Saturday, December 03, 2011

Understanding Scripture

This last month I’ve been trying to make at least one blog post a week and last week’s was certainly a success, prompting an ongoing discussion with someone calling himself SLP2. For this week’s post I want to pick up on an element of that discussion, the Bible in translation. How far can a person’s understanding of scripture go if you don’t know the original languages?

This question arose because of a complaint I made regarding something I admit I am having less and less patience with: attempts to explain away troublesome verses--scriptures that don’t gel with a doctrinal point--by appealing to the original Greek. The implication being, if only you knew the original text like I do, you’d have to agree. It’s all perfectly clear there. (And please note: none of this is meant as a swipe at SLP2. I am addressing an attitude and approach I’ve seen many times and I encourage you to read his posts.) Now, I don’t speak Greek, but I’ve taken a couple of courses over the years and my Greek (or, rather, my complete lack of Greek) puts me on par with most of the people I hear this from. They’ve taken some Greek in school, they own a lexicon, and they’ve learned to parrot arguments they have heard from others.

An example. On the day of Pentecost, following the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit was poured out and the Church born. The sound of the disciples worshipping in tongues drew the attention of a large crowd and Peter stood up and preached to them that Jesus was the Christ. The crowd responded by asking what they should do.

And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself."
Acts 2:38-39
Now I’ve blogged on baptism before and, while most churches have in some way integrated into their understanding of God’s salvation plan, there are many in the Evangelical community who steadfastly refuse to. They try to explain away this clear instruction in these verses by arguing that, in the Greek the word ‘repent’ and the word ‘your’ in ‘your sins’ are both plural and therefor the forgiveness must only relate to repentance. The fact that he said ‘repent and be baptized every one of you’ is completely glossed over.

But the issue goes beyond trying to win an argument through pedantry. First, it is promoting a poor understanding of translation. Word for word translation between languages, even closely related ones, is often all but impossible, but that does not mean that faithful and accurate translations are impossible. On the contrary, if you have a skilled translator, someone with knowledge of the culture and language, there is no reason to believe that a trustworthy translation is beyond reach.
A second, and a more serious problem, involves a foundational principle of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura, ‘by scripture alone.’ This is the understanding that the Bible contains within it all we need to know God and to become saved, that every article of our faith should have a foundation in scripture, and that the truth revealed in scripture is available for everyone honestly seeking God. This is why Protestants promote Bible reading, have translated the Bible into so many languages, and have worked to make the Bible the most widely disseminated book in human history. This doesn’t mean understanding is always going to come easily or effortlessly. Peter warned us of the dangers of wresting the scripture to our own destruction (2 Peter 3:16), but we also have the example of the church in Berea, who searched the scriptures daily to confirm the teachings of Paul (Acts 17:11). The idea that the truth is truly available only to those who can read the Bible in its original languages makes a mockery of this principle. One of the inspirations for sola scriptura in the first place was to take the Bible out of the hands of the clergy and give it to all. Going back and looking at the original languages and cultures of the Bible can provide us was important insights, but if the only way you can defend a teaching is by hauling out your lexicon perhaps the teaching needs to be reconsidered.


Anonymous said...

its not that truth is only available in the original language but how do you know how to properly read something?

If you were speaking to a Jehovah's Witness and they brought up Titus 2:13
", 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,"

The common attack upon Jesus' Divinity hear is to say that Paul is referring to God the Father AND Jesus our Savior, not that he is calling Jesus God.

Would you be able to deny that their reading is a plain reading of this verse or at least possible? So does this verse refer to Jesus Christ as God and Savior or is it only talking about Jesus Christ as savior and refers also to God the Father?

how do you counter a Jehovah's Witness attack on Jesus' Divinity on this verse?

do you simply say well we agree to disagree and allow that one of the key verses used to defend Christ's Divinity really isn't so clear and thus can no longer be used without charges of well you are ignoring its plain meaning and reading it how you want to read it.

Is there an objective way of knowing what this verse means? YES!

if we consult the Greek we see this is a construction according to the Granvile Sharp Rule. both words are nouns but there is only 1 article. The Grammar Rule states if a 2 nouns are connected by a conjunction and an article is present only before the first noun. then BOTH nouns refer to the subject.

So while english allows for 2 possible readings and no way cept subjective standards to decide between the 2.

Greek only allows for 1 proper reading of this verse, Jesus is called God, any other interpretation violates Greek Grammar and you'd have to say "if you know knew Greek, you'd see how plain this is."

This is an example of why I say we need to go back to the original, Lexicons do not teach grammar, and many times the way you know which of many possible words that could be translated, and which one is proper to use is from grammar and context.

without knowing Greek Grammar what would an argument on Titus 2:13 with someone who denies Jesus Divinity be like? With Greek Grammar there can not be an honest debate Greek demands only 1 interpretation.

does this sort of highlight my point now? Many times where English has a debate, Greek settles that debate.

That is why we go back to the Greek, to see if really there is no actual debate, its settled if we follow the original grammar rules.


Anonymous said...

Or another example that just hit me.

Yesterday I was talking with a Messanic Jew who denies the Orthodox definition of the Trinity. He sees God as 3 "parts" to the one God. basically he denies The 3 Persons of God have individual wills and thus that they are indeed separate persons, he wants to argue God is one person with 1 will who can appear in different ways even at the same time as each other; a very modalistic view.

To defend the separate Personhood of Jesus from the Father I went to 1 verse, John 1:1.
"1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

I pointed out that while in english this isn't obvious, in Greek this verse shows the personhood of Christ vs. the Father. John used the word "pros" to say the Word was "with" God. Greek grammar when pros is used it significance is one of face to face relationship. By using "pros" John is signifying that the Word had a relationship with God (who later he will point out is the Father) Parts cannot have relationships with each other, People do. Thus John's word choice shows he views the Word (whom later he will identify as Jesus) as Divine in relationship with the Father. This would make Jesus to be a separate person from the Father especially since the Word was God, "theos" in 1c does not have an article so he isn't calling him the same person as the father.

John is saying through verse 1.

The word is eternal, has a relationship with the Father,and is divine, but isn't the Father himself.

Thus the separate persons of the Divinity can be demonstrated in this great verse, but can only be demonstrated through Greek Grammar, English Grammar carries none of the nuances that allows me to say that John sees the Word as eternal, in a relationship with the father, divine but not the father himself.

These conclusions which are plain from Greek Grammar are lost in English Grammar due to their differences.

So back to the point of your previous post, When you say something is "the plain meaning of the text" how is that determined?

for me The word is eternal, has a relationship with the Father,and is divine, but isn't the Father himself is the plain meaning of John 1:1

would you agree with me if you only went with English translations and grammar that is interpretation is the correct one if you simply did a plain reading of John 1:1? and that no others would make as much sense as this one?

instead we hear from Oneness, Unitarians and Jehovah's Witnesses that we aren't allowing the text to speak for itself because we don't want to admit Jesus is the Father.

once again I only have 1 recourse with them "learn the Greek grammar used and see that your argument would then fail!



David Bird said...

First off, SLP2, sorry for my delay in responding. Sometimes real life gets in the way of our virtual ones.

To reiterate my point, my objection is the resort to special knowledge, or claims of it, anyway, to get around holes in one's arguments. I do think that the study of Greek can be beneficial, but I strongly believe that the tenets of one's faith should be defensible without having to make reference to special knowledge. The source of irritation, as you might have guessed from my example, stems from discussions about baptism.

As for your two examples. I think the text of Titus 2:13 does clearly say that Jesus is both our great God and Savior. It doesn't say, 'of our great God and of our Savior Jesus Christ.' Moreover, while its been some time since I've gotten into a discussion with a Jehovah's Witness, I suspect their interpretation of this verse is inconsistent with their own understanding of Christ's return. Do they really believe that two, God and Jesus, are returning?

While discussing the Bible with Jehovah Witnesses it is important to keep in mind that they reference a version of the Bible written especially to conform to their views.

Moreover, while the Granville Sharp rule may sometimes be illuminating, it isn't actually a Greek grammatical rule at all, but an 18th century device for solving theological debates. And its one that has given rise to some debate itself.

As for John 1:1, three things.

First, if an understanding of Greek were all that is needed to solve theological debates, then I believe most would be solved. I believe most Christians want to believe the truth and will eventually abandon weak interpretations.

Second, relationships can exists within things as well as between them--within things, as well as people. Nations, ideas, even body parts can all have relations, both externally and internally.

And third, and most importantly, I should let you know that I am an Apostolic, or Oneness, Pentecostal. I've mentioned this elsewhere in my blog, but I don't think you've come across those posts. And I hold that position, not out of an ignorance of Greek, but because the Bible consistently claims that there is only one God and that Jesus is that God made manifest. The idea that three co-existent, co-eternal deities can be one is not a product of a correct understanding of Greek text. Even Trinitarians have acknowledged that it isn't explicitly found in the texts.

Anonymous said...

ah, Oneness Pentecostal, I knew you were Pentecostal but didn't know Oneness Pentecostal.

I disagree while the term Trinity is not in the bible, the doctrine of the trinity is built on 3 themes Scripture clearly teaches

1) God is One Being
2) The Father is God, Jesus is God, and the Holy Spirit is God
3) Each is their own person, Jesus is not the Father and very clearly distinguishes himself from the Father.

In Order to be Oneness one must (which you obviously then do) deny that 1 of the 3 is taught in Scriptures. Numbers 1 & 2 are clear, so it can only be a denial of #3. To say that Scriptures show Jesus teaching that he is the same person as the Father I would have to argue is not following the plain reading of the verses. Jesus has a Will of his Own distinct from the Father. He's will is in perfect agreement with the Father so that they can be said to be 1 in their Will, but they each have their own, Jesus acts towards the Father as a seperate person, not as if He IS the Father, and thus talking to himself, praying to himself, loving himself.

The Trinity is found based on the principle of tota scriptura and acknowledging the 3 truths

1) There is only 1 God
2) The Father, Son and Spirit are God
3) The Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Spirit.

The Doctrine of the Trinity is the Doctrine that affirms all 3 as truth, all other positions are based on trying to argue away the verses that each 1 of the 3 truths.


David Bird said...

Actually, Oneness Pentecostals do distinguish between the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but if there is only one God, the distinction between them cannot be as absolute as Trinitarians make it. At some point one means one and three means three.

I have just finished putting together a little collection of material for a study of the Godhead next year. For Trinitarians writers I have The Tripersonal God: Understanding and Interpreting the Trinity by Gerald O’Collins, The Trinity by Roger E. Olson, and The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity by Peter C. Phan. I am also going to get The Jesus Wars by Philip Jenson. Anything else you think I should consider?

Anonymous said...

Can you explain what this ditinction is?

Is this in the sense of Modalists or Unitarians? do they not distinguish between the 3 either in terms of function or form.

I mean if the Father is spirit in heaven and the Son is the Father in the flesh, then technically they are distinguished from each other in form, but not in personhood.

But I said they are distinguished in their Personhood, they are seperate persons with seperate wills.

Can you explain how Oneness distinguishes them and what you teach concerning the Will of the Father compared/constrasted to the Will of the Son?

- SLP2

David Bird said...

The Oneness movement doesn't have Trinitarianism's history of creedal statements, but we share a Modalistic view of God vis-a-vis the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The Son is the manifestation of the logos (John 1:14). We agree with Trinitarians that Jesus is both fully God and fully man, but being begotten did not have an existance separate from the Father until Mary conceived.

How would you describe God without resorting to the concept of persona?

Anonymous said...

Well it'd still be the 3 truths that I listed.

Without using the concept of persona it would then be the concept of individual Will.

The Son has a Will that is unique to him vis-a-vis the Father. The Father and the Son have seperate Wills, and each of their Wills are eternal yet they are both God and there is only 1 Being of God. The same applies to the Holy Spirit.

Jesus clearly distinguishes his Will from the Father's demonstrating that both exist.


David Bird said...

How do you reconcile the idea that there are three eternal gods--God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost--with the teaching that God is one, without resorting to a corporatist model more akin to triplicism than monotheism?

Anonymous said...

Because I dont say there are 3 eternal Gods, there is 1 Eternal God in 3 Persons.

The Being of God is what the Shema refers to when it says the Lord our God is 1, 1 in Being.

God in his infinity is able to exist in his 1 Being as 3 Persons.

How 1 Being can have 3 Persons is beyond my mind to fully understand. I simply accept 3 truths and make sure I dont contradict them

1) God is 1
2) The Father is God, The Son is God, The Spirit is God
3) The Father is not the Son, The Son is not the Spirit.

I accept I cannot fully comprehend the being of God he is transcendent and beyond my finite mind, I simply affirm that Scriptures teach the 3 and so Trinitarism is the the only affirmation of all 3 truths.

I don't think God expects anything more from me then to simply accept what he reveals.