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 2:38-39Now 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.