Monday, October 05, 2009

More about being Biblical

I have read that Christianity is the only major religion where the scriptures do not need to be read in the language of the founder. Think of Islam as an example. The Koran is only the word of Allah if it is read in Arabic... and indeed, it should be read aloud to be it's holiest. If it is translated into English or any other language, it is no longer the unadulterated Word of Allah.

That makes sense to me. Language is a way of conceptualizing the universe. The structure of the language both describes the universe and defines the way the individual can experience it. Last year I even heard a story on NPR about disappearing languages that mentioned a language that counts in both base 12 and base 20. Living in a culture that sees numbers in base 10, I automatically translate that idea into one that is completely foreign to them... or am just puzzled that "they" don't see the universe as it really is... base 10.

The semantic range of a word almost never exactly corresponds from one language to another. There is a reference that many pastors have on their shelves called The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament which tries to take important words in the Bible and show their semantic range. The word we translate as "salvation" from the Greek has an article some 70 pages long, explaining what it meant to those who used that term and thought in the original language. And you thought the Amplified Bible was tedious? The Muslims know, and rightly so, that once you translate the text is is not and cannot be the same. Translation requires interpretation. Let me give an example of that. There is a Greek word that is often translated servant - "diaconos." In the early church the term became a technical term, referring to a church officer. We transliterated it to "deacon." When translating, any time the translator comes across that word, s/he has to decide whether the word is referring to a servant or to a church officer. The translators of the KJV had a theological position that helped them. "Women cannot be deacons," they thought, so any time the word clearly referred to a woman, they always translated it as "servant." Their theology dictated the translation.

There were theological decisions made regarding which books would be included and which left out of the Bible. And different traditions disagreed as to which books belonged in which categories.

Finally, even if we agree which books are in and which are out and can make a "perfect" translation, we have literally thousands of manuscripts of the scriptural texts which often do not agree with one another. Those who say that the scriptures are "inerrant in their original autographs" are simply hedging their bets... they want to make a theological statement but it is meaningless. We do not and never will have the original autographs. Some fundamentalists have seen this for what it is and claim that God would not allow us to not have an inerrant word... so it must be the KJV!

OK, so what does this say to those of us who want to be "Biblical?" It tells us that the Christian scriptures are not documents written by the finger of God on stone. They are living words, meant to wrestled with in the context of the community of faith. They are not, God's instruction manual for human beings. They are the history of God's people struggling with their experience of God and trying to live lives of authentic faith in their times and cultures, reflecting both the best and the worst of human nature.

So, do I believe the Bible is true? Absolutely. Do I believe it is historical? Sometimes, but usually I think that is an irrelevant question. Do I believe it is inspired of/by God? Absolutely, but that never means dictated by God. Do I believe the Bible is central to Christian faith? Absolutely, but the Bible is not the object of our faith or devotion, that is Jesus, the Word.


fernando said...

Again, good words.

This really is the critical point. Quoting the Bible doesn't necessarily make one Biblical anymore than quoting a few lines from Hamlet doesn't make one Shakespearean.

As for the original languages - some of the worst pulpit offences I've seen have been from preachers who try to pepper their sermons with some greek. They go to a dictionary and pick the definition that suits their purposes, regardless off how the word is being used in context, then launch from there. It's alarming to then hear congregants impressed by this, since they explained it from the original greek, or whatever.

Chad Zaucha said...

"They are not, God's instruction manual for human beings."

I totally disagree. God's Word communicates His design for all of His creation. It tells me how to be a husband, a dad, a pastor, a friend, a follower of Jesus Christ. It tells me the difference between right and wrong and reveals that I am a sinner in need of a Savior. The Bible is not merely meant to be central but authoritative.

You mention that Jesus is the Word that is to be the object of our devotion. I agree. But how is He revealed to us? Through the Bible. How can you have a high view of Jesus without a correspondingly high view of the Bible?

roy said...

Chad, I always appreciate your comments!

When you look at the Bible for instructions on how to be a father or husband, you still make interpretive judgments. You don't want to be a husband like Solomon or David or a father like... you get the point.

True, the issue of Jesus & the Bible is a circular one. We learn about Jesus through the Bible or we are just spinning him out f our own preconceptions. But I would also say we must read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. It is problematic, but a problem that I believe we are called to struggle with.

I think I do have a high view of scripture... certainly when compared to my liberal friends. In part that was my reaction against the statement from the UCC church in my earlier post... I think we must do more than just take the Bible "seriously." I would agree with you that the Bible is authoritative even though I likely wouldn't use the word in exactly the same way you do. Bottom line, I think if we are truly followers of Jesus we must be Biblical. We may be closer than you think...

Michael Mahoney said...

On my goodness! Something you and I agree on, 100%! It's a miracle!!!

roy said...

see Michael, we have proved that there is a God!

That Baptist Ain't Right said...

My daughter & I had this very discussion tonight. When we begin making the textual interpretation the divine Word, we create a scenario that eventually will have to be discarded, i.e., a literal 6 day creation. It is that sort of dogmatic interpretation that causes divisions & ultimately the faith to be scoffed at. The text gives us the truth --- the principles that explain God --- & we must be careful not to make our understanding more important than what it does say.

Good post.