Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Wrong Use of Biblical Languages

"Pastor, what does Scripture mean when it says 'If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them'?"

"Well, don't trust the English translations. If you knew Greek you would know that what it really means is 'If you tell people the Gospel, it is in light of the fact that God has already forgiven their sins.'"

"Pastor, what does Scripture mean when it says 'Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins?"

"In Greek all that means is that baptism is done because of the forgiveness of sins. It doesn't actually bring forgiveness."

"Pastor, what does Jesus mean when he says 'this is my body'?"

"If you knew Greek grammar, you would know that really means 'this represents my body.'"

I have heard these types of exchanges far too often, where a questioning layperson is told not to ask questions about the Biblical text because they do not know the original languages. The implication here is that one must simply trust the pastor's interpretation of the Biblical text because he knows Greek, and  the congregants don't. This quickly stops the laity from thinking that they have any right to interpret the Scripture, because they don't have the knowledge or education that the pastor has.

Now, don't get me wrong, I think a knowledge of the original languages is helpful. I think it can be a great aid to pastors and theologians who are studying the text of Scripture. I study Greek, and I would encourage anyone in the ministry to do so regularly. We can't abandon the languages and fall into some sort of naive KJV only fundamentalism which places one particular English translation over the original text. But, think about this for a minute. There are more translations of the Bible in English than any other language. It seems like every few years there is some new translation that people are touting as the greatest English Bible. Those who try and challenge doctrine by having to go to the Greek text when difficult passages arise have an issue here. They are often challenging every single English translation of the Greek text. That's a scary place to be in, because essentially what the pastor is saying is: I know Greek better than all of the teams of translators that got together over hundreds of years to make these English translations.

And the texts the define the use of the sacraments are the ones which often fall victim to this misuse. I can't even count the amount of times I've heard people claim that Acts 2:38 doesn't mean what it says because of a mistranslation. But, if this is a bad translation, why does every major English Bible say the same thing? Don't you think someone would have figured it out by now? This is the same thing with Matthew 16 and John 20 which speak of the Apostles' ability to forgive sins. It's said that in Greek, the meaning is totally different than what the clear implication is. And again, this goes against every major English translation of the New Testament.

This does also tend to be the approach of many who deny gratia universalis (universal grace). It's said that the phrase "God is the Savior of all people" in 1 Timothy 4:10 for example, should be translated something akin to "God is the Lord over all people" or "God is the caregiver of all people." Again, this goes against every major English translation.

So here is a question that we all need to ask ourselves when doing this: If a verse seems to disprove your theological beliefs, and you translate it in some way that doesn't fit with any of the dozens of major English translations of the Bible, and that unique translation just happens to fit your own theological biases, could it be that it is in fact you who are in the wrong? Could you be reading your own preconceived theological convictions back into the text?

I have also found this same argument to apply to the historical context of various Biblical texts. "Historical context" can often be an excuse to avoid the clear implications of text that deal with such controversial issues as women in leadership and homosexuality. The same can be said for the approach that many take to the New Perspective on Paul. It is an unavoidable conclusion that with this approach to the Pauline text, one cannot truly understand Paul without a prior understanding of Second Temple Judaism. Now, I don't want to deny the usefulness of understanding the historical context of the Biblical text. Scripture is not a set of abstract truths divorced from history. However, if we trust that God inspired the Word, and gave it as the only infallible guide for faith and practice, shouldn't we trust that he gave us the necessary historical information to be able to discern its message? It's not as if he let the church remain in ignorance until contemporary archaeological discoveries were made. New historical research can certainly guide and enlighten certain aspects of the Biblical text, but we can trust that it's primary message can be discerned without it.

This should be an encouragement to those laity who earnestly seek to understand God's Word. I know it can be frustrating when you are constantly told that Scripture can't be understood unless you learn a language or read ancient documents that you don't have either the time or the energy to study. Honestly, if you have a few good English translations at your side, and you take the time to compare them to one another, you have all the tools you need to understand the meaning of the Bible. The apostles themselves were content quoting from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) rather than the Hebrew text itself. While certain nuances of the text and syntax can only be found by using the text in its original language, or by studying the history of the Ancient Near East, the doctrinal teachings of the Old and New Testaments are clear enough in any major English translation that there is no need to doubt your ability to understand the text.


Cap'n Salty said...

This is one of the reasons that in our mid-week Bible study I (and a couple of the participants) routinely have the Greek text open. I'll have an English translation there too and sometimes follow it, but do most of the teaching from the Greek text (NA28 just now). Almost always, when someone asks, "What does the Greek text say?" the response is that it says precisely what the English version just read does. The problem is normally that we don't want to receive what God says, not that we don't understand the statement He makes.

Anonymous said...


Bruce Zittlow said...

Because we have learned Greek does not mean that we didn't have biases already creeping into our Greek instruction.

Joshua said...

Cap'n Salty,

Word order might be different, but it says the same thing basically.