Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#9)

A little more wordy that the others, but just as undeniable as ever . . .

9. In regard to the point above, [truth #8, see previous post] it is especially important if you are unable to read the original languages to refer to as many translations of the Scriptures as you possibly can. To limit your study to one translation is to limit yourself to one perspective, one set of translation principles. Reading from multiple translations allows for other ideas and concepts to inform your final conclusions.

To make sense of this truth, a little explanation might be in order. Many people wonder, “Why are there so many translations of the Bible. Isn’t one good enough. And with all the choices, how do I know which one is ‘best’?” To answer the first question, the English language is a “live” language, not a “dead” language. Meanings of words constantly change. New words creep into our vocabulary. Old words disappear. Even the rules of grammar change, and certainly styles of writing change (more on that in a moment!) So, publishers and translators are always busy making sure that God’s word is available in a translation that they believe is both faithful to the original languages, and is also readable by a majority of English speaking customers. MAJOR POINT HERE – READ THE INTRODUCTION TO THE TRANSLATION! It is in the introduction, or forward to the reader, that the translators will identify their guiding translation principle. You will also find critical information about footnotes, and other translation issues. If your particular edition does not have an introduction or forward, get on-line and research the translation. Virtually every translation has such an explanation, although you may have to dig a little to find it.

[Technical aside here: why is reading the introduction important? I give you an example from the New American Standard Bible. If you open to just about any page, you will see a number of words printed in italic type. Today, the standard practice to emphasize a word is to print it in italics. However, the original printers of the NASB used italic type to reveal to the reader that the word in italics was NOT in the original manuscripts, but was provided by the translators in order to give the text its intended meaning. Therefore, what we now would view as a special emphasis on a given word, is actually a word that does not exist in the original! If a student does not understand this, all sorts of awful conclusions can be drawn from a passage of Scripture. Let the reader beware!]

Regarding what is “best” for a particular reader, two concepts must be understood. On one end of a continuum there is a concept of translation known as “formal” or “literal” or “word-for-word.” The best example of this theory (at least in my experience) is the old American Standard Version, although the New American Standard Bible comes in a close second. On the furthest end of the continuum away from the “formal” concept is the “dynamic” or “thought-for-thought” practice. The best example in my experience here is Eugene Peterson’s work, The Message. I actually consider Peterson’s work to be a paraphrase, which is actually more commentary than translation, but Peterson defenders harrumph at my alleged denigration of his work. Very close to Peterson’s paraphrase is the New Living Translation, which is a committee translation, but is still very much a dynamic translation.

Which is “best”? It all depends upon the purpose for which you are reading the Bible. Are you trying to do a word study? Then you need as close to a formal translation as you can get and still understand the words. Are you a new Christian, or are you trying to reach out to non-believers, who have no background in “churchy” language? Then you want to use a translation that is more readable, and that inevitably points you to a more dynamic translation.

Here is the point as it relates to Undeniable Truth #9 – if you cannot read the Bible in the languages in which it was originally written (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), then you are forced to use a translation. Each translation has its strengths, and each translation has its weaknesses! This cannot be denied. No translation is perfect, for the very reason that you cannot make a perfect translation from one language into another – especially when the source languages are as idiomatic (using phrases to communicate thoughts) and as non-technical as were Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Regarding that last point – you can translate a technical manual relatively perfectly (depending on the source and receptor languages). However, translating a song or a poem becomes exponentially more difficult, depending on the level of poetic artistry and the range of vocabulary used.

How does this Undeniable Truth affect theological reflection? If you must use a translation, you need to use as many different translations as possible, in order to arrive at a range of possible meanings, and to discover how different translation committees approached different texts. Note: using three “formal” translations really does not help very much, nor does using three “dynamic” translations. In order to compare translations of a text, you really need a formal translation (ASV, NASB), a more “middle of the road” type of translation, and a good “dynamic” translation (I do like the NLT here, although I will consult the Common English Bible). Where it gets tricky is is in the “middle.” Most newer translations all claim to be somewhere between a strict formal or a strict dynamic translation (i.e., the English Standard Version, the Holman Christian Standard Version). Chances are they will lean one way or another. I personally like the ESV (because it is virtually a recasting of the older Revised Standard Version, the one in which I did all my undergraduate study.) I also like the HCSB (which, if I am not mistaken, is now marketed under the Christian Standard Bible moniker).

We will all have our favorite translation. One of my very good friends swears that the ASV is the one that God gave to Moses (just kidding, but he does love the ASV!) Like I said, I prefer the RSV, and now use the ESV almost exclusively from the pulpit. I used to use the NIV, but with the latest “update,” the NIV has become so politically correct that I can no longer recommend its usage. In terms of public reading, translations such as the NLT flow much more smoothly (they use shorter sentences, more explicit nouns, fewer pronouns), but they lose a measure of technical precision that sometimes has to be corrected by sermon or class.

Bottom line: read your favorite translation in your private devotions, and for your personal enrichment. However, for careful study that is both broad and deep, invest in a number of translations and use all of them to arrive at the best interpretation of the text that you possibly can.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#8)

We all want to be right. I mean, who wants to be known as always being wrong? This explains why we resort to quoting statistics so often. If one thousand, or ten thousand, or better yet one hundred thousand people agree with me, then chances are I am right, right? Ditto for “celebrity” endorsements. Obviously if some TV or sports star says the same thing that I do, well, that pretty much closes the case!

It seems like we will stop at no extreme to prove that we are right. Hence “Undeniable Truth #8” should cut pretty deep for a significant number of us:

8.  If you have to rely on just one single verse of Scripture, or some obscure variant reading of the original text, or an obscure definition of grammar or of a word or phrase in the original language, then your conclusion regarding that passage of Scripture is in serious trouble.

The examples I could use here to prove this truth are legion. I guess the easiest “low hanging fruit” would be the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (the Jehovah’s Witnesses) translation of John 1:1. Rejecting the conclusions of every Greek scholar outside of their own tradition, they persist in suggesting that “the word was a god” instead of “the word was God.” (Funny, but subsequent passages in the gospel of John that teach the deity of Jesus are not similarly excised. That just goes to prove the narrowness of their approach.)

However, the JWs are not the only guilty culprit here. Entire forests have been felled in the attempt to prove that the liquid that Jesus created from the water in John 2 was not really wine, but just grape juice. (Sorry, folks, the word is “wine.” And the context – remember the importance of context – proves that what Jesus created was the finest wine, not the ordinary or lower quality “cheap stuff.”) Neither time nor space allow me to discuss the myriad of ways in which the “day” of Genesis 1 has to be a 24 hour period (otherwise the evolutionists win, right?) or that the flood of Genesis 6-8 has to be global because the word “earth” is used.

I cannot get into the technicalities of anarthrous nouns, or the metaphorical use of periods of time, or the general use of hyperbole in the Bible. The point I am trying to make is this: if you are trying to make (or prove) a point regarding Scripture, and you have to rely on an extremely narrow definition of a word, or an obscure use of grammar, or if you have to rely on some obscure variant of the text itself, you are more than likely wrong in both your interpretation and application of the text.

This truth strikes at the heart of what I refer to as “single verse theology” or better yet, “bumper sticker theology.” I would not stake my life on any statement found in Scripture if it appeared in only one verse, or if I had to rely on specialized knowledge in order to make any sense of that statement. (By the way – this is especially relevant to the study of the book of Job, and also the book of Revelation, both of which are fertile grounds for heretical doctrines.)

Stated rather baldly, what God wanted us to know with certainty, and what our eternal destiny depends upon our believing, is taught clearly and repeatedly throughout Scripture! If a doctrine is foundational, it is also taught clearly, and in varying contexts that illustrate its importance and its clarity.

Faith in the creator God, the deity of Jesus the Christ, salvation by grace through faith, the importance of obedient faith (including, but not limited to baptism), the importance of a pursuing a sanctified life – these are non-negotiable concepts, and as such, are taught in numerous ways in numerous places in the Bible.

I do not for one moment intend to denigrate the thoughtful research and study of difficult or debated issues in biblical interpretation. That is, after all, why God gave us the minds that we have to read and understand his Word. The study of anarthrous nouns and biblical metaphors and the lexical meanings of Hebrew and Greek words is vital to our complete understanding of the Bible. But Jesus said it best when he said there are weightier matters of the law, and there are less important matters in the law. Practicing love and mercy outweigh counting leaves of mint.

Let’s get the basics right before we pull out our calculators.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#7)

In my original list of “Undeniable Truths,” number seven was the last one. Funny how lists grow – kind of like fish after you catch them. Nothing ever stays the same size. But, I digress . . .

7.  While some passages of the Bible may be open to more than one application, very few have more than one interpretation. Otherwise, Scripture would be meaningless.

If some others of my “Undeniable Truths” only get nodding agreement, this one probably gets denied quite frequently. But, it would appear to me that this one is also self-evident. Maybe self-evident is not the same as “true” to some people.

Just stop and think about something for a moment: if someone makes a statement, he or she clearly had a meaning attached to that statement. Now, that intent might be to confuse, or to flat out deceive, but those are still undeniable intentions. I find it one of the most incredible ironies of our time, but philosophers and theologians will repeatedly argue that we cannot know the intent of, say, Matthew or Isaiah, but we, their readers, are supposed to understand their (the modern author’s) intent perfectly.

So, we are supposed to accept that certain passages of Scripture can have almost an infinite number of interpretations, depending upon the reader’s culture, gender, economic standing, even historical setting. That is to say, a wealthy, male, aristocrat might legitimately interpret 1 Timothy 2:8 in one way, while a poor, female servant might legitimately interpret the same passage in a diametrically opposite manner a century later.

I might be in the very smallest minority here, but the logical conclusion to this way of thinking makes the Bible utterly meaningless. If two interpretations conflict with each other, then one or the other is false, or perhaps they both contain a measure of error. Two contradictory interpretations cannot both equally be true.

This truth (pardon the uber-modern language) has so many ramifications. Acts 2:38 cannot be both a command and a relative suggestion. 1 Corinthians 12 cannot be referring both to individual church members and to separate denominations. We cannot pick and choose which verse of 1 Corinthians we prefer in terms of women’s roles in the church. Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or whoever, had only one intent when he spoke or penned his words. Only one interpretation can be correct. All others must be wrong, to a lesser or greater degree.

I am not fool enough to suggest that the process of identifying the intent of these passages is universally easy or clear. I suppose I am fool enough to suggest that the study of Scripture is important enough for us to expend the effort to make sure we come as close as we possibly can to identifying that intent.

I also want to emphasize that, once identified, the interpretation of a particular passage may have more than one application. Example: Jesus clearly intended the rich young ruler to “sell all and follow me.” Does that mean that every Christian must become a mendicant preacher? I do not think so, because Jesus did NOT make the same demand of Zacchaeus (ref. Luke 18 and 19). Likewise, Paul told Timothy to “drink a little wine for your stomach’s sake.” Does that mean that every Christian must have a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon in their pantry? Once again, I do not think so – Paul’s point is that if a region’s water is causing you gastric distress, do something about it, don’t just keep drinking the water!

One of the great sins of modern “Christianity” is the false idea that we can all have our own interpretation of Scripture and all will be well. In other words, it does not matter what you believe, just believe something. This, I believe, is Satan’s first and most effective lie. Did he not deceive Adam and Eve with the question, “Did God really say . . . ”

Ere it be forgotten, please keep Undeniable Truth #1 always in mind.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#6)

Continuing on . . .

6.  However, the study of Scripture is not for the lazy. The original texts were written in three ancient languages and the youngest of these manuscripts is now approaching 2,000 years of age. We must be extraordinarily careful in the study of Scripture that we do not read our historical situation (culture, biases, feelings) back into the original texts.

I am firmly of the mind that anyone can read and understand Scripture . . .   almost. There is one group of people for whom the Bible will always be an enigma, a puzzle that cannot be put together. That group of people is the lazy, the prejudiced, the ones who are blind to their own preconceptions but are laser-focused on everyone else’s mistakes. (Okay, I listed more than one, but consider them a rather volatile group!)

I will have much more to say about the specifics of Bible study (most notably in Truth numbers 8 and 9), but for now let me say that if you think you can just open the Bible, read a passage, and understand it completely you are well on your way to misinterpreting (and almost certainly misapplying) that text. While there are some passages that are crystal clear (“Love your neighbor as yourself” comes to mind), the overwhelming majority of the content of the Bible requires more than just a surface reading of the text.

That may upset you, but please understand, it upsets me even more.

I was convicted of the democratic nature of this truth recently as I was reading a study on the parables. The author pointed out that Jesus told the parables not to be pleasing little anecdotes to print on glossy posters, but as searing indictments against a false spiritual pride. For example, the parable of “The Rich man and Lazarus” was told not so that Christians would be nice to the disabled, but as a blistering attack on those who felt they deserved to be in heaven (or, if not, at least could boss the heavenly beings around) by virtue of their wealth. The rich man was in torment NOT because of anything he had done, but rather in spite of his earthly position. Lazarus (named as a point of honor, as opposed to the “rich man” was was not named, thus dishonored) was carried to Abraham’s bosom NOT because of anything he had done, but simply as a result of his poverty and affliction. This parable struck at the very heart of a theology that praised wealth as a sign of God’s blessing, and viewed poverty and disability as a sign of God’s curse.

Gee, reckon we preach it that way in our comfy cathedrals of consumerism?

Honestly – I had never viewed the parable that way. In my mind it was always a nice, tidy little lecture on moralism – be nice to those below your station in life, or you will end up going to the bad place. Placed in its proper context – and with the “punch line” properly identified – the parable of the rich man and Lazarus becomes a very dangerous text to preach.

I think Jesus meant it to be exactly that!

So, my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #6 is aimed squarely at my own heart – and feet of clay. I must constantly evaluate not only my own thoughts about what I want the text to say, I have to read to weed out the ideas that I want the text not to say.

This is not for the lazy. This is not for those who are far too comfortable in their own little self-righteous clique. Reading the Bible should obviously be a comforting – at times. But, lest we become far too smug in our own self-righteousness, reading the Bible should also be quite painful and demanding.

We ascend by climbing lower. That is how we approach God’s word.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#s 4 and 5)

The fourth and fifth Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection fit together so tightly that I decided to handle them together. Also, number 4 is really self-explanatory. Number 5 deserves a few words, though.

4.  The Bible is a record of the relationship God formed with man, his creation. It is also a record of man’s failure to live within this relationship.

5.  Theology is man’s attempt to understand this relationship between God and man. The beginning of theological reflection is the careful study of the Bible.

I do not know what else to say about number 4. The Bible is truly a story – a story about God and man. The story begins and ends with God, but from beginning to ending the content of the story revolves around God’s relationship with his finest creation – the only creation that was made “in our image.”

I think it is number 5 that people will misinterpret, or misunderstand. I believe that the average “sit in the middle of the pew” Christian simply does not understand the meaning and purpose of theology. I do not blame them – because for the most part theologians have done a rather pitiful job of explaining theology.

For the curious, I have read two books that do a wonderful job explaining the practice of theology, and of explaining how everyone who claims to live a Christian life is in some sense a theologian. The first is Who Needs Theology: An Invitation to the Study of God by Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson. The second is Theology as Discipleship by Keith L. Johnson. If you only want one, I would recommend the first, first. However, both are wonderful books and do a much better job of explaining this than I do.

Stated as simply as I can: everyone who reads and attempts to live out the words of Scripture is a theologian! Theology is not the private domain of some old graybeard cloistered in some ivy covered tower. If you read the Bible, and if you attempt to live the Christian life, you are a theologian, plain and simple. The only question that remains is this: are you going to be a good theologian, or a bad one?

Subsequent explanations of the following “Undeniable Truths” will unpack just exactly what I mean when I use the words “good theology,” but suffice it to say here that the key is found in the last phrase, “the careful study of the Bible.”

Good theology is the result of careful, diligent, intentional study of the Bible. Bad theology is the result of shoddy, reckless, or inattentive reading of Scripture. Good theology is never an accident, while good theologians are sometimes guilty of producing bad theology, for the simple reason that even good theologians occasionally get careless. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to approach the story of the Bible as carefully and intentionally as we possibly can, each and every time we pick it up to read it.

As always, please refer to Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection number 1, and repeat often.

We can only ascend by climbing lower.

Undeniable Truths of Theological Reflection (#3)

Continuing my series on my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” . . .

Building on truth #2, if the authors of Scripture intended their writings to be understood (for me that is axiomatic), then they also intended their writings to achieve their intended purpose:

3.  The authors of the Bible expected their message to create its original intended purpose. This purpose might be encouragement, exhortation, obedience, etc.

Here again, the casual and non-observant reader would glance at these sentences and say, “sure, no problem” and then go out and violate the meaning that I intended for them (pardon the irony).

What I am trying to say is that if a writer composed a narrative, he (or she, but most authors/scribes in antiquity were males) intended his narrative to convey the truth of the narrative (historical truth, didactic teaching, command, parable). If he composed a poem, he intended the poem to convey its intended purpose (comfort, frustration, lament, confession, rejoicing). If he composed in the wisdom tradition, he intended his writing to convey some aspect of wisdom. Point is, when we take a piece of poetry and turn it into a piece of history, or even worse yet, a command, we violate the meaning of Scripture. Let that last little phrase sink in. We can love Scripture, quote Scripture, memorize Scripture; but if we misinterpret or misapply Scripture, we are violating the meaning of that Scripture!

To take a well-worn, but never-the-less powerful example, look at Genesis 1-3. Nothing about this text indicates that it is a lesson in history, biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, genetics, or anthropology. Yet, I have seen, and heard, Genesis 1-3 used as a text to explain all of these, if not more. That is to violate the meaning of Genesis 1-3! If I can boil the meaning of Genesis 1-3 down to one sentence, it would be this: Genesis 1-3 is a narrative story, set in a poetic structure, that explains (1) who God is, and (2) who man (male and female) is, and (3) what the relationship is between God and man, God and creation, and man and creation. Anything beyond that is pure speculation, and the more specific the speculation the more harmful the results.

However, the same can be said of the historical sections of the Old Testament (they are not written to be examples in ethics courses), the Psalms (written from man to God, not God to man), the wisdom literature  and, in the New Testament, the parables (not cute little stories for VBS) and (my pet peeve) the book of Revelation (not a “road map to history”).

Undeniable truth for theological reflection number 3 teaches us that before we can say “this is what the Scripture says to us” we have to ask the question, “what kind of Scripture is this?” Then, once we have determined the kind of Scripture we are dealing with, then we can begin to work on determining its purpose, and for us, its intended meaning.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection, #2

Continuing my explanation of my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” –

2.  The books of the Bible, even the most difficult sections, were written for the purpose of being understood.

Um, this should be painfully obvious. I guess for some, pain just does not work. I was tempted to add, “. . . by the original audience” but I decided not to, for the very real reason that if the Scriptures are inspired (and I believe wholeheartedly that they are), then the authors of the Bible intended that their words could be understood years, even hundreds of years, after they were completed.

I find this truth being violated most frequently in terms of the prophetic and apocalyptic writings in the Bible. There seems to be among many theologians an unwritten rule of interpretation: “If you can point to an obvious fulfillment of a prophecy, the prophecy has been fulfilled; if not, then it relates to the second coming of Jesus.” Just a curious question, but don’t you think Isaiah was writing to his fellow countrymen in the “. . . days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah”? If so, don’t you think that his hearers, or readers, could understand what he preached and wrote? Now, I have no doubt that Matthew (and other N.T. authors), writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could not see a “fuller” and “more complete” fulfillment of many of his prophecies. Matthew’s vision does not erase Isaiah’s original intended purpose, however, and it is especially dangerous to read the Old Testament ONLY through the glasses of a New Testament perspective.

My biggest issue with this “misinterpretation” of Scripture relates to the book of Revelation. The piecemeal manner in which passages are used as proof-texts for virtually every bizarre and sometimes incomprehensible theory of the end-times is just infuriating. It is almost as if people think that John muttered to himself, “I have no idea what all this means, but I’m going to write it down and somebody living in the 21st century will be able to figure it all out.” Hogwash and balderdash, I say. John intended his readers to know EXACTLY what he was writing, or he never would have put pen to paper.

All of this relates specifically to Undeniable Truth #1. If we do not approach Scripture with humility – if we just treat the Bible as some ancient book of folklore and whimsy – then we will completely miss its intended purpose. In other words, we must first come to Scripture with the question, “What did it mean?” before we can ask the question, “What does it mean?” How did Isaiah’s hearers (and readers) hear and read his prophecies? How would a church reading the gospel of Matthew understand his use of Isaiah? And, how would one of the seven churches in Asia have interpreted John’s majestic apocalypse? Only after we come to the Bible with those questions answered can we sit down and say, “Okay, what does this have to say to me today?”

If the meaning of a passage of Scripture we derive is completely foreign to the meaning that it’s original audience would have derived, then I would suggest that our interpretation is completely wrong. Jeremiah was not prophesying that God has mapped out every single detail of our human existence (Jer. 29:11). Jesus was not prophesying about the rise of Muslim terrorism in Mark 13. And the anti-Christ has absolutely nothing to do with Adolph Hitler or Ronald Reagan. (1 John clearly states who the anti-Christ is, to the chagrin of many Christians).

As the old sergeant on Hill Street Blues used to advise his officers at roll-call, “Let’s be careful out there.” Let us be extremely careful with the words of Scripture, because they are God’s words, not ours. Let us ascend higher, by first descending lower, that we might know as fully as possible what God intended for us to know.