Listening to debates over inerrancy and the nature of the Bible this week got me thinking through our What is the Bible? series. (Start the series here.) I thought I’d add a thought.
When the Spirit inspired Jeremiah (31.33) to say the day would come God would “write the law upon our hearts,” I take him to mean that the day would come when we would no longer relate to God through texts of Scripture (with all due respect to the scriptural traditions in our possession), when morality wouldn’t be based on an appeal to texts, when we would no longer relate to God as an act of obedience to a text, when the animation of spiritual appetite, the inclination of the heart and mind to what is good and holy, and the conformity of our characters to Christ would be an inward operation of the Spirit written in our hearts. Essentially we become the law. You might not be accustomed to thinking of Jeremiah’s promise in this way, so let me try to describe what I mean.
Where your treasure is, there you heart will be (MT 6). You are your heart. And Jeremiah’s promise is that texts are to cease being an external regulating force for faith and be relocated within the human heart. God’s voice to us will be his voice in us. So what about texts? Are we just to throw them out? I don’t see the need for that, but nevertheless there is a fundamental reorienting of how we relate to texts. That much is clear in Jeremiah’s vision of the reconstituted people of God. Every community (good and bad ones, whether cultural, political, or religious) survives from generation to generation in and as the narrative it perpetuates, and that narrative tells the story of the events that create the community, establish its identity, and define the vision that inspires and animates it. Communities, and the Christian community is no exception, perpetuate themselves narratively.
Jeremiah isn’t suggesting this essential, narrative function of social identity and cohesiveness is done away with. To the extent the Scriptures store or house the narratives that describe the foundational events which establish Christian community (as creation, fall, incarnation, mission and glorification), they remain a defining reference point. The Church exists as this never-ceasing rehearsal of the gospel narrative, always appropriating its ethic, vision and hope in each generation and for each new day. What Jeremiah promises is that this appropriation will succeed in a lived integration of that narrative wrought in us supernaturally by the Spirit of God. And it follows naturally that once one ‘becomes’ the appropriation of divine intention through the Spirit writing those intentions upon one’s very heart, it becomes as true to say ‘People’ as it does to say ‘Scripture’, for we will have become our Scripture. (2Cor 3.2 comes to mind: “You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by everyone.”) And nobody for whom this is her lived reality will be much concerned with debates over inerrancy. You only need a certain kind of inerrant text if all you’ve got is text and the Spirit is not inscribing God’s intentions upon your heart.
However, Jeremiah isn’t saying God will erase the law and let you make up your own. He’s promising a way of relating to God (a new ‘covenant’) that flows from an inner operation of the Spirit in the heart. What’s Paul say? Regarding instructions to Titus on how to instruct those who gave credence to myths and mere human commands, he makes the interesting statement that “to the pure all things are pure.” What sort of perspective, born of what sort of inner reality, would make that true for the pure in heart? To hearts shaped by an inner presence of the Spirit, those hearts naturally will the good without having to be corralled by textual authority. The text is referenced to celebrate those events that created the Church and its faith to begin with, yes, but beyond that all texts are per se schoolmasters “until” (Gal 3.24) Christ is known by faith.
Jeremiah is making an essentially aesthetic statement. He’s prophesying a work of art. Think of the relationship between a musical score, say, a Rachmaninoff piano concerto, and its actual performance. Its text (the music printed on the page) is law/torah (word, instruction, direction, prescription). But the text can be ingested, inscribed upon the heart, and once this is accomplished one becomes the text one plays and there’s no longer a distinction between the two. The text moves from the page back into the heart from whence it first sprang, and the distinction between the two disappears. That’s Jeremiah’s vision.
(For a musical demonstration of the change Jeremiah foresaw, watch Valentina Lasitsa play Rachmoninoff’s III Piano Concerto; no score, no conductor, not even the accompanying orchestration, just her and the music. Or is it her as the music?