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036 They Are Not Magic Words

I am an American Evangelical, sort of. The churches that I've attended teach generally the same things about who God is and what the faith is, with some variation.

American Evangelicals have what theologians call a high view of the scriptures. Evangelicalism maintains that the scriptures are more than just human writing telling the story of God's self-revelation; it claims that the scriptures, themselves, are God's self-revelation, and that they possess and impart the power of God, Himself, to produce redemption in the lives of believers who receive them.

I've noticed that this leads lots of Evangelicals to do some pretty odd things with the Bible--things that cannot be supported either by reason, by historical practice, by theological evaluation, or by reference to the Bible, itself.

For the next several weeks, I intend to write about the scriptures, explaining what are not and eventually what they are. I will draw on some of my experiences with American Evangelicals who have done disputable and sometimes damaging things with the Bible. I mean to insult nobody personally. I do mean to upset some folks, though, who do the things I'm going to write about. I hope that you who read me have a high enough regard for my spiritual stability and maturity to know that accepting my instruction will lead you to a good place, a place where you can benefit from the scriptures without abusing them as so many Evangelicals seem to do. It may sound at times as though I'm undermining or belittling the scriptures, but that's never going to be the case.

My title introduces the first of the ways that I see people misusing the scriptures. They seem to think that the English words, themselves, cannot be altered in any way, and that any alteration of the words constitutes "adulterating the Word of God." Sometimes they even condemn folks for using translations they dislike.

I had a friend many decades ago who used to write pretty good songs based on the scriptures. I remember proposing a lyrical improvement one time that involved changing the order of the words to make them scan better. He pulled back, alarmed. "You can't change the Word of God," he said, concerned. He refused to alter the text in any way.

Now, I don't think he actually hurt himself or anybody else by writing song lyrics that recited the scriptures as he read them in the New American Standard Bible (NASB) that he was using. That's actually one of the better translations, in my humble estimation. But his notion was superstitious. Yes, you can alter the words of the scripture, and God will not be offended, nor will anybody be injured.

Here, let me demonstrate:

I'm currently preparing a talk on I Corinthians 13:7, which is translated in the NASB "...bears all things, believes all thing, hopes all things, endures all things," speaking about love. In the course of studying the passage, I found the New Living Translation (NLT) of the verse, which is "Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance." I also checked the New International Version (NIV), which says "It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."

Here's my tricky question to all you good Evangelicals out there with your high view of the scripture:

Which of those is the Word of God?

They all use different words. They say pretty much the same things, but not exactly. For instance, the NASB and NLT versions maintain that "all" modifies what the beloved does, that the one who loves "bears all things" done by the beloved. The NIV, however, maintains that "all" modifies the lover's actions, claiming that he "always protects." It's a subtle distinction, but a real one. Was the Apostle thinking more about the lover or the lovee?

Also, you might notice that NLT suggests that the first clause means "never gives up," but the NIV says that love "protects." NASB gives the same meaning as NLT but in different words, then adds "or, 'covers'" as a footnote. So which meaning is the real meaning of the text?

Without getting into the technical discussion of what the Church means by "the Word of God," I'll give you the answer to my original question, "Which of them is the Word of God," simply assuming the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, the most conservative formal declaration of the inerrancy of the scriptures in Christendom:

None of them are the Word of God. If you want to be accurate, the Word of God says
 p??ta st??e? p??ta p?ste?e? p??ta ??p??e? p??ta ?p?µ??e?, which transliterates as "panta stegei panta pisteuei panta elpizei panta hupomenei." The Bible, according to the Chicago Statement, is inerrant and infallible in the autographs, meaning the original words as written by the Apostles. The NASB, NLT, and NIV are translations, attempting to convey the sense of the Word of God.

And then again, to the extent that the NASB, NLT, and NIV actually do convey the sense of the Greek phrase, they're all the Word of God. Sort of.

You might think I'm splitting hairs... until you remember my friend's alarm at my suggestion that he change the order of the words to make them fit his melody better. Then you might recognize that any translation of the Word of God requires formulating English words to convey the sense of words from another language--and the English words that convey those thoughts can be lots of different words arranged in lots of different ways.

In fact, the various ways that the passage can be rendered in English may produce small and sometimes unintentional variations in meaning; no language translates perfectly to any other language, and no translators are inerrant or infallible. Nor do we know the precise meaning of every word that appears in the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic writings in the Bible. "Stegei," for example, can mean "to bear up" as in enduring hardship, or it can mean "to cover" like a roof. We don't know which meaning Paul had in mind. Either might work.

So any English phrase that plausibly preserves the meaning of the original reasonably well will do as well as any other. The actual, English words in your Bible are not magical. They're choices made in English composition by a human translator.

Of course, I'm not saying that just any translation will do. If I translated the Greek phrase "panta stegei" as "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," that would be wrong. It doesn't say that or anything like it. And if I translated it "[love] never protects," that would be worse than wrong, it would be evil; I would be deliberately misleading the reader. I'm not postmodern, and words do mean things.

But any reasonable variant of "love always protects" or "love bears all things" or something like that is acceptable. Some variants are more likely than others or rendered better than others, but the English words are not the Word of God that must remain untouched. There's no magic in the particular English phrases.

This goes beyond just song lyrics, of course. Just a few days ago I encountered believers (of a sort) who were condemning Eugene Peterson, the translator of The Message, as a heretic. The Message is a loose paraphrase of the Bible, so dynamic that it's practically just the Bible in Peterson's own words. Some of these critics even took to quoting the curse at the end of John's Apocalypse, "...if anyone adds to [the words of this book], God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book," saying that it applies to Peterson. (This commits an error that I'll discuss later in this series.)

Now, I'm no fan of The Message; there are too many places where Peterson's own words convey a different notion than what I think is the meaning intended by the author. I like staying closer to the Greek and doing the paraphrasing myself. But that does not mean that I think Peterson is a heretic, or that reading the Message is dangerous. It's not. Lots of students of the Bible paraphrase passages in order to grasp what the Apostle was getting at. It's good practice.

So, the Bible is for study, but its words are not magic words. If you're concerned about altering the words of the scripture, relax. God's not alarmed by it. Feel free to put His thoughts in your own words. In fact, ask Him to help you do it. He'll be glad to help.

The object, after all, is to get to know God Himself. God is Spirit; God is not Book. (Yes, I'll discuss that distinction later on.)

Let's study seriously for a while, and I'll be back in a couple of weeks with more advice on how to read the Bible.


Phil Weingart


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