Proposing a New, Really Old, Hermeneutic

Okay, so I can’t count. This is really the fourth in a series of four. Maybe I will stop here – who knows. I’m kind of having fun.

In my last installment I critiqued the hermeneutic that a vast number of members of the Churches of Christ grew up with – and many still defend with the tenacity of a pit bull terrier. That hermeneutic is “Command, Example and Necessary Inference” (hereafter CENI). If you did not read that post, I can sum it up by saying there are some serious issues with that method of interpretation, especially with the “necessary inference” part, but I also see the strength of the hermeneutic and I believe that many Christians work around the problems intuitively, not necessarily consciously.

I also said there was a need for a healthier hermeneutic, and that I believed one was available. I believe it is practiced by more individuals than actually know it’s source (or sources). I think many younger preachers and teachers believe that this “new” hermeneutic is vastly superior to anything those hayseed Restoration leaders could ever think up. And so I give to you one of the most well reasoned, modern, and “spiritual” methods of interpreting the Bible constructed by — Alexander Campbell.

In his magnum opus, The Christian System, Alexander Campbell listed seven “rules” by which the Bible must be translated and interpreted. [As an aside here, this work really needs to be read and studied in its entirety by all ministers and teachers in the church. They will be amazed by the theological depth and breadth demonstrated by Campbell, and they will be embarrassed by their off-handed dismissals of his education, or supposed lack thereof.] I give them here, somewhat abbreviated, with explanations provided in brackets with my initials inside – [PAS]

  1.  On opening any book in the Sacred Scriptures, consider first the historical circumstances of the book. These are the order, the title, the author, the date, the place, and the occasion of it.
  2. In examining the contents of any book as respects precepts, promises, exhortations, &c., observe who it is that speaks, and under what dispensation he officiates . . . Consider also the persons addressed, their prejudices, characters and religious relations.
  3. To understand the meaning of what is commanded, promised, taught, &c., the same philological principles deduced from the nature of language, or the same laws of interpretation which are applied to the language of other books, are to be applied to the language of the Bible.
  4. Common usage, which can only be ascertained by testimony, must always decide the meaning of any word which has but one signification; but when words have, according to testimony (i.e. the Dictionary,) more meanings than one, whether literal or figurative, the scope, the context, or parallel passages must decide the meaning: for if common usage, the design of the writer, the context, and parallel passages fail, there can be no certainty in the interpretation of language.
  5. In all tropical language [poetic language- PAS] ascertain the point of resemblance, and judge of the nature of the trope, and its kind, from the point of resemblance.
  6. In the interpretation of symbols, types, allegories and parables, this rule is supreme: – Ascertain the point to be illustrated; for comparison is never to be extended beyond that point – to all the attributes, qualities, or circumstances of the symbol, type, allegory, or parable.
  7. For the salutary and sanctifying intelligence of the Oracles of God, the following rule is indispensable: – We must come within the understanding distance . . . Every one, then, who opens the Book of God with one aim, with one ardent desire – intent only to know the will of God, – to such a person the knowledge of God is easy; for the Bible is framed to illuminate such, and only such, with the salutary knowledge of things celestial and divine . . . He, then, that would interpret the Oracles of God to the salvation of his soul, must approach this volume with the humility and docility of a child, and meditate upon it day and night. (Alexander Campbell, The Christian System in Reference to the Union of Christians and Restoration of Primitive Christianity as Plead by the Current Reformation, [St. Louis: Christian Publishing CO., N.D.] p. 16-18, italics in the original)

The language is early 19th century flowery, but any student in a present-day course on hermeneutics would immediately recognize the scope of what  Campbell proposed – identify the type of literature, pay careful attention to the historical circumstances of the author and original readers, and do not press metaphorical language beyond it’s intended purpose. Wow. And Campbell wrote this in 1834-35. Of particular significance to me is Campbell’s use of the phrase, “understanding distance.” That sounds like it came straight out of the textbook I used in the Principles of Interpretation course I taught at Eastern New Mexico University.

Those who dismiss the theological acumen of Alexander Campbell are aghast at the soundness of this outline. Those who defend the hermeneutic of CENI are aghast that a Restoration leader would promote a “new hermeneutic” way back in 1835. The fact is, however, that if you truly follow what Campbell proposed, the hermeneutic of CENI is pretty toothless.

Are these seven rules of Campbell perfect? Are they to be equated with the words of the Bible itself? Are we to make of these seven rules what many have made of CENI? No, no, and no. I recognize these rules as one person’s contribution to the problem of biblical interpretation, and an early 19th century contribution at that. I know that our knowledge of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages, and our knowledge of ancient literature, has progressed significantly since Campbell’s day. I personally do not ascribe to Campbell’s dispensationalism, discussed in rule #2, and which he more fully expounds later in the book. So, I would tweak Campbell’s rules a little here and there. That having been said and duly noted, I find it quite amazing that so much of what Campbell wrote is still useable and valuable today.

I want to close this post with the words I selected as the final sentence above: “He, then, that would interpret the Oracles of God to the salvation of his soul, must approach this volume with the humility and docility of a child, and meditate upon it day and night.”

Amen, bro. Campbell, amen.

Formal or Dynamic; Word-for-Word or Thought-for-Thought?

Sorry for the egg-head stuff here. This post is the result of a rabbit that I was chasing while preparing my sermon for last week. In a recent post explaining my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection (#9) I discussed two major translation theories, formal (or literal) and dynamic (or thought-for-thought). This post is an interesting (at least to me) example of the significance of these two theories.

Our test passages are Acts 9:7 and 22:9. These verses are embedded in the accounts of Saul of Tarsus’s conversion. The first is told in the third person by Luke, the second is Saul’s (now Paul’s) first, first-hand recounting of that event (Paul would repeat the story again in chapter 26). Reading the two verses in the Revised Standard Version, one is struck with an immediate contradiction: in Acts 9:7 the traveling companions of Saul hear the voice that was speaking to Saul; and in Acts 22:9 they do not hear the voice.

Now, if you do not know Greek, but you have an idea about what might be happening, you might think two different words are being used for the English word, “hear.” Nice try, but no, its not true. In 9:7 the companions hear (from the word we get our English acoustics) the voice (from the word we get our English phonetics); in 22:9 they do not hear the voice. So, being the translation nerd that I am, I set off to see how other translations handled the two statements.

I checked a baker’s dozen translations. In 9:7 every single one had some form of the word “hear,” either as a verb or as a participle. Where it got interesting was in the translation of the same word in 22:9. Here is how they broke down:

Some form of the verb “hear” – King James Version, New King James Version, Revised Standard Version, Holman Christian Standard Bible, Common English Bible, The Message, and the American Standard Version. I have to admit, seeing the CEB and The Message in this column really surprised me. I really did not expect them to use the word “hear.”

The word “understand” or equivalent – English Standard Version, New International Version (1984 edition), Gods Word Bible, the NET Bible, and the New Living Translation. Those I sort of predicted. However, the one that really surprised me in this column – the New American Standard Bible! That’s right – one translation that claims to be among the most formal, or literal, actually chooses a more dynamic translation word here.

So, there you have it. Out of my 13 different translations, seven kept the same meaning in both verses for the word “hear.” Six had the more common translation for the Greek word in the first occurrence, but in the second verse they realized that if they kept the translation identical, there would be an inherent contradiction with 9:7. That is, you cannot have the companions hearing and not hearing at the same time. That makes either Luke or Paul ignorant of what was going on.

However, one legitimate (although less common) connotation of the word used in both verses is “understand, comprehend.” So, taking the context of the two verses into mind, the translators of the ESV, NASB, NIV, God’s Word, NET, and NLT all realized that the companions heard the words that were spoken to Paul, but they did not understand, or comprehend them. The two passages are not in contradiction – they make perfect sense. Only if you insist on a overly rigid translation principle is there a problem.

[By the way, here is where the preacher in me comes out. I think Paul is making a subtle point here as he speaks to his Jewish adversaries. Just because you hear some words does not mean that you understand them. It takes a willing heart – Jesus called it “ears to hear” – to take the words of Jesus and to accept them. The Jews to whom Paul was speaking in Acts 22 had no doubt heard Jesus and the apostles, but just like his companions on the road to Damascus, were unwilling to comprehend them. They heard, without hearing. End of sermon]

Here is the moral to the story: if you insist on a direct 1:1 translation theory, arguing that “a literal word-for-word” translation is always best, sometimes you can get yourself in a interpretational bog. By accepting that sometimes you need to look past a strict 1:1 equivalency, you can actually create a far better translation, one that conveys the actual sense of a passage.

By the way, as I stated in my earlier post, I really do like the RSV. But, it is not always perfect, and in this situation I do not like that they stayed with the same English word for the Greek word used. Using just the RSV, someone with no understanding of translation theories could, and most probably would, come away with a belief that Acts 9:7 and 22:9 contradict each other. That is unfortunate, and our translators owe us a more carefully nuanced product.

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.

When Translators Let Us Down

As a result of a recent request, I have been researching the nature of the church. As a beginning point I have been studying the use of the word ekklesia in the New Testament. That Greek word is the word virtually always translated “church” in our English translations. How we arrived from ekklesia to church is fascinating, but too complicated to really unpack here. Suffice it to say that our English word “church” derives more from the Greek kuriakon than the Greek word ekklesia. This, then, has some fascinating and ultimately negative repercussions.

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To begin with, the word ekklesia is best translated “assembly” “gathering” “meeting” or perhaps “congregation” although the last word continues to have a religious connotation that was not inherent in the Greek. You can see how ekklesia has a secular, and even legal, meaning through passages such as Acts 7:38 and 19:32, 39, and 41. Here translators do not want to confuse the reader with any “loaded” terminology, so that actually translate ekklesia to be either “congregation” (as in 7:38) or “assembly” in the passages in chapter 19, which is more like a mob or a riot.

The problem is, that in using the word “church” in every other instance in the New Testament, unintended interpretations creep in and the more simple meaning of many passages is obscured. Let me illustrate.

Let’s say we have a member of the Church of Christ, a Roman Catholic, and a totally dispassionate non-believer in the same room. We ask a simple question – “What do you mean when you say the word ‘church'”? I am going to guess (as I am not Roman Catholic), that the Catholic is going to think of the church universal, with all the imperial accoutrements – the Pope as the vicar of Christ, and the attendant Cardinals, Bishops, and Priests, and the formal liturgy of the Mass. On the other hand, my response would be to imagine each individual congregation of which I have been a part – Galisteo and Cordova in Santa Fe, Montgomery Blvd. in Albuquerque, Barrow Rd. in Little Rock, etc. That is, I think of individual congregations, and more than likely I picture specific buildings. For the Roman Catholic this would be what he or she pictures when he or she hears the word parish. The non-believer will probably have any one of a dozen different images depending on his or her experience with the church – maybe a Christmas or Easter pageant, a wedding or a funeral, a Bible-thumping preacher that condemned everyone to hell, or an ornate but basically useless building.

However, change the word to “assembly” and those differences are most likely to disappear. Assemblies can only refer to one thing – groups of people. To say, “the assembly of Christ” or “the assembly of God” (note lower case “a”) means a group of people connected in some form or fashion to Christ or to God. “Assembly” does leave room for some theological fine-tuning, but it does get away from buildings and hierarchical leadership structures and open caskets and Easter egg hunts.

I firmly believe that is why, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the word ekklesia was chosen by the New Testament authors to describe the people of God. It was already in use through the Greek translation of the Old Testament, (therefore it did have a link with the first covenant people) and it could be differentiated from its closest synonym, synagogue. Synagogue had already acquired a formal, and rigid, meaning in the first century A.D. Ekklesia was essentially a secular term, and therefore the early Christians could use it to communicate what it meant to be the people of God without having to “un-teach” the heavily laden Jewish connotations of the word synagogue.

If we would simply translate the word as “assembly” a host of problems disappear (although perhaps not all, and perhaps others would creep in). Try it. When you see the word “church” read “assembly.” Is the meaning enhanced for you? Are some passages now more clear in meaning? Are some possible misunderstandings removed?

It is for me – but, then, I am kind of weird.

Blessings on your Bible study.