Of handwriting and old letters

My handwriting is getting worse.  Our son’s handwriting is sporadically OK (e.g., with his name) but isn’t improving as nicely as we’d like.  This interview-blog with Steve Reece, professor of classical languages at St. Olaf College, is about handwriting in ancient letter-writing, and it kept me reading.  The particular passage at issue is Galatians 6:11-18, which begins with the famous exclamation “See what large letters I make . . . in my own hand!”  For a thoughtful professor and researcher, multiple questions arise when students ask a question about such a passage.

Some Christians cater to teachers and preachers who believe in the so-called dictation theory, which has God/the Holy Spirit dictating words to apostles (controlling the motions of their hands and arms?)  In the following paragraph, Steve Reece describes another possible scenario, expanding his thoughts to the way we think generally of the production of scripture—and, in particular, the writing of letters:

My impression is that Paul may have sometimes dictated syllable by syllable (e.g., Philemon), but that at other times he may have dictated the words and phrases to his scribe but given him the freedom to use his own diction and style (e.g., some of the Pastorals). The composition of a letter may have been a team effort, as Paul, his companions, and the scribe(s) bounced ideas off one another and read and re-read drafts of the letter. Obviously, if it were determined that Paul used his scribes to varying degrees in the composition of his letters, this would offer another angle from which to contemplate the ongoing debate about the Pauline authorship of some of the letters that have been traditionally attributed to him, particularly with respect to judgments that have been made about the authenticity or inauthenticity of some of the letters based on their stylistic and linguistic traits. Differences in the style and diction of letters may have arisen from the influence of scribes working at various levels of participation with the author/sender, for in such different compositional circumstances we should not expect stylistic and linguistic uniformity.

I found that succinct depiction very helpful.  It dovetails with, and bolsters, some of my comparatively non-studied hunches.  In the following paragraph, Reece deals with the specific of 1Cor 1, speculating a bit:

Incidentally, we appear to have a vestige of Paul’s interaction with a comrade and a scribe at the beginning of his first letter to the Corinthians, which he is dictating to a scribe, perhaps his companion Sosthenes (1.1). An irate Paul declares to the Corinthians (1.14-15): “I give thanks that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that none of you may say that you have been baptized in my name.” Then, perhaps having been reminded by the Corinthian Stephanas – who appears to have delivered a letter to Paul from the Corinthians, was expecting to deliver Paul’s letter in return to the Corinthians, and therefore was a witness to the dictation process (16.15- 18) – that his memory has failed him here, Paul offers an addendum (1.16): “And I also baptized the household of Stephanas, but as for the rest I do not know if I baptized any other.” We seem to be witnessing here a glimpse of the actual process of composition: having misspoken during his dictation, Paul simply had his scribe insert a parenthetical correction, perhaps interlinearly or marginally, rather than requiring him to go back and rewrite the entire section. Later copyists inserted the parenthetical addition into the body of the text, where it has resided, though somewhat uncomfortably, to this day.

Find the entire interview here.

The shield

In Ephesians 6 we have Paul’s famous, extended “armor of God” imagery.  Here are some memory-jogging highlights:

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.  11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. . . .  13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. . . .  (Eph 6, NRSV)

In the context, we might first note the imperatives in 6:10-20.  The first imperative—”be strong” or “be strengthened”—while clearly indicating voluntary action on the part of the Christian, employs the “passive voice,” suggesting the power comes from another source.  In other words, the Ephesian Christian is not told to exercise his triceps, which would result in power based on his own efforts.  On the contrary, the source of power here is God.

A second notable aspect of this first imperative, to be strengthened, is that it appears to be modified by three succeeding imperatives,¹ and this fact is instructive.  We might then ask the question how is one to be empowered/strengthened?  Then we see the answer:  take up the armorthat’s how.   In other words, Paul employs the armor language in 6:13-17 to suggest how the strengthening or empowering is to occur.

Previously, here, I offered a generally pejorative look at the communicative issues with battle imagery.  I would like now to hone in on one piece of the armor—the shield of faith(fulness)—discussing its interpretation and application.  Although we could bog down in the type of shield (the word signifies not a little, round shield but a larger one), I rather want to shine light on the faithfulness represented by the shield.  Here is the text:

In every situation take the shield of faith,
and with it you will be able to extinguish
all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  (Eph 6:15b, HCSB)

Although Paul appears to have drawn on older texts in Ephesians 6,² this is the only time the word translated “shield” is used in all the NT writings.  It might also be noted that the Ephesians example gives us the most extended armor language in the NT.  Those observations might not turn out to be significant.  What we can be sure of is this, though:  in the Ephesians 6 micro-context, the shield is uniquely emphasized textually in at least these two respects:

  1. The expression “in all” or “in every situation” above (en pasin in Greek) appears with the shield but does not appear before the other armor elements.  The root word is employed several times in 6:10-20, perhaps most notably in v18 where prayer is the topic.
  2. The future tense, not used in connection with the other armor pieces, seems to indicate for Paul a certain result:  that the one who takes the shield will be able to extinguish the flaming arrows.

We should bear in mind that it’s not the size or composition of the shield, or the nature of the darts, that matters most.  It’s what the shield represents in the life of the believer:  pistis.  I use the English transliteration of the Greek word here both advisedly and conscientiously.  I certainly don’t intend to put up any barriers for those unfamiliar with Greek, but I do purposefully assert that it is the original word-concept to which we should appeal, not the word-concept that has developed around it—in another language, centuries later.  Pistis, or faith(fulness), is found all over the place in Paul’s writings; it appears eight times in Ephesians, for instance—in every chapter but the 5th.  The range of meaning for this word includes (1) trust, (2) “the faith,” i.e., a collected body of understood beliefs, and (3) faithfulness.  It is this last possible definition that I am after in the context of the shield of Ephesians 6:16.

Here I would refer to the motivated reader to Matthew Bates’s book Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King.  I have blogged about that book previously here and here.  I find Bates’s thoughts persuasive—and also very helpful to the overall Christian proposition in terms both of doctrine and pragmatics.

To reiterate:  in the perspective of 6:10-20, we see a built-in textual design that spotlights the being empowered/strengthened.  The taking up of the shield is illuminated by a somewhat less intense spotlight, but it is a spotlight nonetheless.  The primary concern is the pistis, not the shield.  But what did Paul mean by pistis?  Is it the “trust” aspect he had in mind in telling Christians to hoist the shield?  Or is it the quasi-corporate aspect of “the faith”—in other words, was Paul saying they should surround themselves with “people of ‘the faith'”?³  Perhaps one, or the other, or both.  Here, though, I commend the reading in blue below as plausible and perhaps the most helpful:

Be empowered . . . (6:10)

To do so, take up God’s armor; withstand, and stand firm (13, 14)

by fastening truth (14)
by putting on righteousness,
by preparing for spreading the gospel of peace
and in all, shielding yourself by allegiant living (6:16)
by topping with salvation
by being prepared to take the Spirit’s message

“Taking the shield of faith,” then, could mean “shielding oneself by making faithful choices that are loyal to the Lord.”  The verbs above are naturally plural, since Paul is writing to a group, so there is a corporate aspect to Paul’s language.  However, I would suggest that taking up the shield of faith represents an individual choice to live loyally to King Jesus.  This same King had been in the literary spotlight in 1:19-21:  God’s power led to His resurrection and ascension, and that same power is in turn connected to my being individually empowered to live loyally.  As I ponder, attempt weakly to live out, and experience a degree of allegiant living, I am becoming persuaded that holding the shield of faithfulness becomes an integral part of “standing firm” (6:13,14).  That same shield in turn is a key aspect of being empowered (6:10).

B. Casey, 10/24/18 – 11/7/18


¹ “Take on” and “receive” are basic past-tense imperatives that are “simply listing what empowerment entails.” – Stanley Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament (1999), 13,2.3

² Isaiah 59, Wisdom 5, and 1Thess 5.  The shield is not mentioned in Isaiah or in 1Thess.  Another word for “shield” is used in Wisdom 5 and in many other OT and Apocryphal texts.

³ On this point we might recall that the “struggle” of 6:12 appears to signify a close-encounter “wrestling match” type of conflict.  See my prior post here, noting particularly the expression “hand to hand combat” in the 3rd footnote there.

 

Does the “armor of God” imagery communicate as intended?

In Ephesians 6 we have Paul’s famous, extended “armor of God” imagery.  Where does this battle language come from?  Approximately 14 years prior, Paul had used similar language in his first letter to the Thessalonians.  He also appears to have drawn on other texts—specifically, Isaiah 59 and Wisdom 5:17-20.  These armor texts might at first seem about the same, yet it soon strikes the reader that there are similarities but no quotations per se. 

I don’t think the point in Ephesians 6 is to relate each piece of armor strictly to a particular aspect of Christian life.  It’s not, for example, that Paul is saying the helmet protects the salvation thoughts in our brains so we can avoid the loss of salvation.  Paul’s purpose in using this extended metaphor seems somewhat more general.  The battle imagery has found continued life in many Christian songs through the ages—some good ones and some not so good.  “Soldiers of Christ, Arise” (1742), for instance, contains quite a few expressions derived directly from Ephesians 6:

  • “Strong in the strength which God supplies and in His mighty pow’r” (6:10)
  • “Stand entire at last” (6:13)
  • “Take, to arm you for the fight the panoply of God” (6:11, with “panoply” being a transliteration of a Greek word)
  • Still let your feet be shod, ready His will to do (6:15)

The full poem (found here) does descend into militaristic machismo a time or two.  Here’s an example:

Brandish in faith till then the Spirit’s two-edged sword,
Hew all the snares of fiends and men in pieces with the Word

I doubt that stanza has ever shown up in a widely published hymnal (!), but the song’s references and analogies are communicative overall.

“Lord, Speak To Me” (1872) similarly echoes the Ephesians emphasis on being filled with God’s power, especially in the later stanzas:

  • “O strengthen me, that while I stand firm on the rock, and strong in Thee” (6:10, 11)
  • “O fill me with Thy fullness, Lord” (1:10; 4:13)

Never a favorite of mine but widely sung for more than a century, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” (1858) has some negative expressions, such as “charge for the God of battles, and put the foe to rout” and “each soldier to his post; close up the broken column, and shout through all the host.”  To my ear, those phrases are gratuitous appeals to those experienced in the military forces and are not very communicative of spiritual realities or imperatives.  Yet a phrase such as “put on the Gospel armor; each piece put on with prayer” does highlight not only the armor angle in Ephesians 6 but also the letter’s strong emphasis on prayer.  On the whole, it is easy to see why this song has been published in more than a thousand hymnals.

The children’s song “I’m in the Lord’s Army” includes these words:

I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery.
I may never zoom o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s Army!  (Yes, sir!)  

As the reader might remember, body motions suggestive of physical battle accompany that song.  And why shouldn’t there be (from a keep-the-children-active perspective)?  The actions are fun.  Yet weaning children on that kind of thing probably gets them thinking more about U.S.A. military service than about spiritual armor and battle.  Recently, I unexpectedly acquired a castoff record of George Beverly Shea (singer for Billy Graham crusades) and found myself unwittingly listening to a  song called “The Army of the Lord.”  This song is a hokey exhortation to march for the Lord, laced with Christianese, and set to music that unites Leroy Anderson with a sort of Sousa-like polka.  At least it didn’t become blatantly militaristic.  At this point, I start to wonder whether it’s been military personnel who write such things, as opposed to theologians or biblical exegetes.  Leaving those ill-advised examples now, let me comment more thoroughly on the implications of two songs I would call ambiguous or perhaps questionable.

In the church of my youth, we sang “Faith is the Victory” (Encamped Along the Hills of Light) (late 1800s) quite a bit, but I don’t think I’d sing it today without prefatory explanation for the sake of the contemporary mind.  For instance, what do the expressions “press the battle” or “let all our strength be hurled” mean to us nowadays?  Yes, in one sense, “faith is the victory that overcomes,” but if we appeal to those “saints above” who “with shouts of triumph trod” and “swept on o’er ev’ry field,” we might start to envision a physical battle, largely unaware of the unseen realm that is under consideration in Ephesians 6.  Put differently:  if we have human war mechanisms at the forefront, trying to apply their strategy and protective gear to the (spiritual) cause of Christ, we’ll stumble.  On the contrary, Paul had the cause of Christ in mind first, applying various metaphors and analogies in order to explicate Christian living, here focusing on the unseen.

The song has “we’ll vanquish all the hosts of night in Jesus’ conqu’ring name,” and that sounds like a mass military offensive, whereas Paul’s idea of “living as children of light” (Eph 5:8) is not aggressive at all.  His advice to put on the armor so that you can stand against the schemes of the devil (6:12) is singular/individual, so it’s a leap to conclude that this is directly about any kind of “army of the Lord” or the actions of any faith community group. 

Curiously, the music for the once-popular “Onward, Christian Soldiers” (1864) was written by Sir Arthur Sullivan¹ of British operetta fame.  Sabine Baring-Gould’s lyrical exhortation to be a soldier for the Lord is biblical, yet what is communicated now (or in the 1860s, for that matter) to an American by the term “soldier” may not be what was originally intended by the poet, an Englishman, in words written very hastily for a children’s procession.²  The first stanza (“marching as to war … with the cross of Jesus going on before”) seems the most problematic, possibly conjuring up Grant or Sherman for a Union loyalist, or Constantine and Theodosius for those with a broader view.  The song has been removed from some hymnals, but it might still be used judiciously, if one is aware of possible communication gaps.

Further on the differentiation of corporate military actions from the individual spiritual battle, we might note at this point that Paul chose a word for “struggle” (6:11) that had been used in secular literature for a wrestling match.  The word describes not a company-front marching offensive but an individual, up-close-and-personal conflict with the devil.³  Christian solidarity is no bad thing, but the notion of a Christian flag carried at the front of a marching military regiment communicates more to those versed in military history or experienced in the ways of war than to those who wish to understand the Christian life and mission on an individual scale.

Neither “Faith is the Victory” nor “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is a bad song if one interprets appropriately, but as the decades pass, and as we have in the collective consciousness not only the Civil War but the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein, ISIS, and more, the picture becomes obscured with different types of clouds.  The so-called Cold War and justifiable indignation over various outbreaks of tyranny, genocide, or human enslavement have led to increasing, many-faceted polarization.  Anti-war politicists are more in the mainstream, if not more rabid; and it seems increasingly likely that rightist “Christians” would indiscriminately mix human/geopolitical militarism with Pauline imagery, forgetting that killing people is foreign to Christ and His ways.  Apparently with notions of “manifest destiny” at heart, none other than the late Prime Minister of Great Britain said this, for example:

We sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers” indeed, and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we were serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals … it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation.  W. Churchill, 1941)

It makes great sense for Mr. Churchill, as the Prime Minister, to have delivered that stirring-if-over-confident “kill the Nazis” rhetoric at that point in history, but his comments became presumptuous at the point at which he appealed to “on high.”  It was ignorant and arrogant for him to have mashed together (a) those who were killing the enemies with (b) those who spoke English, all under the aegis of “Christianity.”  Yes, presumptuous:  the very suggestion that God would help the English-speakers rid the world of that particular horror passes lightly over the prospects of death and hell in a way that Paul would abhor, suggests that Churchill and Truman had taken a prophetic mantle, and ignores that God had not always led His Old-Covenant people to physical victory.  So why would God assure Great Britain and the U.S.A. a victory from on high?

In the event that I would be judged too serious and “too heaven-minded to be of any earthly good” at this point, let me share this fine parody on “Onward, Christian Soldiers”:

Like a mighty tortoise,
Moves the Church of God;
Brothers, we are treading
Where we’ve always trod.

(Ian Bradley, The Book of Hymns, New York:  Testament Books, 1989, p. 333)

Perhaps church music in our era is no more nuanced or developed in the few instances in which it uses military imagery.  In my estimation, “The Battle Belongs to the Lord” (1984), full of musical strength, has some ironically weak lines.  It is not a great song, but it does greatly point to the great Lord.  Surely it is good to remind ourselves often that we have a greater One to serve.  In considering this notion, we might recall Paul in 2Tim 2:  the soldier’s aim is to please his “commanding officer.”  And of course, the Lord’s power and strength are themes in Ephesians (e.g., 1:19ff; 3:16,20; 6:10).

The hymn-style “Fight the Good Fight” (1853) was once among my top 50, but I doubt it rises to that level for many.  My conception of it was shallow, and its words do not even speak much of battle or armor, but I mention it here mostly to call attention to its title.  “Fight the Good Fight” would not be sung much these days because concepts fighting and battles are different now, geopolitically speaking.  I do love expressions such as “Christ is thy path, and Christ thy right,” “lay hold on life, and it shall be thy joy and crown eternally” and “upon thy Guide lean.”

Perhaps it is largely a result of my non-violence bias that I find so much of the military imagery in songs to zoom over the area of Paul’s real concern.  The singer may mentally don his fatigues and load his guns, having been raised in post-World War America, before he ever stops to ponder what Paul was really writing about.  As we ponder what “spiritual warfare” in the unseen realm means to individual Christians and to our churches, I think there are multiple good reasons to emphasize the shield of faith(fulness)—both in the Ephesians literary context and in the real-life context of Christian existence.  In the next post, I will deal more briefly with an interpretation of this central piece of the “armor.”

B. Casey, 10/24/18 – 11/4/18


¹ Operetta, a subgenre touched off by Jacques Offenbach and Gilbert & Sullivan combo, is light, humorous opera.  Sullivan wrote comparatively few “serious” works.  It would come as no surprise that no deep or stately connection to Christian theology arose when Baring-Gould’s words were set to his music.  Aside:  Sullivan wrote “religious music” while being known to have adulterous affairs, indulge heavily in gambling, and participate in Freemasonry.  See this Wikipedia link for more information.

² Baring-Gould apparently had second thoughts about some of the words and revised some later.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onward,_Christian_Soldiers.

³ According to Benjamin Merkle, the word πάλη  | palē “was most widely used for the sport of wrestling.”  Merkle continues, “. . . Paul is envisioning a fierce battle and not merely an athletic competition.  Nevertheless, the term may have been used to intensify the closeness of the battle.  The struggle is not fought by proxy or at a distance but involves close-quarter, hand-to-hand combat.”  Benjamin L. Merkle, Ephesians, ed. Köstenberger and Yarbrough, B&H Publishing Group, 2016.

Come together

The number of “together” words and expressions in the NC¹ documents is impressive.  As I live and read and think, I apprehend these words (many of which begin with the prefix “syn” and many of which are found in Pauline literature), comprehend them as I can, and ponder their significance.

For example, we find five instances of synerchomai” (come together”) in 1Corinthians 11:17-34, and two more in 14:23-26.  There are quite a few more “syn” words in Romans, and three in Ephesians (with some duplication of two key examples in Colossians), where the coming together of Jew and gentile² is a key topic.  Paul might even have coined some of these words.

When no single term exists to translate a word, it will naturally appear as a phrase in our English Bibles, and that is the case with the ones I’ve selected below.  The spiritual realities embedded in these “with” words/phrases should elicit a reaction nothing short of “wow”:

Romans
6:4 buried with Him (pl.)
6:6 crucified with Him (sg.) (note:  this Greek word drops the “n” on the prefix “syn”)
6:8 live with Him (pl.)
8:17 (2 words) suffer with Him (pl.)
be glorified with Him (pl.)
Ephesians
2:5 made us alive together with Him (sg.)
2:6 (2 words) raised us up with Him (also Col 2:12, Col 3:1) (sg.)
seated us with Him in the heavenlies (sg.)
2:21 joined us together (participle) (sg.)
2:22 built together (passive voice) (pl.)
4:3 bond of peace (noun)
4:16 joined and held together (participle) (sg.)

Paul’s choice of singular vs. plural is intriguing, and studying the senses of participles may be, as well.  Primarily, though it seems to me that Paul is intent on presenting and intensifying a cognizance of spiritual togetherness.  To what extent do we comprehend these realities and their underpinnings?

Men named denominations like the “United Church of Christ” and “Unity” and Unification Church—ostensibly with some sense of unified “with each other” in mind, but the basis of the unification is questionable.  In some cases, it seems as though people are supposed to unify over nothing (or little to nothing).  In the case of Paul’s theology, however, it is hardly nothing.  Cosmic significance is found in the unification of Jew and gentile.  The two groups are with each other, and that is the unity of the Spirit (Eph 4:3).  The basis of the unity is sound, solid, and spiritually significant, for it is none other than Jesus the Christ.  I think that fact is as significant now as it was then.  Christians are with each other in a very spiritually rich sense.  We are buried together, made alive together, raised up together, and more—because of Jesus.


¹ I sometimes like to choose “NC” over “NT” for reasons of stylistic variety and because of my interest in the word “Covenant” in addition to the older, more time-tested word “Testament.”
² The lower-case “g” on the word “gentile” is intentional.  I think it helps our understanding of the 1st-century milieu to see “Jew” as more of a proper name, with “gentiles” serving more as a common-noun catch-all for others, i.e., non-Jews.

About 1,956 years ago: a possibly intentional difference

In studying Ephesians last week, I found that 1:15 has some “stock” wording:

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints (NRSV)

To my ear, that sounds like “typical Paul.”  I quickly recalled, though, that Philemon, which is easily among my three favorite¹ letters in the NT, includes similar wording:

I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus (NRSV)

We could slice and dice and parse the English translation in this version or any number of others.  We could discuss the chronology and Christology of both letters, but I doubt there would be any major discoveries in those respects.  The thing is, the Philemon wording is not the same as the wording in Ephesians, and that fact just might be significant.  The difference might be attributable only to style or preference . . . or it could give us a clue into one or more emphases in each letter.  Let’s break it down a little.

In Ephesians, the hearing is in the aorist tense—a basic past tense—but it is a participle, and participles come in different flavors, and my palate isn’t refined in this area, ll just leave that alone before I get myself in grammar trouble.  In Philemon, the hearing is in the present tense but is again a participle in “mood.”

Note the next difference, carefully.  The succeeding phrases are quite different.  In Greek, word order is not nearly the same thing as it is in English, but these are two different bunches of coconuts.  “Your love and faith that you have toward Jesus and all the saints.”

Ephesians:  I have heard of your . . .

faith in the Lord Jesus (pistin en to kurio iesou)

the conjunction and (kai)

the love for/to all the saints (ten agapen ten eis pantas tous hagious)

Philemon:  I hear of your . . .

love and faith that you have (agapen kai ten pistin en exeis)

toward Jesus and all the saints (pros ton kurion iesoun kai eis pantas tous hagious)

Isn’t the difference curious?  I observe first the inclusion of the verb “to have” (exeis) which is not present in Ephesians.  This verb is used again later in Philemon, so its (ostensibly unnecessary) inclusion here may be notable.

Next—and I think quite significant textually—are the phrases that involve faith, love, Jesus, and the saints.  Philemon has things sort of mashed together on both sides of the verb.  Whereas the wording in Ephesians is more “stock,” Paul’s wording in Philemon reveals, or at least hints at, a purposeful mixing of things:  love and faith can both be directed toward Jesus and other Christians.  (1) Love of others and (2) faith toward Jesus are obviously norms, but we can also love Jesus.  Moreover, we learn in Philemon that Paul is attempting to elicit faithful behaviors from Philemon (and his house church) toward Onesimus, who is newly a Christian brother.  This possibility becomes especially pregnant when pistis (faith) is translated as “faithfulness” a la Matthew Bates.²  Bates continues to influence my thinking, now particularly as I study Ephesians 6:10-20 and the shield of faithfulness.


¹ Not only is Philemon a favorite; it is among my three most ardently studied—and not because it’s brief.  This is no “‘Jesus wept’-is-my-verse-to-memorize” thing.  It’s simply a great letter!

² See this blogpost and this one for an introduction to Bates on this topic.

 

Moffatt translation

I haven’t experienced all that much of James Moffatt’s translation (1922), but I have an heirloom printed copy and refer to it once in a while.  I suppose half of this volume’s value is that it was my granddaddy’s, but it seems that every time I come to Moffatt for comparison, he offers something uniquely helpful and communicative—almost like Phillips’s The New Testament in Modern English (1958), albeit a few decades before, and without as much picturesque expansion as Phillips.

Moffatt does a fine job with Philemon 6, for instance–where “participation” and “loyal faith” add apt elements before their time:

I pray that by their participation in your loyal faith they may have a vivid sense of how much good we Christians can attain.

Moffatt misses a verbal tie with the singular word “good,” as do most later translations, but I note that he stands out by capturing the delay in the dropping of the name Onesimus in v13 — just like the original.

There is a nicely provocative rendering of Romans 12:1-2, as well:

Well then, my brothers, I appeal to you by all the mercy of God to dedicate your bodies as a living sacrifice, consecrated and acceptable to God; that is your cult, a spiritual rite.  Instead of being moulded to this world, have your mind renewed, and so be transformed in nature, able to make out what the will of God is, namely, what is good and acceptable to him and perfect.

There can be benefits to a one-man (non-committee) translation.  I’m also drawn to Schonfield’s Authentic New Testament (also 1958, and my copy of this one is also from Granddaddy Ritchie’s library), but Schonfield’s seems more iconoclastic.  Apparently, some copyright issues keep Logos/Faithlife from getting the rights to publish a Moffatt digital edition, but it would be nice to have it in my e-collection, so I hope they’ll pursue it.  In the meantime, it can be accessed here.


The above is an edited, expanded version of a comment I made in a Logos community forum I happened to find.  My actual comment is here.

Interesting translation questions in Philemon 6-10

In returning to Philemon for two different purposes lately, I’ve been engaged again in the deep study of this absolute gem of a letter.  I’ve been reworking my own translation basted on expanded knowledge and senses of the letter as a whole.  Below are some translation-oriented matters that have particularly intrigued me in Philemon verses 6-10:

6 – The expression “partnership/fellowship of faith”—which has so many possibilities that it can make your head spin.  At issue here are the numerous ways to understand the genitive case of the noun “pistis,” most often translated “faith”—and also the range of meaning of both nouns individually.  “Partnership” (koinonia) can also be “fellowship” or even “contribution.”  Although financial concepts do appear in this short letter to Philemon, I rather feel the sense here is more strongly tied to joint effort.  I am aware, for instance, of the notable greetings and concluding phrases about fellow-workers and fellow-prisoner.  The primary sense of the word “koinonia” here is the work together, the partnership.

Although I am intensely aware th ese days of the NT word “pistis,” insofar as I can tell, I did not come to this passage with a prejudice over whether “pistis” implies mental assent, trust, fidelity (or some combination of the three) in this passage.   For the present, however, I’ve ended up with the translation “faithful partnership,” which does lean in an atypical direction, along the lines of author Matthew Bates’s suggestions.  (See this post on my Subjects of the Kingdom blog for more on Bates’s book Salvation by Allegiance Alone and the translation of πιστις | pistis.) 

6 – The beginning of v6.  Just before the expression “partnership” and “faith” appears the word “hopos.”  The import of this word is a trifle difficult to narrow down.  Traditionally, the words “I pray” have been supplied by translators.  (One must supply something in order to have the verse make sense in English.)  “I pray that …” is not the only possibility, however.  “Hopos,” the lead word, is not nearly as common as its cousins “hina” and “hoti,” which head many clauses in Greek, and which usually mean something along the lines of “in order that” or “because.”  The question here is whether “hopos” serves more of an adverbial function (how the next thing relates to the former) or a conjunctive one (joining the two in a different way).

In the BDAG lexicon, a conjunctive sub-type is proposed as a possible fit for Philemon 6.  In this sub-type, the word “hopos” essentially replaces an understood infinitive.  Accepting this possibility, and reaching back to include the main verb in v4, one comes out with

“I thank God …, (v4)
hearing of your love …, (v5)
and I want to ask that….” (v6)

Why not simply stick with the traditional understanding that Paul is continuing his prayer in v6?  Well, because I suspect Paul is moving toward asking something of Philemon instead of God here, and he might be intentionally engaging in a bit of ambiguity.  Supplying a verb such as “to ask” can leave both possibilities open.

6 – The word “epignosei.”  This word can mean knowledge or full knowledge but seems in the context of Philemon to move in the direction of recognition or awareness of “every good thing.”  This expression is used twice in the letter—intentionally so, I’m persuaded.

7 – The word “splangxna.”  This interesting word is most often translated “heart,” and it is discursively significant within the Philemon document.  The thing is, this is a plural word, and it’s exclusively used in the plural in the NT.  Clearly, though, it cannot be translated “hearts” in many instances.  At issue here in Philemon are both linguistic and psychological concerns, i.e., how the ancients and we understand the source of human emotions.  The King James had “bowels,” which does a nice job with the plural but is obviously ill-advised in our age.

Personally, I’m moving away from “heart”—or I want at least to consider something different—because I feel that “heart” has been co-opted, becoming a kind of Christianese slang that could lead a reader down a rabbit trail instead of communicating to us what Paul was communicating to Philemon.  I am wondering about translating the plural word splangxna (which, by the way, I understand is diachronically etymologically connected to the English word “spleen”) as “affections.”  In Philemon, we would have

  • “the affections of the saints have been refreshed through you” (7)
  • “I am sending him back to you—the object of my (brotherly) affections” (12)
  • “revive my affections in Christ” (20)

At this moment, I like the “affections” option in v7 and v20, but not so much in v12, because it’s hard to make that phrase sound non-homosexual in English these days.  If we leave v12 as “heart” while rendering the other instances otherwise, though, the verbal connection is lost in the English translation.

7/8 – The parallel use of the verb “exo.”  This verb means “to have” and which appears in two distinct tenses in verses 7 and 8.  Regardless of the particular type of of aorist Paul intended in v7, the present participle form of this same verb in v8 seems to indicate some measure of heightened emphasis.  In other words, his saying “I have great boldness to command you” is stronger in some way than “I have great joy and consolation” above.

9 – The unusual (to me, at least) sequencing of words ὢν ὡς (ōn hōs). I think this expression is idiomatic.  The two words are (1) a being verb and (2) a particle of some kind—a conjunction, or a preposition, or an adverbial particle.  Taken together, we might translate “ōn hōs Paulos” simply as “This is I, Paul.”  In the mid-range context, Paul appears to be revealing himself, or self-identifying, as an old man and a prisoner—all for the sake of influencing Philemon’s future behavior.

9 – The word “presbutes,” often translated “elder” or “old man.”  “Presbutes” is used only twice in Paul’s extant writings.  Once in Luke makes a total of three instances in the NT.  I wondered whether the RSV rendering “ambassador” might be a viable one in Philemon 9.  A cognate of “presbutes” is used in Eph. 6:20, also juxtaposed with the prison (a different word for “chains” there than in Philemon).  The range of meaning of “presbutes” in non-NT literature does include “ambassador.”  Still, I’m not persuaded that it means “ambassador” here.

10 – A verb that roughly means “to become the father of”  How can gennao be translated in a way that comes across both smoothly and meaningfully in English?  Is “became my son” (switching the agency from the producer to the one produced, and converting the verb to a passive sense) sufficient to do Paul’s expression justice?

Faith qua allegiance (part 2)

For me, allegiance is a central Christian concept, and it has been throughout my adult life.  In this first post on the word-concept allegiance, I traveled through a bit of personal historyreferring to the relationship of allegiance to human government, songs by Ray Boltz and Rich Mullins, and the influence of Lee Camp.  In the last two years—and especially in the last few months—the place of allegiance has been bolstered considerably in this believer’s thinking.  Allegiance has been inextricably connected to faith itself.

Life can bring great serendipities, synergies, and dovetailings.¹  I note the following that have come in the same phase of my life:

  • a heightened awareness of theological positioning around the word “faith” (and also sovereignty and free will), due in part to a men’s discussion group
  • persistent thoughts about allegiance to God’s Kingdom in a group study of Matthew
  • our home group’s study of Galatians
  • an academic blog’s feature of Dr. Matthew Bates’s 3rd book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone (Amazon catalog reference here).

Product DetailsWhile I have been mentally and hermeneutically challenged in all of the above, the connections are nevertheless satisfying.  Prior to applying this to my present study of Galatians, I’d like to highlight key portions of the lengthy interview with Matthew Bates (see here for part 1).  Here are the lead paragraphs:

Not since the Reformation has there been a challenge to the five solas as persistent and potentially persuasive as Matthew W. Bates’ third book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).  This book has generated a groundswell of controversy that continues to build as more theologians, pastors, and laypeople are exposed to Bates’ nuanced proposal.

Bates’ thesis, at once radical and obvious, is this:  in the New Testament writings, the Greek word pistis, or “faith,” is better translated as “allegiance.”  He does not intend for every instance of pistis in our Bibles to be retranslated, but for him, there are specific contexts, especially in Paul and the Gospels, in which the only reasonable rendering is “allegiance,” as in the kind of fidelity or loyalty that one would give to a king.

Note that Bates is especially focused on the gospels and Pauline letters, and also note that allegiance is connected to divine sovereignty, something to which most Christians would give assent, to one level or another.  Next, here is a crystallization of what I take as the crux of the issue, from part 2 of the interview:

Interviewer:  Of the Reformation solas, only yours seems completely dependent upon human agency.  All the rest are due to God’s agency, whether that be scriptura, gratia, doxa, fides (as a gift from God, Eph 2:8), or Christos. How would you respond to the criticism that your sixth sola fails to meet the standard of the others due to misplaced agency?

Matthew Bates:  First, I am not arguing for a sixth sola, but primarily seeking to advocate for a truer understanding of sola fide (by faith alone).  My exploration seeks to uphold the solas while seeking greater precision with respect to their true biblical boundaries.  I do conclude that sola gratia (by grace alone) and soli Deo gloria (for the glory of God alone) need to be nuanced in particular ways in order to stay faithful to the biblical vision.  This is because grace and boasting have both been misunderstood with regard to works (of Law).  As far as I am aware, I am not seeking to add distinctive shades of meaning with regard to Christ alone or Scripture alone.

Second, in Salvation by Allegiance Alone I never state that pistis is solely dependent on human agency rather than God’s agency.  In fact, quite the opposite:

Grace in the sense of God’s prior activity precedes ‘faith,’ for God first had to bring about the good news before it could be proclaimed and before allegiance to Jesus as Lord could be confessed (Rom. 10:9–14).  Moreover, God is the creator, and every good gift comes from God (James 1:17), so we must affirm God as the ultimate source of ‘faith’ and all else. (p. 105)

What is being claimed is that faith, enabled by grace, is the only contribution that we make to our salvation. (p. 122)

So I do assert that in some sense the ability to render allegiance to Jesus the king is either due to God’s agency, or is at least a gift bequeathed to our libertarian agency in the wake of the Christ-event.  Yet since Scripture puts far more emphasis on our agency with regard to pistis than God’s agency, throughout the book I frequently speak about our own human agency in giving pistis to Jesus the king (emphasis mine  -bc).  In so doing I am trying to give the same weight of emphasis that we find in Scripture.  Yet I deliberately leave the nature of God’s agency with respect to our own underdetermined.

This matter of agency is key for systematic theologians whose formulaic approaches almost make it a spiritual crime to acknowledge a human response to God—or, dare I suggest it, a human initiative in some sense.  Yes, “while we were yet sinners,” God took action.  But that notion does not negate the fact that we now owe God allegiance.  If allegiance is something God enables, fine, but as far as I know, I choose to give it, and I am glad to give it, in my human weakness, when I am at my best.

Matthew W. BatesWith respect to the word “gospel” (ευαγγέλιον | euangélion), Bates makes the statement, “We can’t make decisions about what ‘good news’ means on the basis of our feelings about what sort of ‘news’ would be better for us.”  Bates then points as an example to a popular author who “is allowing systematic concerns about what would be better for us to override first-century meanings.”  Taking what I believe would be classified a synchronic (within a time period) linguistic approach, Bates says, “The meaning of first-century words must be determined by first-century usages.”  He would say the same about the word “faith” (pistis | πίστις ).  In other words, it doesn’t really matter what what a 21st-century regurgitation of a Lutheran “faith alone” theology conveys to the modern Protestant ear.  Recovering as much of a first-century sense of “faith” (pistis) as possible is key to understanding what Paul and others meant when they wrote of “faith.”

Whatever one makes of Bates’s book,² there can be no doubt that coming to grips with a fuller range of meaning of “pistis” is key to a more adequate understanding of New Covenant “faith.”  And so, when I come to Galatians and struggle hermeneutically with whether in 2:16 or “pistis” means faith (RSV, ESV, NIV, etc.) or faithfulness (NET Bible and some more recent commentators), I now have another viable option:  allegiance or loyalty.

I might now paraphrastically expand some Galatians phrases to include the allegiance idea.  Consider a few more traditional English renderings, followed by the “new possibility” in each case.

2:16

ESV:  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, …

NET:  we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, …

New possibility:  we know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through the Jesus Christ’s faithful allegiance, and we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by Christ’s allegiance, and not by works of the law, . . .

2:20

New possibility:  I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by loyal trust in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

3:2

ESV:  And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, . . .

New possibility:  And the scripture, foreseeing that God would later justify the Gentiles by their faith-filled allegiance to Him, . . .

3:22

ESV:  But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

New possibility:  But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise that emanates from Jesus Christ’s faithful allegiance might be given to those who also believe loyally.

3:26

CSB:  for through faith you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus . . .

New possibility:  for through faithful allegiance you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus . . .

New possibility (expanded):  for through faithful allegiance —first, that of Jesus, and now, your own—you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus . . .

Whether this season is more filled with Santa and snowmen or shepherds and angels for you, consider allegiance to the King.  Perhaps the thoughtless use of phrases such as “newborn king” or “little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay” bothers you a little, as it bothers me.  Still, I affirm that Jesus did become Lord and Christ.  He became King.  And having faith in Jesus implies allegiance to Him as King.


¹ One such dovetailing was when we first engaged in the serious study of Paul’s letter to Philemon—a letter written to a “house church”—with a home fellowship that met in our living and dining room.  What serendipity, right?  (Or providence, if you prefer.)  I’ve written about that more than once.  Try these two:

Community in Philemon
A mini-odyssey with small groups (3 of 6)

² I myself pored over the serial blogposts and am about to order the book but but have not read it yet.

Commentaries can contribute contextually

Some years ago, over a period of time, I learned to look askance at commentaries.  That was after my college years—which had involved a rather limited use of them.  The commentaries I used as textbooks in Bible classes were not particularly slanted, but they were too shallow and too brief.  For one thing, they didn’t expend much effort “getting into the cracks” of the text, as one respected scripture scholar has put it.  I grew increasingly involved in Bible study as an adult and rarely spent time in commentaries, choosing rather to learn Greek vocabulary and use other methods (sometimes good, sometimes not as good).  Although I retained—and packed and moved and re-shelved—certain commentaries many times, I eventually divested myself of some of them.  No more Matthew Henry or Adam Clarke for me!  (Books by narrow-minded commentators with less thoroughgoing capabilities were also jettisoned.)

While I have tended generally to avoid commentaries (in favor of lexicons and direct work in the text itself), I acknowledge that there are some really worthwhile commentaries.¹  The Logos/Faithlife company, in the course of advertising for its products (which it does with vigor and annoying regularity), recently shared this post that discusses the use of commentaries.  The current Logos software can access millions of indexed commentary entries on Greek and Hebrew words and phrases, all linked to specific scripture texts.  That is an impressive capability!  And the blog author’s point is well taken:  commentaries, as compared to lexicons, aim to analyze meaning of a word or phrase in biblical context.  Contextual considerations do appear in lexicons, but not as explicitly, or at least not in the same way.

Since I am currently wrestling with Galatians 2-4 (viz. word-concepts of faith, hearing, and justification; the Law, works, promise, etc.), an example in this Logos post about justification/righteousness caught my eye:

The other main disagreement concerns the question whether in the phrase dikaiosune theou in 1:17; 3:21, 22 (Cf. 10:3) theou is to be understood as a subjective genitive or as a genitive of origin, or—to put it differently—whether dikaiosune refers to an activity of God or to a status of man resulting from God’s action, righteousness as a gift from God.

[I have transliterated the Greek above for the sake of the majority of readers.  -bc]

The question of which type of genitive is not merely a grammarian’s diversion but is quite key in coming to understand the passages.  Is the genitive form of the word “God” (theou, often simply a possessive form) better understood as primarily indicative of God’s prior action or of human standing that results from the action?  A third option could be to read this as “God’s righteousness,” i.e., a righteousness that is in a sense owned by God.  A fourth possibility (that has to my knowledge not been suggested by scholars) is taking the genitive form as objective—for instance, “the righteousness shown toward God.”

A second commentary quoted in the Logos post makes reference to similar verbal constructions in Romans (similar to “righteousness of God,” that is)—namely, power of God and gospel of God.  Comparing what Paul is saying about power and gospel could be an important consideration in interpreting “dikaiosune theou” (righteousness of’ God) in Romans 1:17—but perhaps not in Galatians 2 and 3, where the other phrases do not appear.


¹ Some of the better ones I’ve used were written by Abraham Malherbe, Raymond Brown, and Ben Witherington.

Galatians frustrations

In leading a small group through a Galatians study, I am encountering frustrations.  I can categorize these as relating either to (1) my own inadequacies or (2) Paul’s expressions that are difficult to translate.  Comparatively, I had little frustration with 1:1-2:14.  The problems come with the substance introduced in 2:15 and beyond.

Two text scholars I consulted differed over whether to consider 2:15-21 a rhetorical propositio or a partitio.  It’s not that the label matters, but if I can determine this passage’s function and purpose within the whole letter, I will interpret better.  At this point in my study, I think the passage is less transitional and more stage-setting.  Both the propositio and the partitio traditionally involve backward-looking aspects, and those may be present in 2:15-21, but I find this section heavily weighted toward what is to come in the following discourse.  Whatever Paul is saying here will be elucidated in chapters 3 and 4, or at least I hope so.

 

The main issue for the last couple of weeks has been interpreting an expression with a notoriously problematic Greek construction:¹  The meaning of this phrase, consisting of the last few words of both 3:2 and 3:5, is something like “by faith’s hearing” or “by the proclamation of faith(fulness).”  The deeper one goes in trying to interpret Galatians on the whole, the large this phrase looms.

The noted Greek grammarian C.F.D. Moule once suggested that ex akoes pisteos equals hearing and believing, i.e., a sort of hearing that leads to belief.  Arguably, that interpretation places more emphasis on the faith/believing, and I think there is some grammatical precedent for that “take.”  Major translations may generally be placed in one of the following categories with respect to how they handle this phrase:

  • Emphasis on hearing (e.g., “the hearing of faith” or “hearing with faith” in the RSV, ESV, NASB, HCSB, KJV, ASV, and others)
  • Emphasis on believing (e.g., “believing what you heard,” as in NIV, NET, NRSV, CSB, ISV, CEB, and others)

Other, more obscure translations may be better than some of those mentioned above.  Was Paul connecting the Spirit of God to the Galatians’ hearing (or heard material) that leads to belief, or to their believing that comes from hearing, or to some other variation?  In an attempt to understand this matter, I have jumped through a few hoops and ended up on my face.  Additional research might involve careful consideration—in all levels of Galatians context—viz. the words for believing/faith and for hearing the message.  Comparisons with similarly themed passages in Romans might eventually be in order, too.

An additional, embedded difficulty in translation involves whether to translate pistis (found 22 times in Galatians, with a 77% concentration in this section) as “faith” or “faithfulness.”  At stake are entire denominations’ theologies (which I care little about)—and a better connection with faith, Christ’s death and related acts, and Paul’s thoughts on salvation and justification (all of which I do care about) At this point, the only thing I’m comfortable in saying in this arena is that Paul affirms both Christ’s faithfulness and the importance of a human faith response.  The human element is clearly a factor in Galatians 2:15-17.  Two overlapping centric textual structures are possible here, with each centering on human faith/belief (with a different preposition) “in” Jesus Christ.  Try both of these on for size:

Structure 1 (encompassing 2:15 through 2:17a)

A  We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles;

B  nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law

C  but through faith in Jesus Christ

C’  even we have believed in Christ Jesus

B’  so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since (that) by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.  But if, while  seeking to be justified in Christ,

A’  we ourselves have also been found sinners, . . .

Above, the A and A’ phrases are verbally related, as are B and B’.  The C and C’ texts form a central emphasis; an added spotlight shines on the mirroring of “Jesus Christ to “Christ Jesus” in the succeeding phrase.

Structure 2 (more compact—2:16 alone—original word order shown below)

Knowing that a man is not justified

by/out of works of [L]aw

but through faith(fulness) in/of Jesus Christ

and we in Christ Jesus have  believed

that we should be justified out of faith[fulness] in/of Christ

and not by/out of works of [L]aw

since no flesh will be justified by works of [L]aw

For my exegetical money, the second structure is more convincing, and it’s even more so in the Greek.  See color codes below.

There are a few inconsistencies above, such as the aqua-colored repetitions and the asymmetry of the “that” clauses.  The negative (not) particles’ correspondence is also intriguing but not necessarily material here.  The centered emphasis on faith(fulness) is key.  If in the C and C’ phrases one takes pistis to refer to the faithfulness of Christ (as opposed to faith in Christ)—and I lean that direction myself—we still have a structure in which those phrases flank the clause “we have believed in Christ Jesus,” which refers to human faith.

Permutations and translations aside, the verbal relationships abound.  Whether intentional or subconscious or both, it seems obvious that Paul was stressing some things here!  At some point, I will have to leave my frustrations with 2:15-3:6 and move on, apprehensively, into all the argument-proving substance of chapters 3 and 4.


¹ The phrase is constructed with a preposition and two successive nouns in the genitive case (ἐξ ἀκοῆς πίστεως | ex akoes pisteos).  The genitive case is the most potentially varied of the Greek cases.

A Bible reader’s observations

Or, The Voice is Like the 1984 NIV on Steroids

Despite the NIV’s generally smooth flow and its broad acceptance, at some point I began to learn that it was not always consistent or trustworthy.  (No translation is.)  

I have on several occasions noticed that points made by well-meaning people during Bible classes were tied to particular NIV wordings.  In other words, if another version had been used, the argument would crumble.  Sometimes the points seemed reasonable, but the “Bible” wordings on which they were based turned out to be phantoms.  This is the case with Philemon verse 6.  First, I should acknowledge that the newest edition of the NIV (2011) has recognized the problem and revised the wording, resulting in a fine translation:

I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.

But here is the older (1984) NIV:

I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.

The two are really different!  Let me flesh out one component.

It’s not that that the 1984 NIV contains bad ideas.  Regardless of the arguably odd cause and effect (a full understanding that results from evangelistic “witnessing”), the main ideas seem good.  The problem may first be spotlighted by considering English Christianese:  sometime in the latter part of the 20th century, the phrase “sharing your faith,” referring specifically to evangelistic speech, took on a life of its own, being used in countless sermons, teen devotionals, and Bible classes.  That type of activity, however, is not a subject of this letter to PhilemonMoreover, thorough study of the letter reveals a relational emphasis suggested by the Greek koinonia idea(s)—and this partnership is to be distinguished from “faith-sharing” speech.  Admittedly, seeing the depth of this verbal emphasis requires more sustained study, but on the negative side, it may readily be seen by an attentive reader that “evangelism” per se not is in view here.  Considering what Paul was communicating to Philemon, it appears clear that “partnership with us in the faith may be effective …” is a better English translation for our day than “be active in sharing your faith.”

Translation might be thought of as an arrow with heads on both ends.  The left arrowhead points to the original, but there is another arrowhead on the other end, pointing to the target language.  In translation, there should be valid motion from one language to another.  The antecedent points to the receptor language, and the translation must also in a sense point back to the original.  Said another way:  a translator might understand the Greek very well, but if that understanding doesn’t come through in English, the translation is lacking.

You know what?  I’ve now found a version that’s worse than the older NIV.  Much worse.  It’s like the NIV on steroids.  I had high hopes for The Voice, based on its solid, well-considered prefatory material and its broad-based committee, including not only biblical scholarship but also poets, musicians, and writers with expertise in English communication.  In the case of Philemon 6, though, this relatively new version is, sadly, marooned on a sand bar, having missed the boat:

Thank You, Father, for Philemon.  I pray that as he goes and tells his story of faith, he would tell everyone so that they will know for certain all the good that comes to those who put their trust in the Anointed One.

No.  Just no.  That is not what the text is about there.  Several ideas intrude into this verbiage—most notably the emphasis on “telling the story”—with the result that it is more of an obfuscation than a commuicative paraphrase.  It’s as though no one bothered to study Philemon.  “Well, you know, it’s so short.  Let’s just crank that page out in an hour.”  But what a shame.  Philemon is a gem among the NT letters, and it deserves deep attention, too.  (Here is a post about this verse from 8 years ago.  It fairly briefly explains the issue.)

A couple more bits on The Voice . . . while I’m immediately partial to its “theater script” format for dialogue sections, another formatting aspect—rampant italics—leaves it wanting.  All translations explain things to one degree or another, and The Voice didn’t really need to be over-zealously ethical in this respect.  It’s overkill to delineate every explanatory word or phrase.  Further, when italics are so frequently interspersed, the experience of reading is halting and unsatisfying.

This tired horse prefers not to be connected to a cart at all

When any believer says something that manifests a low or diminishing interest in that which is written, it concerns me on some level, and it might mean the cart has displaced the horse in some sense.

Image result for cart before the horse image

Things get hazy without something relatively objective to rely on.  I don’t mean to downplay the aspect of faith that’s unseen.  I do mean to emphasize the ancient scriptural texts over philosophical amalgamations we call “theology.”  There will be a little more pertaining to the theological “cart” in the next post, but for now, let’s concentrate on the trustworthy steed of scripture.

Why might the horse get pushed to the back or even left out in the cold?  Why might one denigrate or even disrespect scriptural text?  It could be because of negative experiences with the misuse of scripture.  That sort of thing could easily lead one to avoid attention to the Bible.  On the flip side, some types of positive relational or conceptual experiences, however much they lack direct ties to scripture, can further distance people from what is written.  “The love and encouragement I feel in my life is not because of Bible study.  It’s because of the people and the Holy Spirit in my life” some might say, as they turn down an opportunity for Bible study.  It’s not only touchy-feely folks who avoid good Bible study, though.  A whole range of good people often turn up disenchanted.

It is primarily to those who want to move away from scripture (having been near it previously, in some measure) that I submit these thoughts.  Any one of us, though, can come to distrust the use of the Bible because of misguided understanding or mistaken application.  Or maybe we are simply tired.

First:  In a way, I am one of you.  I too find that so much churchy use of scripture results in little more than piles of verses, with little coherence, and even less valid applicability to the life of a disciple.  It is often easy to find counter-examples to isolated scripture verses offered as “proofs,” and yet it is tiring to be faced with such situations repeatedly.  Unfortunately, some public teachers and theologians tend (consciously or subconsciously) to use scripture in order to serve prefabricated, prejudicial constructs and agendas.  It can be disconcerting and discouraging to be trapped within the irresponsible use of scripture.  The whole enterprise can bring on personal fatigue.  A few examples of my non-contextual experiences may be found here and here and also here, in a sarcastic video I once made in a fit of spiritual perturbation.

I’ve had better experiences with the Bible than most, I suppose.  I grew up in a Bible-teaching church, and I learned the 10 plagues and the judges and the apostles and the books of the Bible in order.  I attended a good Christian camp that encouraged memorization, and I learned portions of Acts 2, 1 Peter 2, and Romans 8, among many others.  When I was 19, I got a wide-margin, leather-bound Bible that has oodles of cross-references and ample space to write more.  A college teacher lit a fire in me with his relatively shallow but impressive memorized knowledge of verses that appeared to be related to one another.  I’m grateful for all of that, but I don’t mourn the loss of the cross-reference habit.  I haven’t penned in very many of those in more than a decade.  So many of the ones I once wrote turned out to be wispy or even bogus “proofs.”  Actually, I must say that some of my best teaching and self-directed learning have come more recently—primarily from outside churches per se.  I should still memorize more (not a catechism, or a list of verses about a topic, but scripture).

Second:  there is a better way.  At every reasonable opportunity I have, I encourage focusing on the uninterrupted message of scripture, in its context.  The disillusionment with Bible study comes when it is done badly, and that is all too often.  But Bible study, I submit from personal experience, can be revealing, rewarding, enriching, energizing, and amazingly applicable.  In order to “hear” God through the authors of scripture, the micro-context (e.g., a paragraph) should be noted first, and the mid-level and book-level contexts are also crucial.  By “book-level” I mean each unique document titled as one “book” in the Bible, not the whole collection.  The Bible is more aptly described as a library, not a single book, anyway.

Awareness of each biblical book’s unique setting is important as a foundation for better Bible reading and study.  It is good to recognize, for example, that Matthew and Moses speak into vastly different scenarios although they treat some of the same topics.  Philippians records Paul’s message to one group of people at a particular time, whereas Galatians is an entirely different letter, to different people, about different matters.  For more on the situational nature of (much) scripture, please read this recent post.

The insights I am currently gaining from Galatians are very helpful to me as they shed light on the early period (roughly the 40s) when Christianity was still a new movement.  My senses of (1) Paul and (2) what was going on with the early Phrygian/Galatian believers have grown deeper through focusing on the literary structure of the letter.  Paul’s personal experiences are spotlighted for a purpose, and they may include a couple of veiled references (not just the obvious one) to his eyesight … and I am compelled to mention that my own eyes have filled with tears more than once over this in the last couple of months.

Early Christian believers wrote a lot of authentic texts—more than any other religious group of the time—and I think there is a reason for that.  (See this post from Dr. Larry Hurtado for support.)  The texts have much to teach us, and it is good to be aware of the whole corpus.  But it is always advisable to deal with one scripture author and with one text at a time, not considering them as one whole.  The fundamentalist-y method of taking all the Bible as one large conglomerate mass of stuff, conflating it as though it is all of equal significance, all written about the same situation, and all using language the same way, will send one irrevocably spiraling downward in a maelstrom of deep but thick theological messiness.  First, I think we should take one book at a time, and maybe later, at some point, disciples can compare things here and there, but I’m not sure I’m capable of doing that very well yet.  Most preachers in my experience do a marginal (or worse) job of using multiple texts in their spoken messages.  Only a few seem able to handle the mixing very well.  As for myself, I’d rather learn better how to be responsible with one text at a time.  If we had all been taught this way from the get-go, we could have spent more time being disciples of Jesus, and living life in order to love others as He did.  As a result, we could have spent less time striving to work through all sorts of issues that really weren’t there, at least to the degree they seemed to be.  And some of us would be less tired.

I’m increasingly persuaded that most philosophical, existential, and theological ideas create more disagreements than agreements.  At the very least, disciples should put the scripture horse up in front to lead the theological cart, not reversing the order.  Dealing with one discrete scripture text at a time will offer strengthening of faith based on real evidence, not to mention enhancing insights for the ride along the path.

B. Casey, 7/31/17-8/20/17

Next:  The Resolve Not to Think about Theology