You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. (Exodus 20:7 RSV)
This is commonly understood as the potty-mouth commandment, or rather, the anti-potty-mouth commandment. This commandment has been used for generations to keep pre-adolescent boys’ mouths somewhat antiseptic and to keep sailors at least partially on their best behavior whilst in the company of tender female ears.
Except that now the ladies can out curse even the most blue-tongued sailor, but I digress.
While it is quite appropriate to keep pre-teen boys, rough and tumble sailors and even prim and proper ladies from cussing a blue streak, I am convinced that this commandment does not specifically relate to cursing, except when the LORD’s name is specifically used in a curse or imprecation. We actually use the “potty mouth” interpretation as a dodge. As long as I do not say “God” in front of my “d” words or some other such expletive, I’m okay, so the logic goes.
And almost on a daily basis we take the name of the LORD in vain.
We use the LORD’s name in vain when we vacantly tell someone we will pray for them, knowing full well we have no intention of doing so. We take the name of the LORD in vain when we try until we are unable to lift our arms and then we say, “All we can do now is pray.” We take the name of the LORD in vain when we ask God to “forgive us of our many sins” and then partake of the Lord’s Supper in a vacant and meaningless manner. Oh, yes, we take the name of the LORD in vain often. Most often, ironically, in the comfort of our church pews.
But we also take the name of our LORD in vain when we ascribe actions to Him that are repugnant to His very nature. We say things like, “Well, it was just God’s will that those children were killed in Newtown.” God wants children to die in a terrorist attack? Your god maybe, but not my God.
We take the name of the LORD in vain when we say, “Don’t be sad, it was God’s will that your little infant die of cancer.” Um excuse me, the line for those entering the smoking pit of hell forms over there on your left.
We take the name of the LORD in vain when we say, “Yes I know I’ve been married for 20 years to the same person, but God wants me to be happy and this person just doesn’t make me happy anymore.” Please, feel free to join the line on your left.
I am very concerned that we get perilously close to taking the name of the LORD in vain when we pray, “God, we want little Susie to get better, but we pray your will to be done, and if it is your will that little Susie die, please take her peacefully.” Just exactly what do we think the “will of the LORD” involves? To listen carefully to some of our prayers you would think that God’s will involves making children and old people die in some of the most dehumanizing and painful diseases imaginable.
LORD, please save us from our own religion.
The Israelites became so fearful about breaking this commandment that they ultimately refused to even pronounce His name, the four letters that we now refer to as the “Tetragrammaton.” In English those letters would be YHWH, but we do no know their exact pronunciation in Hebrew. We assume it would be something like “Yahweh,” which has come down to our English translations as “Jehovah,” but once again, that is just a conjecture.
But taking the LORD’s name in vain has nothing to do with mispronouncing His name. Taking the LORD’s name in vain means to misuse it, to use it cheaply, to use it for our own benefit, to use it as a shield when we put ourselves in a defenseless position. To take the LORD’s name in vain means to demean the highest and most Holy name that exists.
When Isaiah came into the presence of the Holy One, he could not find a hole big enough to climb into. We should be just as fearful when we invite the presence of the LORD by invoking His name. When we use the name of the LORD, we enter into his presence.
The Preacher had this divine advice, “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.” (Ecclesiastes 5:2 RSV)
Better yet, do not take the name of the LORD in vain. When you speak His name, remember – He hears every word you say. Make sure you mean your words, and especially make sure the words you speak in His name are in harmony with His perfect nature.
This post ain’t original. Been said so many times it borders on being a cliche.
But these six words are the most powerful words in the English language, and they need to be spoken often and meaningfully in any relationship: marriage, parent/child, employer/employee, friend/friend.
I love you.
Okay, maybe bosses should not run around telling their employees “I love you,” but “I appreciate you” would be a nice replacement.
How much better would all your relationships be if you just said “please” more often. And then “thank you.” And top it off with a big helping of “I love you.”
Wives need to hear these words. Husbands need to hear these words. Children need to hear these words. A lot! All of us need to hear these words – spoken freely, honestly and with meaning.
Please keep reading this blog. Thank you for your attention and your comments. I love those of you whom I have met, and I deeply appreciate all of you for spending just a few moments with a frumpy, grumpy, and sometimes acerbic old coot.
And, feel free to remind me of these six words when I need to be reminded of them.
The old freightdawg
The Christian world, Western edition, is all atwitter with the discussion of how to make the church relevant. From what I am to gather, the precipitating issue which started all of this discussion is the fact that young people are leaving the “church” in droves. Not by tens, or hundreds, it would appear. But apparently all across the religious spectrum from the most conservative Bible believing hell-fire-and-brimstone type churches to the most liberal mainline denominations, young people are voting with their feet in unprecedented numbers. The answer, as discussed in books and seminars and blogs and tweets, is to make the church “relevant.”
As I have mentioned many times previously, I am not the brightest bulb in the box, so please, if I am missing something here, please enlighten me. But just how exactly to you make ANYTHING “relevant?”
From my somewhat perplexed and even increasingly agitated viewpoint, something either IS relevant, or it is not, but there is virtually nothing a person can do to make something relevant.
Go ahead – I dare you. Make something that is absolutely irrelevant to your life relevant. Let’s say you hate a sport – say golf. Many people love the sport. Some tolerate it. Others despise it. Now, how are you going to make golf relevant to someone who hates it? Make them play 18 holes every day? Read them the rule book every night before they go to sleep? Put a video of “Golf’s 10 Greatest Moments” on their 72 inch TV screen? How, exactly, can you make something relevant by forcing it down someone’s throat? Or, by making it more sexy? Or by jazzing it up with a praise band or a dance team? Or by adding “non-traditional” songs? It just will not work, folks. You can put all the lipstick you want to on a pig and guess what – all you end up with is a very confused and possibly very angry pig.
Either the church is relevant to a person’s life or it is not. There is no way under God’s pure blue sky that we are ever going to make something that is irrelevant to become relevant. I am not trying to be obstinate, unkind, or uncharitable here. Provocative, for sure – I want to provoke some serious thought.
Just this week I have been reading Deuteronomy in my daily Bible reading. The past two days two verses have leapt out at me while I have been thinking about this subject. The first is Deut. 27:9, “Moses and the Levitical priests spoke to all Israel, ‘Be silent, Israel, and listen! This day you have become the people of the LORD your God.’” Now, that verse might slip past me 9 out of 10 times I read it. But notice – this “day” to which Moses and the priests made mention was not the day the Israelites left Egypt, nor the day they received the law at Mt. Sinai. The “day” was the day they had the law read to them as they prepared to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. In other words, the past was important for the Israelites and they were never to forget it, but what was relevant was the law in their immediate and given situation. But Moses and the priests did not make the law relevant – it simply was relevant.
The second verse is Deut. 32:47, “For they [the words Moses was giving the Israelites] are not meaningless words to you but they are your life, and by them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” Notice that. The words of the law are not meaningless. They are life. We look at the Levitical law as dry as day old toast, meaningless and beyond comprehension. To the “people of God” however, they constituted life.
I have to confess – I am really befuddled here. It just seems to me that if a man went through the Palestinian countryside saying, “I am the Son of God” and if he was able to defend that claim with Old Testament prophecy and the immediate power of God, and if that same man was crucified and three days later was resurrected out of a cold and sealed tomb, then what that man and his immediate followers said to me are relevant. I do not make them relevant. I have the choice to accept their relevance, or to reject their relevance and thereby declare them to be irrelevant for my life, but in neither case am I materially affecting the reality of the relevance of the Son of God or of his disciple’s teachings.
What this all boils down to is that when someone writes a column or a book or gives a speech and says in effect, “Young people will return to the church when we make it relevant” they have placed an impossible requirement on the church. We cannot crawl inside some 20-something-year-olds head and flip a switch and suddenly “make” the church relevant.
If Jesus and his sacrifice are relevant to any person’s life, then the church will be relevant. If the church is irrelevant – what does that say about the person’s devotion to Jesus and to his mission to create the “people of God?”
I am in no way suggesting that every congregation that bears the name of Jesus is relevant. Many congregations died years ago, it is just that no one has told them yet. Many others are in the final gasps of life. If you doubt me, just consider the seven letters to the seven congregations of the church in the book of Revelation. Seven churches were addressed, but it is clear that each was dealt with on an individual basis. Laodicea was lethargic, but that had no bearing on the relevance of the church. Sardis was in effect dead, but that had no impact on the relevance of the church universal. Philadelphia was perking along pretty good, but that did not mean it was more relevant than Laodicea or Sardis. There is a HUGE distinction between a dead or dying congregation and an irrelevant church.
So, call me a cynic or an old fuddy-dud or a knuckle-dragging troglodyte if you wish. I am simply not buying the snake oil that is being peddled by so many in so many different ways today. The church is the most relevant community in the world. We will never be able to make it more relevant, or even make it relevant to begin with. We can make a congregation more useful, more inviting, more caring, more evangelistic, more benevolent, more knowledgable, more grace oriented, more worshipful, more inclusive, more inter-generational, – and maybe a dozen other things. But relevant?
C’mon theologians, preachers and bloggers, let’s use a better word!
Because this list is organic in nature (it just kind of grew from a little seed) and was not systematic (I did not sit down one day to create a list of 15 Undeniable Truths in any particular order), it might seem a little disjointed. One of the disjoints occurs here with #10.
10. Attitudes and beliefs have consequences. Words, used to express those attitudes and beliefs, have equal consequences. Words chosen to convey spiritual concepts have eternal consequences.
What I am addressing here is the inseparable connection between thought and action. If we have the attitude that our race is superior to another race, we are going to act out that air of superiority, even if it is subconsciously. If we believe our particular religious belief is correct and every one else is wrong, we are going to act out that air of superior righteousness even if it is subconsciously. Every belief that we hold has an ultimate consequence. If we believe all human life begins at conception, if we believe that all war is wrong, if we believe that all humans are sinners – all of these beliefs will cause us to act in certain ways, or at least support those actions. On the other hand, if we believe human life begins at birth, if we believe that some wars are necessary, if we believe that all humans will eventually be saved to live in eternity with God then we will have, or at least support, opposite actions.
Moving up one level on the scale of emotional attachment, once we verbalize our beliefs those consequences become even more entrenched and we are even more likely to put our beliefs into action, and the consequences are evaluated more severely. Why do you think that prior to every significant or solemn occasion there is an oath or confession given? Witnesses in legal proceedings begin their testimony with an oath. Police officers, military enlistees, our elected officials – all high and powerful positions are inaugurated with an oath of loyalty and a promise to abide by the highest code of ethics. Even the athletes at the Olympic Games are required to take an oath promising to compete fairly (a lot of good that does for the integrity of the games, by the way). That is why we hold our officials, police officers, and athletes to a higher standard. We say, “But the promised on oath that they would follow the Constitution…” or whatever standard they are using for their allegiance. We just hold a couple to a higher standard if they stand before a minister or priest and promise to love, honor and cherish one another until death does separate them.
Now, moving up yet another rung on the ladder of emotional attachment, when we use our words to convey spiritual truths, those words have eternal consequences. This, in my mind, is what makes theology such a “heavy” endeavor. We are not simply speaking our opinions (although we do that to be sure). We are using our human intellects to form and fashion words that, if they are to be believed, will have eternal consequences for those who follow them. And, if they are not to be believed, why are we using the words to begin with? We can say with absolute impunity that “the best cake mix in the world is ……” or we can suggest that “the best football team in the NFL is the Minnesota Vikings” (true, by the way) and if someone agrees or disagrees with us there is no lasting implication. But the moment we say, “Thus says the Lord…” we enter into another realm. We are no longer speaking as a baker or sports fan. We are no longer operating under the umbrella of plausible deniability. Those who dare to speak of God must accept a higher level of accountability.
This, I believe, is what James is referring to in James 3:1. He is not saying we have to have perfect knowledge (no one can attain that) nor is he saying we have to be a certain age, or pass a certain test of orthodoxy. What he is saying is that once we offer words on God’s behalf, those words can be used to either draw people closer to God or drive them away from God. That fact is at the same time a harsh reality, an awesome responsibility, and an incredible opportunity. James is commenting on the fact that many people want to take advantage of the opportunity, and thereby make a claim to human glory and praise, without carefully considering the harsh reality and the awesome responsibility.
There is a prayer in the Bible for would-be theologians. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful prayers in all of Scripture. It also happens to be one of the shortest. It would do all of us who have the desire to speak of the Holy things of God to memorize this prayer, and to recite it every time we get up in front of an audience to speak or in front of our keyboard to type a blog. These are the words of one who was inspired by the situation in which he found himself, and although humbled with the prospect, did not flinch from the responsibility. The words are these, and may we make them our own -
May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer. (Ps. 19:14)
Before I get to the theology, permit me a little comic diversion…
A very prim and proper old spinster called the police to report her neighbors involved in lewd and unbecoming behavior. The vice squad arrived at her apartment and began their investigation. The lady pointed out a window and told the officers if they looked toward her neighbor’s house they could see all kinds of activity that she was quite certain violated most of the Levitical code of sexual behavior, if not all of it. The officers looked out the window and saw nothing. “We’re sorry, ma’am, but there is simply nothing that we can see to substantiate your report” they told the lady. “Sure you can!” the lady retorted, “All you have to do is pull the dresser over to the window, climb on top and crane your head out the window and you can see all kinds of sin!”
Please don’t ask me where I get my jokes.
Of all my “15 Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection” I think I have the most fun with #8. It is certainly one that I feel like deserves a lot more attention from the pulpits and class lecterns in our churches. For those of you who do not have my 15 Truths memorized, here it is -
8. If you have to rely on just one single verse of Scripture, or some obscure variant reading of the original text, or an obscure definition of grammar or of a word or phrase in the original language, then your conclusion regarding that passage of Scripture is in serious trouble.
I am variously amused, stunned and terrified by the bizarre conclusions some “theologians” make concerning certain passages of Scripture. Maybe not so much by the actual conclusion, but by the tortured and strained “logic” that is used to justify and defend the conclusion. I am certainly no stranger to coming up with the wrong understanding of a text. But at least I hope I am using the proper tools in the proper manner. Anyone can make an incorrect mathematical calculation, but it takes a real genius to apply the rules of algebra to the process of theology. That, I fear, is what many preachers and teachers attempt to do.
A large part of this problem, I must admit, is the manner in which we train our pulpit ministers. (And by “we” here I am referring to the only group of which I can speak with first hand knowledge, and that is the Churches of Christ.) For example, we teach the skills of using the Greek and Hebrew languages without really enforcing the why of using those tools. My favorite example of this is the Greek word ekklesia. The common English word used in translation is “church.” So, years ago somebody noticed that the word ekklesia could be made up of two smaller Greek words, ek, meaning “out of” and kaleo meaning “called.” So, ispso facto and abracadabra and rub-a-dub-dub we come up with a fine three-point sermon based on the incontrovertible proof of the Greek language that the “church” is the “called out” people of God.
Believe me, I’ve preached the sermon. And it is just wrong. It is not right. It is using algebra to prove a linguistic point. It sounds so right, and it looks so good on paper, but you just cannot get there from here. The more I replay the sermons (note the plural) that I have preached using this methodology the more my head hurts. I do pray that God is lenient with his young preachers.
The fact is that the word ekklesia is one of two primary words that the Greeks used to translate the Hebrew word qahal, meaning assembly, or congregation. The other significant word was “synagogue.” When the Jews translated their Hebrew Scriptures into Greek they chose the word “synagogue” as the primary word to equal qahal. So, in the early church the writers were faced with a choice – they could use the word synagogue and attempt to explain the wide difference between a Christian synagogue and a Jewish synagogue, or they could appropriate another word that did not have the attached religious meaning that came with “synagogue.” They chose ekklesia and for good reason. But not for the reason that it is made up of the words “out of” and “called.”
How could I dare make such a hideous accusation? Well, because the text of the New Testament bears the weight of cross-examination, for one reason. Turn to Acts 19 beginning with v. 23. Paul has angered one Demetrius, a silversmith whose livelihood is endangered by Paul’s preaching. So, Demetrius whips up the emotions of his fellow silversmiths and artisans and they get the whole city into an uproar and everybody heads down to the theatre to figure this whole thing out. For at least two hours there is a great cry and hullabaloo and Luke tells us that Paul wanted to enter into the theatre to speak to the “crowd” that was assembled (the Greek word in v. 30 is demos, meaning crowd or assembly). Eventually a cool-headed town clerk arrives and lets everyone know that the whole group is in grave danger of violating the rules of proper conduct and they should all go home. Three times in this passage the word ekklesia is used as a synonym for demos - in v. 32, 39, and 41. Now, it is never translated “church” in any translation that I know of, and for good reason. The mob in the theatre was not a church, but it was an assembly. They were not the “called out” of God. There was no super spiritual meaning attached to the ekklesia that wanted to remove Paul’s head from his shoulders. It was a mob of angry and confused people. But our inspired writer Luke properly identified it as an ekklesia because it was that. It was an assembly, synonymous with a demos.
Would we attempt to divine the meaning of the word “butterfly” from the cognate words “butter” and “fly”? That is, would we identify a butterfly as a disgusting little winged vermin that somehow is connected to processed milk? The thought is ludicrous. Let us not even consider what would happen if we tried to do the same thing with “babysitter.” But we routinely do the very same thing with Greek words and the results are just as mystifying. Entertaining, perhaps, but mystifying none-the-less.*
I could go on at some length, but I hope my point has been made. If we build our theological mansion on one single verse, or if we have to refer to some obscure, or fanciful, or strained definition of some Greek or Hebrew word to justify our theological position we are standing on quicksand. The manner in which we do this is legion. Just because we do so frequently does not make the process right.
I hope I have made it clear that I am not guiltless in making these mistakes. I do hope that I am a little more aware of the pitfalls and so I am a little more guarded in the words I use. I may still believe that the church is the “called out” of God, but I will never use the Greek morphology of the word ekklesia to prove my point. I may or may not believe that God created the world in six 24 hour periods, but I cannot use the Hebrew word yom as my proof. I may or may not believe Jesus could create intoxicating wine, but I cannot base my conclusions on the Greek word oinos. And I certainly cannot build an entire theological enterprise upon a word that does not appear in the text.
Let’s don’t be guilty of pulling the dresser over to the window to see something that we should never be interested in seeing in the first place.
*I am indebted to the book Exegetical Fallacies 2nd Ed. (Baker Academic: 2008) by D.A. Carson for helping me see the errors of my youth, and for these examples. I highly recommend anyone who is interested in this subject to acquire this book and study it. You may not agree with every conclusion that Carson makes, but the book will certainly make you a more careful exegete.
I seem to remember discussing this issue in a previous post, but that is the advantage of working with a mind with as small a memory bank as mine has. No matter how many times you recycle a worn-out topic, it always seems fresh and invigorating.
I don’t want to be gauche, But, have you ever known someone who was fairly intelligent, but who was convinced that he/she was far more intelligent than she/he really was? I don’t mean the person who is simply opinionated, I mean the person who is obnoxiously self-assured. And, sadly, their assurance is woefully misplaced? How do you deal with individuals such as that?
My complaint de jour is with those individuals who want to make it sound like they are more intelligent than they really are, so they spice up their talks with a few foreign phrases. These days Latin seems to be making a comeback, although French and German are solid standbys. Sometimes it is truly obvious that the person does not know what they are talking about, but sometimes they honestly do know what they are talking about, they just want to emphasize that fact. Oy vey. I mean, really.
Just one example among many: it seems everyone these days is utterly captivated with the missio Dei. You cannot open a magazine or log onto Twitter without reading the latest and greatest installment on or about the missio Dei. It would appear that if the average church member would ever get plugged into the missio Dei all of our moral, ethical, legal and most important, missiological problems would be over. In my recent search for a new ministry position I even read an on-line job posting where the new preacher was expected to further the missio Dei in the community. I was truly impressed. Bewildered, but impressed.
But, with all due respect, with all the talk about the missio Dei, I wonder if we have lost sight of the mission of God. I understand how easy it would be to do that. I mean, the missio Dei is so, well, magisterial. The mission of God, by comparison, is just so pedestrian. I pity the poor preacher who submitted a resume to the above congregation but who only wanted to further the mission of God in the world. He would probably not even get an interview.
All this discussion reminds me of a joke once told by Jim McGuiggan. It seems a small rural town in Ireland was hosting a traveling culinary expert. The fancy chef was teaching the local housewives how to separate egg yolks. “First, take a highly sharpened kitchen implement and gently perforate the apex of the egg. Repeat the procedure on the basal protuberance. Gently aspirate into the upper aperture to separate the albumen from the yolk.” At that point one of the housewives turned to another and comment, “Well, I’ll be. And to think that for years I been pokin’ a hole on both ends of an egg and a blowin’ on it.”
Sometimes you just cannot beat simplicity.
I wonder why certain individuals do not ever quite seem to understand a person’s life situation, but will spend endless hours discussing the sitz im leben of some poor homeless waif. The discussion of a super-human individual just comes across more esoteric if we change the subject to an uber mensch. I wanted to apply for one position but was saddened to learn that the company wanted a curriculum vitae and all I had prepared was a resume. I am just such a hopeless persona non grata.
Maybe someone out there in cyber-space will be able to clue me in here. I hope so. I would really like to join in with the missio Dei.
[Continuing my discussion of creating a positive method of evangelism]
If you have been following this series of posts you know that I am arguing against mass-produced, “one size fits all” methods of evangelism and I am suggesting that we get back to using the four gospels as recorded in our New Testaments as the only text for conducting evangelistic Bible studies. However, even if you agree with me on that point another couple of issues must be dealt with. One is that there are four gospel accounts, and the other is that there are almost an endless supply of translations to use. So, if we are going to limit ourself to using the text of one gospel, which gospel, and from which translation?
In terms of looking at which gospel to use, I have already briefly touched on that subject in my post on being sensitive to our students. But the question deserves a little more attention. At the risk of being way too simplistic, let’s look at the gospels and see if we can determine which gospel would be the best for any given situation.
Matthew certainly has a lot of positive features, and I genuinely love studying this gospel. It is elegantly written and organized. But Matthew has some features that do not play well in our 21st century. The style in which it is written, while elegant, is also heavily Jewish. I mean that in its most positive sense, but we just do not think as Hebrews today. The more we do think as Hebrews, the more beautiful Matthew becomes. If we are going to study with someone who is well versed in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, they may prefer to use Matthew, and for them I would say that Matthew is the gospel of choice. It provides a full, richly textured view of the life of Jesus. However, for someone who knows nothing of the Bible, especially if they no nothing of the Old Testament, Matthew is probably the last gospel I would choose to study. You would have to spend most of your time explaining Matthew, and our goal is to study Jesus.
Mark is perhaps my “go to” gospel for a number of reasons. One, it is the shortest of the gospels, and that plays into our attention deficit disordered world. In connection with its brevity, it moves very quickly. Very few stories get more attention in Mark than they do in either Matthew or Luke. Three, Mark gives us a picture of Jesus that is hardly sanitized. He tells the story “live and in living color” and if Jesus needs to spit to make mud to put on someone’s eyes, then that is exactly what he does. This lets a modern reader know that Jesus was fully human. The negative regarding Mark is also this brevity. Matthew and Luke flesh out some stories and include more teachings than does Mark.
Luke is also a much longer gospel, which presents problems of its own. If you want to cover the life of Jesus in the shortest period of time possible (NOT always a good thing) then studying a gospel of this length is counter-productive. However, Luke has some genuine positives. Luke gives the clearest impression of its historicity. Luke is writing so Theophilus can verify the stories he has been taught. This is important for many modern readers. Luke also takes a special interest in the down-trodden folks of the world – the poor, the sick, and females. It is for this reason that many people love Luke. They can see themselves in the characters that Luke has Jesus interact with. Luke is also structured in a fascinating way, easily as elegant as Matthew but in a different fashion. I have discovered that learning how a gospel is organized is as fruitful as reading the text itself, and it opens the text to greater understanding.
Finally, John is “a whole different kettle of fish.” John is, as I said earlier, written more for the right-brained people of the world. It is deceptively simple. The original Greek in which John is written is very straight-forward (which is why John is very often the first text that is read in 2nd year Greek courses). But the theology of John is anything other than simple or straight-forward. It is rich, complex, and profound. John uses the technique of conversation with special effectiveness in the earlier chapters, then transitions to longer “soliloquies” in the later chapters. I would recommend the gospel of John for the person who is really struggling with the divinity of Jesus, a person for whom “just the facts, ma’am” leaves them high and dry, and for whom the world as we see it today just does not seem to make any sense. I would also suggest, as an aside, that the use of the gospel of John also presents the greatest challenge to the teacher, so more work is demanded if the material is to be handled appropriately.
When we turn to the issue of translations the issue gets more complicated, simply because there are far more translations than there are gospels. Instead of looking at each translation separately, I will summarize the two main translational theories and give a few pros and cons regarding each.
The formal translation theory focuses on a word-for-word equivalence. It is often called the literal translation theory, and for many people is the only way in which the Bible should be translated. This theory does have its advantages. It is the best translation to use for word studies, as words in the original languages tend to be translated with the greatest degree of consistency. Second, you can see literary techniques in the original languages somewhat more clearly with a formal translation. But, there are some real drawbacks to this theory as well. One is that the translation becomes stilted – we just don’t talk like Hebrews or Greeks anymore. Another is that languages, and literary techniques change, and sometimes a “literal” translation becomes meaningless. Just what exactly does “gird up your loins” mean anyway? I know, but I wonder how many twenty-somethings out there who have never read the Bible would even have the foggiest clue. Some formal equivalence translations: the NASB, the ESV, the RSV and the KJV, although it is not as formal as many people would think. I even got fooled on that one, until I read the preface! I would even put the old NIV in this category.
The dynamic translation theory focuses more on a phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, or even paragraph by paragraph equivalence. It does not seek to translate each word slavishly, it is looking for the content of the verse or paragraph and then asks the question, “how can we say the same thing in the language most used today?” As such dynamic translations tend to be more colloquial, and in turn have a shorter “shelf life” than their formal translation cousins. There are many good dynamic translations available. One must be careful, however. The more dynamic the translation attempts to become, the further it gets from a translation and the more it becomes a paraphrase. The difference is critical to maintain. Just one example: Eugene Peterson’s The Message is often refered to as a translation. It is most certainly NOT a translation. It is a paraphrase – sometimes approaching a formal equivalence, but often straying far from even a dynamic equivalence. You very often see more of Eugene Peterson than you do of Moses, Isaiah, Luke or Paul. Some dynamic equivalence translations: the NLT, the CEB, and perhaps the new NIV, although I have not carefully investigated it.
My suggestion is that you allow your student to choose which Bible he or she would like to read. If they are utterly clueless then I would recommend a dynamic translation to begin with, although I would have a formal equivalence translation on the table ready for a quick comparison when appropriate. Conversely, if someone wants to study from the KJV or the NASB, I would have a copy of the NLT or the CEB handy, just to give an updated and “reader friendly” take on a difficult passage. The most critical aspect is to find a translation that the student can understand, and one that the student will read, and read effectively. The best translation available is useless if the student will not, or cannot read and understand it.
I have never learned anything from someone dumber than me.
That sentence is short, but please do not dismiss it too quickly. Think about it. If you have ever learned something from someone they had to have been more intelligent or more learned in at least one aspect of life than you were. By definition you cannot learn something from someone who knows less than you do.
In every flight school that I worked with we either flew with multiple instructors (as students) or had our students fly with other instructors. Every instructor added something to my knowledge of flying airplanes, and my peers helped me shape my students. In one flight school the management gave each instructor one free hour in a plane per month to fly with another instructor so that we could hone each other’s skills. The results were always enjoyable, and valuable.
I point all of this out simply to illustrate the folly of a life that is content only with maintaining a level of knowledge that was obtained in the last century, the last decade, or last year, or last week. I am always shocked to hear someone say that they do not need to research a particular issue or question because they already have the answer. I don’t know why that shocks me, I hear it so often. I cannot help but wonder how empty that person’s intellectual life must be. Already have the answer to so many questions?? Good grief. I don’t even understand all the questions, let alone have all the answers.
I will provide just one arcane example. I am working my way through the book of Amos, trying to translate the book from Hebrew. This past week the passage for my study included 7:7-8. In these two verses God shows Amos something, in English the letters would be ank. For centuries the classic translation for this three-letter word has been a “plumb line.” Now, to get there you have to do some fancy linguistic work combined with some conjecture, but it made sense in context and led to many graphic and moving sermons. How much more picturesque can you get than to visualize God standing next to a tottering wall with a plumb line in his hand? The visual image is striking. The problem that lies behind this interpretation is that you really have to do some fancy work to get from one three-letter word in Hebrew to a phrase such as the NIV – “that had been built true to plumb.” There is no such indication in the Hebrew text. God is simply standing next to a wall of ank. A related problem is that these two verses are the only two verses in which this word appears. There are no other examples to help us define it.
However, in recent studies the linguistic work and the conjecture that moved from ank to “plumb line” has been proven to be false. The word means “tin.” The Lord is standing next to a wall that is weak, that is useless, and that will fail to protect. The Lord is about to unleash a storm that would blow away the mightiest of walls, but a wall of tin? Fuhgetaboutit.
The image is not as picturesque nor as arresting, but it is much more true to the text. Now, if I had just read a couple of translations I would have never picked up on the whole journey from ank to plumb line to tin. However, time spent with two recent commentaries, new enough to incorporate recent linguistic studies, provided me with a new window on an old text. I still had to wrestle with the text itself – are the commentaries blowing fancy philological smoke, or are they giving good, solid information? Does the “new” meaning fit with what I know of Hebrew grammar? Does the “new” meaning fit the context of the passage? Does the “new” meaning fit the context of the larger section, and ultimately the entire book? The answer to all of those questions was “yes,” at least in my mind. Much better, in fact, than the old translation of “plumb line.” As one commentator pointed out, the Lord has already found Israel to be wanting, he has no need to measure them. What he is showing Amos (as befits the entire book!) is that the Lord’s judgment is certain and there will be no avoiding it.
Okay, arcane example concluded. The point is every year, sometimes every month, our knowledge of the Bible and ancient cultures is being expanded. We learn more about ourselves, our past, and how God has worked in that past. To quit learning and to rest on the laurels of some bygone generation is foolish. Worse, it is contrary to the will of God. We are to continually “study” to “transform” our lives into the perfect will of God. We certainly are to “test the spirits” as it may be, but that does not mean that we compare what we learn to some standard of understanding that was true a century ago. If that were the case, how would we have learned that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the reverse? How could we have discovered penicillin? How could we have placed a man on the moon?
Just think about it. If you use a crooked ruler as a standard, even a plumb line is warped.
I have recently read several blog entries bemoaning the same apparent crisis. We are told by these bloggers that the Bible is hopelessly difficult to understand, that the gap between author and modern reader is just too great a chasm to bridge, and that the angst and ignorance of 18-year-old college freshmen should be enough to drive us to reevaluate the archaic assumption that the Bible has an enduring message for modern people. We are told in tearful detail of females who “feel” gifted by God and yet who “feel” that the church is denying them any chance to express that giftedness. We are not told, but by extension we must also accept, that there are many men who would love to marry their “husband” and engage in sexual behavior usually described by a reference to the biblical city of Sodom, but their church also denies them this “giftedness” given to them by their god. With exquisite skill these writers wring their hands and agonize over what the church is to do for these precious souls who read in their Bibles prohibitions against their preconceived conclusions, but must somehow overcome a culture of extreme patriarchy and homophobia. The answer, of course, is a complete turn to the tenets of postmodernism, which, not to confuse the issue, stipulates that there are no overarching tenets that anyone is to follow.
The main point, as I comprehend it, that these modern bloggers teach is that we cannot get beyond the written text to understand what the original author was saying. All we have is the text, so they say, and if the text was created in a patriarchal, homophobic society then we must purge the text of those tendencies in order to allow the text to “speak to us.” What I find utterly incomprehensible is that these authors write their blogs, and read the books of other postmodernists, with the implicit understanding that we and they understand exactly what they and the other authors intend their words to communicate.
In other words, we get behind their text to understand what they mean when they say we cannot get behind the biblical text to understand what the biblical authors meant.
If they are correct, then all writing, including this one, is completely meaningless, because ink stains on paper (or pixels on a computer screen) cannot communicate what the author thought he or she was communicating. So, why are they writing blogs to communicate their beliefs?
This all appears to me to be a childish, or at worst, an adolescent attempt to obfuscate the issue to the point that anyone and everyone can do exactly what they wish and no one can object. You don’t want to mow the lawn? Argue about the meaning of the words “mow” and “lawn.” Argue that operating the mower will increase global warming. Discuss the potentially life threatening possibility of contracting skin cancer due to hazardous radiation from the sun. But, what ever you do, do not ever, ever tell dad that you really just do not want to mow the lawn.
Now, to be fair, when there is a biblical injunction against something that a person finds objectionable we can be sure that they will say that this injunction is, by all means, intended to be an enduring norm. No one to my knowledge is promoting the right of murderers to continue their mayhem, or rapists the right to continue their carnage. So, at least for the time being, we can be assured that murder and rape are securely off-limits. But what about those pesky laws against having sex with children? Or animals, for that matter? What about the original Mormon belief that a man can have as many wives as he can afford to marry? Do we need to reexamine polygamy laws? Is there any biological reason to prevent an eight year old from having sexual relations with a 40-year-old? I mean, if two men can marry and have sexual relations with each other exactly where do we draw the line, and on what basis? Mutual consent? There are enough pregnant 12-year-old girls to discredit the idea that pre-teens do not want to have sex.
The point of this entry is to suggest that postmodernists have a problem that they are either unwilling or unable to answer. If the biblical text is too difficult for modern man to understand then let’s throw it away. There is no sense in attempting to remedy the situation by saying, “this is what the text means to me.” If the text has no enduring meaning, then it has no meaning whatsoever. Individualizing the text robs it of its greatest power – the power to create and maintain the life of the people of God. For approximately 4,000 years the written word has shaped and guided the people of God as they searched for Him and either found or rejected Him. I cannot accept the premise that, just within the last 50 years, mankind has finally become so smart as to finally figure out that all those people of faith were so stupid as to believe in the power of God’s word spoken, and yes, written.
The inspired psalmist wrote of God looking down upon the wisest of mankind as he mocked his creator, and God held them in derision and laughed (Ps. 2). I do not know about you, but I am going to maintain my faith in the timeless truth of God’s word written, as difficult and frustrating as it is to interpret sometimes, instead of the incomprehensible silliness of some pseudo-philosophies that rage at the wisdom of the creator.