Tag Archives: Biblical interpretation

“The Message” isn’t always a translation

There’s some debate about whether Eugene Peterson’s The Message is a translation or a paraphrase. I’d argue that it’s both, in some ways.

That is, Peterson translated from the Greek without consulting English translations, according to him. That’s a translation. Yet it seems to me that he then took that translation and “riffed on it,” producing a paraphrase of his own work!

Look at Paul’s question to the Ephesians in Acts 19:2. Here’s how the NIV translates it:

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

I’m no Greek expert, but looking at the GNT, the question seems to consist of 5 words which basically state what is above. Now look what Peterson did with the question:

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed? Did you take God into your mind only, or did you also embrace him with your heart? Did he get inside you?”

See what I mean? The first sentence is the translation. The next two… have no basis in the Greek text. They aren’t translation. At best they are paraphrase. Essentially they are Peterson’s commentary on the translation.

How is the reader to know that? How is the reader supposed to know when Peterson is merely injecting things into the text?

Look at Romans 8:38-39. In “translating” this verse, Peterson writes:

Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture: (Tim: underline mine)

As a reminder, here’s how the NIV does it:

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In another post, I’ll note how Peterson avoids discussion of spiritual powers; that’s a definite problem. What I’ve underlined shows a major theological point that Peterson has inserted into this passage… with no textual basis. Depending on what Peterson means in what he has authored here, I very well may agree with him. However… that’s not Romans 8. That’s not translation.

Again… how is the reader supposed to know?

Replacing biblical authority with that of experience

Let me get back to a topic from last week. I was talking about Christians and churches accepting an additional authority in spiritual matters, that being the authority of experience.

Jay Guin is doing a series of articles on church trends. The first trend he discusses comes from an article by Philip Jenkins and focuses on “gender revolutions.” Let me quote a few things from what Jay says; listen to see if you can hear the voice of experience dominating the discussion in churches:

But there was an even bigger revolution that I’d date to around World War II. Pre-WWII, most conservative churches considered the biblical passages thought to prohibit women from having authority over men (primarily 1 Tim 2) to apply universally — in the secular workplace as well as church and family.
However, by the early 1960s at least, the commentators were limiting their arguments to the church and the family, largely conceding that women may have authority over men in the secular workplace — but more by omission. They just dropped the secular workplace side of the question. Why?
Well, first, women were busily proving their competence as principals of schools and administrators in other fields. And they were bringing home much larger pay checks because of it. And so the old argument of female gullibility was disproved by experience, and few men were willing to give up a 50% raise in their wife’s pay just to make a theological point.

The near future trend is that the complementarian (hierarchical) position will continue to erode as experience shows the competence of women as supervisors and as a generation that has never known the discrimination that I grew up with become church leaders and elders.
Now, for non-Christians, anything short of full equality for women is considered grossly immoral. Millennials consider the notion that women shouldn’t be full partners in a marriage or church laughable and deeply wrong. This is going to become less of an internal debate within the church and more a question of our ability to evangelize the lost, because few unchurched people will be willing to accept imposing a subordinate role on women.

To be fair, let me note that Jay makes powerful arguments for egalitarianism based on Scripture and theology. He is not one who has accepted the authority of experience over the voice of Scripture. But many in our churches have done so. For most, a desire to change the church’s stance on women does not arise out of Bible study or new insights into the text. It comes from experience, both personal experience and observed experience.

Interestingly enough, Jay included point #2 in the same post. (I don’t think the grouping was intentional) That point deals with “Revolutions in sexual identity.” I find that interesting because I can’t help but feel that we’re going to see the exact same thing happen in the church as regards sexual identity. Experience will cause us to return to the Bible and massage the text until it finally says what we want it to say.

Note what Jay says:

While some congregations are choosing to accept gay couples or else to take an agnostic position (same difference), most churches consider homosexual sexual activity to be sinful. And, indeed, I think this is what the Bible teaches (as we’ve covered here many times). But there will be a price to be paid as homosexuals push for legislation that punishes those who refuse to adopt their agenda. I’m sure that at some point the tax exempt status of churches will be challenged if they don’t submit to the gay agenda. And some churches and related institutions (universities, publishing houses) will capitulate rather than close their doors with the loss of tax-deductible contributions.

In both cases (gender and sexual identity), Jay notes that the church will have to pay a price to hold to traditional views. I’m less optimistic than he. I think few Christians and few churches are willing to pay that price. We’ve seen it in gender discussions. We’ll see it with conversations about sexual identity.

Give experience a voice equal to or greater than that given to Scripture, if you choose. Just be honest about it. I think you’re damaging the church by changing your source of authority. And I think generations in the future will return to Scripture and marvel at the choices we made.

The Bible and inspiration

Yesterday’s post reflects a concern I have, the observation that the church is increasingly de-emphasizing the role of the Bible and proportionately giving more weight to the voice of experience. There is a growing distrust in the human authors of the text; I’ve given plenty of time recently to that idea. The Bible is seen as a very human book; interpreters are free to embrace or reject each passage as they see fit.

As society clamors for religious experience outside of religious institutions, there is an increasing focus on God’s Word beyond Scripture itself; the Bible is seen as part and parcel of organized religion, so those dissatisfied with religion in general seek to find Jesus apart from the written word. This idea is often expressed as focusing on the red letters of the gospels above all else, thinking that they represent the purity of Jesus’ teachings.

Much of it comes down to our view of the Bible and our view of inspiration. If, for example, the apostle Peter was merely the N.T. Wright of his day, then we’re free to agree or disagree with what he says (though there seems to be greater hesitancy to disagree with Wright than to disagree with the biblical authors!). If the epistles are nothing more than a historical curiosity, preserved in a sort of textual museum, then we may read what they say and shake our heads in pity at the inadequacy of their understanding of Christianity.

I don’t believe in divine dictation; I recognize the humanity behind Scripture. But I also believe that God was at work in the production and preservation of the writings of early church authors; I believe that these men wrote God-breathed, Spirit-aided, Christ-honoring texts. Though not perfect men, I believe their writings reveal God’s words to us.

I believe in the unity of the teaching of Scripture. I don’t pit one author against another. I don’t see one book as a corrective to another book, nor one verse as fixing what another says. I do see differences, both differences in narrated details and differences in outlooks on doctrinal themes. But even when the biblical melody isn’t always sung in unison, I believe it’s sung in harmony.

I also believe that the church was guided by God in the selection of which books to keep. The purpose was not to preserve a historical record of the church’s beginnings; these writings were selected because of their ongoing value to the church. What Paul said to Ephesus was seen as being relevant to the church two hundred years later; I believe it’s still relevant two thousand years later.

This is a deep and complex subject, one that I can’t fully explore in 500 words. I’ll try and summarize with this: I firmly believe in the truth and inspiration of the Bible, even the uncomfortable parts. When experience, church teaching, or personal emotions conflict with Scripture, I’m sticking with Scripture.

Studying the Bible until it hurts

bible studyWhen comparing ancient manuscripts of the Bible and trying to reconcile the differences between those manuscripts, one rule of thumb is that the hardest reading is often the original one. That is, one can see why a scribe would “correct” a text that says something difficult, but it’s less likely that they would take a simple statement and make it harder.

To some degree, I think the same applies to biblical interpretation. Not that we should seek obscure meanings or secret codes within the text. What I’m saying is that I trust someone’s conclusions more when I realize those conclusions aren’t necessarily what the person wants them to be.

It’s a bit like some news I heard the other day. A study found that a certain medication greatly reduces the risk of heart disease. The study was funded by the company that makes that medication. That makes me less likely to accept their findings as valid.

Years ago, when speaking about a now-defunct publication, one of my friends said, “It’s like they’re saying, ‘Yay, the Bible finally says what we always wanted it to say.'”

I often hear someone say, “Here’s a great study about this topic.” Usually what they mean is that the study agrees with their position. Rarely are they enamored of the methodology; they like the outcome.

We need to be willing to study the Bible until it hurts. We need to follow Jesus not because he makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside, but because he challenges us to re-examine every aspect of our life. We need to dig into the Bible until what we read makes us think, “Surely it can’t mean that.”

I’m pointing the finger at everyone else, but especially at me. It’s time for some painful Bible study.

Just how clueless were the biblical writers?

Apostle PualThe title to this post reflects a question that’s been growing in my mind as I read what many are writing about the Bible these days. Seemingly, the biblical writers were pretty clueless.

You know, like when the Pentateuch talks about God wanting people to offer sacrifice for sin. Fortunately, later writers (the prophets) corrected this misconception. There’s no sin between people and God. Just bad feelings and frustration. God didn’t want sacrifice. He just wants people to feel better.

And that talk about God being angry? That’s just ancient writers projecting their feelings into the text. God is love. God is forgiveness.

Hints that salvation is a privilege and not a right? Merely a reflection of the views of ancient people living near God’s people. God wants everyone to be happy and plans to save everyone. The apostles risked their lives preaching the gospel to let people know that they would be saved no matter what they did or believed.

And as clueless as the biblical writers were, I must be even more so. Because I just can’t wrap my mind around the rewrites of the Bible progressive Christianity offers. And I’m silly enough to think that inspiration counts for something. Go figure.