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Interpreting the Bible III – The Impact of Inerrancy

Interpreting the Bible III – The Impact of Inerrancy

Update (1/15/09): For those in the habit of reading posts and skipping comments, I want to note that there is an important and substantial exchange of comments between Peter Kirk (Gentle Wisdom), Jeremy Pierce (Parableman), and myself that helps clarify this issue substantially.

In my first post in this series, I made the following comment in response to a quote:

While I certainly agree that the Bible is not inerrant, the rest simply does not follow. A simplistic idea of how one gets from scriptural text to doctrinal belief is posited and then discarded. An idea of the word of God that may or may not be correct (or more importantly held or not held by a community) is assumed and then dismissed.

In that quote I kind of dismiss inerrancy from consideration and focus on the idea that one can automatically dismiss the Bible as God’s word because one has dismissed inerrancy. I will continue to make the second point–inerrancy isn’t necessary to regarding the Bible as God’s word–but I need to comment further on inerrancy.

In my experience most people think that a belief in Biblical inerrancy is a critical dividing line, and that is one is asked what difference inerrancy makes, one should answer (misusing Paul in Romans 3:2): Much in every way!

But inerrancy is something that is easy to misunderstand, and perhaps almost impossible to both understand and express in a way that is acceptable to everyone. Someone is going to claim misrepresentation somewhere, even if one uses an official statement such as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. I’m not going to work through this statement right now, but suffice it to say for the moment that I reject inerrancy, even as defined in the Chicago Statement.

But there are many different ways of defining inerrancy, and nobody really owns the term so as to control its meaning. Should one use the more academic definition? Or perhaps the most popular view is correct.

In conversation, I usually find that folks would like to define inerrancy simply as “the Bible doesn’t have any mistakes in it.” That’s pretty simple and straightforward. But does it work? When someone nuances this position, they are often accused of some kind of weasel-wording in order to pretend that clear errors don’t actually exist.

In fact, however, because of the complexity of the topic and the number of different claims that are made, one almost certainly must add some nuance to the definition in order to make any sense.

The first question is simply what Bible one is referring to. Is this a particular translation? The KJV-Only advocates would claim that the KJV is without error, and they don’t accept a claim to believe in inerrancy from those who don’t make the claim of that particular translation. They will ask, “What is your final authority? Where is an inerrant document that I can get my hands on?” So at a minimum, one must specify precisely what Bible is inerrant.

One can choose between many translations, the Bible in its source languages, some particular manuscript in the source languages, or the autographs. Each of these has interesting implications. There are few claims of inerrancy for translations in general, certainly not from anyone familiar with the process of translation. The “inerrant translation” idea is almost exclusively the product of the KJV-Only movement.

Inerrancy in the original languages sounds good to those without acquaintance with the manuscripts, but quickly falls afoul of the facts of a variety of manuscripts, each with differences in the text. Thus you will only rarely find a simple claim to inerrancy in the original languages apart from some specific claim about which text outside of popular discussion. I do get this question from lay members in churches fairly frequently. Academics of whatever theological persuasion, however, know better.

This leads to two options: 1) inerrancy of a particular text, usually asserted of the Byzantine or of the majority text, and 2) inerrancy of the autographs. Since inerrancy of a particular text also provides difficulties, such as differences in the manuscripts within that tradition, such a claim is again only rarely made, or generally nuanced so as to mean “nearly 100% accurate” which amounts logically to the second claim: Inerrancy of the autographs.

With this there is the problem that we simply do not have the autographs. Nonetheless, for definition purposes, we have a precise text at a precise point of time, even if we can’t lay hands on the precise text. Opponents of the doctrine of inerrancy, including me, wonder just how important it can be to assert that an inaccessible text has a particular attribute. But that is beside the point for my discussion here.

I hope you can see why someone who asserts inerrancy must provide some further data. When they say, “Inerrancy of the autographs” they aren’t tap dancing. They’re just getting to the point of being precise enough so that someone can understand and discuss their claim.

But now we get to just what one would call an error. Here is where opponents of inerrancy outside the field of Biblical studies can get extremely impatient. What’s an error? Well, it’s a mistake! PI is 3.0 (1 Kings 7:23)? It’s a mistake! Seven literal 24 hour days? It didn’t happen. It’s a mistake!

So let’s ask another question. It says in Judges 9:8 that “The trees once went out to anoint a king over them . . .” So did the trees “go out”? (Remember, this isn’t Narnia!) Did they anoint a king? Is it a mistake? Well, such a passage can be true on a couple of levels, including whether the words were spoken by the person quoted. If you quote a liar lying, is it a lie on your part? But of course the real point in this passage is that it is a parable, and you are not intended to believe that the trees actually did this.

I chose that obvious passage that nobody would take literally, because one popular idea of inerrancy is essentially equivalent to “the Bible is all literally true.” Even “literally true” is problematic, because I have heard it interpreted to mean that the Bible is pretty much all literal (everyone has their exceptions) on the one hand, to someone who told me that “taking the Bible literally” meant “taking it as it is intended” so that he would take a passage figuratively, while claiming to take the entire Bible literally. Personally, I think he was using the very common equation of “literally” with “true” and “figuratively” with “not-so-much true.”

There’s a very popular variant of this is to take the Bible literally at any point at which it can be taken literally. Tim LaHaye in his not-so-good book How to Study the Bible for Yourself, p. 160, says:

. . . A good rule to follow is to try to interpret each passage literally. If this is obviously not the case, then as a last resort try to find the spiritual or symbolical truth it is communicating.

Obviously he followed this principle in producing his interpretations of Revelation. I don’t have his book at hand, but I believe Dr. David Jeremiah recommended attempting literal interpretation first in the book of Revelation (Escape the Coming Night). Though I cannot recall for certain that he explicitly recommends it, I know that he practices it.

Where this view of inerrancy can be best tested, however, is in passages that might easily be taken either way. These would, in my view, include Genesis 1-2, where one might quite justifiably argue various positions on the original intent, or passages that may be read as fiction or not, such as Jonah or Job. Many mainline students of scriptures would be surprised at how many people find the issue of Ruth, Jonah, Esther, or Job as fiction controversial. For some, however, having a story like that, which is not actually presented as a parable or illustration, not be true would violate their view of inerrancy.

One of the best very short definitions of an academic notion of Biblical inerrancy is this: The Bible is without error in what it intends to convey. The problem with any short definition is that it lacks some details and nuance, but this one covers quite a lot of ground. For example, if Jonah is fiction and intended to convey certain theological truths rather than a narrative history of a certain person in a certain period, that doesn’t violate inerrancy. I have seen this stretched quite far, to the argument that one can accept inerrancy and date the book of Daniel in the 2nd century.

This argument was made by Ernest Lucas in his commentary on Daniel from the Apolos Old Testament Commentary series. He doesn’t take sides himself, but he argues that one can use either dating for Daniel and still accept the doctrine of inerrancy. This would involve understanding a great deal of prediction as history, a great deal of the story as fictional, along with the whole setting for the writing of the material. Is it possible? Indeed, most scholars believe that the setting, the story, and the predictions are all fictional, except for a very small portion that would be contemporary with, or in the immediate future of, the writer. In general, however, these same scholars don’t claim to believe in inerrancy.

I would add one more way in which one might state that the Bible is without error–by claiming that the Bible is precisely the way God wanted it, i.e. that if there is an apparent or even real error of fact, it’s in there because God wants it there. This would be hard even for me to disagree with, but I think it is so far from what anyone would hear me saying if I said “I accept inerrancy” that it would be lying for me to make the claim.

So just how does Biblical inerrancy impact interpretation, which is, after all, the topic of this series? Well, actually, as you can see, the type of inerrancy which Ernest Lucas seems to espouse doesn’t really eliminate any possible interpretation that I might claim myself. I think that it does force one to be a bit disingenuous regarding the author’s intent.

For example, if the writer of Daniel lived in the 2nd century BCE, wrote pseudonymously, invented an author and narrative or (more likely) borrowed it from folk tales, produced lengthy prophecies of the future but which weren’t really about the future, was the author lying in order to make his final prediction more convincing, or was he following literary conventions of his time? In other words, did he intend people to realize that what he wrote was largely fictional? One can debate this, but I’m afraid I would tend to support the idea that the “predictions” were developed to give weight to the rest of the book, and they would only give weight if people believed they had been written much earlier and had been fulfilled.

But in terms of Genesis 1 & 2, there is next to nothing that I would claim in interpreting this passage that could not be claimed by someone who accepts inerrancy. In other words, inerrancy and the theory of evolution need not stand opposed, provided one accepts certain literary categories for the writings in question.

Unless I get side-tracked again, which I probably will, I’m going to write on the Bible and scientific statements for my next post in this series.

Previously posted: part 1 and part 2.

KJV Only and Pisseth Against the Wall

KJV Only and Pisseth Against the Wall

I found these two videos after reading this post. I post these because they are so humorous in the way they proudly and piously display extreme ignorance.

First, 7 common sense reasons why we should never leave the KJV BIBLE. What is even more humorous about this is that it is listed under the category “education.”

Then the one with preaching about “pisseth against the wall”, who is “Pastor Steven L Anderson, pastor of Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona, expounds on the King James Bible phrase, “him that pisseth against the wall.” (according to his info on YouTube.)

If you can’t self-fisk these, see my FAQ on Bible Translations for a good start. You can also check out the pamphlet I edited, What About the KJV?.

Oops! Forgot the hat tip: One Thing I Know

Setting Doctrinal Priorities

Setting Doctrinal Priorities

A recent jury verdict against a group of hatemongers has brought up lots of questions. One that I heard was simply this: “The Bible says homosexuality is an abomination. How can you, as a Christian, claim that this group that protests at military funerals is not a good representation of Christianity?”

There are a huge number of reasons why I would say that these people do not represent Christianity, starting with the fact that it is always inappropriate to read a single text and then say, “This is what the Bible teaches.” Why? Because the Bible teaches many things, and often these will be in direct conflict with one another when one reads them in that fashion. Let’s take as an example this command:

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” — Deuteronomy 23:1, (NRSV).

Now compare it to this:

?4? For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
?5? I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off. — Isaiah 56:4-5 (NRSV)

Now my point here is not to make these two commands conflict, but rather to point out that we cannot build a complete doctrine of what God thinks of eunuchs based on just the text in Deuteronomy 23:1. There are other factors to consider if we continue to read.

One of the characteristics of fundamentalist groups is an inability to prioritize their doctrines. All truth is truth, and one cannot lay aside any aspect of truth. I discuss this kind of an approach to doctrinal unity and diversity in a post Unity, Diversity, and Confusion, where I recommend having a defined core that gives a group community, but allowing a broad range on which disagreement is permitted.

I think the common characterization of fundamentalists can be unfair at times, however, as there are many who adhere to a traditional understanding of doctrinal fundamentals and are quite able to see differing priorities within those. I recall that my dad who adhered to every doctrine in the dictionary definition of Christian fundamentalism (per Webster’s 3rd International) being confronted with a situation in which a patient would die unless he could get a particular medication. Now unlike some missionaries I know, my father refused to violate the laws of the host country, even when he could have gotten by with it. In this case, however, when the government refused an import permit, he arranged to have the medication smuggled in and saved the patient’s life. Lying and breaking the civil law became less of a concern than saving a life.

So in this case I’m speaking of those fundamentalists who fit the stereotype and have a hard time prioritizing. One could borrow Tillich’s definition of idolatry, which I quote from distant memory (so be merciful!), making your ultimate concern something that isn’t ultimate. The doctrinal version of this is centering your faith on something that isn’t central.

Fred Phelps and his small gang do, in fact, prioritize doctrines, but they do a very bad job of it. Only a very small portion of the scriptures directly address homosexuality, yet for them being against homosexuality is the central doctrine of their faith, as shown by their actions. It trumps all versions of redemption, God’s love, atonement, grace, and an incredible number of sins that are spoken of more frequently in scripture.

This inappropriate center then leads to behavior that is so far off that we can call it a “wacko fringe.” In a post from Saturday I quoted another blogger who had tied the term “wacko fringe” heavily to the charismatic movement. Well, here’s a truly wacko fringe group. So what’s their key problem? I think it’s an inability to prioritize doctrines and beliefs.

Most Christians will react with horror at their behavior, and justifiably so. Some will also be puzzled when opponents of Christianity respond by pointing out the Biblical texts against homosexual acts that are in scripture. But why should one be puzzled? We know that Christian groups have been taking small selections of texts for some time and creating groups that qualify for the “wacko fringe.” It is one of the hazards of not having the inquisition around. People can come up with their own doctrines.

Of course, depending on your perspective, it could be that the inquisition is the wacko fringe, though they were ostensibly in the service of orthodoxy and of the mainstream of their time. The point is that freedom to study for oneself and create doctrine also leaves open the door to bizarre doctrinal ideas and fringe groups.

Now I’m going to discuss a number of positions and views and suggest some potential for getting off center. I don’t intend to suggest that any of these positions are anywhere near equivalent to the Phelps group. In fact I’m going to include a couple of positions that I personally have held and had to modify as examples. I want to point out the potential danger, and suggest some antidotes.

Let me start with myself and a very simple example. I got married for the first time in my early 40s and acquired a complete family in one step, a wife, three step-children, and one other young person living with us at the time. Now I really like to think I’m non-judgmental, but with a military background and a rather punctual personality, I had a strong tendency to look down on people showing up late for church. If they had children they should just get up earlier and prepare more efficiently, and get those children to church on time!

It took the weekend after we returned from our honeymoon to make me repent of my judgmental attitude and realize just how unsympathetic I was. You know, even when they are older, having multiple people in the household makes it much harder to get everything done on time. That first Sunday we straggled into church over a 20 minute period, all of us late, including me. Now we got better at it later, but I learned a lesson with the first Sunday–it’s much easier said (and judged) than done!

It’s good to get to church on time, but it’s also good to exercise Christian charity to those who have more difficult circumstances. My single male viewpoint and uptight personality on the issue of punctuality made me put being on time to church way too close to the center of good spirituality. There’s a good scriptural point here to help correct this too. Punctuality may be a value, but not being a judge is also a value. Which one is expressed more precisely and repeatedly in scripture? Well, Jesus at least expressed it pretty clearly in Matthew 7:1, and as far as I can see he clean forgot to say, “Be on time for church!” So where should my priorities be?

Let’s stick with my own weaknesses for another paragraph or two. I used to be a very positive preacher and teacher, and I don’t mean by this that I was always upbeat. What I mean is that I preached a message for the successful and victorious. I was balanced enough to remind them that there would be hardships, but I tended to brush past these to the wonderful new heights each Christian would attain every day as he or she walked with Jesus. Now is there a place for teaching about overcoming and to talk about hope and victory? Of course there is! There is plenty of that in scripture.

But then I lived through a five year battle with cancer for our youngest son, which ended with his death. There was no quick solution, no sunlight just around the corner, no moving from victory to victory on a daily or weekly basis. There were lots of times when we had to struggle through and keep plowing forward even when it was hard to see the hope.

Before, I would push very quickly with folks I talked to and try to get them to feel hope right now, and push forward for the victory quickly. Then I learned something new about struggling and hardship. It wasn’t that I knew nothing of that before or that I never taught it. It was simply that I put my emphasis on living the mountaintop to mountaintop life. Now I think I have gained new balance.

A last story on myself comes from just last weekend. I was talking about dealing with very rigid views of scripture with my teacher, Dr. Alden Thompson. He knew me when I as an undergraduate Biblical languages student, approaching the edges of Biblical scholarship very carefully, lest I get burned. I made a snippy remark about someone, and he said, “Remember what you were like when you first came into my Hebrew class.” And he’s absolutely right. I have a tendency to be impatient with people who are slow to come to the same conclusions I do (incredibly obvious and wise ones, of course!).

In this case the lack of balance is that I sometimes do what I accuse theological conservatives of doing: I put doctrines above people. In John 9, we see Jesus and his disciples encountering a man born blind. The disciples are interested in a theological question–whose sin made him blind? Jesus was interested in healing the blind man. I need to watch my priorities and put people ahead of doctrines. (Of course, that dictum is itself a doctrine, but I think it’s a fairly valid one–validated by the actions of Jesus.)

I see a similar issue with the question of who can be saved. Do they have to understand a particular set of doctrines, a particular view of substitutionary atonement, or do they just put their trust in Jesus, according to their best understanding. Hanging on the cross, Jesus used a different priority than we often do today, offering hope on the simple request to remember the thief when he came to his kingdom (Luke 23:42-43).

A very little bit of imbalance can move us toward the fringe, and when one issue becomes our defining issue, unless it’s Jesus himself, it becomes very easy to head out for the “wacko fringe.”

Another illustration may help. Respecting the Bible is good. In this area there are many King James Version Only advocates. They respect the Bible, but only in one form, and so they disrespect it in all other forms. A book now has priority over all other doctrines and over people. One student of mine, a new Christian, was informed by one of these folks that he was not saved. Why? Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God, and the word of God comes only in the King James Version. The fault with his salvation? He had heard the gospel preached from the New King James Version. Skewed priorities led to the distant fringes.

So how do we avoid it? Well, I think Jesus provided us with a guideline when he said that all the law and the prophets hang on the two laws–love for God and love for our fellow human beings (Matthew 22:40). Now it’s not impossible to get off track even with that. For one thing, our definition of love can be skewed. But let me suggest looking up and down the line. As we get more detailed in our doctrinal pronouncements, ask ourselves if them fit the two laws. Can we hang them there? When we’re looking at love, does our definition fit the life of Jesus? Can we see our definition of love in the way God has acted in history? It’s a two-way test. (For my application to Bible study see Hanging Biblical Interpretation in which I express my hanging rule.)

In all of this we do need to express our beliefs. If those who seek balance do not speak, Christianity will be defined by whoever does speak. We are to be witnesses. We think of knocking on doors and bringing in conversions. But what about simply representing in our own small sphere who Jesus can be in our own lives? One of the blogs I read regularly is Allan Bevere. He wrote a post on preaching, starting a series, and his first principle of preaching was to preach to the audience that is there.

That relates closely to a principle I teach in Bible study–look first in the Bible for the things that apply to you, rather than to other people. Let God’s word correct you first in all cases. That should happen before you preach, teach, or share. Let it hit you and convict you! Then go talk to other people.

As a church, we could apply that very appropriately as well. Look for the things that correct your own action. How about heterosexuals spending more time looking at the sins they themselves are tempted to? Would that not provide a bit of balance, no matter what one’s conclusions were about homosexuality?

I’m simply suggesting that we try to put first things first, and that we each look for the first things that we ourselves need to hear. Other people’s sins will quite often take care of themselves much more effectively when we’re spending most of our time on the most important things!

Why I Hate the KJV

Why I Hate the KJV

It’s about time for one of my periodic posts on the King James Version, signaled by comments from a KJV-Only advocate to some earlier posts.

As is usual, the commenter does not interact with anything I say about this issue, but merely affirms the need for a solid foundation, provided in the KJV. In this case, the commenter tells me that the KJV has never been proven wrong. I can hear his question: How can you be so perverse as to fail to give homage to the Bible. To the KJV-Only advocate, Psalm 19:7 does not read “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul” but instead reads “The King James Version is perfect, converting the soul.” This particular commenter didn’t ask me why I hate the KJV, but that usually comes somewhere in the discussion.

Well, the answer is that I do not, in fact, hate the KJV. The title is tongue in cheek, though I wouldn’t be surprised to have it used as evidence of my hate. I also do not hate the Douai-Rheims version, the Geneva Bible, Wycliffe’s translation, or the Latin Vulgate. I just don’t recommend that you use any of those as your primary study Bible nor do I recommend you use them for scripture readings. Some exceptions can be allowed for those who are experts in the appropriate language. I consult all of those except Wycliffe on a fairly regular basis.

The KJV is simply one translation of the Bible. It is special because of the time, place, and circumstances of its translation. It is, perhaps, the single most important accomplishment of English Bible translation, though that would be debatable. Its translators worked out some quite good translation principles, and they worked with substantial literary skill. To one who has any feel for the language of that period it is truly a work of beauty. (I must, however, give a nod to the considerable subjective element in beauty. I find it beautiful.)

Having said that, it is also an historical artifact. It is no longer easily understood by modern audiences. Our knowledge of the Biblical languages has advanced. We have many new manuscripts available, and we also have more advanced tools with which to study them. As a choice to use as a study Bible today, or for Bible readings in church, or as a reading Bible, it is not good for the majority of readers. I would make an exception for that small group of people who have actually mastered that language.

The KJV-Only movement is thankfully getting smaller. It has the effect of turning people away from the Bible rather than toward it. It is largely a means of maintaining personal authority for pastors and teachers who have placed their dependence on a particular English version rather than either going to the original languages, or using multiple translations to help get perspective.

Again, I must make clear that I do not refer in the previous paragraph to people who prefer the KJV while respecting other translations, or to pastors who use the KJV in teaching a congregation where that was the preference. I question the wisdom of such a thing, but I do not call it dangerous. What I call dangerous is the teaching that the KJV is the one, true word of God.

I used to write about this frequently, but I don’t any more, fundamentally because I’ve run out of things to say, and I haven’t seen a new or interesting KJV-Only argument to which I can respond in some years. They just repeat the same thing over and over. I’m more interested now in getting people to move to newer versions that are suitable for outreach, such as the CEV, TNIV, or NCV amongst others.

But having gotten some comments I just had to blow off a bit of steam on the topic. I now return you to your regular programming.

ESV vs KJV (Better Bibles Blog)

ESV vs KJV (Better Bibles Blog)

Those following the ESV/KJV debate might be interested in this post by Suzanne McCarthy, explaining why she prefers the KJV as her literal translation. I don’t find the language of the KJV nearly as attractive as she does, but that’s a matter of taste in my view.

I always love to find the occasional comments by “anonymous”–clearly the same “anonymous” every time on Better Bibles–who has a love affair with pretending that subjective factors are actually objective beauty. Weird that . . .

ESV Endorsements

ESV Endorsements

I’ve written a considerable amount of negative stuff, not about the ESV itself, though I do have a few complaints, but about its supporters. Thus when a friend e-mailed me a new endorsement, I thought I’d take a look at why these endorsers regard the ESV so highly. The latest endorsement is ESV: the long-awaited Palmertree endorsement. The key thing about this endorsement is that, well, there is no key thing. It’s sort of an “I waited a long time and then got comfortable with it” kind of endorsement.

He does, however, cite three other endorsements: John Piper, Philip Ryken, and Mark Driscoll. I’ve dealt with Mark Driscoll’s comments before (more recently here), though he has revised the material a bit, but the bottom line is still the same. After reading the other two, I have to say that they have added little, so I’m not going to go over them point by point.

There are three elements in these endorsements of the ESV:

  1. Nostalgia
  2. Theological positions
  3. The allure of literal “accuracy”


Nostalgia was something that drove the KJV only movment for years. Now many people who might earlier have been sort of gentle KJV advocates are realizing they need some modern version, and the ESV has proven the least shocking option. I actually have little problem with someone using a Bible for reasons of nostalgia. If you understand the ESV, and you enjoy it, go ahead and use it. The same thing goes for the KJV.

Where I have a problem with nostalgia is in churches when its used for public reading and especially outreach. Too often church people regard something as obvious, clear, enjoyable, and downright cuddly and loveable, when most of the people who come through the door find it anything but. Consider your audience when choosing a Bible translation for use in the pews.

Theological Positions

First, I do not mean that one must not hold any theological positions, nor do I mean a position that holds the Bible to be inspired and accurate translation to be important. I have never run into anyone who doesn’t think the Bible should be translated accurately. Disagreements are about precisely what constitutes accuracy, and how one goes about achieving it.

What I mean here, however, is selecting a Bible based on how well your favorite texts support your favorite theological positions. If you have carefully examined the source languages, and tested how the English expression would be understood, and you then regard the expression used as the best expression of the meaning (pause for breath!)–then that’s fine. But that’s not what I see argued. People simply announce that the Bible in question, especially the ESV, supports their conclusion. How about some linguistic arguments, assuming you endorsers are capable of presenting them.

The Allure of Literal “Accuracy”

I put accuracy in quotes because I think this is the great failing of this entire school of Bible translating. It’s an example of the one ended telephone cord approach to meaning. In communication, there is no “accuracy” except in terms of what the receiver actually receives. You may think “propitiation” is a wonderful word, which accurately conveys the meaning of the Greek word hilasterion, but if the hearer hears “blablabla” instead, no meaning is accurately conveyed.

Of course, ESV advocates will announce that they can explain the word propitiation, and then the congregation will understand it. Well, so can the Bible translators, by translating hilasterion into something the readers understand in the first place. You complain that those using dynamic equivalence deny the readers the chance to decide for themselves. Well, all your process does is deny them the same choice by passing it on to their pastor, who has likely determined what “propitiation” means based on his church’s doctrinal statement.

Accurate translation has to convey meaning accurately from the source language to the reader or hearer in the receptor language. I repeat what has become nearly a mantra for me: There is no accuracy in a vacuum. It’s only accurate communication if the hearer accurately hears it.

Silliest KJV Only Argument?

Silliest KJV Only Argument?

A friend referred me to this page in which there are numerous really bad KJV only arguments–what other type are there?–but there was one I wanted to note in particular, because it is an argument that is often used in weaker form, but is here carried to its logical (and silly) conclusion.

First let me note that while the author of the article waxes enthusiastic on the semantic range of “epi” in Greek, he fails to discuss the semantic range of “in” and “on” in English, which, according to my Webster’s IIIrd International actually overlapped in Jacobean times. I didn’t make a particularly thorough study of that. Perhaps someone with an OED handy will comment. He should also have done further research on the semantic range of “charagma” though he probably didn’t because he really bases his conclusions on the following argument:

The modern Greek student is little more than a babe compared to these men who learned the language long before the dumbing down of education took its toll on today’s academy. They spoke the language, were able to write prose in it, and were entrenched in it. There are a few universities with classics departments like Bryn Mawr and Berkley in modern times that have standards of Greek scholarship that are truly outstanding, but few truly well-rounded students of the language are produced on the whole, and none on the level of the great scholars of the 17th century. . . .

The normal form of this argument goes like this: My expert is smarter than you, therefore my argument is true. I see this quite regularly. Some young earth creationist finds someone with a PhD who supports their argument and then asks me who am I to argue the Dr. X, PhD? For someone like me who is not a scientist, the simple answer is, “I see your PhD and raise you several hundred PhDs.” Or something like that. (I don’t play poker–don’t bother to correct the form!) More than one person can play the “expert” game. Quite often, one will find that the person citing the expert hasn’t even understood what the expert said.

In this case, however, we have taken a step further. Bible translators in the 17th century knew more Greek than anyone today, thus any translation they produce must be better than one produced by modern translators.

If this were a valid argument, all cases of disagreement would be settled by simply referencing the one person with the best credentials. Argument over. Of course, we don’t do that, because even the person with the best credentials can make mistakes. New people get their reputations by overturning the tried and true theories of previous generations of experts.

But even if the folks in the 17th century were head and shoulders above all modern academics in the area of Biblical languages, would that mean their translation was the best? Even if they conversed and wrote in Greek themselves (though Latin was more common), they did not converse in Koine Greek, and thus are no more native speakers of that language than I am. I do agree that there is a considerable problem with the education of pastors in Biblical languages. The increase in the number of people who are trained to some extent has resulted in a crowd of people who are supposedly expert enough to have an opinion, but who really know very little. I’ve often commented that when you hear the phrase “what the Greek/Hebrew here really means is . . .” you’re about to be misinformed. But none of that means that the 17th century scholars should be given the final word.

They also lacked a few things:

  • Freedom to follow their best scholarly judgment at all times.
  • Hundreds of manuscripts available to us.
  • Substantial vocabulary studies of a variety of Greek literature.
  • Evidence of the papyri and inscriptions that have given us significant new insights in the New Testament Greek vocabulary.
  • Wonderful tools for the study of a broad range of texts. Using software on my own computer and a few web sites I can do fairly extensive vocabulary studies. Truly covering a topic completely requires some additional resources, but the possibilities are quite substantial.

The idea that the 17th century had the final say on this subject is simply ludicrous. The translators of the KJV may have been excellent scholars, and I believe they were. They may have done the best they could with the resources at hand and the conditions under which they had to work. I believe they did so. But there were many things they simply could not know because they had not been discovered yet. They were so far from the time at which the source texts were written that they gained no benefit from proximity of time, as we might suppose the early church fathers had, but they also came before much of the textual evidence we have today had been discovered. The situation only becomes bleaker in terms of the Hebrew scriptures.

I’m not certain this is the silliest KJV only argument, but it certainly is an excellent candidate!

The Impossibility of Verbal Plenary Translation

The Impossibility of Verbal Plenary Translation

I have heard many good things about Mars Hill Church in Seattle, despite some theological disagreements (with whom do I not have such disagreements?) so I was disappointed to receive the following via e-mail from a friend: Theological reasons for why Mars Hill preaches out of the ESV.

This isn’t intended as an attack on the ESV. I put the slogan “the best Bible version is one you read.” If you find your Bible reading life lighting up when you read the ESV, then by all means use it for reading and study. If the carefully gender accurate language of such versions as the NRSV grates on your nerves, then by all means use it, but admit that it’s because of your language tastes, and not because of theology. If you’re reading the ESV because you think it is theologically more correct, or because it more accurately and clearly conveys the message of scripture to the populace in general, then I urge you to think again.

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Does KJV-Only Honor the KJV?

Does KJV-Only Honor the KJV?

One frequent accusation I hear because I prefer modern translations over the KJV for most purposes is that I hate the KJV. Presumably, the people who say such things think that they honor the KJV by means of their doctrine. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I believe that the KJV was probably the single greatest achievement in Bible translation. It provided a sold English Bible for use by the church. It was a Bible written in language that the people could understand. Its translators developed substantial ideas in translation theory which they expressed in their document, The Translators to the Reader. Amongst their accomplishments was the understanding that the same Greek or Hebrew word need not be translated by the same English word each time it appeared.

In addition, this group of men developed some of the basics of a committee produced translation and performed their job exceptionally well. They managed to eliminate much of the polemic from the notes, something that had been a major barrier to general acceptance of prior translations. They worked from the source languages throughout, though comparing existing translations and using the wording of the Bishops’ Bible wherever it expressed the thought of the original well.

Now the KJV-Only camp wants to deny their accomplishments in an attempt to continue the use of the translation they made at a time when it was not appropriate. While they searched for the best translation, KJV-Only advocates try to defend whatever they found ad-hoc. The KJV-Only camp has no theory of translation, no understanding of textual criticism, no understanding of linguistics, and no respect for the accomplishments of the translators.

The KJV translators used the best scholarship they had available. Scholarship has advanced since that time. We now have additional resources. A modern translator producing a translator using less than the best materials and scholarship available would be failing in his mission. He would be shirking his responsibility to the word of God. And yet this is precisely what the KJV-Only advocates want modern readers to do. They think to honor people who put out heart, soul, and mind in order to produce a wonderful new translation of the Bible to be satisfied with the old, to accept less than the best.

It does not honor good translators to use their work in the promotion of ignorance. It does not honor them to expect people to read a Bible version that is not in their common, everyday language. Their memory is not honored by stubborn ignorance.

I love the KJV, I just don’t recommend it to modern readers unless they are proficient in its language and anxious to read it either for its literary beauty or because they are familiar with it. I honor it as what it is–I don’t insult it by claiming it’s something it is not.

(For more information, see the pamphlet What about the KJV?.)

KJV Only: Anatomy of an Argument

KJV Only: Anatomy of an Argument

Recently I’ve talked a fair amount about using numbers as a means to dress up lies and make them look more respectable. I even discussed the issue in a Sunday School class I was invited to teach last Sunday, using the various ways in which grocery (or any) prices and sales can be stated and how those various ways can be used to deceive the consumer into buying something more expensive while thinking he’s getting a bargain.

(As an exercise, if you’re not sure you understand this idea, make a list of all the ways in which prices and specials on particular items are stated. Your list should include things like 1/2 off, 20% off, $x.xx off, 2 for the price of one, buy one/get one free, and so forth. Then think about how these numbers might be used to make the price of any particular item look better. The bottom line is that you have to bring all prices into relation to a single standard by calculating a price per unit, thus comparing the actual value you’re getting. You do have to be careful with the units used as well. I found myself comparing the price on two rolls of packing tape, one was $3.47 for 54 yards, and the other was $2.38 for 60 meters. You should be able to do that one on sight! Now consider that when people present statistical arguments to you, they have more ways even than the grocer does to make the numbers appear the way they want them to, all without actually telling a direct lie.)

It’s interesting that just as I’m writing about numbers, I get an e-mail in response to my Bible Translations FAQ that brilliantly illustrates precisely the type of misdirection and lying with numbers that I’ve been talking about.

The e-mail consisted of a text, badly abused, followed by a table of numbers, followed by a paragraph containing his challenge. I’m going to look at the last paragraph first. The correspondent identified himself simply only by his initials, so I’m going to call him C, for correspondent.

C states:

So, as you have so aptly put it in some of your responses to others, “Them’s just the facts”.

Well, no, them’s just the lies, as I will show below. Claiming something is a fact doesn’t make it one.

Let’s see you include this e-mail to your web site section on “KJV Bible Translations FAQ”;

I’ll include a link to this blog entry. How’s that?

if you truely don’t have a hatred for the KJV (as you’ve stated), then you would have no problem presenting the facts as they stand, without your commentary, and let the reader decide for themselves based on the factual evidence!

My rejection of your arguments has nothing to do with hating the KJV; it has to do with the fact that your “facts” are wrong, and your logic incorrect. You would, of course, like me to post your table without my commentary, because falsehood hates the light. You know that any commentary on your table will show it to have no evidentiary value whatsoever. The only hope you have for such arguments to work is that people who don’t know better will read it quickly and think the numbers and your assurance in presenting them is impressive in themselves. You absolutely can’t afford to have anyone think about your little number table.

I sure hope this e-mail contains enough “substance” worthy of your response!

Actually, your argument is simply a repetition of the argument I answered in my Bible Translations FAQ, #12, based on the majority of the manuscripts. The only reason I’m responding to it is because you provide such an excellent example of abuse of numbers in making an argument.

Concerned for the lost,

Bluntly, I doubt it. If you were concerned for the lost, you would likely be more interested in the gospel message and less interested in the support of a nearly 400 year old Bible translation that now more often than not stands in the way of people who want to understand the Bible. The KJV Only position is not a position that honors the word of God. It is not “Bible believing.” It is man serving in two ways: First, because it elevates the work of human beings–a translation–into the position of God’s actual word, and second because it serves primarily to support the positions of spiritual power of its advocates over others. It is destructive spiritually and intellectually.

Now, let’s look at the table:

The KJV Greek Text Attested by the Evidence

























Now let’s consider this chart briefly. I’m not going to deal with the actual numbers, though there appear to be some errors there. For example, it is quite doubtful that the editors of the Textus Receptus actually consulted 2143 lectionaries. But even if all of these numbers were correct, the chart as it is would convey a lie. Numbers require a context; they do not have independent meaning. In this case, the numbers are tabulated so as to suggest that many less manuscripts were used in producing the Westcott & Hort text than in producing the Textus Receptus (TR), and the TR is inturn equated to the KJV Greek text. In some way, not stated, this is supposed to convince us that the KJV text is correct.

No reference is given for these numbers, but one is quite easy to locate. A google search provides us with The Bible Believer’s Baptist web site has their Bible Tidbit #65: Westcott & Hort which is itself a disgusting ad hominem attack, contains such a chart, and they reference it to THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE BIBLE AND CHRISTIANITY without providing further information. This tactic is used by KJV Only advocates to make their arguments look more respectable–after all, the source is an encyclopedia. But a little more checking leads us to the encyclopedia web site, The Way of Life Encyclopedia of the Bible and Christianity. Here we discover of this “encyclopedia” that:

“It is the only Bible dictionary/encyclopedia that is written by a Fundamental Baptist and based strictly upon the King James Bible.”


It does not correct the Authorized Version of the Bible . . .

So it is a KJV Only advocates encyclopedia, giving them a respectable sounding reference for misinformation–and this chart is definitely misinformation.

Here are the issues with the context and presentation of these numbers:

  1. What does it mean to “use” a manuscript? We are told how many manuscripts were used by the editors of each text, but we are not told what is meant by this. I am not nitpicking here. As an undergraduate, I had to produce a critical text of a passage working solely from available manuscript photocopies and collations. I worked with about a dozen manuscripts, and based on my knowledge of family relationships and so forth was able to produce a reasonably accurate text, certainly better than the TR. Does “use” mean simply to have them around? Does it mean to examine each reading in each one? Do you “use” a manuscript when you reject its reading, or does only acceptance of a reading count as using? Clearly, we don’t know what these numbers represent. This in itself would render the chart useless as evidence. But there’s more.
  2. The TR is equated to the Greek text of the KJV. It would be easy to claim that the two are “close enough” because they are, indeed, very close. And yet we’re dealing here with KJV Only advocates, who believe that any deviation is too much. Thus the equation of the TR is deceptive.
  3. There is an implication that the TR is based on the majority of the manuscripts, and thus is equivalent to the majority text–a text based simply on counting manuscripts. But this too is false. The KJV includes the long text of 1 John 5:7-8, for example, which is definitely a minority reading, and is also definitely a significant variant, and yet a consistent majority text would have to exclude that passage.
  4. Why is the Westcott and Hort text being used in comparison at all? Westcott and Hort advanced knowledge of the Biblical text and were pioneers of modern textual criticism, and yet almost nobody actually uses their text any more. Go to any Christian bookstore, and you will not find any version produced within the last century that uses the Westcott and Hort text. Besides the simple fact that the text criticized is not the one used in preparing modern versions, this particular piece of misdirection prevents people from checking the numbers as easily. The United Bible Societies 4th edition, commonly used as a starting point by modern translators lists 69 lectionaries, for example. Anyone who understands the study of textual criticism will realize that 69 lectionaries is actually a substantial survey, provided these are chosen from different text groups.
  5. Finally, why is it that one should be concerned simply with the number of manuscripts? That is the implication of the chart. It suggests that modern versions are using a minority of manuscripts, and that this practice is bad. But the simple fact is that the more time that passes between the writing of the autograph and the creation of a copy, the more likely it is that manuscript generations have passed. This is not the only criterion in determining which is a better manuscript, but it is a very important one, and one which makes the entire chart completely ridiculous. Manuscripts are not equal, and because of the nature of manuscripts–they decay–the majority of manuscripts are relatively recent. We only have a few manuscripts from the first few centuries of Christian history

All this chart does is wrap the respectability of numbers around a much repeated lie. If you stop and examine the numbers, and consider what they actually mean, you will find that these “facts” do not convey what their author has dressed them up to convey. That is what you need to do with all deceptive numbers.