Archive for January, 2006

Thoughts on Bible Translation

January 27, 2006

Lord willing, I will preach this Sunday on Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. Before I studied the story in context, I would have told you that it was found in John 3:1-21. Now I prefer to connect the end of chapter 2 to this story, so that the Nicodemus episode actually begins at 2:23 and finishes at 3:21. Notice the connection between chapters 2 and 3 (from the English Standard Version):

2:23Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. 3:1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2This man came to Jesus by night . . .

The connecting point between the two chapters is the word “man” (Greek anthropos, used in both 2:25 and 3:1). Jesus did not entrust himself to those who were attracted to the spectacle of his miracles but failed to understand their true significance. Their belief was spurious, which is a common theme in John’s Gospel (See Jesus’ conversation with “the Jews who had believed in him” in 8:31-58; by the end of that conversation, he has called them children of the Devil, and they have picked up stones to execute him on the spot. I think it is safe to assume, then, that there is such a thing as false faith, and that this is the kind of faith that arose during the Passover of chapter 2). The reason he did not entrust himself to them is because “he himself knew what was in man.” He knew the reality of darkened, rebellious, sinful human nature.

Right on the heels of that statement, John writes, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus. . .” He wants his readers to draw a connection, namely, that Nicodemus belongs to this class of sinners. He is not coming to Jesus in faith, but as an example of one who was merely intrigued by his signs (see his statement in 3:2). There is dispute about whether or not Nicodemus is presented as gradually coming to faith in John’s Gospel. I don’t think that question matters so much for the present narrative, which lays emphasis on his misunderstanding. Although he displayed more openness to Jesus than most of his colleagues, the narrative gives many indications that he came in a state of spiritual darkness, and John ultimately leaves unanswered the question of how Nicodemus responded to Jesus’ words.

This is important to realize because Nicodemus was Mr. Religion. He was not only a Pharisee, zealous for the Law and for ritual and national purity; he was also a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. Jesus identifies him as the teacher of Israel (v. 10), which likely indicates that he was a very prominent teacher of the Mosaic Law. And yet, here he was, unable to understand the first thing about entrance into the Kingdom of God (vv. 10-12). He was lost in sin, an individual man who belonged to the class “man,” the inner darkness of which Jesus was well aware (2:25). If Nicodemus was lost in sin, then we can draw two important conclusions: (1) everyone is lost in sin and in need of new birth; (2) human distinctions do not commend us to God; only God’s grace in Christ makes a difference. John invites us to these conclusions by the way he frames the narrative.

I am thankful that we have a multitude of English Bible translations. A handful of them stand out as my favorites, and certainly some are better than others. But I am thankful that even the worst English translation contains enough gospel to bring someone to the saving knowledge of Christ, and I would rather have too many translations (with a few of them not suiting my taste) than not enough. I applaud the motive of translators to make the Bible accessible to 21st century people, and I believe the task of providing up-to-date translations will be a necessary one until the end of time.

It is for this reason that I want to ponder this question: to what degree should Bible translations reflect the language of their own world, and to what degree should they shape it? I have written about this before, but I believe gender-neutral Bibles primarily take the first track while more traditional Bibles tend toward the second. When I preach on the Nicodemus story on Sunday, I am going to have to step over the NRSV’s mistranslation of the text at a point where I want to bring out its signficance (the NRSV is our pew Bible). Here are the verses cited above according to the New Revised Standard Version, a gender-neutral translation:

2:24But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone. 3:1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.

This translation misses John’s subtle connections. Twice John uses the word “man,” first to refer to a class of fallen sinners to whom Jesus cannot entrust himself, and then to refer to an individual man who belongs to this class. Interestingly, the NRSV even avoids using the word “man” in 3:1 when it actually does refer to an individual male adult! Perhaps they were going for economy of words there (“a Pharisee” is shorter than “a man of the Pharisees”), but it looks like they set out on a mission to eliminate the word “man” in as many instances as possible, even when the subject being spoken of is, in fact, a man. Or maybe they decided never to translate anthropos (which often means “humanity” in general) with the word “man,” and they realized that “a person of the Pharisees” just sounded awkward. Either way, they allowed their translation philosophy to obscure a connection in the text, a connection that readers of the NRSV will never see. How many more connections or exegetical insights hinge on differences in translation philosophy?

I believe the church has the responsibility to preserve Scripture as best we can, meaning that we should not allow the winds of political correctness to blow us away from the meaning of the text. I have heard reputable scholars say that William Tyndale so influenced the development of the English language, that if there had been no Tyndale, there would have been no Shakespeare. It is well-known that the King James Bible (which stands in the tradition of Tyndale) continues to affect the way people talk and pray even today. I believe it is important for the church to hold on to terminology that best reflects the meaning of the Bible, not smooth out biblical terminology in order to make it more palatable to a political agenda. More often than we realize, there is a good bit of theology bound up with the gender language that Scripture uses. If you believe in verbal plenary inspiration, namely, that every word in Scripture is inspired by God, then you will naturally be more reluctant to making little changes here and there. They do add up, and the end result is a translation that misses quite a bit of what the Greek and Hebrew actually means.


Do you have to avoid truth in order to pastoral?

January 26, 2006

Here are two very different “pastoral” approaches to addressing the issue of homosexuality. I think the differences in approach speak for themselves:

Brian McLaren
Tom Ascol

Tomorrow, I will breathe a sigh of relief.

January 25, 2006

Lord willing, I will walk up the stairs to the admissions office here at Southern Seminary, hand in a sample research paper, and breathe a long sigh of relief that all of my doctoral applications will finally be in. Some of you know this already, but applying to doctoral programs is a lot of work. I still have interviews to give and a field essay to write, but hopefully the smoke will clear in a little less than two months, and I will finally know where we will plan to spend the next 3 to 5 years of our lives.

I have already been accepted to Dallas Theological Seminary’s Ph.D. program, stage 1. Basically, DTS stage 1 is taking a year to pursue the equivalent of a second master’s degree before (hopefully) entering stage 2, which is the real Ph.D. program. It is the only program of its kind that I have ever seen.

I have applied to Wheaton College, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and I am now finishing up my application here. A while back I pondered applying to Baylor, but after surveying the program and the faculty, I decided that my theological interests would not be best served there, though it is no doubt a very good program. It also seems like a very competitive program to get into, so my hat’s off to Myles, who is currently enduring the flames of Baylor Ph.D. affliction.

I have been through the rationale for choosing each school thousands of times, and two clear preferences have emerged. However, I will refrain from sharing which ones until I know which schools have accepted me and which schools haven’t.

We are getting ready for a new chapter in our lives, and it is exciting and terrifying all at the same time. But far, far more exciting and terrifying is the fact that March 28th (Joni’s due date) continues to approach ever so rapidly. When I am lying on my death bed, what I will want most of all is the warm touch of my wife’s and children’s hands. The cold stare of a diploma won’t mean much by then.

The Benefit of Historical Distance

January 24, 2006

Dr. Russell Moore nails the lunacy of the pro-choice movement’s rhetoric about abortion being “safe, legal, and rare.”

A Lesson in Epistemology

January 19, 2006

I love football. It is a game of symmetry, complexity, and strategy, much like Chess, except it involves really big men knocking the snot out of each other instead of skinny nerds moving pieces on a board. In the world of sports, there is no greater excitement than a big football game coming right down to the wire (Texas vs. USC, for example).

On top of all that, football has instant replay, which proves that our culture has not completely capitulated to postmodern nonsense. I can imagine a group of postmoderns watching a pro football game together. Let’s say their names are Sky, Aeon, and Ripcord (their parents were hippies, okay?). At some point in the game, a coach throws out his red flag, indicating his desire to challenge the previous call that had been made. The official then takes two minutes to review the play on instant replay and decide if the call should stand or be reversed. Imagine the dialogue during these two minutes:

SKY: What does it matter what the replay shows? The camera doesn’t have an omniscient perspective.

AEON: Yeah. In fact, there are several cameras out there, which together form the camera community, the context of which determines the guiding narrative for itself, but not for other communities, such as the officials’ community. The officials must use their own guiding narrative in conversation with one another.

SKY: And even then they have no right to make judgments that are binding on the players and coaches, which form communities unto themselves. Those yellow flags are so judgmental. I mean, if grabbing a guy’s face mask is okay according to the norms of your community, then who is this striped bozo to say it’s wrong? Why must the officials, under the tyranny of instant replay, seek to impose their own metanarrative on everyone else?

RIPCORD: Hey, we’re out of beer.

AEON: I know what you mean, man. Why stop the game in order to try to get at what “really happened” out on the field. There is no “really happened” to get at. The officials create reality when they call it, but it is a reality that is only normative for themselves, not for the players, and not for you or me.

SKY: Instant replay is so irrelevant. Why should we pretend that there is somehow a “better call” that could have been made for any play? I hate football.

RIPCORD: Guys, still out of beer.

AEON: I hate it too. Let’s watch something else. Oh! I think The Book of Daniel is on.

SKY: No, sorry. It got canceled. It’s on NBC, remember? Shows on NBC get canceled.

AEON: Oh, yeah.


SKY: Wanna go see Brokeback Mountain?

AEON: Again? Well, okay.

[They both exit, leaving Ripcord alone with his empty beer cans. The two minutes are up, and the official indicates that after further review, the call has been overturned.]

RIPCORD: I need more beer.

The fact that officials in the NFL and the NCAA still rely on replays to show them what really happened indicates that they believe that objective reality exists, and that it can be known. Of course, cameras don’t show everything, and sometimes they don’t show enough to offer a confident verdict in either direction. But it is indisputable that they often provide enough information to enable the officials to make a better call or to confirm the call that had already been made.

I don’t like it when games are constantly interrupted by the review process. That’s why I like the NFL’s limited challenge policy. But as long as instant replay is used to determine how some plays will be called, we are still living in a world in which at least some people believe objective truth can be known. No one claims that it can be known exhaustively (that is, apart from omniscience), but then exhaustive knowledge is not necessary for true knowledge. I don’t have to know absolutely everything about Vince Young’s game-winning touchdown against USC to know that he did, in fact, run in a game-winning touchdown. I don’t have to interpret that bit of knowledge in conversation with my community. Nor is it “absolutist” of me to claim that it really happened and that anyone who says otherwise is wrong.

Epistemology, to my thinking, has a lot to do with common sense. Postmodernism, while it has helped us recognize our limitations and contexts, is ultimately an epistemology that has abandoned common sense. You won’t get very far in life without that. And you certainly won’t have any tolerance for instant replay.

"Deeply Held Personal Beliefs"

January 13, 2006

Doug Wilson exposes the insanity of the constant attempts to remove “deeply held personal beliefs” from one’s public duty (using the Alito hearings as an example). Very funny.

I have said before that this idea–namely, that one should be in public what one is not in private, and vice versa–is rightly termed “hypocrisy,” and for some reason, it has become a public virtue in our society.