Thought for the Month (August 2014)

Many of you will know that, before retiring at the end of 2012, I was for the last forty-two years of my working life employed in what is now called the Financial Services industry (though I always questioned the term "industry" in this context, believing that an industry was something that actually made things!).

For the last ten or so years I was working, the bulk of my time was engaged in one of two specific but linked tasks. Firstly, the drafting of quasi-legal documentation policy clauses, terms and conditions (what you might call the "small print"), and "key features" of insurance and investment contracts. Secondly, the vetting and approval of all promotional and advertising material produced by the firm including printed advertisements, leaflets for insertion into magazines or display in shops and bank branches, as well as all the content of the firm's own website.

It was necessary for all such documentation and material to comply with various sets of rules and regulations, laid down by bodies such as the Financial Services Authority (now replaced by the Financial Conduct Authority) and the Advertising Standards Authority, as well as numerous EU Directives such as the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive and the Distance Marketing Directive as well, of course, as laws such as the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations and the old-fashioned law of contract. Quite a task and one that became more complex and demanding with every new law or directive enacted! However, this was nearly always interesting work, demanding careful consideration, up to date knowledge of the rules and regulations, and close attention to detail. And of course in the context of the advertising material, it also had to get the message across to potential customers so that they would actually be prompted to buy our products, and feel confident in doing so!

As an example of what could go wrong, when some years ago the firm introduced a new type of insurance policy, the very first claim we received under one particular heading led to a dispute with the claimant over the exact meaning of one sentence which, it turned out, could be interpreted in a way which we had never intended. The outcome was that we had to pay a claim for over 20,000 in respect of something which we had not intended to cover, and so had not allowed for the cost of in our calculations.

In drafting contract documents and checking advertising copy, I thus had many rules to follow and requirements to satisfy, as well as having to make sure that the correct message was delivered to the reader. The writers of the Gospels (indeed of all the books in the Bible), however, had no such framework in which to operate which may or may not have made their task easier! What they did have, of course, was the guiding hand of the Lord pointing them in the right direction to ensure that His word and plan would be brought to the world, and in a way that people would understand. And for the writers of the Gospels, they had the words and acts of Jesus himself, as related in the first instance by people who were alive at the time and thus had personal experience of the Saviour's message and miracles, to draw upon.

So, can every word in the Bible be taken as literally true? Are these words exactly as they proceeded from God? I think this must be unlikely the Bible, just like a modern day investment contract or advertising leaflet, was written by men. Men motivated, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, of course, but ultimately flawed human beings who could so easily make mistakes and inadvertently use an inappropriate word or phrase, or place a skewed emphasis on a story. But whilst they may have had no fear of breaking a rule or failing to comply with a regulatory requirement, they would have been very aware of the importance of their task and the absolute necessity of getting God's true message across to their fellow men and women. For this reason I believe they would have taken every bit as much care in relaying to us the word of God and for the Gospel writers of telling the true story of Jesus' earthly ministry as I had to take in drafting policy conditions and approving advertising material, to ensure they were (in the words of the then regulator) "fair, clear and not misleading."

But even if we do not blindly accept every word in the Bible as if it had emerged directly from the mouth of the Lord (as Muslims believe the words of the Koran to do), we can be safe in the knowledge that by following its essential message by treating each other with honesty, respect and compassion, by striving to help those less fortunate than ourselves, and by acknowledging Jesus as the way, the truth and the life we will be in compliance with the Lord's Directives for the life of the people of His world.

Derek Fickling, (Church Secretary and Elder, Hawkenbury URC)

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Tunbridge Wells United Reformed Church