In paying the ransom for our sins, did Jesus contradict Psalm 49:7?

Monday Musings for June 10, 2019

Good morning, Musers,

Psalm 49:7 says, “No one can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for them—” … but we Christians claim that Jesus did just that. In fact, we often call him “the Redeemer” to emphasize that he paid our ransom.

Paul plainly affirmed Jesus’ role as Redeemer when he described him as the one “who gave himself as a ransom for all people… “ (1 Timothy 2:6) … so, which is it? Can no one pay the ransom? … or can someone pay the ransom? … and how are these mutually exclusive statements not in contradiction?

Now, if you are reading this challenge and saying to yourself, “You’ve got to be kidding!” then you are among the people who understand that synergy* is an underlying assumption of the reader/writer contract — and it’s been a while since I’ve talked about synergy… so let’s discuss it.

A piece of writing is in synergy when all its parts are working together to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Books are the perfect example of synergistic works, and — whatever else it is — the Bible is a book… and its readers must bind themselves to the same reader/writer contract that underlies every other communication.

In a book, letters build to words, words to sentences, sentences to paragraphs, paragraphs to chapters… and the reader works with the author to discover the author’s intent. The thing he does not do is use parts of the story to force a words-only contradiction onto other parts (or the whole) of the story… and that’s the main offense in this challenge... because both usages of ransom are legitimate.

I use the term “words-only” because some words may indeed have a surface contradiction with other words or concepts in a piece. But when we combine context — from close-in to overarching — with a reader’s obligation to explore the work synergistically, the reader should be finding ways for the data to make more sense… not less… because the reader is also responsible for advancing the story… although he must do it in a way that’s consistent with the author’s vision.

So, where are we? Any person who makes a challenge to a concept like ransom has to be somewhat biblically informed. But also, he must be familiar enough with the rules of language to engage in a question-and-answer. Yet, today’s seeker is missing something in his basic understanding about how to engage with a story… and he’s challenging a critical doctrine (redemption involves a ransom) because of it.

In his defense, a lot of people read the Bible differently than they do other books — and they shouldn’t! … not in that respect. Sure… it’s God’s word… but he used our words to write it — so here’s the thing: if the rules of synergy do not apply to the Bible as they do to all other communications, then God did a bait-and-switch when it came to language. That would be deceptive on his part… and God doesn’t “do” deceptive.

On one level, I can excuse a younger contemporary reader for making this kind of mistake. Living in the Information Age, we have instant access to top-level information. The difference today is that we do not have to grind away at the scholarly processes that produce this information.

This is an obvious blessing… but it comes with a problem. Having instant access to the results of other people’s mental labors gives us the illusion that ideas are out there just floating in air… and this can make it look like conclusions come without premises... and what the Bible says about our ransom is both complex and nuanced.

Unfortunately (or fortunately!), human thought doesn’t work that way… even in a world where electronics have taken much of the drudgery out of scholarship. We sit on the shoulders of all the thinkers (and revealers) who went before us — and there are rules about how we should handle, cite and process historical information.

In the Bible, God’s revelation is progressive… and we can’t blame ancient people for not knowing the future… and therefore, for not seeing God’s whole picture. The only reason we can see the big picture is that we live in the Church Age. We can read the New Testament — and we have the indwelling Holy Spirit!

God designed us to work with him to learn about him through his general and his special revelations — and he gave us a model of how to do this in the reader/writer handshake. So, let’s not lose the lesson that’s right in front of us. We routinely give the world’s authors a break and work with them to understand their stories. Why not give God the same break when reading the Bible? … because… whatever else he is, God is also an author (2 Peter 1:21).

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