - Jesse Ball, 'Census'
I kind of enjoy Ball’s critique of the Bible. He has the same perspective Augustine had when he first tried to read it. When he finally did, Augustine went on to be one of the greatest of the Church Fathers whose writings and works still influence western thought in and outside Christian circles. His influence on men such as John Calvin and Luther are widely known, but he is also credited by some for giving the secular reformer of philosophy, Descartes, the foundation for his philosophy.
Augustine records his initial distaste for the Bible in Book III of his Confessions. There he says that the Bible, “seemed unworthy in comparison with the dignity of Cicero.” Here, a note in Henry Chadwick’s translation for Oxford World’s Classics, explains that “The humble style of the Bible…is mentioned by Augustine as a major deterrent to conversion for the educated and well-to-do classes.” Of course, Augustine finally did read the Bible, and when he did, he was struck by a sword that perhaps did not plunge upward through his bowls, lungs, and throat to the brain, yet certainly did cut like that of Ehud’s “message from God,” and discerned the thoughts and intentions of Augustine’s heart (Heb. 4:12).
The story of Ehud and his two-edged sword plunging into the bowls so that the dung comes out of King Eglon of Moab is undoubtedly one of the nasty bits of Scripture. What a story. I suppose stories like this still keep the educated and well-to-do from reading the Bible, and it is a story that doesn’t sit well with most of us as it does not fit our perceptions of what a religious text should be. But these stories kept me reading my first time through. I was never much of a “Bible Thumper.” Still, there was a time when I had rated the Bible highly without ever having read it.
I was sixteen when that dawned on me. I had gone to my room to read “The Book of Mormon.” I got through about the first page when I looked up and noticed the Bible my God-parents had given me on the day I was baptized. I had owned it for sixteen years and never read it, not cover to cover. I had read in it and memorized verses from it, but I had not ever taken in the full tapestry. So I took it down and began to read. It took me a year. What can I say? The Bible is repetitive, parts of it seem to contradict other parts. It is the word of God the power of salvation for those who believe, and yet as Ball tells us, it is foolish. More than that, it is dangerous. The sword stroke gets you.
I don’t remember knowing the word sententious at sixteen, but I regarded most of my Sunday school teachers as self-moralizers nonetheless. Yet with almost every turn of the page in the Bible, I remember thinking, “They were wrong!” “What?!!!” Its crude language made me worry if I quoted it, I might have to wash my mouth out with soap. (Later when I learned Greek and Hebrew, I also learned this was the pg translation). The Bible made me wrestle with things I had been told it banned outright like slavery or polygamy, divorce and remarriage. It never treated any of these issues as black and white. This helped me see that the norms of my own society are not always the hallmarks of civility either. It made heroes out of impious sinners, and villains out of the pious. I stalled in Numbers; it took me a month and a half to get through Leviticus. The repetitiveness of those books was hard for me to handle. Finally, I plowed through. Later, my friends could not understand why I was laughing so hard at Monty Python’s bit about the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. I can see why some would think it foolish, and I can laugh at the foolishness.
God uses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. The thrust of a spear plunging upward piercing the side of God, perforating his bowls, puncturing his heart, collapsing his lungs: this becomes the message of God. The nastiest bit is the Gospel, the good news, your salvation. It’s the foolishness that God could die that our sins could be forgiven by another man’s blood, that salvation is found in the death of a criminal. No glory, just a cross, bowels, blood and bone, the suffocating stench of death, and your salvation where God becomes the propitiation of man.
The dirty fingerprints of man are all over Scripture. Some want to deny this thinking it would be blasphemy to admit it, but copy and paste the text of it into Microsoft Word and the red and blue will indicate that this is not the text you want to hold up as an example of good grammar. Blame it on the translators if you like, but David Bentley Hart might tell you differently. Concerning his new translation of the New Testament, Hart states in the Atlantic, “where the author has written bad Greek, I have written bad English.” All the great theologians from Augustine to Chrysostom to Luther have wrestled with reconciling how such a blatantly human document, blemishes and all, could also be the word of God. Hermann Sasse ties the thoughts of these theological giants together in his essay “Sacra Scriptura.” There, he emphasizes Chrysostom’s description of the human face within Divine Word, as the Word that became flesh in the person of Christ:
“He [Chrysostom] has done that in his teaching of the Synkatabasis, the condescensio of God. ‘Behold the condescension of the divine Scripture, see what words it uses on account of our weakness,’ he says commenting on Genesis 2:21. In a similar way, he says commenting on Genesis 3:8…of Holy Scripture that it shows such great humility of speech. In Homily 15 on John…he explains the passage Hosea 12:11 in this way: ‘This means I have condescended and I did not appear as that which I was” (Hermann Sasse, The Journal Articles of Hermann Sasse, New Reformation Publications, 2016, 50).
Sasse goes on to call Chrysostom’s doctrine of scripture a “theology of the cross” rather than a “theology of glory.” The theology of glory is what man expects of Holy Scripture: moral and aesthetic perfection. We expect that if it is God’s word, it must have fallen out of the sky on golden plates, or that perhaps the various authors wrote in a spiritual trance and woke up to find manuscripts with flawless handwriting, free of spelling errors. Instead, we are often scandalized to read it and find it so human. Scandalized in the way that people are scandalized when they are confronted with the death of God on the cross. It just does not make sense.
So Jesse Ball calls it foolish, and of course, he is right. Even the apostle Paul says so. “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor. 1:27). “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). Often our world is strangely enriched by the foolish, and reading that which cannot be defined as worldly wisdom. Why God does this is a mystery, but in doing so, he shames the wise and shows the limits of their own initiative. He confounds the proud and champions the weak. So go ahead, read the Bible. Read it for the foolishness that captured Augustine, and turned Luther’s world upside down. Read it for the sword stroke, let it pierce you, bowels to brain, and bring you to life in the resurrection of Jesus.