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A passion for precision

1 March 2012 | by Tim Curnow

A passion for precision

Can I let you into a secret? It’s something I can too easily feel ashamed of. I have a passion for precision. It can make me hyper-critical. But I can’t help it – I am obsessed with the need for correctness in written (and spoken) communication.

I find myself continually appalled by spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. It’s not that I go looking… they just hit me. I walk past an employment agency in Cardiff city centre with a board advertising vacancies for ‘Manuel Labourers’. Near our home is St Timothy’s Church with a sign for a mums and toddlers group called ‘Tim’s Tot’s’. I find that superfluous apostrophe (the second one) painful every time I pass the place!

A prayer meeting at the Aber conference in the late 70s was ruined for me (I’m ashamed to say now) by a man who used ‘intercess’ instead of ‘intercede’ in his prayer. I’m not sure if I was a real Christian then but I certainly had a nasty streak of self-righteousness.

At times my passion for precision overcomes my natural diffidence. While at London Theological Seminary I stopped Hywel Jones during a lecture on Job, convinced that the scripture references he had given were wrong. He paused to check. Silence descended on the room. Time seemed to have stopped. After what seemed an eternity he accepted my correction.

I’m hard on myself too. I can’t even rush off a text without ensuring it’s correctly spelt and punctuated. I can’t let an email leave my presence without going through it to check for typos. Speed takes second place to correctness.

The pedant’s lot is not always a happy one. But it helps me to reflect that God loves precision too…

God’s character

‘I serve a precise God’, the Puritan Richard Rogers is reputed to have said in response to a complaint that he was too regimented and finicky. God has a passion for precision. All perfection is from Him. He loves correctness. God delights in that which is precise and my love for precision in any form – in language, art, sport, engineering – imitates God.

He too is appalled by whatever deviates from righteousness. My frustrations with spelling mistakes are a token of a world groaning under the curse of sin. But in Christ God is reconciling everything to Himself, so that everything will be made perfect.

God’s works

In the natural order there is an amazing precision – in the movements of planets and tides for example.  Solar eclipses are predicted decades in advance, down to the nearest minute.

Scientists have commented on the ‘surprising precision’ of nature’s physical constants like the strength of gravity. The slightest variation from their actual values results in a world that is incapable of hosting life.

If we change gravity by even a tiny fraction of a percent – enough so that you would be, say, one billionth of a gram heavier or lighter – the universe becomes so different that there are no stars, galaxies, or planets.

The mass of a proton is 1,836.15267245 times the mass of the electron. Were this ratio changed by any significant degree, the stability of many common chemicals would be compromised. In the end, this would prevent the formation of such molecules as DNA, the building blocks of life.

God’s commitments

God enters into relationships that are based not on vague promises but specific commitments. God undertakes to do what he has promised in very specific terms. There are reckoned to be 348 separate Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah. In the gospels we see each of them being fulfilled down to the smallest detail.

The inspiration of scripture includes precise words – see Galatians 3:16 where Paul bases his argument on the fact that the promises God made to Abraham referred not to seeds plural but to one seed, i.e. Christ.

Astrologers give only the vaguest of predictions. My horoscope for today is peppered with ‘probably’, ‘may…’, ‘might not’, ‘could…’ and similar phrases. Why can they not commit to specifics? Because they are as much in the dark about the future as those who read them!

God’s accountability

The Bible is a precise book. In Luke 1:1-4 Luke wants to give Theophilus certainty of the things he believed by setting in order an account of the things Jesus did and taught. His narrative in Luke-Acts specifically relates events in their historical and religious context (e.g. Luke 3:1-2).

Our God is faithful and trustworthy. The precision of what He has revealed invites our trust. He is content to be called to account, for His words to be scrutinised. By including historical and geographical references, not to mention the many lists and genealogies that are found in scripture, the Holy Spirit makes it possible to verify the truthfulness of God’s word.

Our duty

  • We need to be clear – ‘if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?’ (1 Cor. 14:8). The language preachers use can assume too much of the hearers, believer and unbeliever alike. Preaching of course must be intelligible; so must prayers and hymns. This will take much care and thought: ‘Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true’ (Ecc. 12:9-10).
  • We need to be thoughtful and careful in our words, both spoken and written, to avoid misunderstanding, exaggeration and fuelling gossip. Careless talk costs lives. Let us deal in what we know to be true, what can be verified. Imagine a transcript of all the words we have spoken – how much would bear scrutiny?
  • We need to be theologically precise. How familiar are you with the meaning of big Bible words such as propitiation, justification and so on? Fine distinctions need to be upheld. Vague language isn’t helpful in any context, but especially when it’s God we are speaking about.

Tim Curnow is a member of the editorial board of The Evangelical Magazine.