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A throwback from Adam Morton.  One great benefit of regularly preaching and teaching from the […]

Adam Morton / 8.10.17

A throwback from Adam Morton. 

One great benefit of regularly preaching and teaching from the Bible in exchange for money, aside from the money itself (fine, not spectacular), is that it forces me into confrontation with portions of scripture that would otherwise escape notice. My spiritual discipline is inadequate to compel this in any other way. Take that under advisement as you read. By the call of God I have a certain limited authority, and by sheer divine grace expressed through good genes I have fair powers of recall–nevertheless, my knowledge of chapter and verse would not impress anyone who has long made a habit of studying holy writ.


I am a pastor in the digital age. My predecessors had the Bible at hand, but I have it indexed, with notes, in every major translation of the last millennium. One day soon Christians may traverse the world with chips in their heads, bearing the Word of God in their bodies in a fashion undreamed-of in prior ages. At present, memory is an ambiguous term, as likely to refer to inherent biological capacity as to external electronic storage. With respect to my social calendar, my wife is my memory; with respect to work, my phone is; with respect to the Bible, biology and technology are ever more tightly interwoven. This is not as recent a development as it may seem–the Bible as it stands is wrapped up with the technology of printing, following on the technologies of the bound codex, the papyrus scroll and the letter stamped in wet clay. By nature the Gospel is simply a spoken message, good news for a weary world, and the Law the command of the Almighty, but to speak of the Bible is to speak of God’s Word enfleshed in human technology. So it must be until the end, when the Bible makes way for the Man himself, and there is no longer teaching or learning.

My preparations for a Sunday still involve learning, and so it was that I was pleasantly surprised not long ago to encounter this little gem in the 2nd chapter of Hebrews:

But someone has testified somewhere, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet.”

The opening clause enchanted me: “someone has testified somewhere.” The author doesn’t remember. He could have put down, “It is written,” and covered his ignorance, but he did not. Someone, somewhere–the phrasing calls attention to the deficit. In fact, it is from Psalm 8, and quoted more tightly than many New Testament citations of the Old. But still, comforting to those of us who remember clearly that the Bible says a thing, and cannot possibly recall where it says it. I can pretend, for a moment, that in my knowledge I am peer to one whose pen dripped fire and the Spirit. But there is more–by virtue of the same Spirit, this is not a simple omission. This is inspired forgetfulness, a footnote absent courtesy of the very Breath of God. The consequences of that ought to stop us in our tracks.

Misquoting_JesusThe Spirit’s seal rests on a writer’s mental blank. Many theologians and students of scripture have been unable to countenance this. For them, God and visible perfection must go hand-in-hand. Meeting a God who does not function by this presupposition is a fearful thing. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman (who considers himself an agnostic) has spoken with admirable candor about his own loss of faith in the Bible’s apparent perfection, and so in the God whom he had believed inspired it.

As a student of the Bible, Ehrman was caught on the horns of a dilemma involving Mark 2:26:

“He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate of the bread of the presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.”

Jesus speaks these words to the Pharisees who challenge the lawfulness of Jesus’ disciples gathering grain on the Sabbath. The citation is of David, from 1 Samuel 21, but there is a problem. In 1 Samuel 21, when David ate the bread of the presence, Ahimelech, Abiathar’s father, was the high priest. Abiathar would not become high priest for some time yet. This issue is well-known enough; there are several standard solutions. But short of positing a highly unusual translation or a hitherto unknown text of Mark or 1 Samuel, all solutions end in this: either the Biblical text (Mark or 1 Samuel) errs, or Jesus misspoke. The consequences of either demolished Ehrman’s faith.

Here is the critical point: from the perspective of the law alone, Ehrman may be right. Jesus’ words as recorded in Mark do not correspond to the text of 1 Samuel 21. Are we then to say that the Spirit’s guidance has been inadequate or wholly absent? Let me push the issue one step further. Since it is, from all available evidence, at least possible that Jesus simply forgot or misspoke, how are we to regard our Lord’s potential forgetfulness? Is this a failure? From a human perspective that demands correspondence of one text with another, certainly. But the Christian faith has never asserted of Jesus that he acted flawlessly in all matters. No one suggests (or ought to suggest, at any rate) that his carpentry was perfect. Good, perhaps, but not perfect. Should we imagine that Jesus never stumbled over his words or forgot his place mid-sentence? His divinity is not expressed in preserving him from such foibles.

ashley-madisonBut there is more to say. Another avenue is open, the path of grace. If we are to consider Jesus’ words well, we should look at the passage in toto, observing to what end his all too human memory may have worked. The context is a question about what is lawful–how is it that Jesus’ followers flaunt the law of the Sabbath? Jesus answers not by citing a justification, a legal loophole, but by recalling a time when God’s anointed acted outside the law. His conclusion is not that his disciples’ actions were lawful, but that he himself is above the law: “so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

Is Jesus’ forgetfulness failure or grace? Our answer is yes. From the perspective of the law, failure. But it is no accident that here Jesus speaks of what is above the law. This is inspired forgetfulness, divine forgetfulness. We are not taking Jesus and the Spirit seriously enough, even in their apparent mistake, if we attribute the error to our Lord’s human brain momentarily misfiring and go no further. It is God who forgets here. According to the law, this is unthinkable, but this is not the law. This is the freedom of God to do and to say as it pleases him, to have mercy on whom he will have mercy, without even asking the law’s opinion.

In the modern age, which foolishly believes it has done away with God, the law of memory is supreme. This is the law of precision, of exactitude, of the neat correspondence of facts and things. In a sea of rhetoric the fact-checker is the referee, the priest, who adjudicates all disputes and justifies those whose words and lives pass the muster of eternal memory. Our great civilizational achievement is the internet, that sphere of pure spirit in which nothing goes away. All is eternal, for good or ill. Ask the poor sinners who, in their human weakness signed up for Ashley Madison accounts, or sent an ill-considered tweet, or hit “Reply All” to the wrong message. Under the law of memory we are all willing archivists, and God the master archive. This absolute memory is nothing less than the assertion that God is the law. If God the law is eternal, then so is my sin.

The God that Ehrman came to question was no redeemer, but an eternal law, his truth guaranteed by the precision of memory alone. With such a God, all sins remain forever, world without end. Do we blame anyone for losing faith in that? Is there any recourse against the perfection of the law? None but divine freedom, that is, the freedom of the Gospel, the freedom to forget. The divine archive forgets and so forgives nothing, but the God who is free can forget. Indeed, he promises to:

I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins. (Isaiah 43:25)

Do not misunderstand “not remembering” as a benevolent fiction. That is to claim the law of memory as true, but God’s own will to forget as false. The permanence of what is inscribed in stone and encoded on a thousand thousand magnetic platters is utterly convincing, but it is illusory. A drop of blood can wash it all away. Yet we continue to imagine forgetting as less real than memory, less worthy, as the stuff of death not life. It will not make the lists of divine perfections. Indeed, it cannot, because theologians are mortals who fear that a God who is free to forget will forget them. Theirs is the cry of Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” They can still remember their sins, just as I remember mine. Surely God remembers as well. But we must insist: God is not the archive. He forgets and remembers for his own sake, out of his own mercy, by his own Word. When I forget, it is a failure of memory; when God forgets, it is a triumph of grace. What is forgotten is well and truly gone, and the measure of God’s mercy is this: that he remembers me and not my sins, though I remember sin and not my God.

don't forget