One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? by Dave Brunn (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013), 193 pages.
Ever since I took a class in the transmission and translation of the Bible from Dr. Neil Lightfoot the subject of textual criticism and Bible translations has been a hobby of mine. I cannot say that I am an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I am simply an apprentice in the field. The subject is immensely fascinating. I also have a very strong opinion that it is equally critical for the disciple of Christ to know something about the history of the transmission and translation of the manuscripts of the Bible, and that the average member of the church knows either nothing or next to nothing about those subjects. Those deficiencies make purchasing and reading this book that much more important.
In order to write a good book in this field an author must accomplish two goals – and goals that are not necessarily complementary. One, he or she needs to cover a vast amount of material that can be complicated and, at times, seemingly esoteric. On the other extreme if the book is to be effective it needs to be written so that the average church member can read and understand it. It needs to have some “there” there or it will just be placed on a shelf where it can look impressive to the casual observer. In this book, One Bible, Many Versions, Dave Brunn cleans up on both accounts. He does not get into the vagaries of textual manuscripts, but he does do an outstanding job in discussing the complicated process of translation and how the different translations we have of the English Bible are a blessing to us all.
Several aspects of this book scream for proper attention. One, the book is clearly written in language anyone with a high school education or beyond will be able to understand. This is no small feat given the subject matter at hand. There is no “technalese” that bogs so many specialty books down.
Two, the book is literally filled with wonderful graphics that illustrate the issues the author is describing. In particular, Brunn does not simply say that there are “many examples” of such-and-such, he gives those examples in painstaking detail – sometimes pages of them – in easy-to-read chart format. If you are going to argue with Brunn’s conclusions, you had better study hard and stay up late to challenge his many and well defended examples.
Three, Brunn is not writing with any particular axe to grind, unless it is that he dislikes it when people write about translations with axes to grind. He points out that every translation violates it’s guiding principles at some points, that literal translations sometimes take great liberties with the text, and that sometimes idiomatic translations are more literal than the “literal” translations.
Just one example here will suffice – Brunn points out that many people will argue that the New American Standard Bible (NASB) is one of the most literal, word-for-word translations on the market. However, Brunn goes through and points out that in many verses a more idiomatic (or, Dynamic) translation is actually more “literal” or formal in its translation than is the NASB. The same is true with the ESV and the HCSB. I was mesmerized by the evidence, and I will never look at the NASB with the same understanding as I once did.
Another chapter that I feel like was worth the purchase price of the book was the chapter in which Brunn described the problems translators have in translating the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts into languages other than English. (The chapter is titled, “The Babel Factor”) We, as English speaking Americans, tend to measure everything by how it affects the English language. Brunn worked in translating the Bible into the Lamogai language of the people of Papua, New Guinea. His grasp of translational issues is not simply one dimensional – it is truly multi-dimensional. If you buy, read and even study this book your understanding will be multi-dimensional as well. You will never look at translations, or translational issues, in the same way.
I know that every book I review in this blog space is a book I highly recommend (otherwise, why waste the time to review it!) But I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough. If you do not want to buy the book for yourself, buy a copy each for all of your elders and your minister or ministers. If they spend any time at all speaking about how one translation is “better” than another, they need to read this book. In fact, if they spend any time even reading from an English translation they need to read this book.
But, quite honestly, every member who considers himself or herself to be a student of the Bible needs to read this book. It is that well written and that important. Do not attempt to call yourself educated in the field of translations if you refuse to read this little volume.
It’s funny to me how some people will trip over themselves to prove they are the most dedicated Bible believing, scripture quoting people and yet carve out significant chunks of the Bible that they believe no longer applies to them. In reality, what they are is the most selective Bible believing, scripture quoting people around.
I have in mind 1/10, that is, 10% of the 10 Commandments – “You shall remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
“Oh, but that does not apply to us today, because we are New Testament Christians, and that only applied to the Old Law.”
It’s pretty hard to say you follow the teachings of the Bible if you only start with a 90% standard of completion to begin with. Or, make the less that 50% if you remove the entire Old Testament. Who want to boast about following 40% of the Bible? “Yes, I’m a 40% Christian.” Sounds kind of lukewarm to me.
Speaking only of the United States, but I believe we have to be the most neurotic, psychotic, and paranoid culture to have ever lived – or at the very least we are in a tie with a long lost civilization.
We rush, push, hurry, manipulate, worry, fret, drink, consume volumes of pharmaceuticals, drive ourselves to ulcers and destroy our mental and physical bodies in a 24/7/365 cycle of narcissism and compulsion. All for what result? More money, more prestige, more opportunities to regret doing what was most important to begin with.
And way back yonder on Mount Sinai God told Moses, “Rest one day in seven – oh, you can do your chores – milk the cows and feed the chickens, but take the day off. Rest. Sleep. Play with the kids. Let your servants rest and sleep and play with their kids. Call off the planting and the harvesting and the committee meetings and the hustle and the bustle. If you have nothing to do for 24 hours you can think about Me. Think about creation and how I take care of the whole world and yet I found time to take a day off for some rest and relaxation. Now, if I, your God, can take a day off and things work out okay then certainly you can take a day off and let the world run itself for a while.”
But we refuse to take God’s word for it. Why, if we stopped worrying and fussing and having our committee meetings and working 24/7/365 then the whole world would just go spinning off its axis into the great abyss.
I’m exhausted. I am just mentally and physically fried. I can remember being this spent only one other time in my life. It was not pretty. But God did not put me in this place. My supervisors did not put me in this place. My family or my friends did not put me in this place. I put myself in this place. I have not practiced Sabbath in a long, long time. The human body is just not designed for this kind of wear and tear. I’m not a doctor nor a psychiatrist, but I read the Bible. God designed me and he said “Sabbath – that is what my people need, Sabbath.”
Rest. Relax. Recreate. Refocus on God. Watch the world go around and realize that it will continue to go around whether I meet my next deadline or not.
I want to restore that 10% of my Bible that I have been cutting out for far too long.
The Sabbath was God’s gift to his people, not a law to bind and trap them into legalism.
I want to claim that gift. I want my Sabbath back.
Turn to me and be saved, all who live at the ends of the earth, because I am God, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:22, God’s Word Translation)
I was following along today in my daily Bible reading schedule and this verse caught my attention. A question came to my mind – “Why do we read Scripture?” It is not as easy a question to answer as you may think.
This is a personal confession, but for me the vast majority of my Bible reading is academic, professional, or related to debate and confrontation. That is to say, I read to find out what a passage “means,” I read to find out how to present the message to others, or I read in order to make my point or to refute the arguments of others.
In rather stark terms, I totally misread Scripture. Not always, but far too frequently. And, I might add, with disappointing results.
Scripture, the very word of God, was not written to be used as a billy club, an instrument of terror and abuse. It was not written to be a forensic textbook, a guide to win arguments and destroy enemies.
God spoke to his prophets, servants and apostles in order to win people back to Him. God’s messages were always personal, even if delivered to a large crowd, or even an entire nation. God’s messages were written in first person singular – “I.” The object was almost always “you,” although on occasion it could be “them.” The prophets in the Old Testament and the apostles in the New Testament never spoke about, or taught about, or tried to explain God. They simply spoke for God. Theirs was the message, “Thus says the LORD God…” This is a critical point to grasp, because we (speaking generically) do not read our text this way.
Everything changed when the Greek philosophical mindset overcame the Hebraic worldview. Even before the coming of Jesus the Greeks had a history of trying to figure out the question of deity and how the gods related to man. And so, as Christianity spread from its Judaic cradle the discussion ceased to be, “What did God say?” and became “What is a god?” or “What is a man?” We can document this in the early debates and struggles of the church. In the first few decades following the death and resurrection of Jesus the message was simple – “come back to God through the blood of Christ.” But, that did not last for long. Soon people started to ask questions like, “How could Jesus be God?” and “How could a god become man, anyway?” So, academics replaced evangelism, ontology replaced faith, and we have never really rid ourselves of that Greek desire to figure out the “how” instead of simply answering the “what” question: what are you going to do with the message of Jesus?
The bottom line is that I do not believe Scripture was written so that I can explain God. Quite simply, God does not need to be explained. Either we believe in Him or we do not. We can’t explain him anyway – Plato and Aristotle’s noble attempts notwithstanding.
Scripture was written so God could win us back to Him. The divine “I” still speaks to the human “you.” Sometimes that word is painfully personal. Sometimes it is national, or even universal, in scope. But, it was not written to be an academic treatise, a manual for succeeding in public debate, or as a introductory text in biology and physics.
I still fall back into my old habits, but I am learning. I hope that I will be able to get better as I learn to read deeper. And I hope you will too.
I have been given the opportunity to preach again this coming Sunday (yea!) and in the process of working on what I wanted to say a thought occurred to me. Now, it’s not everyday that I have thoughts that occur to me. I was actually pretty excited.
Anyway, this is what came floating through my mind, and pardon the stream of consciousness thinking here – I hope everything will make sense by the last word.
We (and I am speaking inclusively here, obviously there are exceptions to every general statement) have been working diligently over the past who-knows-how-many years (more than a decade, less than a generation) to make every verse in the Bible easy to understand. That is to say we have been teaching what the books and sections and verses of the Bible mean. But we have overlooked one very important issue that has now come back to haunt us.
We have been forgetting to teach that the Bible means something anyway.
You see, we can teach the exact meaning of every single verse in the Bible, but if we fail to teach that the Bible itself has meaning, then all of that instruction is pointless. You can teach me what every word Karl Marx wrote means, and I will say to you, “So what?” You can teach me the precise meaning of every word that Joseph Smith wrote down and will respond the same way. The writings of Marx and Smith mean nothing to me, so the meanings of each individual section, sentence or word are completely meaningless to me.
So, today, we as teachers and preachers and parents and other church leaders can exegete and decipher and work out the meaning for every jot and tittle in the Bible, and the sum total of our efforts is a big fat zero because of one fundamental fact: the Bible is totally irrelevant to a large and growing population of the United States.
So, I think we need to back up a little bit and ask a fairly basic question: what does it mean to say that the Bible means something, anything?
To my generation, and certainly to generations preceding mine, it was just assumed that when you spoke from the Bible that most people would care. They might disagree with what you said, but at least the Bible mattered to them. Today I do not believe that is a valid assumption. It is my experience that a large number of people, if not a majority of people today, simply look at the Bible as a collection of myths and fairy tales. This is especially true among the college age and younger generations. So, even if you get the meaning right, it doesn’t mean anything.
We are truly living in a post-Christian, post-biblical world. I think we are going to have to stop teaching in paragraphs and go back to something a little more basic. I think we are going to have to go back and teach the alphabet.
And that means we are going to have to start living like we believe the Bible means something, before we can teach that the words within the Bible mean something.
I am in the midst of working through a text-book that I (hopefully) will be using in a class this fall on the subject of interpreting Scripture. The book is entitled, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. So far I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the Book and I really hope that I have enough students to teach the class. Perhaps in the future I will write a more in-depth review, but I came across a very helpful distinction the other day and I wanted to share it, and if by sharing it more people are interested in reading the book then so much the better.
To begin, let me use a situation from real life. In my work as a minister I have come across many people who are honestly, but hopelessly, lost when it comes to the concept of interpreting Scripture. They have heard so many sermons and so many classes in which the preacher or teacher says something like, “we do not interpret Scripture, we just read Scripture,” or “we interpret Scripture literally, other religions invent methods of interpretation to support their man-made ideas.” So, many church members blithely go about their business thinking either that they do not ever join in the process of interpreting the Bible, or they assume, because they have been told repeatedly that they do so, that they interpret the Bible in a “pure” and literal sense.
One poor soul is so convinced of this that every time he reads the book of Revelation after an election he has to completely re-establish his interpretation because the identity of his anti-Christ has changed. In a small way if it were not so sad it would be comical. But it is not comical at all – it is very, very sad.
To be perfectly blunt: it is impossible to interpret the Bible in a “pure” literal sense. To use just one simple illustration, if everyone was to do so, after the first sin involving the use of sight a person would have to pluck out their right eye, and after the second sin involving sight they would have to pluck out their left eye. After the first sin involving a hand or a finger the person would have to chop off their right hand, and after the second sin they would have to chop off their left hand (Matthew 5:27-30). Now, how many church members do you see who have plucked out one eye, let alone both? How many have cut off one hand, let alone both? And yet are they going to suggest they have NEVER sinned with their eyes or their hands? What about gossips? Would it not be a “literal” application that a gossip would have to cut their tongue out? Hmmm.
Or take Jesus’ description of himself. Taken literally, we should look for a great big huge gate to descend from the clouds when Jesus returns. Oops, make that a grape-vine. Oops, make that a loaf of bread. Oops, make that a valiant warrior riding a white horse. Rats. I just cannot keep all those literal descriptions straight.
The point is when we attempt to interpret the Bible literally we get into all kinds of silly messes. And I have not even touched the hem of the garment that is called the Apocalypse. While I will not for a moment deny that the Bible is true and faithful in its message, I will argue that the writers of the books of the Bible used a wide variety of writing styles and techniques and we must be aware of those styles and techniques or we will distort and even negate the ultimate truth of the Bible.
Here is where the authors of the book Grasping God’s Word have hit on a timely phrase. They correctly point out that we should not attempt to interpret the Bible according to its literal meaning but according to its literary meaning. So, if we are reading poetry we understand that God is not literally a shepherd, but that there are several aspects of a shepherd that can be applied to our God. Jesus is not literally a door or a gate, but that image suggests something about the person and work of Jesus that we need to think seriously about. Jesus can use hyperbole (exaggeration) and irony (sarcasm’s weaker cousin) and we do not need to believe that the Pharisees were literally a bunch of snakes.
The strange thing is, as I see it, that we do this with the most obvious examples (Ps. 23, Matt. 5) but when it comes to more complex issues we want to revert back to “literal only.” Thus, when Paul exclaims, “Don’t you have houses to eat in?” (1 Cor. 11:22) he must mean that eating food at a church assembly is forever condemned. Except, in the first century the overwhelming evidence is that the Christians met together in homes! There simply was no “church building” to ban the use of communal meals. If Paul was banning the use of eating in places of assembly, he was therefore banning the eating of food in houses, the very thing that he appears to command in 1 Cor. 11:22! If we take every statement in the letters of Paul literally we move from the sublime to the absurd in a heartbeat!
I really do not blame many people for the confusion they experience when they come to difficult passages and for the helplessness they feel in trying to make sense of the verses. Many preachers and teachers – who should have known far better – have led these people into a black hole. Those who teach and preach today need to work remedially to untangle the web of deceit that has already been spun, and we need to preach and teach and model healthy, biblical forms of interpretation. That means, unfortunately, that bad theology needs to be exposed and, if needed, forcefully refuted. But all things must be done in love.
And, never forget my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #1. All interpreters must come to the Bible in an attitude of humility. We may have an incorrect grasp on a biblical truth, so let us be careful about surgically removing a splinter from someone’s eye when we have a 2×4 in our own eye.
That’s a figure of speech, folks.
I want to return to the image that I have used for so many of my early posts, and the image for which this blog is named. Just for a moment I want to talk about the importance of using six main instruments in the process of flying in instrument weather conditions (abbreviated as IMC).
When flying in weather in which there is no outside reference to the horizon a pilot has to depend upon 6 primary instruments. (Technically there can be several others, but I will limit my comments to the process of keeping the plane where you want it to stay). As the pilot transitions into the landing phase of flight another set of instruments comes into play, making the process even more complicated. In modern aircraft several of these instruments may be projected on one visual screen (a “glass cockpit”) but I was never fortunate enough to fly in one of those.
The six main instruments pilots use in IMC are the airspeed indicator, the artificial horizon (attitude indicator), the altimeter, the rate of climb (or descent) indicator, the turn coordinator (or turn-and-bank indicator), and the heading indicator. These instruments are made of different components (either gyros or some other system) and are powered from different sources (either a vacuum system connected to the pitot-static system or electricity). All six instruments must be kept in a constant “scan” or serious problems can develop. The reason for the different construction and the different power systems is so that if the electric fails, or a gyro breaks, or the pitot-static system ices over the pilot still can keep the plan flying and can actually land safely.
The six primary instruments provide a system of redundancy so that if one instrument or even an entire system should fail, the other instruments not affected can be used for safe flight. Now, to be sure, an instrument failure constitutes an “in flight emergency” and the number one goal is to get the landing gear on the asphalt a soon as possible, but pilots practice flying by what is referred to as “partial panel” all the time, just so they can learn to use various instruments to keep themselves alive. For example, the airspeed indicator, the rate of climb indicator, and the altimeter can all be used to verify whether the plane is in a climb or a descent. The turn coordinator and the heading indicator (as well as the compass) tell the pilot if the wings are level or if the plane is turning. All of this information is displayed on the artificial horizon – so it is frequently used as the “fixated” instrument. But it is also prone to fail – I’ve had several fail on me, but luckily they always went out in visual flight conditions.
The trick is not to “fixate” on one single instrument. If you do, and that instrument fails, you can kill yourself and your passengers in a hurry. Even if that instrument is working properly, if you fixate on it you can still kill yourself and your passengers in a hurry if you are not paying attention to what your other primary flight instruments are telling you.
What in the world does this have to do with theology?
Today, as in every age, many theologians have decided that all they need for their system of theology is a reliance on a single verse of Scripture. I call this, profoundly enough, Single Verse Theology. I am very familiar with single verse theology because I am a part of the church that many have accused of only using Acts 2:38 for our theology of baptism. I do not feel like this is a fair accusation, and I can demonstrate that baptism is taught in virtually every book of the New Testament. However I will grant one argument: we have certainly fixated on Acts 2:38. That is a weakness in our theological history. But we are far, far from being alone in the single verse theology crowd.
- The “saved by grace through faith” crowd uses Ephesians 2:8 as their single verse. No other verse of Scripture needs to be quoted nor studied – Ephesians 2:8 trumps everything.
- Roman Catholics point to Matthew 16:18 as the “single verse” that justifies their teaching of the primacy of Peter.
- 1 Corinthians 11:22 is used to justify those who do not allow food in the church building. Actually, all they need is the first phrase of the verse.
- Hebrews 10:4 is quoted by those who believe that the sins of the pre-Christian faithful were “rolled forward” until the cross, because it is obvious (to them) that no one could be forgiven without the death of Jesus.
- Those who are agitating for women to take over the role of spiritual leadership in the church point exclusively to Galatians 3:28 for their reason of existence.
It does not matter to the proponents of these single verse theology proponents that many other passages of Scripture can be used to counter-balance these verses. I do not deny that any of them are in the text, although I certainly deny that they are always being used by their defenders as the context in which they are found dictates that they should be used. So really what we have here is not simply the reliance upon a single verse for an entire theology, but frequently a misuse of that single verse.
The point is not that these are bad, “satanic” verses that need to be cut out of our Scriptures. The point is that they need to be read in context, and also in light of many other passages of Scripture that show another aspect of the truth of God’s word. For example, I believe completely that Christians are saved by grace through faith. I believe that because Paul teaches us that in Ephesians 2:8. But I also believe that baptism is an essential response of that faith, and that it is in the rite of baptism that we are saved (1 Peter 3:21, and that dreaded Acts 2:38 passage among many others). I believe that Peter had a special place among the 12, but that no single apostle had the “primacy” of all the rest (the book of Acts and Paul’s rebuke of Peter in the book of Galatians teaches us that), and that Matthew 16:18 in no way teaches an unending apostolic succession. You cannot read Hebrews 10:4 in the way it is frequently used if you have read Leviticus 4-6 (10 times in these chapters we are told the priest will make atonement and the guilty party will be forgiven. I don’t make these things up, folks. Read it for yourself). And finally, Galatians 3:28 is a wonderful statement of equality of salvation within the body of Christ, but it has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with service in the church or responsibilities of spiritual leadership. Other passages in 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians and 1 Timothy and Titus ARE specifically dealing with the responsibilities of spiritual leadership. These passages cannot be ignored or explained away simply because Paul says in Galatians 3:28 that there are no multiple layers or ranks of blessedness when it comes to our salvation in Christ.
Fixation on a single instrument has killed many pilots. It is dangerous even in good conditions. When systems or instruments fail it is almost always fatal. Single verse theology is dangerous even when the verse is used in context and is correctly defined. When that verse is taken out of context, or when that verse is bent or twisted to fit a theologians cultural understanding, that single verse theology becomes fatal. Remember, Satan quoted Scripture to Jesus during his 40 days of temptation. Simply being able to find a verse in the Bible that supports your opinion does not mean that you have discovered that God has blessed your position.
It is a far safer exercise to find out what God has said throughout his history of salvation that has to bear on a specific subject. Difficult, yes; time consuming, for sure; frustrating (because we are so frequently challenged to amend our position) absolutely! But if you want to keep your wings level and your nose flying straight and you want to land your little aircraft safely on the ground that never shifts, it is the only way to fly.
Keep your scan going. Lose the single verse theology. Fly safely, with every instrument you can possibly use to make sure you are hearing the true, and entire, Word of God, and not the lie of the evil one.
One thing I can say about Postmodernists – they sure love to talk about culture. Everything, it would appear, is connected to and limited by one’s place of birth, and especially one’s time of birth. If you were born in a patriarchal age, you were doomed to slave under a patriarchy. However, if you were born in the late 20th or early 21st century you are blessed to be an egalitarian – and a postmodern as icing on the cake.
Postmoderns do not like anything to be authoritarian, but they are especially opposed to having an ancient text provide any type of authority. For disciples of Christ this poses somewhat of a dilemma – because Jesus certainly used an ancient text (the books we refer to as the “Old Testament”) as an authority in his life. It was not a “god,” but it certainly contained the words of the true and living God; and he used the Torah not only as example but as it was designed – as a light for his feet.
Those who wish to claim a Christian lifestyle while challenging the role of the written text have come up with some ingenious methods to deal with the texts that, at least on the surface, appear to be authoritarian. Many simply deny that they belong in the canon that we call the Bible. (The word canon itself means “rule,” implying authority.) Thus, for many the letters that we call the “Pastoral Epistles” (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) were not written by the apostle Paul as the texts claim, therefore they are not authoritarian for the life of the disciple today. Others, while not willing to remove entire books, will remove certain verses within those books.
Finally, the “trump card” that many Postmoderns use is the “culture card.” Briefly stated, this argument posits that, because the authors of these ancient texts lived in times so far removed from our advanced culture, the texts they wrote cannot possibly be thought of as being an authority for our life today. Thus, these exegetes can keep the objectionable books in the canon, but they simply ignore the verses that have been found to be patriarchal, homophobic, capitalistic, militaristic – the list is almost inexhaustible. In the Postmodern setting the text is not the judge of the reader or listener, the reader or listener is the judge (and far too often, the executioner) of the text.
The Postmodern interpreter can do wonders with certain texts by pointing out the cultural differences between the time period of the various biblical authors and our own, but they have a significant problem when they come to the letter we know as 1 Corinthians. This letter is also a major point of emphasis for Postmodern interpreters, as they have issues with the apostle Paul’s apparent homophobia and male chauvinism. Thus, the letter of 1 Corinthians provides both a test case, and, in my opinion, the rock on which the ship of Postmodernism founders.
As I see it, in order for Postmodern exegetes to win the battle of interpretations they must prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that the ancient texts of the Bible were written for one specific audience, and that the only way for the texts to be valuable today is if they are “re-contextualized” to meet modern (or, better yet, Postmodern) sensibilities. On this point I will offer partial agreement. Especially in regard to the writings in the New Testament I will agree completely that they were written as “occasional” pieces – they were written to address specific questions or issues in concrete situations. However, that is where the Postmodern ends his or her exegesis, and it is at that point that I offer my strongest disagreement. And, as evidence exhibit “A,” I offer the letter of 1 Corinthians.
In terms of specific situations, we can learn that the letter we know as 1 Corinthians was written to the church of God in Corinth in approximately the middle of the first century. It’s author, destination, and approximate date are among the least debated in New Testament studies. Paul specifically mentions the issues that “occasioned” the writing of the letter – division, sexual immorality, issues of congregational life and spiritual giftedness. Therefore, the “concrete” and specific questions that the letter addresses are not to be debated. We could argue, if we so desired, that the answers that Paul gives to these issues and questions were to be used solely by the congregation in Corinth and only during the time period the original readers were alive. That is the path that Postmodern interpreters want us to walk. That would be a very easy conclusion to make – and in fact it is argued by a great many brilliant minds.
The only problem is, as I see it, the whole argument is destroyed by the text of the letter itself. Four times in the letter Paul tells the Corinthian disciples that what he is writing to them (and what he has taught them previously in person) is what he teaches “everywhere and in every place” (see 4:17, 7:17, 11:16 and 14:35). That means that in Jewish Jerusalem, in Gentile Ephesus, in Greek Athens and Corinth, and soon to be in Latin Rome Paul preached the same message and made the same points. Across multiple cultural platforms and in reaction to multiple socio-economic and political situations Paul did not “contextualize” the content of his message, although he may have contextualized the manner in which he presented it. The mode of communication may change, the content cannot be changed.
I once heard a lecture by an individual whose classical scholarship cannot be questioned. He is perhaps one of the finest scholars the Churches of Christ have produced. He was lecturing, oddly enough, on the letter of 1 Corinthians. I will never forget his conclusion. He stated that the doctrine of the living church should never be limited by the aberrations of the first century congregations to which the bulk of the New Testament was written. I was dumbfounded. If the doctrine of the church cannot be limited by the writings of the apostles to address those very aberrations, to what can we appeal for the formation and limitation of our doctrine? I had not heard of “postmodernism” at that point in my life but I have come to understand that speech in an entirely different light now than when I first heard it. What I understand now is that this scholar, who in my estimation is beyond questioning in his knowledge of the Greek language and the history of the New Testament, came to a conclusion that was in direct opposition to the words of the text. Therefore the ancient text had to be “re-contextualized” to fit his new conclusion. All he had to do was anchor 1 Corinthians to the city of Corinth in the first century, and he could advocate basically any interpretation he wished.
I have no problem accepting the fact that our Bible, and the New Testament in particular, was written by very human beings in concrete, specific situations. I would even argue that is true of the Old Testament as well. I have been taught and I believe that the more we come to understand those cultures and time periods in which our ancient texts were written we can understand and interpret the books more faithfully. I am all for learning more about the ancient world in which our Bible was written.
But I refuse to accept the conclusion that we are to leave our Bibles in the dust of those ancient civilizations. The writers of the New Testament certainly did not think that the texts of the Torah were to be left in the musty caves of Mesopotamia, Egypt or Arabia. Those texts were alive and brought life to the early church. So today, we do not abandon our New Testaments on the pillars of ancient Rome, Ephesus or Jerusalem. The text is living, it speaks to today – the spirit of God is breathing out of the text just as surely and the Spirit of God was breathed into it as it was first written. The heresy of the Postmodernist is that of turning the living and active Word of God into a dead and decaying clump of leather, papyrus or clay.
Surely we need to speak God’s word in a manner that is appropriate to the audience that is called to hear it. We must not transport our western culture into places where it would be harmful and confusing to do so. And we must be careful not to read into the text concepts that are not there, but that we wish were there, due to our specific culture and issues.
But the content of God’s revealed word is not up for negotiation. God does not change his mind simply because the calendar changes or because the reader moves from a democratic culture to a dictatorial one, or from a patriarchal culture to a matriarchal culture. God’s will and His words are eternal.
And that is a situation the Postmodernist simply cannot contextualize.
I write this on Saturday night, while thinking of the day ahead tomorrow.
Preachers – when you preach there may be someone in the auditorium for whom this is the first time they have heard of Christ. Will they hear the gospel? There may be someone in the auditorium for whom this will be the last sermon they hear. Will they hear the gospel? Preach as if this will be the first and last sermon someone ever hears.
Congregation – if the minister is speaking from the Bible, he is speaking the Words of God. Are you listening? What is God saying to you, to your congregation, to your city, state and to the world. Don’t treat the next few moments frivolously. You are in the presence of God. Be careful how you respond.
Last year I shared with everyone what has become my favorite Bible reading schedule. The post received a fair amount of attention, and so, because this is the time of year in which people make their plans to read from the Bible every day, I thought I would repeat the basic plan, but perhaps shorter this time and maybe more to the point.
The plan calls for the reader to read through the Bible twice in a year. My own personal preference is to read from a formal translation once, and a dynamic translation the second time. This allows me to “hear” the text in slightly different ways. I have found this to be a most enjoyable manner in which to read the Bible.
A word of explanation and perhaps a bit of apologetic. There is a belief that one should only read very small sections of scripture, perhaps only a verse or a paragraph, per day. This verse or this story is then the source of quiet meditation and devotional thought – maybe as the topic for journaling. This is a wonderful way to absorb the message of the Bible. However, it has some serious drawbacks. By atomizing a verse or two per day the reader loses track of the grand narrative of the Bible. The Bible is, at its most basic level, a story. Now, I know there are many different forms of literature within the Bible, but they combine to create a tapestry of incredible complexity and diversity. A reader must never lose sight of this grand narrative. So, while I applaud this particular method of Bible reading, I would caution you not to make it your only method of Bible reading. In fact, if you so desired, you could follow the plan that I will describe and focus in on a single verse or short passage. Bible reading is not either/or. It should be both/and.
So, to follow the schedule I follow and read the Bible through twice in a give year, here is the basic outline:
- Read 5 chapters a day from Monday through Saturday from the Old Testament
- Read 2 chapters a day from Tuesday though Friday from the New Testament
- On Monday and Saturday read one chapter from the New Testament
- Each day read one Psalm
- When you arrive at Psalm 119, read two sections (16 verses) per day
This is the basic plan, and depending on the year, it takes a small amount of tweaking. I use an Excel spreadsheet and divide everything up so that I can follow it on a printed sheet of paper.
You will notice that there is nothing listed for Sundays. I use the “Daily Texts” published by the Moravian Brethren for the reading each Sunday. This reading consists of an Old Testament passage, a Psalm (or a section of a Psalm), a reading from a gospel and a reading from Acts or one of the Epistles.
That is my schedule – you can accept it, adjust it or just plain forget it. By halving it (2 1/2 chapters per day in the O.T., one chapter in the N.T.) you can adjust it to read the Bible through once in a year. Or, you can follow the Moravian Brethren’s reading schedule and read much smaller sections and read the Bible through once every three years. They do follow a sequential reading schedule, so the major flow of the text remains unbroken. That might be the perfect solution for those who would like to spend time in the text, but have limited time or limited attention spans.
The most important thing, to me anyway, is that we need to get back into the text. We need to become a people of the book once again. We cannot do that by saying, “yeah, I really need to read my Bible more often.” We can only do that by READING the Bible.
So, the best Bible reading schedule for you is the one you actually follow.
May God bless your time with his word in 2013!
I want to begin by thanking many of you for the comments and observations on my post yesterday. In one response the comment was made that it was “provocative” and I must admit to a certain degree of emotion as I wrote the piece. Sometimes I do my best thinking when I am really worked up about something. On another day I would have written differently, although I stand by what I have written absolutely.
What I want to stress is that I am not writing as a political pundit. This is not political for me. It is spiritual. Governments rise and fall, powers shift in an endless ocean of greed, hate, selfishness and rebellion. That will never change, no matter what we might think or write.
But if you believe in the God of the Bible you must also believe that this world is not everything that there is. There is something beyond us – a great unknown in which all will be made right and the lion will indeed lay down with the lamb. That Kingdom, that reign of peace and righteousness is promised to those who trust utterly in the God who made this world and the world to come. The Kingdom came near in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who showed us, in incarnate human form, what the Kingdom could be here on earth if we would but “trust and obey” the reign of the King.
Although God had revealed himself in many ways previous to the coming of Jesus, mankind always wanted something better. In the garden of Eden instead of glorying in the fact that he was made “in the image of God,” man decided that it was better to be “like God” and so he threw his deepest sense of humanity away – and he ended up neither “like God” nor in the image of God any longer. Throughout mankind’s long history he has been searching to regain that lost “image” and the best he can come up with are “images” of his god in the shape of animals or totems. In the history of Israel, God’s chosen people, this happened repeatedly, until God finally punished his people by sending them into exile. The punishment worked – you never read of Israel as a nation falling into idol worship following the return from Babylon.
In the decades immediately following the death of Jesus we can see in the pages of recorded history how deeply Jesus’ message of being “reborn” in the image of God affected his disciples. When the Roman authorities would attempt to force them to utter the words, “Caesar is Lord” the disciples would refuse, because when they made the “good confession” that “Jesus is Lord” they meant it. They could not mouth the words, even knowing they did not believe the words, because even the mere vocalization of the consonants and vowels would have been bowing the knee to an idol. Because of their abject refusal to do so, many lost their lives. Others had property confiscated, were beaten, or otherwise punished.
Today, now almost 2,000 years removed from the death of Jesus, his people who live in the United States are faced with another defining moment. I have been writing, in fits and starts, about how I have come to view the Constitution as a form of an idol, an “American Idol.” The events of 12/14/12 crystalized that observation in my mind. I have been deeply touched by the fact that several, perhaps many, others are waking up to the same realization. Perhaps they have held it for many years and I was simply unaware of it. I am personally horrified to realize how long I have been blind to this reality.
If the blind shall lead the blind, they both will fall into the pit. (Matthew 15:14)
I want people to wake up and realize that this is a spiritual problem, not a political one. Oh, and I do not mean putting prayer back into the schools or posting the 10 Commandments back on the walls of the court houses. What I am talking about is removing the idol from the hearts of Christians and putting Jesus back in His proper place.
In my limited discussions with radical gun advocates following the massacre in Newtown the only response I get is “my right to own any gun and any ammunition is guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment.” There is no logic applied, no connection to the Kingdom of God, certainly no submission to the Prince of Peace. Just a pathetic, ignorant, reflexive appeal to a brief and profoundly misunderstood phrase in a man made and deeply flawed piece of human governance. So there you have it. An idol, shaped out of cold steel, wood or perhaps composite materials, and shrouded in an ink stained piece of parchment. Just as the ancient idols needed to be nailed to the floor lest they fall over, this idol needs to be nailed to the floor with poor arguments (guns don’t kill people…if you take away all the guns, only criminals will have guns) lest they fall over and everyone can see how pitiful their gods really are.
I cannot believe I have been so blind. I was one of those people. I mouthed the words. What is worse, at one time I actually believed those words. God forgive me for my ignorance and my idolatry. Now, we are living in a culture in which the ownership of a gun and the defense of the same is made a defining feature of what it means to be a Christian. If you are against unlimited gun ownership you are against the Constitution, and since the Constitution is founded on Christian principles (so the argument goes, I profoundly disagree) ipso facto you cannot be a Christian.
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.” (Isaiah 5:20-21)
America has become so inwardly focused, so in love with its individualism that even the concept itself has become demonical. It has taken on a life of its own. America today is all about the one, the individual, my rights, my freedoms, my way of doing things. But the Scriptures teach us that the Kingdom of God is focused on the other! The primary other is God himself, but even here in our daily walk we are to consider others more highly than ourselves, we are to lift the loads of the other, we are to bind up the wounds of the other, we are to willingly surrender our rights so that the life of the other is made better. Our America is 180 degrees out of phase with the New Testament. We cannot support this American way of life and at the same time claim to be followers of the Crucified One. The cross itself is the pinnacle of selflessness, and it was in the shadow of the cross that the message of the Kingdom of God spread like a wildfire.
Therefore, it is my firm conviction that you cannot replace God’s word with a fallible, broken human document and at the same time claim to be His disciple. You cannot worship an idol and the true and living God.
“Choose this day whom you will serve, but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15)
Some have responded that I am being too harsh – that I cannot equate equate unqualified defense of the 2nd Amendment (or the Constitution as a whole) with idolatry. To which I simply respond: What is your definition of an idol? An idol is anything that replaces our trust, our affection, our devotion to God.
“Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37, 38)
It is not political, people. It is spiritual. And, if it is spiritual, our eternal destiny hangs in the balance. Do not be mislead by fine sounding but inwardly rotten arguments. Idols have never worked. They will not work in the 21st century any better than they worked in the 8th century BC or the 1st century AD.
Please, for our children and our grandchildren – we must wake up!