When Printer's Ink Becomes Embalming Fluid
on keeping scripture God's living Word

        "As God's word written (scriptura) the scriptures are a great, but mixed, blessing. They are a blessing because each new generation of Christians has access to the fact that God speaks, the manner of his speaking, the results of his speaking. The scriptures are a mixed blessing because the moment the words are written they are in danger of losing the living resonance of the spoken word and reduced to something that is looked at, studied, interpreted, but not heard persona1ly. For from the moment that a word is written, it is separated from the voice that spoke it and is therefore depersonalized. Yet the very essence of "word" is personal. It is the means by which what is within one person is shared with another person. Words link spirits. Reduced to writing and left there, words no longer do what they are designed to do - create and maintain personal relationships of intelligence and love.

        "When a word is spoken and heard, it joins speaker and hearer into a whole relationship; when a word is written and read, it is separated into grammatical fragments and has to be reconstituted by the imagination in order to accomplish its original work. It is possible for the reader to function apart from the senses in a way that it is not possible for the hearer or beholder. Unattended, the senses atrophy and the written word becomes increasingly abstract. Words, separated from the person who speaks them, can be beautiful just as seashells can be beautiful; they can be interesting just as skeletons can be interesting; they can be studied with profit just as fossils can be studied with profit. But apart from the act of listening and responding, they cannot function according to the intent of the speaker. For language in its origin and at its best is the means by which one person draws another person into a participating relationship. God speaks, declaring his creation and his salvation so that we might believe, that is, trustingly participate in his creation of us, his salvation of us. The intent of revelation is not to inform us about God but to involve us in God.

        "History is full of instances of words which, after being written, lost their voice and became nouns to be etymologized, verbs to be parsed, adjectives to be admired, adverbs to be discussed. Scripture has never been exempt from that fate. Some of Jesusí sharpest disagreements were with the scribes and Pharisees, the persons in the first century who knew the words of scripture well but heard the voice of God not at all. They had an extensive and meticulous knowledge of scripture. They revered it. They memorized it. They used it to regulate every detail of life. So why did Jesus excoriate them? Because the words were studied and not heard. For them, the scriptures had become a book to use, not a means by which to listen to God. They isolated the book from the divine act of speaking covenantal commands and gospel promises. They separated the book from the human act of hearing which would become believing, following, and loving. Printer's ink became embalming fluid."

- Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination,
©1988, San Francisco: Harper & Row, p. 12-13.

Peterson, now retired, was for many years James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He also served as founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. In addition to his widely acclaimed translation of the New Testament, The Message, he has written many other books


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