What Kind of Dictionary is THAT? (part 1)

Until recently, whenever I have read Romans 14 and reached verse 23, I have tended to stop and think, “That verse doesn’t sound like it fits here.” In particular, I am talking about the phrase “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (KJV).

The problem, I’ve decided, is the ever-present problem of assumptions. When I read the word “faith” in the New Testament, I often either think of “saving faith” or “the faith” (as in the orthodox Christian belief system). But there is a problem with that, and it's a common problem I would think. It is a problem that needs to be addressed. That is, we very narrowly assume certain words always mean certain things. We sometimes narrow the meaning of words unnecessarily. We come to the Bible with a twenty-first-century theological mental dictionary (that’s a mouthful, I know). Truth is, when first-century Greek speakers heard the New Testament, they did not bring a theological dictionary along, but a secular one—the one they used everyday in the markets and workplaces.

I’ll come back to Romans 14:23 in part 2. For now, let’s look at a few other examples of this.

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When Greek-speaking people heard the word “baptizo,” they didn’t think immediately of “a religious water ceremony.” They thought of “an envelopment or immersion.” You could “baptizo” your hands into a washbasin. You could be “baptizo-ed” (swallowed up) by death—which is one way they really did use the word. You could be “baptizo-ed” into a culture. You could “baptizo” a spoon into a dish of Jell-O. It was a regular word—one that they could, in turn, use in a theological context if they wanted. So, when they heard the word, it didn’t always refer to the same event, only the same type of event. The context and the intention of the speaker indicated what they understood the word to mean in each occurrence. So, when they heard that John “baptizo-ed” people in the Jordan River, they knew basically what that meant (even if they didn't yet understand the religious significance) before anyone gave them a Strong’s Concordance, a Life Application Study Bible, or a Sunday School lesson on flannelgraph.

The same goes for many other terms. “To save” is an example.

  • And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, 'Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.' (Acts 11:13-14 ESV)
  • By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. (Hebrews 11:7)

Does the writer of Hebrews mean to tell us that Noah was able to barter with God for the eternal salvation of his family by consenting to accomplish this construction project for Him? No. But it sure sounds like it if you assume “to save” always means “to save spiritually.”

“To justify” is another example. Just as we use the term today, Greek speakers sometimes meant “to make righteous” and other times meant “to show to be righteous.” That really is a big difference, and the context is the clue.

Read the following three passages very carefully:

  • What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.... Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 4:1-5, 5:1-2)
  • Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? (James 2:21-25)
  • We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:15-16)

Remember that Sesame Street song: “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn't belong. Can you tell which thing is not like the others by the time I finish my song?”

What’s the problem with these three verses? If you read those chapters in assumption-mode, one of them seems to contradict the others. Certainly this is not true. So, what is the problem? There isn't one. Two different writers are trying to make two different points, using similar terminology but meaning different things by them. Just because I use a term in one way doesn’t mean that my friend who believes just as I do necessarily uses the term in the exact sense. Read Romans 4. Paul leaves no room for justification by works at all. Read Galatians 2. Paul again leaves no room for it. Read James 2. Read it like you’ve never heard the term “to justify” used in any theological sense.

What do you suppose I would mean if I were to say, “Quit justifying yourself!” In a normal conversation you would never assume I’m telling you to quit trying to make yourself innocent! You would assume I’m telling you to quit trying to prove that you are already innocent. When you are justified in a court of law, the judge weighs the evidence and declares that you were innocent the entire time.

Greek scholar A.T. Robertson, commenting on James 2:24 concurs: “Present passive indicative of dikaioō, here not ‘is made righteous,’ but ‘is shown to be righteous.’ James is discussing the proof of faith, not the initial act of being set right with God.”

This is why Paul can say “a person is not justified by works” and James can say “a person is justified by works” and they both be right. These two phrases sound contradictory when we cut them out of their books and paste them next to each other, but they’re not meant to be treated that way. It's like quoting "he said, 'I love pintos'" and "he told them, 'I can't stand pintos,'" when not only is one quoted from a book on the life of George Washington (the president) and the other from a book on the life of George Washington Carver (the botanist), but "pintos" is referring to a breed of horse in the first quote and a kind of bean in the second. Paul and James are not even talking about the same thing. They didn’t hold a conference to discuss which words they would use for what purposes . They aren’t coauthoring a book or even writing to the same group of believers. Paul and James are trying to make two very different points with everyday words. Their vocabularies overlap, but their usages do not. Paul is trying to explain how a person is made righteous in the first place (by grace through faith). James is trying to explain how a person is shown to be righteous in daily life (by obedience out of faith).

But more than that, remember that the word “faith” is also used in different ways in the New Testament? When Paul says “a person is... justified by faith in Christ” and James says “a person is justified... not by faith alone,” they are not using the term “faith” synonymously either. Paul is talking about “saving faith”—genuine, complete, and humble trust in Christ. James is talking about mere “belief”—intellectual assent. The Believer’s Bible Commentary remarks, “Faith apart from works is head belief, and therefore dead belief” (italics mine).

We can get ourselves in trouble when we approach the Bible like it’s not written by—get this—forty different authors... in sixty-six different books... with their own purposes... and messages... in multiple genres... and various literary styles... over the span of more than 1,500 years. And we can get ourselves in trouble when we approach the Bible assuming certain too-rigid terminologies. There is no substitute for the application of logical Bible study methods.

Part 2 will finish up this article by explaining Romans 14:23 and questioning a popular interpretation. What was John Piper thinking? All this and more after the commercial break.

Posted on Tuesday, January 08, 2008 by David Gregg | 0 comments | Links to this post
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My 13 Favorite Translations

I have to confess that I love the insights the use of different translations can offer to a student of the Bible. All good translations offer their own strengths to the English-reading world. Some translations make reading the Bible easier. Some translations make studying the Bible easier. Some are better at helping you understand the meaning of individual words, while others are better at helping you understand the meaning of paragraphs. Some have unique features that help you understand grammar or definitions. Some offer a unique perspective from the translator(s). Some are more traditional and familiar in the way they translate passages, while others are willing to diverge from traditional renderings occasionally to present insightful perspectives on perhaps-confusing passages.

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Below is a list of my favorite translations and a brief description of why I think they are handy for "training in righteousness." (in random order):

      Analytical-Literal Translation (ALT)

attention to word-for-word literalness; Majority Text base; in-text notes for clarification, alternate translations, and figurative expressions (which are frequently insightful); in-text elements to denote the plural "you" (asterix), the strong "but" (underline), emphasized pronouns (underline); individual translator (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); evangelical translator.

      Complete Apostles' Bible (CAB)

attention to word-for-word literalness; Majority Text base; Septuagint base; individual translator (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); evangelical translator.

      King James Version (KJV)

attention to word-for-word literalness; Received Text base; useful grammatical clues (such as "ye" and "you" to show plurality, rather than "thee" and "thou" to show singularity, and "will" to show future intention or conditionality, rather than "shall" to show future certainty or obligation); beauty; committee translation (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); familiarity; tradition; reliable.

      Wuest's Expanded Translation of the Greek New Testament(WET)

attention to word-by-word explanation; verbose; accompanied by excellent translational and exegetical commentary; frequently insightful; individual translator (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); scholarly evangelical translator; paragraph formatting.

      Today's New International Version (TNIV)

healthy balance between word-for-word literalness and thought-for-thought literalness; not quite as bound to popular renderings because of tradition as most popular translations; frequently insightful; literal treatment of Greek neuters; case-by-case treatment of gender neutrality; very natural reading for contemporary vernacular; committee translation (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); evangelical; reliable.

      Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)

healthy balance between word-for-word literalness and thought-for-thought literalness; frequently insightful; not quite as bound to popular renderings because of tradition as most popular translations; individual original translator; committee review and revision; evangelical; reliable.

      Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)

healthy balance between word-for-word literalness and thought-for-thought literalness; frequently insightful; not bound to popular renderings because of tradition; some terms presented as Hebraisms; Old Testament especially dynamic; unique Messianic Jewish perspective; accompanied by translational, exegetical, and historical commentary Hebraic, rather than Englishized names; Jewish feel; individual translator (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); evangelical translator.

      English Standard Version (ESV)

word-for-word literalness without becoming wooden; familiar feel due to traditional renderings and style; trusted history (from Tyndale's Bible and the Great Bible, to the KJV; then the RV, the ASV, the RSV, and to the ESV now) of committee review and revision; evangelical; reliable.

      New Living Translation Second Edition (NLTse)

attention to thought-for-thought literalness without becoming paraphrastic; frequently insightful; very natural reading for contemporary vernacular; reliable.

      J.B. Philipps' New Testament in Modern English (JBP)

paraphrastic; frequently insightful; unique renderings; individual translator (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); often refreshing reading; paragraph formatting.

      Richmond Lattimore's New Testament (RLNT)

attention to the literary style of each book; individual translation (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); unique translational approach, accentuating the writing styles of the various New Testament writers (when Mark writes, you can really tell it's Mark; when Peter writes, you can really tell it's Peter—the translation doesn't read like it was written by the same guy from book to book); unique perspective—a secular Greek expert and literary scholar without an agenda or a theological axe to grind; paragraph formatting;

      New English Translation (NET)

healthy balance between word-for-word literalness and thought-for-thought literalness; committee translation (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); reliability due to unprecedented accountability in translation; accompanied by copious, lengthy translational commentary and textual notes; evangelical; reliable.

      International Standard Version (ISV)

healthy balance between word-for-word literalness and thought-for-thought literalness; committee translation (can be either a benefit or a drawback, depending on the passage or word); attention to literary elements, style, and genre; evangelical; reliable.

DEVOTIONAL READING

My favorite translations for devotional reading:

  • TNIV — especially when my College Devotional Bible is handy. It contains lots of stirring personal testimonies and real life stories for illustration and application. That aside, the TNIV is currently my favorite translation for devotional reading. The TNIV reads so naturally and comfortably to me that my brain sighs with surprise whenever I read at length. (This is the best way I have discovered to express the feeling.) I find myself understanding more of what I'm reading with much less mental effort. In technical terms, I suffer from significantly less cognitive dissonance when I read the TNIV. The fact that I can't stand the NIV, but love the TNIV goes to show that the latter is much more than just an edition of the NIV.
  • NLTse — for the same reasons as for the TNIV. There are particular portions of Scripture in which the NLT is much more enjoyable to read devotionally. I often find myself going to the NLT when I need something explained a little more.
  • HCSB — especially when reading through a New Testament book. I like the introductions in my Holman Student Bible. Plus, the HCSB often gets things right where other translations drop the ball, and it is often fun to read it to see this happen, especially in passages that are more familiar to you in other translations than the HCSB. I also can't deny my bias, that it gives me some assurance to know that the proprietors of the translation committee (the Southern Baptist Convention and Broadman & Holman Publishers) were solidly evangelical and Baptist, even though only a third of the translators were.
  • JBP — on a case-by-case basis in the NT. Frequently, just plain fun and insightful to read. Other times, I don't like the way ol' J.B. renders some passages, but that's the nature of a paraphrase anyway.
  • CJB — on a case-by-case basis in the OT. Stern makes the Old Testament cool again just by bringing out that wonderful Jewish perspective which is so needed in English translations. And let's face it: it just doesn't make sense that Greek minds like ours can convey the Hebrew sense as well as a scholarly Hebrew mind can. The Bible is a Jewish book for all ethnicities. So, it's logical for all ethnicities to get a Jewish read on a Jewish book.

FINAL THOUGHT

The saying is true: The best translation is the one you'll read. So, even if you aren't a translation junkie like me, pick up a Bible, read it, believe it, and you'll be the better for it, because "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right." ... "The scriptures are the comprehensive equipment of the man of God and fit him fully for all branches of his work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NLT and JBP respectively).

Posted on Friday, January 04, 2008 by David Gregg | 0 comments | Links to this post
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Favorite Deviants