This, is the part of a much larger question I have been wrestling with for many, many years...and no doubt will continue to do so into the future...but I thank you for asking the question...I always profit personally when someone else asks it, than when I ask it!...
Another way of stating the question, that conditions the way I approach it, is this:
"If God was interested enough in getting His urgent message to us to guarantee its inscripturation at a 100% quality level, then why did he not do so with all subsequent 'handling' of the message, through transmission, transliteration, translation, intake, interpretation?"
Here are my thoughts--seemingly random, often untested/unexamined, very raw--but at least it is a start for me...
Some caveats first...I am only discussing this WITHIN my idiosyncratic worldview, which is evangelical Judeo-Christian, somewhat intellectually informed, non-obscurantist, mostly conservative theologically, rigid in the core anchor points, non-committal on most minutia, flexible and learning on everything in between...the God of which I will speak is one who is ontologically ultimate and distinct from the creation (analogically related, of course), is conscious and has at least three centers of self-consciousness, has personal characteristics of a spiritual nature, interacts within his existence between the three Persons, has enough 'moxy' to interact within history and space-time WITHOUT being ostensibly detectable, has a passion for truth, honesty, other-centeredness, commitment to the worth, freedom and integrity of this creation; and a desire to communicate his offer of acceptance and friendship to his creation...I will really not attempt to defend the position much, but will focus on articulating it as coherently as possible...
I personally wrestle with this at a very deep level--intellectually and emotionally...I have had so little help in the history of thought in working on this problem...the theologians are typically not aware of the philosophical issues in epistemology, and the philosophers de-weight too much of the historical realities...
anyway...I will approach this by setting forth the epistemic chain between inspiration and receptor, and then develop some thoughts in connection with this, and then examine what I have said to see if in coheres at all!
The EPISTEMIC CHAIN:
The base 'message-text' seems to have been preserved at an almost obsessive level. (I have already given you the data on the NT mss, in which the number of MSS exceeds 24,000. In that case the abundance of mss is 'strange'. In the case of the OT, the situation is the reverse. The OT had a very, very tightly controlled transmission, and every defective copy was burned/destroyed...in that case, the few early OT MSS point to a special handling by the literate class of their sacred book...
- God 'builds/moves' the prophets to respond to situations in 'special histories' (e.g. Israel's apostasy, the exodus initiation, the apostolic first-decade), and to represent Him in those responses/utterances.
- These responses (e.g. prophetic denunciations and comfortings, chronicler histories, psalmist passionate outbursts) get written down.
- These writings (piecemeal at this time) get 'recognized somehow' by the native audience-community, perhaps later in time, as having a unique character over against the other 'holy' books (e.g. Old Testament vs. Talmud) and are accorded special status and special treatment.
- These writings are copied and transmitted, with all attempts to preserve the original reading and even writing. But the Semitic character forms changed during this time, so some earlier writings (esp. the mosaic works) would have required "re-transliteration" into the more modern Hebrew character sets. The transmission process would be attended to with care, due to the 'sacred' character of these writings, but multiple copies could give rise to textual variants.
- In some other culture, a translator will translate the manuscripts he has before him (after making some determination of the 'best' construction of the original text) into a local, indigenous language--with more or less fidelity to the original responses.
- (Optional step: a teacher will read the translated text and 'explain' it to a RECIPIENT. 'Explanation' in this context is probably best understood as building an extended paraphrase of the original, in which the implicit dimensions of the original (e.g. historical setting, cultural customs, theological substrate) are made explicit in the 'paraphrase'. The work of the Wycliffe Bible translators in mapping semantic domains is illustrative of the difficulty of this task. For an older work on this, see Beekman and Callow, Translating the Word of God, Zondervan, 1974.)
- The penultimate step is where the RECIPIENT is confronted with an oral reading of the text, an oral 'extended paraphrase' of the text, a written version of the text in a familiar language, or an 'extended paraphrase' in written form.
- Finally, the RECIPIENT will 'interact' with the medium present to her/him, drawing upon individual situations, divergence from the 'indigenous' norms, linguistic competency variances, etc. They will form some understanding (i.e. in my understanding, this is the ability to paraphrase the heard/read sentences with adequate fidelity to the denotative meaning).
The OT was basically finished around 400 BC., but the earliest full copies (of all the books together) we have are from around 900 AD....we have fragments earlier, and can historically reconstruct the text back to around 100 AD. (beginning of the Talmudist period)...in this regards, the mss tradition is comparable to other classical literature...but the means of transmission of that text is so bizarre as to suggest that its reliability is very, very high...
For example, in the Talmudist period (100-500 ad) a great deal of time was spent in cataloging Hebrew civil and canonical law...they had a very, very intricate system for the transcription of synagogue scrolls...some of the rules were:
As bizarre as these may seem, they certainly convey an attention (yay, preoccupation) with detail, that would go a long way to preserving the textual-form of the message (not meaning, just form)
- a synagogue scroll must be written on the skins of clean animals
- the skins must be prepared by a Jew
- these must be fastened together with strings taken from clean animals
- every skin must contain a certain number of columns, equal throughout the entire codex
- the length of each column must not extend over less than 48 or more than 60 lines and the breadth must consist of 30 letters
- the whole copy must be first-lined, and if three words are written without a line, it is worthless
- the ink should be black, neither red, green, nor any other color, and be prepared according to a definite recipe
- an authentic copy must be the exemplar, from which the transcriber ought not to deviate in the least
- no word or letter must be written from memory; the scribe must look at the codex before him
- between every consonant the space of a hair or thread must intervene
- between every new section, the breadth of nine consonants
- between every book, three lines
- the first book of Moses must terminate exactly with a line
- the copyist must sit in full Jewish dress
- wash his whole body
- should a king address him while writing the name of God, he must not notice.
- any slip-ups were immediately burned or destroyed
By the time you get to the Massoretic Period (ad 500-900), the discipline and safeguards are full-blown...they attempted over this period to bring together the various mss, create a catalog of variant readings, add vocalization, etc...they added a huge overhead of checksums to the process...
Up until 1947, how 'good' this transmission process would have been was open to question...but in November of 1947, the discovery of the Qumran scrolls (aka "Dead Sea Scrolls") gave us an interesting checkpoint...the discovery was of 40,000 fragments from which some 500 books were reconstructed...we recovered the great Isaiah scroll (24 feet in length) which was dated at 100 BC. by W.F. Albright, the leading American biblical archeologist, of Johns Hopkins Univ.
- the verses of each book
- the letters of each book
- the number of occurrences of each letter of the alphabet, in each book
- the middle word and middle letter of each book, of the Pentateuch, and of the bible
The question was quickly raised: how did this mss, that was a full millennium earlier than the best Massoretic text of Isaiah we had at the time, compare with it? Let me quote from Geisler and Nix, General Introduction to the Bible, 1968.
Of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, there are only 17 letters in question. Ten of these letters are simply a matter of spelling, which does not affect the sense. Four more letters are minor stylistic changes, such as conjunctions. The remaining three letters comprise the word 'light' which is added in verse 11, and does not affect the meaning greatly. Furthermore, this word is supported by LXX and IQ Is. Thus, in one chapter of 166 words, there is only one word (3 letters) in question after a thousand years of transmission--and this word does not significantly change the meaning of the passage
and then Gleason Archer, Survey of the Old Testament, 1964:
[the Isaiah copies] proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling [by the Qumranists]
So the transmission methods, although apparently a bit overkill(!), seemed to preserve the text from the close of the OT period...
Last piece under this point...I find it interesting that the whole attitude of fidelity to the original by the copyists extended even to transliteration of foreign names into/out of Hebrew, and that this was recognized as early as 30 years ago:
"In 144 cases of transliteration from Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Moabite into Hebrew and 40 cases of the opposite, or 184 in all, the evidence shows that for 2300 to 3900 years the text of the proper names in the Hebrew bible has been transmitted with the most minute accuracy. That the original scribes should have written them with such close conformity to correct philological principles is a wonderful proof of their thorough care and scholarship; further, that the Hebrew text should have been transmitted by copyists through so many centuries is a phenomenon unequaled in the history of literature" (Robert D. Wilson, A Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament, 1959)
There are other data points on the OT stuff (e.g. NT quotations, targums, mishnah) but this is probably too much detail already. (The issue of how the texts came together BEFORE the end of the OT is a subject WAY beyond the scope of this email--but I may need to write some stuff down on that as well, I suppose).
The point was: the base of the text seems to have been preserved adequately as a vehicle for the subject steps in the EC (epistemic chain).
There is ambiguity throughout the EC...in every step...variant readings (although less than 5%), variant cross-language translation problems, educational/cultural backgrounds of the RECIPIENT...I personally understand this ambiguity to be deliberate on the part of God...in an effort to avoid inflicting 'epistemic or volitional violence' to independent persons (i.e. humans)...and to evoke a whole-person response to His message of love and action...
I have often wondered when a true skeptic (not an open-minded seeker with intellectual questions--BIG difference!) has said "well, why doesn't God just show Himself every morning in the sky, or sky-write the Gospel every day, or carve it on our retinas or something?" what would be result IF GOD DID THAT? There are a couple of scenarios...
Option A seems to have some support from Luke 16. 19-31. In this controversial passage, you have a dead man in Hades having a conversation with Abraham. He is in torment and asks Abraham to raise someone from the dead and send them as a messenger to his still-alive brothers--to warn them of his fate. The end of the passage has an epistemic twist to it:
- the skeptic could dispute that it really was God, really was a message from God, the interpretation thereof, and so on infinitum (much like the problem of epistemological regress);
- the skeptic could be forced, against his will!, to accept the truth (my notion of volitional violence)
- (the theoretical 3rd option, that he is convinced, and therefore embraces it wholeheartedly, does not occur in the scenario of the skeptic vs. the seeker...the hard core skeptic DOES NOT WANT CONTRARY DATA THAT IS VERY RESISTANT TO RE-INTERPRETATION, and is no different from the extremely zealous believer in this regards)
"Abraham replied: 'They have Moses and the Prophets, let them listen to them'
'No, Father Abraham,' he said, 'but it someone from the dead goes to them, they will change their minds.'
He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"
So this exchange, taken at face value, would suggest that even 'miraculous' data, sky-writing quality, existential experience-quality, etc. would not be enough to produce a change of mind--if the scriptures were not enough to begin with...
Option B seems to have some support from Mt 11.20-22:
"Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles were done, because they did not change their minds: 'Woe to you, Korazin? Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you."
This is a rather heavy passage, teeming with theological questions for me(!), but the point I want to draw out is that God knew that Tyre and Sidon 'would have believed' in the face of overwhelming revelation (i.e. Jesus' messianic miracles). When I couple that with the fact that they did NOT receive extraordinary revelation (as a nation) and hence, did NOT 'repent', I have to come up with a reason why...I conclude that in some way, it was INAPPROPRIATE for God to confront them with that intensity/clarity of truth...and that accordingly, their response to that revelation would have been inauthentic or illegitimate or something like that...
In other words, a volitionally-forced 'belief' even when actuated by epistemically vivid and effective revelation is somehow 'unreal' or 'detached' from the person...maybe even personal integrity (ontologically speaking, not ethically) would be compromised...or actually, maybe even culpability is somehow INCREASED (e.g. the more revelation one is given, the more responsible they are for how that respond--and in the case of someone who would NEVER respond, perhaps it is more merciful to withhold additional revelation beyond some 'starter set')
An alternate approach to this is through the vehicle of "parable" as a discourse form...Jesus used parables in many of his early public discourses (but by no means most) and said occasionally that it was so those who were honest and responsive to truth would 'get it' and those who weren't wouldn't 'get it'--in the context of a public revelation..
The point is that ambiguity--all the way through the EC--may be deliberate, to separate out those who only want excuses not to believe, from those who want to work through the issues to get at truth--whatever that implies for personal lifestyles.
There are limits on the ambiguity; the truth must be accessible by ALL epistemic 'classes' of people...the core truths must be outside of the ambiguity range. So, for example, the fact that Christ was both God and man is attested to by OT and NT, arguments and passages from a wide variety of viewpoints, backgrounds, data references...whereas the arguments over should baptism be by immersion or sprinkling or whatever, are much less definitive, cumulative, and 'closure-producing'...Likewise for the textual variants--the variations are in minor points (enough for someone who wanted to reject it to do so, but not enough to be a show-stopper for open-minded seekers)
The 'weakest link' in the EC--by far, in my opinion--is the linguistic competency or interpretive skill of the RECIPIENT (in terms of getting an 'infallible message' through history from the event of inspiration to the event of assimilation). EVEN IF God had implemented a plan whereby he preserved only one copy of the text, with no variants whatsoever, and had made the entire world share an unchanging language and culture, we WOULD STILL have this problem...people grow up with different interpretive grids--not radically so, but enough different to create an ambiguity and precision problem...this problem has dimensions of background, age, educational level, attitude toward issues, 'pre-existing conditions' etc. With the RECIPIENT being the 'variable' with the widest range(!), I am not sure that any efforts by God to eliminate the variables in earlier steps in the EC could ever be adequate to overcome this variation...nor is it clear to me that this is a limiting factor in transmission of a 'core message'. To be sure, there are variables that would render conveyance ridiculous (e.g. a Swahili NT to a typical Cupertino CA third-grader), but perhaps the denotative kernel might make it through, even if loaded down with tons of irrelevant connotative elements.
In this conveyance work, God would provide means of refining one's level of certainty (or epistemic conviction) about the content and/or the reliability of the message, and would provide some flags of 'strangeness' to alert people of the uniqueness of the revelation.
In the refining of a level of psychological certainty, God could use several means that we use in other areas of our lives. In basic science, we 'try a theory'; if we get a match with the data, we feel better about it...We keep trying it until we get a contrary or stubborn negative datapoint...if we have a ton of confirming experiences, we tend to modify the theory slightly or we suspend judgment on that datapoint (hoping for later integrative insights)...we only throw the theory out if our confirming experiences were small, non-vivid, ambiguous; as opposed perhaps to the new, contrary data...
It is the same in the conveyance realm...we see the unfolding data of archeology vindicating the text's claims to 'strangeness' and/or reliability...there are so many examples of historical references that were 'mythical' or 'fabrications' or 'errors' that have been validated by subsequent archeology...examples:
disputed fact confirming discovery
writing at time of Moses Ebla texts
multiple Pentateuch traditions, Qumran
pointing to early orig.
Early Domestication of Camels Byblos artifacts/Sumerian texts
Abraham's selection of heir Tablets at Nuzi
Transfer of Esau's birthright Tablets at Nuzi
Israel early in Palestine Stele of Meneptah
Unity of Deuteronomy Hittite tablets from Boghazkoy
early develop. of legal codes multiple ANE sources
In the area of refining the 'clarity' of the message, this motif would suggest that we would uncover more data about the lexical stock, customs, literary forms, etc. that would give us further precision over time. In this way, ambiguity would be reduced, but not eliminated...
This, of course, happens in most literary fields, and biblical studies are no exception. Specifically, the later versions of Form Criticism made helpful clarifications on literary contexts for specific bible passages.
The understanding of this message has sociological dimensions. This revelation occurred in a 'public' arena, and is addressed to social beings. The 'debate' over the meaning of the message occurs in scholarly and academic enterprise, and as such manifests the sociological character of other such subjects, notably science. As in the scientific community, research occurs within paradigm-communities, and paradigm communities 'compete' on the basis of which theory does the BEST (not perfect) job of predicting/retrodicting the data, so also do theological communities (e.g. liberal, feminist, Catholic, evangelical, specific sub-cultures) develop 'systems' that attempt to predict/retrodict the data of scripture, tradition, numinous experience, etc.
Take for example the finalizing of the canon of the NT...how does this process illustrate the dynamics of ambiguity, personal-social dialectics, etc.?
At the start of this process, the main rule of approved evidence for theological formulations and bases for ethical arguments was the OT canon. This was quickly expanded to include the words of Jesus (cf. how Paul cites Jesus whenever possible as authority--I Cor 11.23ff, I Cor 7.10ff). Later the apostolic messages (oral and written) were recognized in the community as having special authority (over other 'good' but 'normal' teaching). In the disorganized state of the early church and under the intense persecution by Jews and Romans, much of these gospel accounts and apostolic material were distributed without 'controls'...with the result that as early as 130 AD we have a church bishop (Papias of Hierapolis) having to sift between the authentic and the inauthentic message-traditions...The way he (and others) decided what was authoritative was whether it could be traced to the Lord or to the apostles...Then, as a crop of 'private traditions' arose, that could not demonstrate this chain-of-authority or demonstrate their basic coherence with known authoritative statements, the underground church--without the benefit of organization and communications between the various groups--began to publish lists of known-authentic works. Other works were NOT banned from the community (and especially, good devotional material was welcomed), but these works were not allowed to be read during the 'scripture reading' part of the worship services. And the deposing of a bishop by Tertullian for writing a forgery and ascribing it to Paul (even out of 'love for Paul'), shows that pseudepigraphic writings--even for noble and pure motives--were NOT accepted by the church and carefully guarded against...The criteria of truth and demonstrable authenticity was too high.
As these individual communities began comparing their lists, they found substantial overlap in them. In other words, the authentic character of the revelation somehow impressed itself upon the communities-even in isolation from other--with the result that the combined community could cite these works with the 'it is written' formula...The disputes over what books were 'in' and which were 'out' had the public scholarly dimensions I mentioned...but the individual decisions were made by groups of individuals who 'responded' somehow to the self-manifested authority of the revelatory writings.
All of this occurred within 50-100 years of the production of the writings...and the probability of getting this level of consensus from disconnected groups, with diverse cultural backgrounds (Jewish, Hellenistic), and without any formal or ecclesiastical 'teeth' is minute...and to me, within this worldview context, suggests some level of divine 'control' from within the believing communities...
The early forms of the multiple-authors-per-document theories (e.g. Astruc, Graf-Wellhausen) used stylistic criteria to separate unitary documents into 'original' documents that had been woven together by some unknown redactor. The criteria to separate these documents focused on usage of names of God (e.g. Yahweh vs. Elohim) and/or on topics (e.g. law vs. liturgy), with the assumption being that the writers could only use one or the other, but not both(!)...These fragmentation theories were largely overturned by later archeological data demonstrating early priestly material in ALL OTHER ANE cultures, the literary unity of Deut. as a 13th century BC treaty form, use of multiple names for God by the same authors in other ancient near eastern cultures, and the failure of the theory in its similar predictions of Koran substrates...
But a more obvious issue for me, is that these theories tried to impose a rigid uniformity on a text that I maintain cannot be so saddled...for example, in textual criticism one of the principles used in deciding between textual variants is to discard 'smoother' readings in favor of 'hard' readings...In other words, we know from studies that the later church DID try to introduce word additions to the text to smooth out the meaning...when earlier copies left the ambiguity or 'offense' in the test...for example, in Mark 9.29 when Jesus said that a specific type of evil spirit is only exorcised "by prayer" later ascetically-inclined monks added "and fasting"...(we are able to catch these strange things due to the abundance of mss.)..In other words, things that might not make sense at first (e.g. using Yahweh and Elohim in the same verse?) might tend to be the original, instead of a more 'harmonious' rending the text in two..
The net: the presence of difficulties for understanding MAY also be a witness to the authenticity of the text and antiquity of the writings. (Also, by way of note, the treaty form that the entire book of Deut. is in, passed out of historical knowledge some 300-600 years before critics say it was written...the alleged later writers would have had to go digging in Late Bronze Age ruins to discover those forms!)
Archeology and linguistics may have narrowed the ambiguity and uncertainty somewhat, but they have made very little contribution to the receptor problem. In fact, as civilization has progressed, we have witnessed a resurgence of traditional cultures and robustness of social structures...this would actually exacerbate the receptor diversity problem, along with the growing breadth of educational options...
If we start with the assumption (within this worldview) that a true message is somehow in the text and in its transmission, how would we account for the range of diverse opinions concerning it? In other words, why doesn't everyone agree that God deposited His message uniquely in this stream of revelation?
There are a couple of different cuts at this:
- The paradigm-nature of at least public scholarly debate would almost guarantee a certain amount of difference of opinion, but this might not account for the extreme poles of opinion between a die-hard skeptic and a die-hard fundamentalist...
- the spectrum of receptor -abilities/skills/education also assures that most people will be somewhere on the continuum of belief-unbelief (about the message) and constantly moving thereupon...my understand of the veracity of the text/message is vastly different today (after two decades of working through this, with an honest attempt to avoid self-delusion!, and after tens of thousands of pages of reading) than when I first opened my trust/heart up to Jesus in college...I would therefore expect another axis along which opinions would vary...
- I would also expect some extrema at the boundaries of openness/naiveté...in other words, there are people who deliberately suppress truth (and only truth!)...I know some, and sometimes will toggle into this mode myself (esp. about personal ethical issues!)...the scripture actually gives us a few verses on these psychological profiles ...
So Romans 1.18-23 (The Message NT):
So truth is NOT 'irresistible' (like we don't know that already, right!) , is not 'volitionally free', and that some positions (pro and con) are probably motivated more by personal agenda than by a love for the truth...
"But God's angry displeasure erupts as acts of human mistrust and wrongdoing and lying accumulate, as people try to put a shroud over truth. But the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can't see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being. So nobody has a good excuse. What happened was this: People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn't treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives. They pretended to know it all, but were illiterate regarding life. They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in this hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand."
II Peter 3.5: "But they deliberately forget that long ago by God's word the heavens existed..."
Roman 1.25: "they exchanged the truth of God for a lie..."
Rom 2.8: "those who reject the truth and follow evil..."
2 Tim 2.10: "because they refused to love the truth..."
2 Tim 3.7: " always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth..."
Proverb 1.23ff:" If you had responded to my rebuke, I would have poured out my heart to you and made my thoughts known to you. But since you rejected me when I called and no one gave heed when I stretched out my hand, since you ignored all my advice and would not accept my rebuke, I in turn will laugh at your disaster; I will mock when calamity overtakes you — when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble overwhelm you. "Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me. Since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the LORD, since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes.
Psalm 50:17: "You hate my instruction and cast my words behind you.
Proverbs 18.2: "A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions"
And as for the uncritical naiveté of some believers, Luke's words in Act 17.11:
"Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true."
The net: diversity of opinion in this arena, as in other areas of knowledge, is not surprising, and might even suggest that the message has an ultimate character to it, in that it provokes such a wide range and depth of emotional and intellectual response.
The abundance of textual/archeological data indicates that we have not lost any of the text; rather, we have too much of it! In other words, we do not seem to be missing any verses, but we seem to have several extra sections that appear in some mss but not others...the most notable examples are the Woman caught in Adultery (John 7.53-8.11) and the end of Mark (Mark 16.9-20)...so if there is some providential element in this conveyance, it seems to have included all of the text, but allowed non-authentic 'fuzz' to gather alongside it (subject to the limits of ambiguity and clarity above, and within the context of textual criticism as a historical discipline)...
Given ambiguity as a small percentage around the core truths (and as a higher percentage around the less-critical areas), and given a high variability of receptor capabilities, it comes naturally to ask the question "what is the barest minimum that must be understood to initiate/change one's relationship with God?"
The curious thing here is that the initial and main issue is NOT cognitive content, but an attitude of openness and commitment to truth...somehow, the holistic-personal response to truth (wherever it is found) conditions how God will rollout the truth to an individual...(see point 10 above)...
We know that personal knowledge within a relationship is conditioned by trust...as I trust my friend more, I will share more of my 'secrets' and my inner self with this person...God has a similar orientation, it seems...look at these two verses...
Psalm 25.14 "The Lord confides in those who warmly respect him"
Now, this data would suggest that as a person responded in openness and respect to the truth around/in them, God would 'get more information' to that person--as a personal disclosure. ("How" God could communicate in such a public forum WITHOUT the epistemic violence on others AT THE SAME TIME we will have to postpone to a later bullet--somewhere in the 30's I think).
Prov 3.32b "The Lord takes the upright into His confidence"
With this is mind, the onus of responsibility (and/or decision about 'how much') for this falls back upon God...the answer is almost "how much is needed? As much as an honest seeker has when they die"--an almost tautology. But this seems to be close to the matter...one thing seems to be clear and that is that the content of the message centers around the character of God as loving, restorative, trustworthy, respect-worthy, ethically pure, and interactive...
Although it certainly appears that God uses the Bible in the vast majority of cases today (actually only parts of it--by the end of 1992, their were portions of the bible translated into 1,978 different languages, only 322 of which had complete bibles), we have enough evidence to know that He has used 'strange means' to reveal Himself to people throughout the world and throughout history: visions, dreams, missionaries, 'misunderstood' local myths, travel. etc.
(One other point on the languages...there are 2,110 languages in the world that have more than 100 speakers--according to the Classification and Index of the World's Languages, by Voegelin and Voegelin, as cited in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, ed. David Crystal...so the vast majority of the world has 'linguistic' access to the message, but 'logistic' access is another matter-there are still portions of the world that still 'ban the bible' in official and/or unofficial ways.)
One final point on this...Jesus had an interesting remark in John 6.45: "Everyone who listens to the Father comes to me"--in other words, IF someone had a relationship with God--independent of Jesus--then when confronted with the 'data' of Jesus, they would recognize/accept Him...this would be like a notion of 'progressive revelation' in an individual's history...This is somewhat different than the universal notion of progressive revelation, in which God increased the precision-level of his salvific work over time...in other words, what Noah and sons would have believed about how God would deal with the consequences of their moral failures, would have been vastly less precise (but just as effective in healing their relationship with their God) than the apostle Paul's...
The net: The concept of a 'minimum set' of propositions that must be accepted is probably a strange way of looking at this process...it is much more an issue of 'how must one respond as a person to the truth they are gently confronted with about God'
Natural language seems to be the best medium for the kind of message God would need to get to us...and the nature of lexical use and determination is such that we are always dealing with "that's close enough conceptually"
In a message that deals with "infinite" persons, immortality and immorality, evil, natures, personal struggles, despair, rebellion, hubris, apathy, hope, freedom, spirit, etc., the medium used must strike a healthy balance between denotative precision, emotional concomitants, and volitional confrontation. If we build a continuum of precision, with math and logical calculus on one end (extremely precise, but with a very, very limited lexical stock--one doesn't use 'despair' or 'hope' in wffs(!) very often), and with freeform music on the other (notoriously imprecise with its cognitive content, but emotionally powerful and affective), natural language would fall right in the middle...it might look like this?
Within this context of natural language, definitions of words always elude total precision...we cannot define 'fear' or 'despair' except empathetically (imagine yourself at gunpoint by X...what you feel is called 'fear' "--or the such like)...so obsessive demands by technical-linguists (e.g. philosophers or scientists) for 'more rigorous definitions' is simply inappropriate...(this is NOT to say sloppy thinking is allowed!)...because, as we moved to more rigorous definitions, we would 'lose' more of our existential, experiential, and emotional real-world, day-to-day personal issues from the discourse...and our problems might not be holistically addressed...
- Technical languages (philosophy, theology, sciences, constructed langs)
- Natural languages
- Performing arts
- visual art
- 'structural' and/or traditional forms music
- freeform music
One common thread uniting the human authors of scripture is that of the unity of the race. At some level, this guarantees enough basal 'category overlap' and when coupled with the flexibility of natural language, allows some confidence in at least the POSSIBILITY of translation.
There are two major pushbacks to this: the examples of translation contexts that do not have the physical items present in the original settings, and the radical power of interpretive frameworks (i.e. worldviews) that can render data 'invisible'!
The first issue is very common in the translation process. Consider Isaiah 1:18 "Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. " This classic text on forgiveness might be difficult to translate into tropical languages of peoples who have never even seen snow! But since the point is the 'whiteness' in this case, translators substitute relevant 'whiteness carriers' in that culture (e.g. 'white as coconut'). A different problem occurs when the cultural associations with colors get in the way (e.g. in some cultures, white may be associated with evil, and so the translator must fall back one level in the heirarchy of abstraction, as Hayakawa called it).
Likewise are those cases such as languages that don't have words for similar concept-complexes in the original language. I remember studying in anthropology class about some tribe that did not have a word for 'forearm' and the implication was that it couldn't be talked about as such. Well, yes and no...We could easily contruct such a linguistic referenent by using existing base concepts plus descriptive operators (e.g. 'that part of the arm from the wrist to elbow'). So, this issue has not been a very serious problem in the history of translation.
The second issue has generated much more controversy. The argument goes something like this: "The worldview of the Buddhist (or taoist or hindu etc.) is so different from that of the western, euro-world that the very concepts inherent in judeo-christian systems--even thought it is near-eastern in nature, instead of european-- (e.g. a God with a personality or transcendence or incarnation) cannot be understood by those people"...
Now, at the surface this is VERY plausible, since many of us have experienced this issue first-hand. When a western-type speaks of 'god', the hindu finds it puzzling that we would invest him with consciousness, for example.
But the issue here is whether radically-different worldviews can find enough 'common ground' from which to even identify that they are not speaking the same 'language'. This particular issue is very close to my heart--it is held by a very strong theological system in the history of Christian thought and has been a research interest of mine for some time.
This is, of course, not uniquely a religious issue. The debate actually arises primarily in the philosophy of science. The paradigm-nature of scientific theories first broke into academic limelight in the 60's with Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The ensuing discussion has demonstrated that there are few 'brute facts' that are not already theory-laden by the time the scientist processes them. What consititutes 'significant and normative' data to one, may simply be written of as an unexplained anomoly by a rival theorist. In other words, the basic theory-position has a ..
The Christian ThinkTank...[http://www.Christianthinktank.com]