I used to use Bill Mounce’s introductory grammar in teaching Greek, and I appreciated his attention to linguistics, though I generally wanted more. (I’ve switched to Dave Black’s Learn to Read New Testament Greek for those rare occasions when I have the opportunity to teach Greek. I’m probably prejudiced as Dave is a friend and I publish the Spanish translation of that book, Aprenda a leer el Griego del Nuevo Testamento.)
In this case, however, the “ideal” translator is more “ideal” in the sense of being “not real.” No translator can convey everything. If a truly master translator, for example, conveys the precise emotional feel of a Psalm, he or she is very likely to obscure the history. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, does an outstanding job of getting the punch of a parable’s message, and the result is beautiful, almost ideal. Well, until you realize that you’re losing both the historical connection, and also in some ways the possibilities inherent in the story form itself. This is not a criticism of The Message. I love it. I like to read it. But by accomplishing some things, the translator of necessity fails to accomplish some others. Therein lies the value of multiple translations.
Therein also lies the value of sharing one’s thoughts. It is imagined that someone like me, who reads the text in the original language, has somehow truly attained and truly understands. But over and over, I read and translate a passage for myself, and then I read it in other translations and find enrichment because those translators chose different options than I did. Sometimes I’ll say, “No, I think my way is better,” while at others I might correct what I did. Sometimes I just find that the other ways of expressing the meaning round out my understanding, while I can’t really find a translation that conveys the whole.
I was given the title “liberal charismatic” (not as a compliment) because I believe that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are potentially in operation today and that God speaks to people now as much as he has at any time in history. On occasion, this makes for trouble, as people expect me to accept a variety of professed prophets as somehow authoritative due to the office they claim or that is claimed for them. In other word I believe in prophets and prophecy, but I do not consider any particular prophet authoritative as such.
Going further, I very much doubt that I would have considered any ancient prophet authoritative solely on the basis that the individual made such a claim or that the claim was made about them. I doubt that the prophets themselves would expect such obedience to them apart from discernment. Moses is regarded as the greatest of the prophets in Hebrew scripture, and the record shows him making errors and being aware that he had done so. As a Christian believer in the incarnation, I would have to make a partial exception for Jesus, bearing the divine imprint (Hebrews 1:1-4), yet even here, I would suggest that one with discernment would note the message and the life and then be convinced.
It is important here to distinguish inspiration from authority. Isaiah, for example, was an inspired person. This is my belief and the conclusion of the Jewish and Christian traditions. Further, both of those traditions have declared the book that bears his name authoritative. If we had lived in Isaiah’s time, however, while many of us would consider him inspired, we would find that his authority was much less accepted. I’m guessing, in fact, that Isaiah may have said many uninspired things in the course of his life, and many things that should not have been considered authoritative. He may well have said many things that were of divine origins that never made it into his book. If we found a fragment of a scroll the purported to contain sayings of Isaiah, and if these seemed, by the best scholarship available, to date back to Isaiah and to share literary characteristics with things we consider to come from Isaiah, would this fragment automatically have authority in the church? Absolutely not. We have canonized a book, not the theoretical potential output of a person, however inspired it may be. The homilies of St. John Chrysostom are quite inspiring, and perhaps inspired, yet they do not have the authority of scripture.
Many are uncomfortable with the canonization process because however one interprets the process, it is a process in the church that results in the canon. In other words, church authorities are responsible for the collection of materials we regard as authoritative. I think it is necessary that we consider this a Holy Spirit guided process (or even more that the church is a movement guided by the Spirit, to the extent we’ll follow!) or we do not have a good basis for faith. There are those who believe the books have certain identifiable characteristics, and there are certainly some similarities, yet debates about canonicity have resulted from the fact that it’s not quite that smooth and well-defined. (I recommend chapters II [Canon] and III [Authority: Influence and Acceptance] in Edward Vick, From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully [Energion Publications, 2011], pp. 17-72, for a detailed exposition of these ideas.)
In my own book When People Speak for God, I make the statement: “The last person, and the decisive person, to hear from God is you” (p. 4). I mean that very seriously, whether we’re dealing with the interpretation of scripture or hearing a word from one who claims to be a prophet, you need to hear, discern, distinguish, and act. I believe that anyone can hear from God. I consider this very scriptural, perhaps as scriptural as anything can be. It is demonstrated repeatedly in the text. We make the people who heard, such as Abraham, Samson’s mother, or Mary, very holy and so separate them. But when they heard from God, they were ordinary people carrying on rather ordinary lives. Anyone may be inspired. Authority results from discernment.
Let me refer you to a couple of tests for prophets in Deuteronomy. The one we hear most is from Deuteronomy 18:22, which is that if their word is not fulfilled, they are false. (Jonah would have fallen on this test, but that is for further discussion. See Jonah: When God Changes.) But there is another passage, Deuteronomy 13:1-3, which provides another test. There it says that if someone makes this claim, and even provides a sign which comes through, if they then tell you to worship other gods, they must not be obeyed.
As a final point on theory, there are those who consider that if a modern word contradicts the Bible it must be rejected, while if it is in accord with the Bible it is redundant. I would suggest that this presents a false (and possibly dangerous) dichotomy. Throughout the stories in scripture, God worked with and guided people, without ever giving an indication that this would change. In fact, I think the best reading suggests that God speaks a great deal and the limitation is more in the fact that we decide not to listen. When a spiritual movement is young and lively, people listen and generate ideas. Then comes structure. Structure is designed to limit and control this spirit. So the authorities tend to want to shut it down at the source. God is done speaking and he ended with the last book we want to see as authoritative. There is room for freedom, and there is some need for structure, but death follows allowing either of those needs to become absolute. Let there be authority, but let authority by challenged.
I wrote all of that to form the basis for the following. I listen to and apply discernment to any claim, whether the person claims to be a prophet or not. I have generally found in my experience that those who make no claim to speak for God, but just speak what they have learned in their own communion with God speak with much more authority and wisdom than those who make the claim. I think there is a great deal of indiscipline, lack of wisdom, and general confusion in much of the current prophetic movement in Christianity. I will only make specific charges if a person is part of a community of which I am a member, but for myself I work to discern what God is saying. Part of that process is listening myself.
The one way not to be manipulated is to be a student, a learner, a thinker, and to let the Spirit of Truth work. When that is said, don’t be arrogant. I could be wrong. You could be wrong. Being wrong isn’t the end of the world as long as you keep your mind, your hearing, and your discernment active.
One of the joys of being a publisher, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned a couple (hundred) times before, is the authors I get to work with. I have long considered our understanding of biblical inspiration and authority to be critical to discussions of Christian theology, polity, and ultimately our day to day life. Often we can at least get our bearings in serious debates by at least identifying the differences in how we are using the sources.
Because of my interest in this I wrote the book When People Speak for God, which is generally at a popular level. After I wrote that book, I encountered Dr. Vick through one of my other authors and received his manuscript for From Inspiration to Understanding. If his book had been written before, rather than after mine, it would have contained numerous footnotes referencing Dr. Vick’s work.
When we laid out From Inspiration to Understanding at Energion, we were using Scribus, which is actually an excellent page layout product, but is not quite the thing for an extended, thoroughly referenced book. The footnotes had to be laid out by hand, and were done as chapter end notes. This doesn’t convert well to electronic format, so there has been a considerable delay in getting the ebook editions out. But now they are complete.
The limited number of comments focus, as might be expected, on New Testament. In fact, it seems to me that most discussion of textual criticism tends to focus on the New Testament, and this sometimes leaves the wrong impression. For example, to a query about the reliability of the biblical text an apologist might respond with the number of manuscripts we have … of the New Testament. But what about Hebrew Scriptures?
If I were to answer the question posed (and if it’s not obvious, I’m not a practicing textual critic), I would have to say that when looking at a passage in the Greek New Testament I’m going to look at the external evidence first, and then the internal. This is for practical reasons. With the number of New Testament manuscripts, versions, and quotations available, one hopes to find the best reading somewhere in the external evidence. Internal evidence can help refine one’s choice, but in practical terms, most of the actual readings are likely to be contained in some manuscript somewhere.
I wouldn’t argue that all readings that ever existed are to be found in one of our extant manuscripts. There is a theoretical place for a conjecture. So I wouldn’t say that the external evidence places a fixed limit on where we can go with the internal evidence, but I would say that it sets a pretty fair boundary. I would require substantial evidence to go with a conjecture, and even then, it might be a conjecture about an original reading that would generate the external evidence as we have it. So it’s a line, but it’s a line in the sand. It can be moved. In my experience, however, it is rarely necessary to move it.
But when we turn to the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament, the situation is much different. The manuscripts we have come from a time much more removed from the composition of the texts involved, and there are less of them. I think the time between the composition of a text and the first extant manuscript receives too little attention in discussions, because the time before a text is established as sacred is when I suspect much of the variation will occur. It’s quite possible that there are a number of New Testament variations that we don’t consider simply because they are no longer represented in the manuscripts.
The shift to Old Testament textual criticism was rather interesting for me, as it seems to some extent that you travel to a different world. There are necessary differences because the nature of the external evidence is different. There are even more differences because there are more texts that are obscure. In reading commentaries, one might think that for OT texts lectiodificilior is turned on its head as one runs through possible readings, including conjectures until one finds a reading that “works.” Nobody is going to quite say it that way, but that is how it often feels. And, of course, lectio dificilior has its problems in that it’s quite possible that a difficult, yet translatable, reading could be introduced by error. So it’s not an absolute.
In the Hebrew scriptures we have more cases in which a passage is truly obscure. Nobody really knows how to translate or interpret. So you get a translation and footnotes. I had a professor in graduate school who absolutely hated the idea of conjectural emendation. He simply wouldn’t accept any. But he’d accept some very wild conjectures on how to translate the text that is actually there. He and I went a few rounds on what the difference was between arbitrarily conjecturing a text that you could then translate or arbitrarily choosing some English words you could say were a translation of the text. In either case, the meaning presented by your translation is a conjecture.
Conjectural emendation has a bad name, and there is a good reason for this. Critical commentaries on Old Testament books are often filled with conjectural reconstructions of the text that have very little basis in either an internal analysis of the text and transcriptional probabilities or in any external evidence. Often the emendations simply make the book fit some theory of composition, or better represent the theme that the commentator believes, for whatever reasons, must have been intended by the author or redactor.
Nonetheless, in theory, it is possible that a reading not contained in any manuscript could be the correct reading. The problem is always making a solid case that it is. Few conjectures have managed to gain the support of a strong consensus of scholars.
Does any of this make any difference to you and me as we try to study our Bibles? Well, yes and no. The problem, as I see it, is to acknowledge the value of textual criticism without believing one must get to that elusive “original text” in order to have good theology or be a good disciple.
I would suggest that it’s important to seek the best text of scripture simply because it’s important to seek out the best information we can on any subject. At the same time I don’t think we need to be concerned about variants, even substantial ones. We tend to take the biblical data in a selfish way, as though all the manuscripts exist in order to provide us with an accurate view of scripture. But each one of those manuscripts was (part of) someone’s Bible at some time and place. I can worry about whether the Hebrew text behind the Septuagint (LXX) is better or if the Masoretic Text is better, but early Christians lived and did theology with the LXX and the Reformation (not to mention Judaism) thrived on the MT. These aren’t just witnesses to which text I should use; they are Bibles, sacred texts, used by real people.
The much criticized Vulgate, abandoned by protestants in pursuit of the sources, was nonetheless the Bible for many people. So in modern times was the Living Bible, as flawed as I think it was as a translation.
If God desired the kind of precision that some of us seem to think is required of the biblical text, I think God would have taken a different approach. But instead of a clean process in which we can give absolute or near absolute answers to all questions about the text, we have a variety of materials produced in different ways. While we long for perfection, for the inerrant text, we don’t actually have it. The claim of inerrancy is made for the autographs, not for any text you have or are likely to have in your hands.
Which, incidentally, is why I have little use for the doctrine of inerrancy, one way or the other. And let me be clear that I do mean as expressed in the Chicago Statement. I just don’t care whether the autographs were inerrant or not. If God was happy to use an error-prone process of transmission, why must I conclude that he somehow protected the original manuscript.
Let me illustrate. Supposing that Ezekiel (my very most favorite prophet) is hearing from the Holy Spirit, and he slips and writes the wrong word on the page. It’s a mistake. The manuscript is now no longer inerrant. The autograph is flawed. Oops!
Now suppose instead that the first scribe to copy the book made the very same mistake, after which the original was destroyed. Now we have only one copy of the book of Ezekiel, and it has the very same error.
The first scenario is considered problematic. The second is OK. It’s a copyist’s error.
I disagree. God has chosen to provide God’s Word to us in written form with every evidence of human involvement all along the way. I find it amazing that the text has been preserved as well as it has been. I find it more amazing that it has been available, used, and defended by people in so many places and at so many times. Many of these people were defending texts that various modern scholars would call “corrupt.” They might have been preaching from a manuscript copied by a careless scribe. And yet preach they did! And they lived out their faith as they knew how.
It’s not just thousands of witnesses to the text. It’s thousands of Bibles used by many more thousands of people.
We ask the question of whether we can rely on the text. I think it’s the wrong question. The question is whether we can rely on God who, through the Holy Spirit, has been speaking since before anyone conceived of a Bible and who is ready to talk to us today. We’re not perfect. None of us. We don’t have perfect texts. None at all.
But we can work through the multitude of materials available to us and so communicate not only with God, but with the community of faith that God has established. It’s a community that extends across time as well as space. It’s made up of people who were never perfect but always trying and hoping.
Now don’t let the fact that we can’t get 100% of the original, perfect text keep you from getting as much of it as you can. And don’t let the fact that you can’t really know all there is to know about God keep you from trying to get to know God better.
I think that God has set this up so that in trying to know God better (vertically?) we also need to get to know and appreciate one another (horizontally). It is in community that we come to know.
Or better, it is in community that we keep on the journey toward knowing.
I’ve discussed this before, and discussed it both in my books When People Speak for God and Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic. I was asked after my Sunday School lesson last Sunday whether Zephaniah’s prophecy in 3:1-8 applied to America.
Let me annoy everyone: No and Yes.
There is pretty much nothing in the Bible that’s addressed to you. One could argue such passages as John 3:16, which are talk about the world in a way that probably encompasses all time. But in general, the words of the Bible are addressed to specific people at specific times. They are also spoken by specific people, but that’s a bit beyond this post.
I start this with the Ten Commandments. They were not written to you. We often treat them as the most universally applicable part of scripture there is, though we don’t actually keep them as Christians. As someone who grew up Seventh-day Adventist, I’m unusually aware of the Sabbath command. We Christians don’t even start to keep it, yet we pretend the Ten Commandments are central.
And we’re right not to keep them literally and specifically because we can read right at the start that they were addressed to a particular group of people at a particular time, and that group was not us, nor was that time now.
Nonetheless, if we consider the Bible in some sense inspired, we will see divine principles going into action in the life of the people of Israel. Those divine principles will be relevant, and will likely make those Ten Commandments applicable again—in principle. It’s interesting that while we claim to keep the Ten Commandments, and fail to do so literally, we also seem to miss out on the principles, such as not portraying God with any images. There’s an important principle behind that command, yet we create both mental and physical images of God that are both limiting and indestructible. God, for us, is in a box.
And that fourth commandment isn’t irrelevant. Time belongs to God because he’s the creator. In my view, God doesn’t claim less time, but rather more. How do we honor God with our time and recognize him as creator with each minute?
But further, the Bible was not written to people with our philosophical and scientific views. Our options for how to think about things have changed. So if we’re going to find the principles, we’re going to have to see through the cosmology and the metaphors and translate them to our time and place.
Why couldn’t God speak directly to us and make it clearer in our terms? I would suggest several things: 1) God does speak to us today if we’ll listen, 2) It’s important to realize that God has spoken at many times and in many ways (Heb. 1:1), 3) It’s important to become part of the faith community over time as well as across space and culture, 4) The search for God may well be more valuable than finding God.
I think that if we truly treated the Bible as the treasure it is, as the combined experience of a community of faith over time, it would help us understand how to be God’s community today. Understanding metaphors that are foreign to each of us personally can help us bridge the gaps that must be bridged every day in order to live as God’s people doing God’s work in God’s world.
God has spoken. God is speaking. God will speak some more.
I ran across this while looking for something else. Dr. Alden Thompson was the author of the first book sold by Energion Publications, though it was published before I bought and renamed the company. We’ve now published a 5th edition, and this is overall our best selling book.
In this presentation Alden using a number of Adventist specific references, but I think the message comes through. There are a variety of responses to the violence in the Old Testament. One of the keys to Alden’s approach is his insistence that it is all inspired, even the parts we don’t like very much, and he makes that claim in the video. Alden’s teaching at Walla Walla University was quite formative of my theology and I still enjoy working with him. We’ll be releasing a second edition of his book Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers later this year, as the publisher of the first edition allowed it to go out of print.
The Battle for the Bible by Steve Kindle
No, not the battle of Harold Lindsell. Well, yes, sort of. This essay and the two that follow it discuss why we differ widely on what we believe scripture teaches.
Books referenced tonight or at other times in the series:
Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide by Edward W. H. Vick
This is the primary guide for this initial portion of my study. I am using it to help us look at definitions and map out the territory before we go into verse by verse studies of various passages.
From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully by Edward W. H. Vick
This is the more serious, 355 page discussion of inspiration. If you’re serious about studying what inspiration and authority are and looking at what those definitions mean for how we read the Bible, take the time to read this. I obviously also like my own book When People Speak for God, but if it had been published after From Inspiration to Understanding instead of before, it would have had dozens of footnotes to it.
History and Christian Faith by Edward W. H. Vick
“God acting in history” is a phrase that evokes many questions of definition. This little book will help you explore that idea and how it reflects in many areas.
The Adventists’ Dilemma by Edward W. H. Vick
What does it mean to say that Jesus is coming soon, if anything? This book examines the idea of a literal return of Jesus “soon” in a detailed way.
Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God by Bruce Epperly
Process theology placed on a lower shelf. Bruce Epperly doesn’t shy away from application, but talks about how we should live with a God who is directly involved and impacted by the world.
I think I titled the next chapter in my book When People Speak for God rather pretentiously: Authority and Truth. That’s what we’ll be discussing today in my Sunday School class.
As I was reading the chapter, I came across the following, which ties into several things I’m thinking about these days:
There is, however, a deeper claim that’s involved in both the virgin birth and the resurrection. These doctrines state that God is fundamentally interested in communion with human beings. In the virgin birth we have the statement that God is prepared to share our form and our condition and to become a part of that history. In the crucifixion, God says that he is prepared to carry that sharing all the way, to experience death. In the resurrection, he states that despite his willingness to share it, he’s above it, and thus able not just to communicate with us, but to redeem us.… (pp. 135-136)
I call my view of inspiration incarnational, because I see God’s Word, however it is expressed when it is communicated with human beings, as a form of incarnation. The problem with this is that I think the orthodox doctrine of the incarnation is not well understood. (There is, of course, the sense it which it will never be well understood and will always be a mystery!) But the way people often hear the term “incarnational” in connection with inspiration is as a claim that the Bible is a mixture of divine and human. When I call scripture incarnational, I do not mean a mixture. I mean that it is all divine and all human. We can sense aspects of divine and aspects of human, just as we can with Jesus the man, but we cannot divide.
Inspiration is all-the-way incarnation as well. God’s power is contained in the finite form. What we need is ears to hear and eyes to see.
I’ll have more to say about this over the next few days.
Speaking for God: Inspiration, Authority, and Interpretation
In about a half an hour I will be leaving for church where I will teach a small Sunday School class. The class has chosen to go through my book When People Speak for God (wow!). I start my discussion in this book by looking at the human factor and the divine factor. It is not enough to claim that God has spoken. We also have to understand what it is that God has said.
This came up in a helpful e-mail exchange with a friend this week, in which I discussed certain views of certain Bible passages and whether these would be consistent with inerrancy. The discussion led me to wonder if I was ignoring the human factor in looking at others. The human factor is most directly involved in our interpretation. I don’t accept the term “biblical inerrancy” as it applies to me. What I do believe is that if we discern the message God has for us, that message is true, and we should act on it. I think it should be our goal to discern this message correctly. A true message ignored is of no value. A true message wrongly understood can be dangerous. We never get away from the need to apply our minds.
As I reread my own material, however, I was reminded of another distinction: inspiration and authority. Just because something is inspired doesn’t mean it’s necessarily authoritative for any particular person, congregation, or for the whole church. I may hear the voice of God leading me to some action. My hearing does not obligate others. This idea could be helpful for those who believe in the continuation of the gift of prophecy in the church. I’ve been asked how words received by a modern prophet relate to the Bible. Ignoring the issue of whether the modern speaker is, in fact, speaking for God, his or her words would only have authority of so discerned and accepted by the broader body, i.e. if they became part of the canon of scripture for the whole church.
I do not mean that the church would make the words authoritative. Rather, the church would recognize that the words were authoritative, and the authority would become active in that way. “Inspired” does not mean “authoritative,” and “authoritative” in one place does not mean authoritative in another place or everywhere.
I’m going to add an extract here that fleshes out some of the difference between inspiration and authority. I’m not saying precisely the same thing, but I am influence by this text. (The author is Edward W. H. Vick, and I publish the book, From Inspiration to Understanding.)
(8) A further category mistake is to relate the notion of the authority of the Bible to the process whereby the books came to be written. The writer was inspired. So the writing has authority. No! These words do not have authority because, in some manner, they issued out of a process of inspiration. They may have done so. That is a problem to be settled on the basis of appeal to the available evidence. But if they did they do not have authority because they did. They have authority because they are relevant, living words, because something happens of importance when they are read and interpreted. The event of revelation happens. These words provide the means. They are the vehicle of that happening. These words are caught up in the dynamic of God’s revelation. This means that inspiration is a less adequate and less important concept than revelation.
Since they are not the only writings to function in this way, they are unique in that they are the only words which have a unique historical connection with the original Christ-event, with the coming of Christian faith into the world. They are for this reason primary. They are the words which have in the history of the church proved to be the means for God’s continuing revelation of himself. The church asserts the historical givenness of these and not other words. It also asserts the contemporaneity of the revelation of God these words mediate. ‘The Spirit breathes upon the word and brings the truth to sight.’ God revealed himself. God reveals himself.
(Vick, From Inspiration to Understanding, p. 81)
I think I place more emphasis on the recognition of the words by the church and less on their functioning. This is because I believe all inspired words will function, in their proper sphere, in similar ways. The question is whether a particular text was meant for the Church, a church, a small group, or a person, and whether it was meant for a moment in time or to have broader application.
So I’m distinguishing inspiration, authority, and interpretation/application (hermeneutics). How important is the distinction?
Many teachers and preachers speak with great authority and then say, “This is not me speaking. I’m only telling you what the Bible says.” But that assertion is always dangerous. When we apply the Bible to any particular situation we are interpreting. This is another case when one’s words can seem very pious, but actually border on sacrilege. What could be more pious than simply speaking God’s words and never adding anything of your own to them? But there is the problem. You and I are not capable of speaking “just what the Bible says.” There is always something of our own thinking and interpretation in what we have to say.
The honest thing to do is to admit that what we say is our interpretation, and leave the accuracy of our interpretation open to discussion and discernment. At the same time, no matter how
forcefully someone says that what they say is simply God’s truth, whether they claim that they got it by hearing directly or by reading and interpreting sacred documents, discernment is always up to the individual hearer.
A word of prophecy must be tested. An interpretation of scripture must be tested. Everything must be tested using the intelligence God gives you and the wisdom he promises (James 1:5).