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Author: Henry Neufeld

The Limitations of Word Studies

The Limitations of Word Studies

It’s a common question, but it’s one I don’t like: What does that Greek word really mean? (You can substitute Hebrew or Aramaic for Greek.)

The basic problem is the assumption that a word “really” means anything specific. Underlying this is a tendency to think that one discovers the meaning of a communication by mentally finding the meaning of the individual words and then adding them together. Language isn’t that simple.

In English, we see this in appeals to the dictionary when word meanings are concerned. “The dictionary says that word means ____, so that’s it.” I have encountered great frustration when I don’t find that the final answer. But the way we use dictionary definitions can help us with understanding definitions in biblical languages.

A look in the dictionary will help at this point. You’ll notice that the definitions of words come in groups, and that there are multiple possibilities. If you have definitions 1, 2, and 3, which one applies to your particular case? I’ve seen angry debates occur because the participants were using a different, valid definition for a particular word. Valid, that is, apart from the particular context.

How do you know which one to use? The answer is context. Your dictionary is not written as a form of sacred writ, derived from some mountaintop revelation and delivered on unalterable tablets. Lexicographers study the ways in which words and used and then develop definitions that reflect those uses. The meaning is determined by the way words are used. Even what words get the official status of being in the dictionary is determined by usage. Who uses them? Where? Are they slang, or have they become part of mainstream languages. Lexicographers debate this sort of things, sometimes quite vigorously.

Now you need to avoid the reverse problem. This doesn’t mean that words can mean whatever you want them to. Well, they can, but not if you want to be able to communicate with someone else. Language is social, which is why lexicographers look at the way people use the words.

Words in the Bible behave as words do anywhere else. While we may debate the working of inspiration in the choosing of the words, it is clear that they are there to communicate with humans. These words function as human language.

So when I’m asked what a Hebrew or Greek word “really” means, I need to know where it is in the text so I can ask who is using it, when it is used, and what the various elements of context are. The Bible was written and transmitted over many centuries. If we take the oldest suggested dates for elements of the text, this history covers more than a millenium and a half. Many of those dates are debatable, but the time period is fairly long. Try reading something written in English in the 15th century CE (make sure it hasn’t had its language updated) and see how hard it can be to understand. Then be aware that the biblical languages underwent similar changes over time.

One way we learn how to guess and then remember words is etymology. A word is derived from one or more other words, and we combine the meanings to determine what the word means in its current form.

This procedure is helpful in guessing the meaning of a new word and in remembering meaning, but it doesn’t determine the meaning. That is because words develop in meaning as they are used. A favorite of New Testament teachers is the Greek ekklesia, which is derived from the words for “out” and “called.” I don’t intend to run through the history here, but that meaning is at best very doubtful for uses in the New Testament. The word has developed in meaning, and now refers to the gathering of believers.

Another technique that has been applied to that particular word is a search for historical meanings. An ekklesia could, historically, be a legislative assembly, but there is no evidence of this usage in the New Testament. My point here is not to develop a “correct” interpretation of this word, but rather to point out that such a result must ultimately result from reading the texts of the church that use the term.

What can a word study do for understanding the text in that case? Is it a waste of time?

Hardly! It is no more a waste of time than lexicography is. What word studies can do is discover the range of meanings a word may have. A good word study would find different contexts, different categories of use, and appropriate examples. That’s one of the differences between a good dictionary or lexicon and a vocabulary guide.

Strong’s concordance, for example, is a vocabulary guide. (With questionable content in many cases.) It provides a general survey of the English words used to translate a particular term in a particular Bible version, not a good range of definitions. It’s a challenging tool to use for word studies. A good Bible app with search, or a good concordance of a text will make it much easier.

Similarly etymology doesn’t tell you what a word really means. Rather, it provides some options for what a word may mean. That’s why we have a named fallacy, the etymological fallacy, which refers to the improper use of cognate words as determining meaning.

Debates about linguistics and biblical languages were in a much earlier stage when I was studying, but I was able to observe this in connection with using Ugaritic. Ugaritic is a Semitic language that is closely related to Hebrew, but definitely not identical. After five years of Hebrew it was easy for me to learn.

At the same time there was a temptation to use Ugaritic to determine the meaning of obscure Hebrew words, as well as to determine the meaning of unknown or obscure Ugaritic words from Hebrew. The latter was necessary. The language was an unknown, and we had to start from what was known.

In both cases, however, we had to watch for the problem of letting something other than the context determine the meaning. Words in Hebrew, Akkadian, Aramaic, and Arabic (among others) could give us a range of possibilities, but we had to work to interpret the text in order to get a good definition of a word in a particular context. (No, I was not one of the folks who interpreted these texts initially. My professor encouraged us to walk in those steps to develop our own skills.)

Thus the etymology, parallel languages, and summaries of word uses (word studies) all contributed to understanding, but none of them determined the meaning. That involved understanding the context.

Now suppose we’re looking at a New Testament word. What goes into determining the meaning of a word in a particular text? You need the known options. You also have to consider that a creative author can re-purpose an existing word. You need to understand the passage not just as a matter of the definitions of the words in the local context, but in terms of the author’s overall message. You could add to all these contexts a theological context.

Then you have to ask whether the author always uses the same word in the same sense. As an example, I suggest reading Romans 1-9 (if not further) carefully, looking at how Paul nuances the use of the word “law.” If you don’t watch his dance with that word, you will have a hard time coming up with a definition that will work. If you try to force something on the text from the outside, then you will miss what Paul is actually saying.

One of the negative results of studying biblical languages is that one can develop a tendency to study only the nuts and bolts. You spend so much time on specific words and even phrases or idioms that you lose site of the passage and its message.

That sort of careful study is essential. It provides the foundation for understanding. All comments about words not having singular, specific meanings should not give us the idea that we can do anything we want.

But once that sort of work is done, we have step back and read more rapidly, hearing the message in its broader sense.

In turn, we go back to the nuts and bolts and see if we understand them differently now that we’ve seen the overview.

Difficult? Time consuming? It can be. Yet each step you take builds your understanding of the text.

For more on word studies, see my post on Word Study Dangers, starting with Word Study Reprise, which links to the rest.

Fear Shouldn’t Decide

Fear Shouldn’t Decide

Since this is a time of posts about COVID-19, I want to make it very clear that I am not providing any information or advice specifically related to the virus. I am not an expert in infectious diseases, epidemiology, or any of a bunch of related fields of study. I choose to get my information from medical scientists with traceable institutional connections, excluding “my good friend who is a doctor,” but that’s just me.

I’ve been reminded recently of encountering cats in my driveway. There are a number of feral cats in the neighborhood, along with a fair number of human-associated cats who spend a lot of time outside. When one of them happens to be in the driveway, they will run. They are generally a small hop away from the car to the side, but they will choose to run forward in front of the car.

Fear has given the cats an impetus to run, but their fear tends to make them run in a straight line. In discussing decisions, especially in emergency situations, there’s a saying that a bad decision is often better than no decision.

That’s pretty much bred into us. Around the stone-age campfire, the lion or tiger fundamentalist was likely to win the day, because he killed the beast without wondering whether it might be tamed and put to better uses.

Once fear gets you moving, however, this in-bred trait can mislead and even destroy. If I was not a person who diligently avoids hurting passing animals, the cats in my driveway might be in trouble. But once fear sets in, you can miss the obvious options for escape, or you can rank your threats incorrectly.

On the other hand, a lack of fear can lead to inaction when action is called for. I’d suggest not railing against fear, in its place. There is a time to be afraid. But just as the engine doesn’t guide your car, so your fear should not guide your actions.

Obvious, isn’t it?

But being me, I couldn’t resist writing it down anyhow!

Featured image by Holger Schué from Pixabay

Link: On Spiritual Disciplines

Link: On Spiritual Disciplines

With a hat tip to UM-Insight, I saw a great cartoon and some excellent commentary on the Wesley Brothers blog. Maybe you think you, too, need a Disciplan.

Here’s a quote:

We don’t engage in these practices to prove anything. Selfless practices do not make me more worthy of God’s love. Rather, they prepare my heart to believe that God’s love is real.  And it’s really for me.  God doesn’t love me more just because I kept all my spiritual disciplines and turned into the best version of myself.  No, God’s love for me is just as steadfast during my most selfish and greedy moments, I am just closed to accepting that truth.  I can do all these spiritual practices for selfish reasons: trying to prove my love or my worth, to prove that I’m on the “right side of history.” But if it doesn’t till the soil of my heart towards knowing the humble heart of God, what am I doing?

Go read the whole thing! God will love you more!

Well, no, not true, but go read it anyhow.

Why I Stopped Carrying My Greek NT to Church and then Started Again

Why I Stopped Carrying My Greek NT to Church and then Started Again

There’s an article on For the Church, in which Dr. Andrew King tells students: “Don’t Take Your Greek or Hebrew Bible to Corporate Worship.”

There are a number of good points in the article, such as the note that if you are not comfortable with the languages, working on them during a sermon may be distracting. It is also important not to suggest to those who do not read the Bible in its original languages that they are less than you, or somehow unable to read and understand their Bibles. Be cautioned by the issues raised here. But I have a slightly different view.

When I was studying biblical languages as majors both for my undergraduate and MA degrees, I very quickly started carrying my Greek and Hebrew Bibles to church. Since I went well beyond the couple of semesters or the couple of years that many seminary students study, I became quite capable of following the scriptures in a sermon or in a Sunday School lesson with little difficulty.

During the time that I was a student this presented little difficulty. As far as I could tell, very few people ever noticed. I never became self-conscious about it. I didn’t really care to have people notice, but it was the way in which I enjoyed studying the Bible.

For me, it became a problem when I was working and teaching in churches, though I was not a pastor. I have written before about not using Greek and Hebrew as part of your sermon. I avoid using the biblical languages as an explanation for something I’m going to say in a sermon. The reason is that I don’t want to suggest that I, an individual student, have discovered something that nobody in all the many translations into the English language, have managed to convey. I have found that a good presentation of the context of the passage, linguistic, literary, historical, and cultural, can convey pretty much anything you need to convey.

So one of my reasons for no longer carrying my Greek and Hebrew Bibles to church was to avoid the suggestion that one must know the biblical languages in order to read and benefit from the Bible.

The second was that certain preachers who knew me would try to bring me into Greek or Hebrew comments by saying things like “as Henry would know.” It was annoying, drew attention away from the point the preacher was making, and highlighted me when I had no part in presenting the message.

So I stopped taking those Bibles to church. It seemed easier and less likely to cause trouble.

One experience with a very close friend and mentor who is a pastor (though now retired) set me thinking in different ways. I was sitting in a classroom in the church reading my Greek New Testament when he walked in.

He said, “I am so awed with the way you can read and understand those languages. I just can’t imagine doing it myself.”

I thought for a minute and said (and I think this was the Holy Spirit helping me), “I’m just so awed by the way you can sit down with a couple and help them heal their marriage. I just can’t imagine doing it myself.”

Now you might think this is a good reason not to let people know I read Greek and Hebrew by carrying the Bibles with me, but I have come to see it in the opposite way.

We all have gifts. I personally believe that all gifts are spiritual when they are used as God calls us to use them. We shouldn’t privilege any gift over another. God has gifted me with the ability to read and make use of languages in my study. I’m not a specialist. I don’t work in this field, though I occasionally teach classes in church. But I’m not an academic. I stopped after my MA degree. Nonetheless, I can read substantial amounts of scripture, such as sitting down to read an entire book in a day or so.

This doesn’t make me a better person than anyone else. It doesn’t make me more spiritual. It doesn’t make me more intelligent. I have a gift that I’m called to use in service to God.

I have yet to find anyone in the church who is not gifted in some way. The pastor who was one of my mentors had quite a number of gifts that inspired a sense of awe in me. In all the years I knew him, I sometimes disagreed, but I never thought he was not using those gifts for God.

My wife has an extraordinary gift for organizing difficult tasks and getting different people to work together to accomplish them. I absolutely am unable to understand how she does it.

Reading biblical languages is not a greater gift than any other. It gives me certain options for study. It doesn’t make me better, nor does it mean I always have the right answer for a biblical question.

So what I do now is go out of my way to affirm everyone’s gifts, while going ahead and using what works best for me in study. I have had many excellent opportunities to affirm the gifts of others and how they apply to Bible study, church leadership, and ministry.

There is a danger of pride, but there is in anything we do. Our pride can come out it so many ways. There is also a danger of misleading, but you won’t have solved that by leaving your Greek or Hebrew Bible home.

But there is also a tendency of some to forget the benefits we all gain from those who engage in a scholarly study of the Bible, from those who study archaeology, to anthropology, business management, human relations, and yes, languages and linguistics.

You don’t need to hide your gift. Use it responsibly to build the body.

Oh, and yes, if it’s distracting you from the sermon leave it out. And don’t use it in preaching. Let it deepen your study and then preach in the appropriate language for your congregation.

A Note on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

A Note on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

I had occasion to discuss this passage a couple of days ago, and it reminded me of many discussions I have had regarding this parable. (It’s Matthew 20:1-16, by the way.) This is a short note and not an extended discussion.

The most common response I hear to this is that it isn’t fair. My most common response to the response is that God isn’t fair. Then people want to discuss whether as employers we should reward people according to their accomplishments, or whether this is a call for a different type of society.

My simple note is this: While I stand by my statement that God isn’t fair, I need to go farther and faster. God is not fair in that he gives us more than we can possibly claim. We are often afraid to simply note that God doesn’t really have to do anything.

Go back to the garden. God creates human beings, male and female, and places them in the garden. God doesn’t have to do that. We can say that it wouldn’t be nice to just dump them somewhere, but we have no way of calling God to account about that. In Scripture, God can be called to account, but it is only because God has set the standard and invites us to do so. When we talk about fairness we appeal to an outside standard.

To some, that makes God seem worse than us. God is unfair, and God can be unfair because, well, God! But what we see is God being kind and gracious even without that outside appeal. Many of us only do nice things because we might be seen, or we want the reputation, or—face it—because we have to. God does more than God has to because, well, God!

When we read this parable, I suspect we are not called upon to examine the fairness of economic systems (though that is a good thing to discuss), or whether the owner of the vineyard was a nice guy, which is perhaps questionable.

Rather, I think we are invited to think about who we are. And that’s tough.

I’ve never heard someone respond immediately by commenting on how unfair it would be to them, as the 11th-hour worker, to get a full day’s pay for one hour of work.

We think of ourselves as early, all-day workers. We’re wrong!

I think the passage’s main point is to invite us to think of ourselves as 11th-hour workers, people whose wages would be inadequate to feed our families if we just got the standard wage for our hour of work. We’re the ones who get something without a claim on it.

This is the value of a story: Helping us adjust our thinking by placing ourselves in the story.

I think if you get what Jesus is saying, one impact will be to change the way you think about yourself. In doing so, you may change the way you think about, and interact with, other people, those we have often thought of as getting more than they deserve.

Which is another value of a story: It carries over into so many different aspects of our life.

Featured image credit – Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

How to Read Hebrews 4

How to Read Hebrews 4

… or any scripture, for that matter.

In graduate school I became progressively less interested in listening to sermons or in reading devotional items. While I was very interested in reading poetry, fiction and other non-technical materials, I applied a largely technical approach to scripture and theology. I say this to make clear that I preach to myself in what follows and not just to others.

I think there is a problem with academics interpreting scripture. It’s not true of all academics, but it tends to be stronger in those with both a fervor for the scriptures as religious texts and a strong technical background. People like that tend to expect direct, final answers. Things mean either this or that. One works very hard to make a clear presentation, properly argued presentation out of a text, whatever may actually be there in the first place.

Writers of poetry, on the other hand, may have other ideas in mind. They may be trying to evoke emotions, paint pictures, or energize a reader to action. Preachers also may have a different approach. I am a teacher, and tend very much toward the academic approach, and yet when I’m asked to preach I am not satisfied with an audience becoming acquainted with a set of facts. When preaching I want to evoke some form of commitment.

One of the best examples of this, in my opinion, is what Walther Eichrodt does to the text of Ezekiel 1. Ezekiel writes of the experience of a vision. He struggles for words, he moves through the picture. He is comprehending and presenting at the same time. I imagine that he is writing so close to the vision that he is under its influence. Eichrodt, though an excellent commentator whose work I much appreciate, guts the text, correcting the “error” and making a relatively ordinary description.

R. H. Charles, in his International Critical Commentary on Revelation, thinks that the latter part of Revelation became disordered (you can find his commentary, likely at a library, and read how if you want), and proposes a reconstruction of the text that makes it much more logical and orderly.

So what does all this have to do with Hebrews 4? Well, mostly that I got to thinking about it while reading that chapter, but also because there are terms in Hebrews that people want to place in an orderly structure when they are intended differently.

It’s critical, for example, to consider rhetorical structure and to look at the text broadly. Forcing the text into a known pattern can be fatal. As an example, now from Hebrews 4, there is considerable debate on the division of the presentation. Is there a major topical division between 4:13 and 4:14, or does this come slightly earlier? When does the next major discourse begin?

I would suggest it’s not quite so clean. The author of Hebrews likes to tie his text together with keywords. He likes to give glimpses forward at what’s coming up, and in turn tie what he’s currently discussion to earlier material. I would suggest considering the possibility that 4:14-16 is a kind of bridge, connecting 4:13 to 5:1. Because it isn’t purely a conclusion, since it leads to further discussion of this high priest, and it isn’t purely an introduction, people get into debates about what it is.

We also have changes in quality, such as was introduced in chapter 3. Jesus is not just better than Moses in the sense that one might hire a better steward who can do more “stewarding.” Rather, he is something different, the owner of the house (note the element of christology here), and not a steward (see particularly 3:5-6).

In the broader theme of Hebrews, it’s easy to get into the “the law of Moses failed to get us to do what is right, so Jesus is a better command-giver, evoking better obedience.” I’ll leave discussing this to other posts (perhaps!), but I’d suggest that what is in view is changing the quality of the relationship. In fact, this new quality is one that has been sought all along. No amount of running will turn you into a bird so you can take flight. No amount of doing will turn you into a saint. Being a saint consists of something qualitatively different.

As the argument develops, words shift meaning as their context shifts.

As we come into Hebrews 4, we have repeated uses of the word “rest,” and the question generally asked is just what does the rest (or specifically “Sabbath rest/celebration”) that remains to us consist of? Is it something that happens now or in the future?

Here’s a case where I think finding the one, clearly delimited answer is suboptimal. We have a pattern of “rests” presented. Our author is not afraid to draw on the story and bring us into it. There is the rest after creation (do you see the tie-back to 1:1-4?), then the rest of being in the land offered to the Israelites, and finally (or is it final?) a rest offered to us.

I’d suggest that the word rest here is as flexible as the story and the context. There is definitely a “now” rest to us. In fact, that is the rest of confidence in the One who is perfect. This is developed as the topic of priesthood moves forward. This rest is part of that very boldness in approaching the throne of grace. But there is no reason that this rest does not extend ultimately to the rest in the kingdom of God. No one-or-the-other choice is required.

I would note also that the word use for “to rest” (4:4) and “to give rest” (4:8a) are the same word and form used in different ways close to one another.

Which leads me to 4:12-13, in which we being with the word (logos) of God and end with the account (logos) which we must give to God. First, I find the debate over whether this is Jesus as the Word, with the follow-up debate over how closely it is tied to John 1:1-3ff in intent, to be slightly misguided. God’s Word is much more than your Bible, but your Bible reflects and provides God’s Word in its way and purpose. Is Jesus greater than the book? Yes, just as the one who provided the book is greater than the that which he provided (see the logic at the beginning of chapter 3).

I think that this Word is more than written scripture because of the context, but by nature it must include scripture. Just look at how firmly the author roots his presentation in the story of prior scripture. But because the author intends to establish Jesus a greater than what we have received by nature (1:1-4), it also must bring in this greater revelation here. This is an integral part of what is meant by Jesus as our High Priest.

Then we turn back to the account. I believe the account we will give is the account placed in us by the Word. We can talk about how thorough the examination presented by 4:12-13 is and how difficult it would be to survive such an examination. If, however, we assume that somehow we will in this life be ready for such an examination, we’ve missed the point again. This examination is not one you’re going to handle.

I think the second use of the Greek word logos is our first pointer to the fact that the one who is perfect is Jesus, and only Jesus, and it is only in Christ that we attain anything. We are going to give back to the Word nothing but the Word. The account we give is Jesus.

Featured Image Credit: Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Link: Mounce on Translation and Verbal Inspiration

Link: Mounce on Translation and Verbal Inspiration

While I disagree with a number of minor points, the one major one being that I would not use the word “verbal” in describing inspiration, this is an excellent outline of how Bible translators think and the reasons behind that thinking. The author, William D. Mounce, responds in some cases to Grudem, but the article can be read on its own.

Read the complete article on Themelios.

For full disclosure, I have used Mounce’s introductory Greek grammar for a number of years before I switched to Dave Black’s. Dave is one of my authors. Links to the two books are below for those interested. (Two different stores as I don’t yet have the February 5 edition available for my store.) The third book is about Bible translation by some unknown author.

Faith on the Edge Podcast and Ditch the Building

Faith on the Edge Podcast and Ditch the Building

Steve Kindle and Bruce Epperly got together on the Faith on the Edge podcast (episode 33) to discuss Nick May’s book Ditch the Building. I’m publisher to all three authors, though as pointed out in the podcast, Bruce has books with a number of publishers. It should be noted that Bruce’s written output is too great for any small publisher!

Here’s the Facebook post and the link:

I am delighted to see this kind of discussion taking place. I would have published Nick’s book even if I disagreed, but I find myself very much in agreement with his suggestions. I have a personal connection to the traditional church, but I also think we spend most of our time trying to figure out why it isn’t working.

That is a suggestion that we need to do radical surgery. How radical? That is worth discussing. I am watching as multiple churches I know are working on their structure, attempting to bring it more into line with the gospel and with the command of Jesus not to be seeking to be greater than one another.