I suspect that my perceptions of spirituality and spiritual growth have, like those of other people, a tendency to become settled on a particular track or tradition. But sometimes it’s a good thing to be slightly “derailed” by the spiritual perceptions of others who are on a different track.
I just finished reading a very good biography of Martin Luther whose life and perspectives offer certain nudges worth reflection. The many references in the book to Erasmus of Rotterdam prompted me to get ahold of his biography as well and I’m reading that now with some interest. One of the insights in reading about both these men that has struck a resounding chord within me is the idea of a “purifying” of Christian theology by referring to Your words in the gospels. I was so taken with this idea over the last few weeks that I bought a number of books specifically about Your words recorded in the New Testament. I was so moved by this simple insight and its possibilities for fundamental spiritual meaning and direction that I shared the insight with my deacon friend over dinner recently. This became the occasion of a derailment. He said, “We have no way of knowing exactly what Christ said.” He went on about how those Bibles and prayer books that put the words of Jesus in red annoy him because we have no contemporaneous witnesses to report Your words directly. The evidence is quite strong that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not actually write the gospels attached to them. Rather, they were written, at best, decades later by disciples or followers of each of these men who were probably at least one generation removed from You and who, most likely, never saw You.
“But,” I said, “they probably wrote down what was reported to them as Christ’s words, right? He said that was possible, but we just don’t know. So we should not take them as verbatim quotes.
This bothered me a great deal and I mulled it over for days. I asked myself, ‘Upon what is the theology of Christianity based?’ The answer can only be that Christianity is based on Your teachings. But where do we find Your teachings? In scripture, of course! But we don’t know if what scripture says You said is actually what You said. Therefore it would seem the theology of Christianity is, to some degree, based on speculation. Such a premise does a remarkable job of knocking one’s underpinnings somewhat askew.
The prospect of accepting this seemed nearly catastrophic to me so I took it all to a priest friend who is a scripture expert. He said it’s true. We don’t know exactly what You said. But we can be sure that the gist of what You wanted to teach us, as contained in the gospel records of Your life, is true. One reason is that we believe the writers, whoever they were, were guided and inspired by the Spirit of God; and the other reason is the prescience of Christ.
This whole idea of Your prescience in the matter was entirely new to me and it set my wheels back on track. It seems not only quite possible but also highly likely that You foresaw exactly the way men would set down in writing Your words and teachings and, therefore, spoke and acted with an instrumentality toward that end. Thus, while we may not have the verbatim transcription of Your words, we do have what You wanted us to have.