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  • Writer's pictureM.B. Christiansen

Unity and Diversity in Scripture

God draws people back to him in curious ways.


In the current cultural climate of Western civilization ideas like unity and diversity are perhaps more sought after than at any other time in history. On a global scale, with the development of technology and the increasing connectivity of the human experience, diversity is at a premium. The corporate workplace is more intentionally diverse than ever, and the trend continues to spill over into the entertainment industry and the way advertising is approached.


At the same time, the ideal of unity and oneness among the human race is also toted as a beautiful ideal which we must strive to attain. In the mind of the modern Westerner the goal, in a perfect world, would be to have a diverse society in which everybody’s voice is equally heard and represented while simultaneously standing united in harmony and solidarity for our fellow man.


Whether or not this is realistically attainable in this life is better left to someone else to unpack, but for many these ideals may offer a compelling reason to take a closer look at Scripture.

(For the rest of this article, I will use Scripture synonymously with the Christian Bible).


The Novelty of the Holy Bible


One of the things that makes the Holy Bible unique not only among all other ancient literature but specifically among all other sacred texts is what in theology is often referred to the unity and diversity of Scripture. The Bible is not one ancient book, but rather is sixty-six independent works which are conveniently gathered together into the single volume that we know today.

This becomes enormously significant when we compare the Bible to the sacred texts in other world religions. For the sake of brevity I will address only the Qur’an (the holy book of Islam), with the generalization that the rest of the world’s religious texts outside of the Bible share the characteristic I am highlighting. The various sacred texts and their subsequent religious systems are certainly distinct, but their origins share a striking similarity.


What we see, in each case, is that the texts which claim inspiration are virtually always written by one individual person, who claims to have received some revelation from God and to have been instructed to write the revelation down in order to start a new religion or correct the errors of an already established religion.


In the case of Islam, in the year 609, the angel Gabriel came to the prophet Muhammad with a revelation that the Judeo-Christian faith had been corrupted and needed correction. Over the next 23 years Muhammad wrote down these revelations in what is now the Qur’an. In Islam the Qur’an is considered the only true inspired Word of God (much like the Christian view of inerrancy). The consequence of this origin (and those of the other sacred religious texts around the world) is that the entire premise of the religious system hinges on one man’s honesty.


The Achilles heel of these religious systems, in my mind, is that there are no checks and balances. If I make the claim that God told me something that’s fundamentally different from what he has said to other people, I set myself up to be above reproach. Nobody can tell me I am wrong or mistaken because nobody else was there. “These aren’t my words or ideas, they’re God’s… so you had better just trust me.” Ideas have consequences, and this seems a dangerous idea on which to hinge an entire religious system.


Diversity of Scripture


What we see, in the Holy Bible, is not a revelation given singularly to one individual who is then responsible for correctly codifying all of what has been given as divine truth. What we see is far more ancient than that. We see a God who is acting and intervening in real history, who is revealing his plan gradually over centuries and using subsequent generations to clarify and continue his revelation which culminates in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. This is called progressive revelation and will be tackled in another post.


The Bible was not written by one person or even a committee of people who were tasked with completing it within their lifetime. The Bible is written by over forty authors, who lived across the span of one-thousand and six hundred years of human history. These authors wrote in a combined three different languages and wrote from three different continents. The writers of Scripture represented an astoundingly diverse array of voices from kings and prophets to ancient thinkers, from common fishermen and tax collectors and physicians. Scripture is not presented as a singular religious manifesto; it cannot even be contained in one specific genre of literature. In the Bible we read historical narrative, poetry, songs of soaring praise, songs of devastated lament, prophetic prediction (which was eventually fulfilled without exception), biographical narrative, and both personal and pastoral letters of exhortation.


The breadth and depth of diversity and viewpoints that we see in Scripture make it categorically different from any other religious text in existence. All these factors, in and of themselves, make the Holy Bible worth reading and reflecting on even if one does not necessarily embrace its message as true.


The early writers had no way of communicating with the latter writers, and the latter writers had only what had been preserved down through the centuries. The anonymous author of Hebrews in the New Testament could not reach out to Moses and ask him to explain what he meant when he wrote the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy). In human terms, the authors of Scripture wrote in virtual isolation of one another. This becomes magnified when we consider the unity of Scripture.


Unity of Scripture


For all its breathtaking diversity, Scripture presents the story of God’s interaction with humankind and presents God’s plan for salvation as a cohesive story. Inevitably, the diversity stated above leads to some difficulties in interpretation, but a fair and honest assessment of the supposed contradictions (more accurately referred to as difficulties) in the Bible demonstrates that none pose any serious problem to the overarching story.


Over the centuries, theologians and thinkers who have applied themselves to reconciling difficulties in Scripture have found that many which seemed at first insurmountable end up being easily explained with a little additional thought. To assume that since passages seem difficult to us in our cultural perspective, they are therefore contractions and reasons to discount the whole of Scripture seems misguided. Many passages once held in tension have been resolved in a satisfactory way. Interestingly enough, some passages which used to be thought to contain incorrect historical facts (especially in Luke and Acts) have since been vindicated and demonstrated to be accurate through the discovery of new archaeological evidence.


The fact that the diverse background from which Scripture emanated tells a story that is coherent and consistent without any plot holes or glaring contradictions (after careful study) is astounding. How can this body of ancient literature exist?


For a modern demonstration of how difficult it is for multiple people to piece together a cohesive story, one need look no further than Disney’s Star Wars sequel trilogy which, as it was released, was controversial to say the least. After Disney acquired the rights to the franchise from Lucasfilm, J.J. Abrams was tasked with creating the first movie, which set up the trajectory of the trilogy. It was met with mixed responses, and the sequel was given to Rian Johnson, who took the story in a completely different direction than had been set up. This, too, was met with mixed results and the final installment of the trilogy was given back to Abrams, who overcorrected back and brought the trilogy to a jarring and puzzling conclusion. Whether one enjoyed or despised the trilogy (or whether one is even a Star Wars fan), the fact remains that the project was overseen by a single corporation with the goal of producing a coherent and interesting story. All parties involved had access to each other and could easily talk to each other and synchronize their stories.


My point is that, generally speaking, the more people are involved in a creative project, the more difficult it becomes to produce a coherent story. What we see, running through the entirety of Scripture is the story of a God who is working for the salvation of humankind.


Not only does Scripture offer a cohesive story through which we can trace God’s working, it interlocks and reinforces itself in a way which allows it to be returned to time and time again with new insights offered each time. The level to which the New Testament refers and alludes back to the Old Testament, unlocking the text in new and exciting ways points to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Below is beautifully charted by the graph below by Chris Harrison, which plots out the interconnectedness of each book of the Bible and helps one visualize the staggering complexity of God's Word.



To quote Gregorius Anicius, who comments on the book of Job in the seventh century, “Scripture is like a river… broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.”

 

The only conclusion, in my view, that can explain this is that if Scripture has indeed been inspired by God. There is one message throughout all of Scripture, yet it is evident from the text itself that the Holy Spirit, while inspiring the authors, also left a great deal of wiggle room in how the message was communicated. We see the personality of the authors shine through their words as they give testimony to the message of redemption from their small corner of the world.


What we are left with is a breathtaking mosaic of the voices of humanity which point in unison to God’s glorious plan of restoration for his beloved creation. The unity and diversity found in Scripture is reflective of the scene that John paints in his description of what eternity will be like:


After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”


Revelation 7:9-10 ESV
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