See my latest blog at CSNTM on Biblical Manuscripts and their Commentaries.
Huge news, friends! CSNTM just signed a contract with the National Library of Greece in Athens to shoot all their New Testament manuscripts. You can see the press release at http://www.csntm.org. This will involve shooting about 300 manuscripts (150,000 pages!) in 2015 and 2016. If you’d like to partner with CSNTM in preserving these ancient Christian scriptures, you can go here to make a donation.
Every year, at Christmas and Easter, several major magazines, television programs, news agencies, and publishing houses love to rattle the faith of Christians by proclaiming loudly and obnoxiously that there are contradictions in the Bible, that Jesus was not conceived by a virgin, that he did not rise from the dead, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. The day before Christmas eve (23 December 2014), Newsweek published a lengthy article by Kurt Eichenwald entitled, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” Although the author claims that he is not promoting any particular theology, this wears thin. Eichenwald makes so many outrageous claims, based on a rather slender list of named scholars (three, to be exact), that one has to wonder how this ever passed any editorial review.
My PDF of this article runs 34 pages (!) before the hundreds of comments that are appended. Consequently, I don’t have space to critique everything that is wrong in this article. Just a few comments will have to suffice. But first, I wish to offer it some praise: It’s fair game to raise questions about the Bible’s accuracy concerning sin, salvation, miracles, Jesus, etc. It’s fair game precisely because the Bible makes audacious claims that, if true, change everything. And it’s fair game because the Bible places these claims in history. Indeed, the Bible is the only major sacred text that subjects itself to historical verification. It’s the only major sacred text that puts itself at risk. And Jesus is at the center of those claims and that risk. It’s not the questions that I’m concerned about in Eichenwald’s essay; rather, it’s the rather conservative and self-contradictory approach to the answers that are problematic. Conservative? Yes—methodologically so, although not materially so. That is, Eichenwald is not methodoligically a liberal because he only considers certain, worn-out conclusions without even giving a hint that many well-qualified biblical scholars disagree with those conclusions. Martin Hengel, that towering figure of German biblical scholarship, wrote about the parallel dangers from “an uncritical, sterile apologetic fundamentalism” and “from no less sterile ‘critical ignorance’” on the part of radical liberalism (Studies in Early Christology  57–58). At bottom, the approaches are the same; the only differences are the presuppositions. A true liberal is one who is open to all the evidence, including the possibility that God has invaded space-time history in the person of Jesus Christ. A true liberal is one who is willing to go where the evidence leads, even if it contradicts his or her cherished beliefs.
Error 1: Gross Exaggerations that Misrepresent the Data
I will address just one issue here—the notion that the original Bible is unknowable. Eichenwald claims:
“No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.”
So, none of us today has read anything except a bad translation that has been altered hundreds of times before it got to us? Although Eichenwald enlists Bart Ehrman as one of the three scholars he names in the essay, he has seriously overstated Ehrman’s argument. At one point, it is true, Ehrman says in Misquoting Jesus, “Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals.” Here he is speaking of Greek copies of Greek manuscripts. Nothing is said about translations. At many points he admits that the vast majority of the changes to the text of the New Testament were rather minor over the many centuries of handwritten copying. And in the appendix to the paperback edition of his book Ehrman says, “Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.” But Eichenwald makes it sound as though all translations current today are bad and that we can’t possibly recover the wording of the original text. The reality is that we are getting closer and closer to the text of the original New Testament as more and more manuscripts are being discovered and catalogued.
But let’s examine a bit more the actual statement that Eichenwald makes. We are all reading “at best,” he declares, a “bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.” This is rhetorical flair run amok so badly that it gives hyperbole a bad name. A “translation of translations of translations” would mean, at a minimum, that we are dealing with a translation that is at least three languages removed from the original. But the first translation is at best a translation of a fourth generation copy in the original language. Now, I’m ignoring completely his last line—“and on and on, hundreds of times”—a line that is completely devoid of any resemblance to reality. Is it really true that we only have access to third generation translations from fourth generation Greek manuscripts? Hardly.
Although we know of some translations, especially the later ones, that were based on translations in other languages of the Greek text (thus, a translation of a translation of the Greek), this is not at all what scholars utilize today to duplicate as faithfully as possible the original wording. No, we have Greek manuscripts—thousands of them, some reaching as far back as the second century. And we have very ancient translations directly from the Greek that give us a good sense of the Greek text that would have been available in those regions where that early version was used. These include Latin, Syriac, and Coptic especially. Altogether, we have at least 20,000 handwritten manuscripts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic and other ancient languages that help us to determine the wording of the original. Almost 6000 of these manuscripts are in Greek alone. And we have more than one million quotations of the New Testament by church fathers. There is absolutely nothing in the Greco-Roman world that comes even remotely close to this wealth of data. The New Testament has more manuscripts that are within a century or two of the original than anything else from the Greco-Roman world too. If we have to be skeptical about what the original New Testament said, that skepticism, on average, should be multiplied one thousand times for other Greco-Roman literature.
What of the differences among these witnesses? To be sure, there are more variants for the New Testament than for any other piece of ancient literature, but that’s because there are more manuscripts for the New Testament than for any other piece of ancient literature. Consider the King James Version compared to virtually any modern New Testament translation: There are about 5000 differences in the underlying Greek text between these two. The vast majority of the differences cannot even be translated. The KJV is based on significantly later manuscripts, yet not a single cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith is affected by the different variants.
The title of Eichenwald’s section that deals with manuscript transmission is “Playing Telephone with the Word of God.” The implication is that the transmission of the Bible is very much like the telephone game—a parlor game every American knows. It involves a brief narrative that someone whispers to the next person in line who then whispers this to the next person, and so on for several people. Then, the last person recites out loud what he or she heard and everyone has a good laugh for how garbled the story got. But the transmission of scripture is not at all like the telephone game. First, the goal of the telephone game is to see how badly the story can get misrepresented, while the goal of New Testament copying was by and large to produce very careful, accurate copies of the original. Second, in the telephone game there is only one line of transmission, while with the New Testament there are multiple lines of transmission. Third, one is oral, recited once in another’s ear, while the other is written, copied by a faithful scribe who then would check his or her work or have someone else do it. Fourth, in the telephone game only the wording of the last person in the line can be checked, while for the New Testament textual critics have access to many of the earlier texts, some going back very close to the time of the autographs. Fifth, even the ancient scribes had access to earlier texts, and would often check their work against a manuscript that was many generations older than their immediate ancestor. The average papyrus manuscript would last for a century or more. Thus, even a late second-century scribe could have potentially examined the original document he or she was copying. If telephone were played the way New Testament transmission occurred, it would make for a ridiculously boring parlor game!
One of the most remarkable pieces of illogical reasoning in Eichenwald’s essay is his discussion of corruption in the manuscripts. Every single instance he raises presupposes that he knows what the original text said, for he speaks about what text had been corrupted in each instance! And more than once he contradicts his opening gambit by speaking authoritatively about what the original text actually said. In short, Eichenwald’s opening paragraph takes exaggeration to new heights. If his goal is to shame conservative Christians for holding views that have no basis in reality, perhaps he should take some time to look in the mirror.
Error 2: Disingenuous Claims of Objectivity
At one point in Eichenwald’s diatribe, he makes the astounding claim that “None of this is meant to demean the Bible, but all of it is fact. Christians angered by these facts should be angry with the Bible, not the messenger.” One of the problems with modern theological liberalism is that so much of it assumes objectivity on the part of the advocates, while equally insisting that conservatives have untenable interpretations. What is so disingenuous about this is that such liberalism often creates straw-man arguments that conservatives allegedly hold, while refraining from serious interaction with the best of conservative thinkers. Further, the lack of nuance in dozens of Eichenwald’s statements unmasks his complete lack of objectivity.
Here are some of the “facts” that the author puts forth, with a correction that follows:
(1) “About 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament.” —The oldest complete New Testament that exists today is Codex Sinaiticus, written about AD 350. The New Testament was composed between the 40s and 90s of the first century, according to many conservative scholars (much later according to most liberal scholars). Eichenwald’s “400 years” is thus an exaggeration; the reality is closer to 250–300 years (conservative), or 200–250 years (liberal). Yet even here the notion of “compilation into the New Testament” may be misleading: the original New Testament manuscripts were undoubtedly written on papyrus rolls, each of which could contain no more than one Gospel. It was not until the invention of the codex form of book, and its development into a large format, that the possibility of putting all the NT books between two covers could even exist.
(2) The author speaks of the spurious nature of “critical portions of the Bible” such as the KJV’s wording in 1 John 5.7 (which seems to affirm the Trinity) or Luke 24.51 (which speaks of the post-resurrection ascension of Christ into heaven). The implication seems to be that the Trinity is not to be found in the NT, nor is the ascension. But the ancient church was not aware of the wording of the later manuscripts in 1 John 5.7 (as Eichenwald admits), yet the Council of Constantinople (381) and Chalcedon (451) nevertheless strongly affirmed the Trinity. How could they do so without these “critical portions of the Bible”? And the ascension of Christ is found in several texts, even if Luke 24.51 might not be one of them (e.g., Acts 1.9, 10; and implied in many passages that speak of Christ as sitting at the right hand of God). None of this, of course, is mentioned by the author.
(3) Constantine “changed the course of Christian history, ultimately influencing which books made it into the New Testament.” This is an old canard that has no basis in reality. In fact, Eichenwald seems to know this because he does not bring it up again, but instead speaks about the Council of Nicea (initiated by Constantine) as dealing primarily with the deity of Christ. There is absolutely nothing to suggest in any of the historical literature that Constantine ever influenced what books belonged in the NT.
(4) “evangelicals insist the Old Testament is a valid means of debunking science.” I’m not sure what evangelicals he’s read that say this; I haven’t read any. Many evangelicals speak about the problems of scientism—the belief that only in science will we find the answers to mankind’s deepest problems. But scientism is not science. To speak so casually about viewpoints that the author seems to only have hearsay understanding about, as though he is speaking factually, is not worthy of a piece that claims any kind of objectivity.
Time and time again the author presents his arguments as though they were facts. Any serious disagreements with his reasoning are quietly ignored as though they did not exist. The most charitable thing I can say is that Eichenwald is in need of a healthy dose of epistemic humility as well as a good research assistant who can do some fact-checking before the author embarrasses himself further in print.
Error 3: Lumping Intellectually Robust Evangelical Scholarship with the Most Ignorant Kind of Fundamentalism
Repeatedly throughout this article the author succeeds in finding some of the most outlandish illustrations of fundamentalist Christianity as though this represents all fundamentalists and even evangelicals. In his third paragraph he says that “modern evangelical politicians and their brethren” claim that climate change is “impossible because of promises God made to Noah” and “helping Syrians resist chemical weapons attacks is a sign of the end times”—yet such views are hardly mainstream among conservative Christians. Neither is snake-handling a feature of normative conservatism, although it figures prominently in the author’s diatribe. This is the worst kind of cherry-picking, yet to the discerning reader it may appear to be the rantings of someone who has little real acquaintance with evangelical scholarship. And to informed conservative Christians, these oddball anecdotes will leave them scratching their heads.
The author also tends to place conservative Christians in the orbit of conservative politics. “They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats,” he opines in his opening paragraph. But it is hardly accurate to see synonymity between the GOP and conservative Christians. The evangelical church is much broader than Eichenwald knows or is willing to admit.
Error 4: Simplistic Biblical Interpretation When It Suits His Purpose
One of the most blatant inconsistencies in this essay is how the author treats biblical interpretation. On the one hand, he denies any validity to how some conservatives read the Bible on many fronts; on the other hand, he claims ridiculous interpretations as binding on them. I will mention just three illustrations.
First, Eichenwald notes that “evangelicals are always talking about family values. But to Jesus, family was an impediment to reaching God.” He then quotes Matthew 19.29 as though that was proof enough. Of course, he must ignore the many texts in which Jesus affirms marriage and family values (e.g., Matt 5.31–32; Matt 19.8–9; Mark 10.7–11). Mark 7.8–13 is instructive:
“(8) ‘You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’ (9) Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! (10) For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ (11) But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)—(12) then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, (13) thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this” (NRSV).
How does Eichenwald reconcile these kinds of sayings on the lips of Jesus? He doesn’t. He appears to throw staccato-like volleys at all that conservative Christians hold dear, by interpreting scripture in ways that are truly bastardizations of Jesus’ teachings.
Jesus uses the analogy of family to reinforce what the church should be about: one who forsakes his physical brothers and sisters for the sake of the Lord will find many more spiritual brothers and sisters. ‘Brother’ in fact is so frequently used of a person who has the same spiritual Father that it becomes one of the more common expressions for that in the rest of the NT. It is true that allegiance to one’s physical family must never interfere with one’s allegiance to Christ and the family of God, but this is a far cry from saying that Jesus was against family.
Second, Eichenwald employs other simplistic interpretations to deny the NT’s affirmation of Christ’s deity. His statement that ‘form of God’ in Philippians 2.6 “could simply mean Jesus was in the image of God” betrays his ignorance about biblical interpretation. The kenosis, the hymn about the self-emptying of Christ (Phil 2.6–11) has received more scholarly interaction than perhaps any other paragraph in Paul’s writings. To claim that Jesus’ being in the form of God may mean nothing more than that he was human is entirely against the context. The hymn begins (vv. 6–7) as follows:
“who [Christ], although he was in the form of God,
he did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped,
but he emptied himself,
by taking on the form of a slave,
by looking like other men,
and by sharing in human nature.”
Christ’s humanity is mentioned only after he is said to have emptied himself. Thus, ‘form of God’ must mean something more than humanity. Further, the parallel lines—‘he was in the form of God’ and ‘taking on the form of a slave’—are mutually interpreting. Jesus was truly a slave of God; this is how he regarded himself (cf. Mark 10.45; Matt 20.27; 26.39). If ‘form of slave’ means ‘slave’ then ‘form of God’ may well mean ‘God.’ The rest of the hymn confirms this interpretation. Philippians 2.10–11 alludes to Isaiah 45.23, where God says, “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear” (NRSV). Paul quotes this very text in Romans 14.11 in reference to YHWH—a book Paul wrote six or seven years prior to his letter to the Philippians. Yet in Phil 2.10–11 he says,
“at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father” (NRSV).
Now the confession is about Jesus and it is a confession that he is ‘Lord.’ Either Paul is coming perilously close to blasphemy, something that a well-trained rabbi could hardly do, or he is claiming that Jesus is indeed true deity. And to underscore the point, he notes that all those in heaven, on earth, and under the earth will make this confession—language that is reminiscent of the second of the Ten Commandments, as found in Exodus 20.4: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (NRSV). The Decalogue—known as well as any Old Testament text to an orthodox Jew—is unmistakably echoed in the kenosis. To use this in reference to Jesus is only appropriate if Jesus is true deity, truly the Lord, YHWH himself.
Third, the author claims that 1 Timothy’s proscription against women teaching must be extended to the arena of politics, so that “according to the Bible, Bachmann should shut up and sit down. In fact, every female politician who insists the New Testament is the inerrant word of God needs to resign immediately or admit that she is a hypocrite.” I am baffled as to how Eichenwald could take such a narrow view of 1 Timothy 2.12, and to do so dogmatically. Notice that he does not say, “conservative interpretations of the Bible,” or “liberal interpretations of the Bible,” nor even “the interpretation of one or two scholars”; no, he says baldly, “according to the Bible.” Apparently, there is no room for any other interpretation than his, even by scholars who would not consider the Pastoral Epistles to be by Paul. The last fifty or so years of biblical interpretation are swept under the rug, even though scholars of all theological stripes have wrestled with this text and come to a variety of viewpoints. The amount of literature on this one verse is staggering, yet Eichenwald seems to be completely unaware of it. Instead, he uses 1 Tim 2.12 as a blunt weapon on politically conservative women who are Christians to bludgeon them into submission. His comments tell us more about his view of outspoken women than Paul’s. Would he say “shut up and sit down” to a politically liberal woman who also happened to be an evangelical? The hypocrisy here is not at all what I would have expected in a magazine that used to have a decent journalistic reputation, nor for a journalist such as Eichenwald, who used to share that reputation.
These are just a handful of the bizarre and simplistic interpretations that the author promotes as gospel truth. Read the article for yourself; I have not even commented on some of the more unbelievable examples.
I applaud Kurt Eichenwald for stirring up Christians to think about what he has written and to reexamine their beliefs and attitudes. But his numerous factual errors and misleading statements, his lack of concern for any semblance of objectivity, his apparent disdain for and lack of interaction with genuine evangelical scholarship, and his über-confidence about more than a few suspect viewpoints, makes me wonder. I wonder why he really wrote this essay, and I wonder what he hoped to accomplish. The article reads like it was written by a political pundit who thought he might try something clever: If he could just link conservative Christianity with conservative politics, and show that Christians’ smugness about being Bible-based believers was both incorrect exegetically and had a poor, self-contradictory foundation (since the Bible is full of errors and contradictions), he could thereby deal a deathblow to both conservative Christianity and conservative politics. I do not wish to defend conservative politics, but simply point out that evangelicals do not fit lock, stock, and barrel under just one ideological tent. Eichenwald’s grasp of conservative Christianity in America as well as his grasp of genuine biblical scholarship are, at best, subpar. And this article is an embarrassment to Newsweek—or should be!
For Further Reading
Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Darrell Bock and Daniel B. Wallace, Dethroning Jesus
Rob Bowman and Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place
Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus
Ed Komoszewski, James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus
Martin Hengel, Issues in Early Christology
Daniel B. Wallace, editor, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament
Ever since James Barr’s Semantics of Biblical Language, originally published in 1961, introduced students of the Bible to the fascinating field of linguistics, the world of biblical studies has not been the same. Barr took his cues from linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure, whose 1916 work Cours de linguistique générale (translated as Course in General Linguistics), marked a milestone in lexical studies.
Some of the lexical fallacies pointed out by these scholars, and numerous others after them, include the following:
- Root fallacy: assigning the (supposed) original meaning of a word to its usages throughout history;
- Diachronic priority: like the etymological or root fallacy, this looks at usage throughout the history of a word as though all such uses are still in vogue at any given slice of history (synchronic view);
- Illegitimate totality transfer: assumes that all the uses that occur at a given time apply in any given instance;
- Lexical-conceptual equation: the belief that a concept is captured in a single word or word group or the subconscious transference of a word to the concept and vice versa (like ἁμαρτάνω and sin).
All of these fallacies are well documented in the literature prior to 1961 (and even after!), and they are indeed linguistic fallacies that must be avoided. I have essentially applied this linguistic approach to syntax in my Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Zondervan, 1996).
There are other ‘fallacies’ which themselves are fallacious, however. Below are enumerated three of these:
- a word has no meaning apart from context;
- diachronics are not helpful; instead one must focus entirely on synchronics;
- etymology is always worthless.
I will briefly examine these three fallacies of linguists in this blog post.
A Word Has No Meaning Apart from Context
Often linguist say that the word being examined should have the meaning of ‘X’ with ‘X’ being only what one can determine from the context. But this is an unreasonable demand on any word. If every word in a given utterance had the meaning ‘X’ then we simply could not figure out what any utterance ever meant. Consider the following sentence:
Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow.
If the only word we did not understand was ‘lamb’ then with a little help from the broader context we might be able to determine that it meant a four-legged domesticated ruminant mammal whose woolly coat is used for clothing. But what if we did not know the meaning of all the words in this utterance? Unfortunately, when lexical studies are done, armed with modern linguistics, they often assume the meaning of all but the target term. But where did the meanings of the other words come from? If we were to carry the linguistic notion that a word has no meaning apart from its context to its logical conclusion, then the above sentence would initially be rendered:
X X X X X X X X X X X.
Like Egyptian hieroglyphics that were not decipherable until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, we would never be able to figure out the meaning of the sentence. It is not only the immediate context that tells us what a word means, and this leads us to the discussion of the second fallacy.
Diachronics Are Not Helpful
Frequently, linguists assume that diachronics are not helpful in determining a word’s meaning. The analogy that Saussure used was a chess game: Someone who observes a chess match, coming in sometime after the beginning of the match, can simply by observation determine who is winning the game. He or she does not need to know any of what has occurred prior to this point. This is synchronic (current time) priority to the exclusion of diachronics (over time).
There are inherent fallacies with this analogy, however. In this case, each one of the chess pieces always has its own defined functions and abilities. This never changes, yet it presupposes diachronics. Further, the chess game is not really the best analogy. A better one would be an American football game (or some other contact sport that involves teams). Suppose you came to the stadium at the beginning of the third quarter of the 1974 USC-Notre Dame football game. The score at the time was 24–7, with Notre Dame in the lead. You might say that Notre Dame was well on its way to winning the game, and you might even put money on it. I saw the game, but didn’t bet on it—though I should have since I have always been a USC fan! The second half USC team seemed to be different guys wearing the same numbers: USC went on to win 55–24, with Notre Dame being completely shut out in the second half. One would have to know about momentum (USC scored their first touchdown just before the half), and even what the coaches said to the players at halftime. In the least, just knowing the score would not be a helpful predictor of the outcome.
Expanding on this analogy, suppose you saw a game in which the teams were tied with 5 minutes to go. Knowing who had the momentum (which could only be known by diachronics); what injuries may have sidelined some key players—and when they happened; which team had the ball—and just as important, how they acquired it; which plays have worked; and which men are playmakers are all important factors in determining the outcome. Just as professional gamblers do not simply look at the W–L column but also examine injuries, home field advantage, weather, one-on-one matchups, and numerous other factors, diachronics is a key element in determining outcome. Although the current situation (synchronics) is the most important factor, the past also helps one to get a clearer picture.
It has often been said by linguists that since the speaker or writer whose words they are trying to understand may be blissfully unaware of the diachronic usage of his words, so linguists need to focus on this author’s/speaker’s usage rather than the past. I agree that we must employ the principle of synchronic priority; but we should not embrace the notion of synchronic exclusivity. Why? Because said author/speaker is presumably comfortable with his own language, having been exposed hundreds and thousands of times to most of the various words he will use in any given utterance. Diachronics are needed by the modern investigator, not the ancient speaker. Precisely because the modern researcher does not have the same linguistic background as the person whose usage is being examined he or she must ‘get up to speed’ on what a word can mean by employing diachronics. Consider for example the word-group κοινός/κοινωνία/κοινόω/κοινωνέω, etc. In the New Testament, when this word-group is used of human beings’ relationship to God, it is often put in a positive light because of the cross. We have fellowship (κοινωνία) with God because Jesus has made this possible. But in the Septuagint, this word-group frequently, if not usually, has a decidedly negative tinge. Has the word changed its meaning? No, it still has the idea of (sharing something in) common. What has changed is mankind’s relationship to God through the blood of his Son. But someone just looking at the synchronic meaning of the word-group in the New Testament may miss this background and thus an important clue to the richness of its usage in the New Testament.
Etymology Is Always Worthless
Certainly for words that have a long history, etymology is hardly needed to determine meaning. The fact is, words change in their meaning over time. Root fallacy ignores this fact. But what about words that are of recent vintage, perhaps even coined by the author one is studying? Consider, for example, θεόπνευστος, a word appearing only in 2 Timothy 3.16 in the Greek Bible. Although Paul did not invent the term, it was recently coined (apparently occurring for the first time in the Hellenistic period). As such, its history is short by the time we get to Paul. Breaking it down into its constituent elements (one form of etymologizing), we see that the word may mean “God breathed” or “inspired by God.” Did it have this force in 2 Timothy 3.16? Almost surely it did. In instances where a word is of recent coinage, and especially when it is used for the first time by the author in question, etymology is a must. No author would coin a word whose meaning had no resemblance to its parts. Words that have been in circulation for a long time, especially common words, however, require primarily a synchronic analysis with supplement from diachronics.
Although modern linguistics has made significant and abiding contributions to biblical studies, not all linguistic principles are of equal value. And some may even be fallacies themselves.
Posted on August 27, 2014 on Youtube was an upbeat little clip from Pastor Osteen in Houston. But not the pastor you are probably thinking of. No, this is not Joel Osteen but his wife and co-pastor, Victoria.
She said with a big smile on her face and with husband Joel standing next to her in nodding approval:
“When we obey God, we’re not doing it for God. I mean, that’s one way to look at it. We’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. That’s the thing that gives him the greatest joy this morning. So I want you to know this morning, just do good—for your own self. Do good ’cause God wants you to be happy.
When you come to church, when you worship him, you’re not doing it for God really! You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy—Amen? [calling to the crowd for a positive response]”
Lakewood Church has a congregation of 45,000, making it the largest church in America. It is broadly evangelical in doctrine. Largely preaching a prosperity gospel—a favorite of some charismatic groups—they have grown the church fivefold since Joel took over from his father as pastor. The Osteens have been criticized for a number of things, not the least of which is being soft on sin and twisting the gospel.
Now, some of the most blatant narcissistic blather ever to come from a pulpit can also be laid at their feet. Not only narcissistic, but also blasphemous. One has to wonder how a megachurch in the buckle of the Bible belt can go on and on without the congregants waking up and smelling what’s being shoveled in their direction. If Lakewood Church is any indication of the biblical literacy, genuine devotion to Christ, and fellowship of the saints of the American evangelical church, we are in serious trouble. I know good people—rock-solid believers—in Houston. In fact, I would say that the biblical literacy in Texas is perhaps higher than any other state in the Union. But perhaps I am running in circles that are under the radar. I pray that that is not the case.
At the same time, I would have to say that in my travels throughout North America, speaking in churches everywhere, biblical illiteracy seems to be virtually at an all-time high. And a desire to please God at all costs is a pipe dream—so few Christians even think in such categories! The evangelical church in America needs corporate self-reflection and corporate repentance. How we treat one another, how we honor God, what our understanding of and commitment to the gospel is, and how we measure true success all need a serious overhaul. The root problem seems to be twofold: the marginalization of the word of God and the ‘buddyization’ of Jesus Christ. The scriptures have become irrelevant and the Lord of glory is now immanent but not transcendent in our hearts.
What can we do to fix the problem? A number of things: get into the Word, especially Romans and the Psalms; exalt Jesus Christ in our own hearts and lives and in the midst of others; get outside our comfort zones of common ethnicity, political correctness, and extreme narcissism; get outside our comfort zone of hiding our sins and learn to confess to one another and the Lord; learn about the magnificence of our God; and live to please him.
Some suggested reading:
- J. I. Packer, Knowing God
- Samuel Storms, The Grandeur of God
- D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God
- J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God
- Jared C. Wilson, Romans: A 12-Week Study
- Bruce Waltke and James M. Houston, The Psalms as Christian Worship
When asked what is the goal of the Christian life, a typical mantra heard in evangelical circles is the knee-jerk response, “To become Christ-like.” Some folks really think through what they are saying and their views are more nuanced than this slogan. But most Christians, I fear, just parrot what they’ve been taught. This post examines this motto with a view toward articulating what the goal of the Christian life should be.
When I was a young man, I desperately wanted to be Christ-like. I was told that this was the primary objective of the Christian life. The more I worked at it, however, the more I began to see my failings. Every time I needed to ask forgiveness from someone, I considered myself a failure at the prime objective. Every time someone corrected me or pointed out some blind-spot in my life, I realized that I was treading backwards. It started to unnerve me. As the years rolled on, these constant failings became too much. Slowly, imperceptibly at first, I recoiled at the notion that I was still a depraved sinner. After all, I had been a believer for many years—shouldn’t I be reaching perfection by now?
Of course, I rejected the Keswick model of sanctification—the idea that one could be in fellowship one minute and out the next, in the next, and so on; that wasn’t my problem. I also had rejected the Wesleyan perfectionism model—at least, theoretically. I knew that I really was never going to be perfect in this life, even in a limited sense. But I nevertheless assumed that I should be much more mature than I really was. So, in order to salve my conscience about reaching the goal of Christ-likeness, I began to hide my sin. I put blinders on when I was confronted about my behavior, and wormed my way out of asking for forgiveness, justifying my lack of need for such on the basis of my supposed maturity. I would rationalize my sin, and see fault in the one who pointed it out. “Ah, that guy is not very godly, so why should I listen to him?”
At one point, when I was in college, I made a table of the characteristics of love mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13. At the end of every day I would rate myself on how I was doing. I’d use a 100-point scale. The irony is that the very passage that was intended to help me focus on others became a means for me to focus on myself. Christ-likeness meets legalism!
But the more I studied scripture, the more I came to realize that I had gotten the focus of the Christian life totally out of whack. If my goal is for me to become Christ-like, then my goal is inevitably and necessarily self-centered. How well am I doing at this goal? What do I look like as a Christian? My goal had become my role, and the focus had become too inward.
There is time for introspection in the Christian life. It should, however, be a time of repentance toward the Lord and gratitude for his love and mercy. But there is also the need for robust concentration on the Lord and on others. Paul tells the Philippians, “Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself” (Phil 2.3 [NET]). I used to argue with this verse: “Yes, but if all of us did this, then no one would be more important than anyone else!” Missing Paul’s point is putting things charitably. The Lord was the first to rub Deuteronomy 6.5 Leviticus 19.18 together, calling them “the greatest commandment” and one “like it”: Love God and love your neighbor (Matt 22.34–40). The focus in these passages is not on one’s role and therefore not on one’s self-image, needs, or ego. The focus is on the glory of God and the needs of others.
There it was, in black and white, and I missed it all these years! If the goal of the Christian life is primarily to glorify God, then the focus is certainly not on myself. It’s the combination of attitude and actions that work together to magnify the Lord. And the second goal of the Christian life is to focus on the needs of others. “Love your neighbor as yourself” does not mean to love your neighbor as you should love yourself. No, self-love is assumed, not commanded. Loving one’s neighbor is not.
One of the implications of this new revelation (to me) about the goal of the Christian life was that by focusing on what I should become I was missing the proper outward and upward view of life. And it became harder and harder for me to admit my wrong to others. But the believer who seeks God’s glory and thinks hard about the welfare of their fellow-saints is not arrogant, does not hold grudges, is not self-absorbed. All of us, for as long as we live in this world, will need to ask forgiveness from someone. The mature person recognizes his own sins and readily admits them to others whom he has offended. The one who focuses on his own Christ-likeness is focusing on a tertiary goal and can end up being blinded by his own ambition.
For many, this blog is a simple lesson, one that you’ve come to recognize for a long, long time. For others, it may be startling, unsettling. But the self-absorption of American Christianity has a lot to learn. I pray that each of us can make the main thing the main thing, shed ourselves of our insecurities, and begin each day by asking, “How can I magnify you today, Lord?”
MARTIN LUTHER: The chicken was already justified, so why did she even try to cross the road?
JOHN CALVIN: The chicken was chosen from before the foundation of the world to cross the road.
JOHN WALVOORD: The road is a terrifying place. But chickens can escape the road if they believe right now!
BILL BRIGHT: All chickens try to cross the road, but the road between us and the great Rooster-in-the-Sky is too great.
HOWARD HENDRICKS: Chickens are not born; they choose to be chickens in the crucible of experience.
AL QAIDA: Strapped to the chicken is a tiny bomb—our answer to Satan’s drones! Die, America!
ORIGEN: The chicken is the heart of man; the road, his body. Crossing the road is just background noise because it doesn’t fit with my interpretation.
BART EHRMAN: There is no proof that ‘chicken’ is in the original manuscript. It could just as easily have been a raccoon.
ROBERT W. FUNK: The chicken is painted black, but the road is pink. The likelihood that ‘chicken’ is what was said is doubtful because there is no proof that chickens existed in Palestine at this time, while roads probably did. The chicken is a later accretion added by pious scribes in the fourth century.
KARL BARTH: Whether this chicken actually existed, we all must face our own chickens so that the Word of the Road becomes real to us.
ROBERT FROST: Two roads diverged in a yellow wood; the chicken took the road more traveled and was squashed like a bug.
TREY GOWDY: We’ll get some answers—or food—when I grill that chicken!
SHAKESPEARE: To cross or not to cross—that is the question. Or not.
POPE FRANCIS: Whether the chicken crossed the road, was road-kill, stayed on this side of the road, or even denied the road’s existence, if it’s a good chicken she will go to heaven.
Chick-fil-A: Be assured, we’ll get her!